Tuesday 31 October 2023

Thriller/ Michael Jackson (1982): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

   being excited by Michael Jackson's music from such a young age. I remember cassette tapes being excavated at car boot sales and I imagine that Thriller was among some of the early Jackson tapes I got my hands on. I was probably nine or ten when I first heard this album and the impact of it has never really left me. I listen to 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' now (the opening track) and that iconic 80s snare sound is seared into my soul; I could recognise it within a split second. Back in the early 90s, I was too young to have any awareness of the 80s hallmarks that this album so delightfully showcases (the Synclavier synths and Linn machine drums), however, my love for the sound and feel has never left me. In fact, in my 30s it has resurfaced in a deep, insatiable thirst for nostalgic 80s tunes.

Thriller is one of those albums I have put off and dreaded writing about! Its status as the best-selling album of all time (at an estimated 70 million+ copies) means everyone knows it and there is so much about it that could be covered. Despite its epicness, I'd like to treat it with the tenderness I have the other, less well-known albums I have written about. If only I could hear this album for the first time again, but alas, it is as familiar to many of us as hearing our own voice. In that sense, I can only approach it by giving the songs my full attention as I listen and write. Hopefully I can do it some justice.

'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' is such a great opener, isn't it?! The horn section, the percussion, the backing vocals-- it's a mesmerising intro to an album that feels diverse in its blend of tracks. And it's all about the rhythm. The fascinating thing about MJ lyrics for me is that they are either ingrained in my memory, never to be forgotten, or they are completely unknown! Sometimes when I've come across the actual lyrics, I've been dumbstruck as they're so far removed from what I thought they were! This track is a good example of that. Misinterpreted lyrics (or 'mondegreens') are a common phenomenon, but it seems crazy that it happens with the artist I've listened to the most across my life! 

'It's too high to get over (yeah, yeah)Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)You're stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)'

The pain is...'thunder'?!! My brain always heard it as 'the pain is slow''! Anybody else...? No? Just me then.

Coming off the back of Off the Wall with its feet rooted in disco, Thriller is far more pop with RnB, soul, rock and funk woven in. The way we transition from the '... Startin' Somethin's African-influenced backing vocals into the unmistakable drum intro to 'Baby Be Mine' works so well. It takes us to a tighter groove with its warm, sensual synths (perhaps an unsual thing to say about synths, but its something in their mellowness on this song that creates this for me). The bridge ('won't you stay with me until the morning sun...') elevates the romance of 'Baby Be Mine' which I felt even when I was a youngster. It strikes me that Jackson and Quincy Jones wanted Thriller to be an album of contrast: tough vs. smooth; light vs. heavy. The album is known for its record-breaking hit singles and their incredible music videos though the quieter moments make their biggest mark on me-- more on that in a moment.

'The Girl is Mine' in which Michael duets with Paul McCartney always felt like a novelty record to me. As a kid, I always rooted for Michael, almost feeling resentful of McCartney's taunting in the lyrics! Of course I'd been aware of The Beatles, having been brought up watching 'Yellow Submarine', however I never made the connection that McCartney was in fact, a legend in his own right! Such the fan was I that Paul might as well have been a man who walked in off the street into the recording studio who happened to be able to sing! When I listen to the song now, it's hard to not smirk at the 'I'm a lover not a fighter' line, which has been parodied so much! 'The Girl is Mine' makes the album nicely varied, preceding 'Thriller' and acting like a bookend to the 'big three' of the album ('Beat It' and 'Billie Jean' being the other two most known tracks)-- the second bookend being the mellow masterpiece, 'Human Nature'.

Moving onto those 'big three', it's hard to talk about the song, 'Thriller' without thinking of the short film. Most of us who were Jackson fans in our youth probably heard of the 'Thriller' video before we plucked up the courage or were allowed to see it. It had a fearsome reputation as being really scary-- and it would have been back in the day with its incredible effects and horror tropes fulfilled beautifully by John Landis. I watched the 'Thriller' transformation before seeing 'American Werewolf in London' and therefore the effect was new to me, really hitting the target in terms of fear factor. The closest thing I'd seen to Jackson's metamorphosis was Michael J Fox's in 'Teenwolf' (which I found equally terrifying when I was young!) Having watched the 'Thriller' film recently, it still holds up as a horror moment to be applauded and enjoyed. In addition, the iconic 'Thriller' dance (just like the 'Smooth Criminal' set piece in Moonwalker) has to be the highlight of the 'Thriller' film; it's so ingrained in popular culture, we've all seen it so many times, yet manages to mesmerise me every time I watch it. This is Jackson's unbreakable legacy. He really was a true master of his craft.

