Although Michael Jackson‘s Thriller was released in November 1982, the artist and the album’s immense cultural impact solidified in early 1984. Thriller spent 17 of its 37 weeks atop the Billboard 200 during an uninterrupted streak that ran from Dec. 24, 1983 through April 14, 1984, second only to the West Side Story soundtrack. The pop star, then 25, would take home eight Grammys for the album in February and break a Hot 100 record for the most top 10 singles from the same album — seven — when the title track, buoyed by its groundbreaking John Landis-directed video, peaked at No. 4 on March 3.
Along with the fame came a fortune. According to the RIAA, Thriller is tied with the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 as the best-selling album of all time in the United States, with 29 million copies shipped. And in July, Jackson reunited with his brothers for the Victory Tour, which grossed $75 million.
But, in a twist worthy of a Dickens novel, Jackson’s brilliant year also marked the beginning of his personal downfall when a Jan. 27 commercial shoot for Pepsi ended in near tragedy. He suffered second-degree burns from an on-set fire, leading to an addiction to painkillers that many have attributed to the legend’s premature death at age 50 in 2009.
Though a proper documentary of Jackson’s heyday has yet to be released, the pop star “always had a crew following everything he did,” says Aaron Walton, who was a marketing assistant for Pepsi (and present on the set) at the time of the fateful accident. “I remember asking [Jackson] why he did that, and he said, ‘You know, I asked Paul McCartney what he loved about touring with The Beatles, and the thing Paul regretted the most was that he didn’t document all of the things that he did. It would have been nice to look back at that film now and just relive some of those moments.’ And Michael took that literally — there was not a moment he was out there where didn’t document that stuff. I’m sure there’s amazing footage of him and very personal moments that would be amazing to see.”
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.