We’ve touched on the top selling albums of all time on this site a number of times, as great selling albums are typically good enough to be written about. When that conversation comes up, Thriller is always mentioned. Currently ranking as the highest selling album in the history of American music, Thriller made Michael Jackson the biggest and most famous musician the world will possibly ever see.
Thriller was released on November 30, 1982, and it went to make 1983 its own. And how did it do that? It did it by being diverse enough to appeal to a wide audience and catchy enough to release seven top ten singles. Here you have Michael Jackson being produced by Quincy Jones; you’ve got Rod Temperton, you’ve got Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcarro of Toto. You take those and so many others, and then you add guest work by Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, and Vincent Freaking Price, and you have the makings of something so big.
So, it made its bones on the music and a strong network of hit-makers and notables, but the presentation of the album was so well choreographed. In the eleven month span between October ’82 and September ’83, Epic Records released six singles. They began it with the duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl is Mine,” and then it was on.
They steamrolled off of the hook of the McCartney duet–a song guaranteed to spur interest whether it was well-received or not–and right into what is arguably the strongest mainstream song of the album, that being “Billie Jean.” Then, just like they spoke to the fans of classic rock by involving a Beatle, they tapped into the world of contemporary rock by releasing “Beat It,” a song that included lead guitar work by Eddie Van Halen.
That brought us to a May release of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” which kept the energy up with enough attitude for the promise of summer. July saw the release of “Human Nature,” because there’s no sense in all that vibing and dancing if it don’t lead to a bit of down time with your baby. September saw the release of “PYT,” which was an excellent penultimate single from an album that needed such a strong song in that slot.
They certainly needed a strong song in that next-to-last slot, because it would be the last impression the public had before they began to create the legend.
And what was the legend? The legend was the “Thriller” video, which was about the most legendary thing in pop music history a couple of months before it was ever seen.
It was coming. We had been told. What was coming? A video for “Thriller.” And it was going to be huge. It wasn’t just going to be a video, it was going to be a film. “I heard it was going to be 15 minutes long.” “Well, I heard it was going to be a half hour.” “I heard it was going to be a full-length feature film.” “You’re all wrong, Jimbo’s cousin works in the music department at GC Murphy’s in Montgomery, and he heard it’s going to be three days long.”
So yeah, the hype was big, and it was long. It began somewhere around October, and the video didn’t air until early December. It turned out to be 14 minutes long, and it became the first world premier video in MTV history.
Jackson contacted John Landis about directing the film, after having seen Landis’s American Werewolf in London, and Landis came on board and added the co-writer and co-producer titles to that of director.
So, how did the film do? Well, first off, that it wasn’t received disappointingly, given all of the hype leading up to it, was simply amazing. No, it wasn’t the most amazing thing to ever happen in the history of the world, but it was pretty darn good. Its success points to that. Having sold over nine million copies, it was named the most successful music video in history by Guinness Book in 2006, and, as of last month, it had amassed 463 million views on YouTube.
You could say it did decently well enough. And it was such an amazing time. I’ve seen other phenomenons in the culture of Americana–Tiger Woods, Michael Jordon, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Britny Spears all come to mind–but there has been nothing that got close to Michael in 1983. It was his time, and I hope he enjoyed some of it.
You take away those seven singles, and there are only two songs left on the track-list. Both of those were Rod Temperton penned ballads, “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life.” Both of these would have been hits if Epic would have seen any need to release them. There wasn’t, because there wasn’t anyone left to sell the album to.
So, that’s just a few thoughts on Thriller. Those of us who lived it know just what a special time it was. Whether you loved Michael or you didn’t, whether you liked his music or not, you had to note the gargantuan thing he was in the culture. I think there had to be a bit in hope for all of us who grew up a little on the hard-scrabble side in that he was just this humble boy from a large family, and he became the most successful artist in the entire world for a while. We could get down with that.
And I can get down with you, beautiful people. Thank you so much for being here; it really does mean so much.
With that, I’m off to what comes next. I was going to leave you with this message; Mama Say, Mama Sa, Ma Ma Koo Sa; but you wouldn’t know what I was talking about. So, uncharacteristically, I’m going to leave you with something negative. I know, I know, say it ain’t so. Sorry, it is; I gotta do it. You’re a vegetable, and I hate you.
Live with that.
Be well, beauties; I don’t really hate you, and you’re not a vegetable, you aren’t. I was just funnin’.