Thriller is the sixth studio album by American artist Michael Jackson. Co-produced by Quincy Jones, it was released on November 30, 1982, by Epic Records, following the commercial and critical success of the album Off the Wall (1979). Thriller explores genres similar to those of Off the Wall, such as funk, post-disco, soul, soft rock, R&B, and pop.
Assisted by Quincy Jones, Jackson wrote four of the nine songs on Thriller. Following the release of the album’s first single, “The Girl Is Mine” (a duet with Paul McCartney), some critics predicted limited success. However, after the release of the second single, “Billie Jean,” the album topped sales charts in many countries. In just one year, Thriller became the best-selling album worldwide of all time, with estimated sales ranging from 51 to 65 million globally, according to various sources. Seven of the album’s nine songs were released as singles, and all entered the Billboard Hot 100 (all reached the Top 10). The album set a new record by winning eight Grammy Awards in 1984 in three different genres: pop, R&B, and rock.
Now, a few surprising anecdotes about the album given its success.
In “Billie Jean,” Jackson tells the story of an obsessive fan who claims he is the father of her child. This song is meaningful to Jackson because the female character, Billie Jean, is a composite of several disturbed women who have claimed at various times that he or one of his brothers fathered their children. This piece demands a lot of work from Michael Jackson. It takes him three weeks to find the bass solo for the introduction but faces resistance from Quincy Jones, who prefers it to be shortened. Jackson insists on keeping it because he believes it immediately prompts people to dance to the song.
Jones and Jackson are determined to create a rock song that would broaden their audience. They spend weeks searching for a guitarist for the song written by Jackson, “Beat It.” They ultimately choose Eddie Van Halen from the hard rock band Van Halen. For Jackson, the message of the song is that no one is obligated to be tough; you can avoid a fight and still be a man. You don’t have to die to prove you’re a man.
When Rod Temperton wrote the song “Thriller,” he initially wanted to call it “Starlight” or “Midnight Man” but chose “Thriller” because he believed it had greater commercial potential. Wanting a famous personality to recite the closing lyrics of the song, Temperton enlisted a figure from horror films, American actor Vincent Price, who delivered his performance in two takes. Temperton wrote the dialogue in a taxi on his way to the recording studio.
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was written a few years earlier and has a style much more reminiscent of Off The Wall. This funk title is accompanied by bass, background percussion, and, in the middle of the song, a Swahili rhythmic line, giving the song an international style. In this song, Jackson fights against rumors and the media. However, in 1984, Michael Jackson is accused by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango and SACEM of using 77 seconds of the song “Soul Makossa” without paying copyright fees. The case is settled through a financial arrangement.
During the time of Thriller, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson are friends and perform several duets together, including “The Girl Is Mine,” which is the first track recorded for the album. The song is about two friends vying for the same woman, each trying to convince the other that he loves her more. It ends with a dialogue. Even though Paul McCartney later considers the song a bit superficial, Michael Jackson will later state that it is one of his favorite songs due to his great rapport with McCartney during the recording.
The melancholic and introspective tone of “Human Nature” is reflected in its lyrics: “Look out, across the morning, where the city’s heart begins to beat, reaching out, I touch her shoulder, I’m dreaming of the street.” Composed by Steve Porcaro of the band Toto and lyrics by John Bettis, it is the last song chosen for Thriller, displacing “Carousel.”
Originally written by Michael Jackson, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” is entirely reworked by James Ingram and Quincy Jones. Janet and LaToya Jackson provide backing vocals. This song, as well as Rod Temperton’s “The Lady in My Life,” gives the album a more R&B direction.
The relationship between Jackson and Jones became tense during the album’s creation. Jackson spends a lot of time rehearsing dance steps alone. Focused on this goal, he forgets to eat properly, wash himself, and becomes despondent, much to the dismay of those close to him. When the nine songs on the album are finally completed, both men are unhappy with the result and spend a week on each song to remix them. Jones is convinced that “Billie Jean” is not a strong enough track to be kept on the album, but Michael Jackson disagrees and decides to keep it. Jones tells Jackson that Thriller may not have the same success as Off the Wall because the record market is in bad shape. In response, Jackson threatens to cancel the album’s release…
Brian Banks – keyboards, synthesizer, programming
Michael Boddicker – keyboards, synthesizer
Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler – drums
Paulinho Da Costa – percussion
David Foster – keyboards, synthesizer
Gary Grant – trumpet, bugle
Eddie Van Halen – guitar (Beat It)
Jerry Hey – trumpet, bugle
Michael Jackson – co-producer, vocals, arrangements, drums
Paul Jackson – guitar
Louis Johnson – bass guitar
Quincy Jones – producer, arrangements
Steve Lukather – guitar, bass guitar
Anthony Marinelli – synthesizer programming
Paul McCartney – vocals (The Girl Is Mine)
David Paich – keyboards, synthesizer, programming
Dean Parks – guitar
Greg Phillinganes – rhodes, keyboards, synthesizer, programming
Jeff Porcaro – drums, horn and string instrument arrangements
Steve Porcaro – composer, keyboards, synthesizer, programming
Vincent Price – voice (Thriller)
Bill Reichenbach – trombone
Bruce Swedien – sound engineer, mixing
Rod Temperton – composer, keyboards, synthesizers
David Williams – guitar
Larry Williams – saxophone and flute
Bill Wolfer – keyboards, synthesizers
La Toya Jackson – vocals (PYT)
Janet Jackson – vocals (PYT)
Julia Waters – vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
Maxine Waters – vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
Oren Waters – vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
James Ingram – composer, vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
Bunny Hull – vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
Becky Lopez – vocals (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’)
Recorded from April 14 to November 8, 1982, at Westlake Recording Studios, Los Angeles, United States.