The song is strangely not a favourite of mine from the album (nor are 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It', the first of which I will respectfully tip my hat at for its storytelling and iconic music video). I realise that many may view this as sacrilege, however I'm a sucker for the slow, soulful and sensual side of the album. It would be remiss of me not to mention a few things about 'Thriller' before politely moving on: Vincent Price's spoken word part alone makes the song a theatrical masterpiece. Then there's the wolf sound effects created by none other than Jackson himself. It tickled me to learn that Bruce Swedien, recording engineer, had attempted to get the sound effect from his own dog, but as that proved fruitless, Jackson offered up his own vocal talents! With a talent for accents and imitation, it was no real surprise that he stepped up to the plate on this occasion. The child-like love of improvisation always strikes me as one of Jackson's endearing traits.

Listening to 'Beat It', many may be drawn to Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo, a high point of the song and certainly fulfilling Quincy's brief for Thriller to feel more like a rock than an RnB or funk album. Learning about Toto band members' work on this album as studio musicians has been a great source of interest to me of late. Guitarist, Steve Lukather, and drummer, Jeff Porcaro, were tasked with working on this song when errors were made in recording, essentially leaving Porcaro to invent a drum part with Jackson's crude drum case beatings as a guide. After cranking up Jackson's vocal on the headphones, Porcaro created the iconic drum track within a couple of takes. Lukather played the rest of the guitar parts, having to tone down the rockiness on instruction from Quincy. What they created in the studio is the DNA of this track and all because the tape was cut in error, leaving it unable to be synced back together without the magic of these studio-wizards.

And talking of wizards, another member of Toto, keyboardist and synth-god, Steve Porcaro, composed stand out album track, 'Human Nature'! The thrill of Thriller for me lies in the fact that Toto band members are all over the album, at its heart. That insatiable desire for 80s sound that I mentioned earlier was quenched by Toto a couple of years ago on hearing 'Rosanna' and properly hearing the musicianship of it. I essentially fell in love. To learn that Toto were so involved in this album and also played on other Jackson tracks that I have held dear over the years felt like kismet. With lyrics re-written by John Bettis, 'Human Nature' feels like one of the more profound tracks on the album. Perhaps it's the reflective nature of Bettis' words; perhaps it's Lukather's gentle, flowing guitar, or Steve Porcaro's sweet synth composition. Jackson's vocal certainly showcases itself beautifully in this song: producing smooth runs, effortless falsetto parts and dream-like softness in other moments. It's a fantastic track that remains a favourite.

As we move through the album, 'PYT' cranks up the tempo one last time. Quincy pushed for this song to be more energetic and even to have an arrogant edge to it in terms of the vibe and lyrics. He felt it was more in keeping with what fans wanted from the young singer, despite Jackson's shy real-life persona. The vocal effects on this song give it a sound that is cutting edge 80s synth-tech and yet feels so original even in 2023. With Janet and La Toya Jackson's backing vocals (along with Becky Lopez and Bunny Hull), the track feels such a mishmash, but in the most fun way possible! 

Finally... my fire track, 'The Lady in my Life'. Joined by David Paich, Steve and Jeff Porcaro, of Toto, I swoon at this song! It's not just a beautiful love song-- and it really is that, focusing on trust, passion and longevity: a holy trinity of perfect love; it's also a sensual vocal performance that feels so...real. On reading up about this track, apparently Jackson, under direction of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton in the studio, had to do many takes. Something wasn't coming across, the emotion wasn't there. When told to sing as if begging his lover, Jackson insisted on having the lights out in the studio to get into the zone (and hide his embarrassment). What came out of that final take is a stunning vocal improvisation as the song progresses-- a soul-feel that rivals other Michael Jackson songs in terms of its genuineness. I understand that that is rather ironic as it's a performance that had to be coaxed out of the singer, but what it provokes is a feeling of being in the song, riding the emotion of being in love. 'The Lady in my Life' feels like it could be a sickly sweet ballad in its opening phase, but ends up bubbling with intensity by the end. I'd always choose this over 'She's Out of my Life' from Off the Wall which some may draw parallels with. In both you hear emotion come through in the vocal, but 'Lady in my Life' is more subtly achieved in my view. In case it wasn't obvious, this final track alone makes Thriller a special album for me.

1. Lady in my Life-- As aforementioned, one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs, this track radiates a sensual and intense emotion. It is underrated and beautiful.

2. Human Nature-- Steve Porcaro's beautiful melody 

3. Baby Be Mine-- I love the sweetness of this song and the arrangement of the vocal

... I want the feeling of 80s glory and to be in the safe, capable hands of a masterpiece. 

' If this town is just an apple
Then let me take a bite   (Human Nature)

... midnight black with a subtle dispersing of silver glitter

'Talking Book'/ Stevie Woner (1972)
'That's the Way of the World'/ Earth, Wind & Fire (1975)
'Turn Back'/ Toto (1981)
'Testimony: Vol. 1 Life & Relationships'/ India Arie (2006)
'Two Ribbons'/ Let's Eat Grandma (2022)

What is your favourite album beginning with T?

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