Why It Mattered: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’

Michael Jackson’s Thriller is quite confidently the highest-selling album of all time. But what makes up the anatomy of such a work and its undying success?

It was 2 am in London in 1983 when John Landis received a call from Michael Jackson. Bleary-eyed yet more than a little curious, he listened as Jackson purposed his intention to make a film clip for Thriller, the seventh single from Michael’s album of the same name released a year prior.

Landis hadn’t heard the song and had to feign knowledge of it. Jackson, for his part, hadn’t seen Landis’ movies Animal House, The Blues Brothers or Trading Places. He was more interested in An American Werewolf In London. Landis agreed to direct if he could turn it into a short film. Jackson concurred and the resulting 13-minute clip changed the music video industry forever, and, like Michael himself, became a cultural phenomenon.

Thriller Michael Jackson

They should have known they were onto something when the speakers caught on fire.

During the recording of Beat It, Eddie Van Halen was recruited to record a guitar solo. Originally believing it to be a prank call, Van Halen agreed once he realised the offer was genuine, he also did it free of charge. Borrowing a guitar from Allan Holdsworth, Halen showed up and laid down two takes after producer Quincy Jones deemed the first to be too distorted.

The studio engineers were shocked during the recording of Van Halen’s solo to discover that the lightning-fast licks had caused the monitor speaker in the control room to catch fire, causing one to exclaim, “This must be really good!”

Furthermore, Thriller is widely accredited for its role in promoting racial equality in America, largely thanks to the Paul McCartney duet The Girl Is Mine. The two stars initially bonded over their love of cartoons.

“I wanted to repay the favour he had done me in contributing ‘Girlfriend’ to Off the Wall,” wrote Michael in his Moonwalk memoir

He soon knew it had to be the first single, “we really didn’t have much choice. When you have two strong names like that together on a song, it has to come out first or it gets played to death and overexposed. We had to get it out of the way.”

Toto guitarist Steve Lukather remembers the session vividly. After hanging up multiple times on Michael, thinking his invitation to record was a prank he went to the studio during The Girl Is Mine session.

“You can imagine what kind of a zoo it was, with Michael and Quincy and McCartney and all the people and the staff and the security. We never even got into the control room – [Beatles producer] George Martin and [Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick were there, Dick Clark. It was so intense.”

The Girl Is Mine was the first time a Beatle hit the top of the R&B charts, knocking off Sexual Healing from Jackson’s old label-mate Marvin Gaye.

Funnily enough, Thriller was inspired by composer Tchaikovksy as Jackson explains:

“Ever since I was a little boy, I would study composition. And it was Tchaikovsky that influenced me the most. If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite, every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘Why can’t there be a pop album where every [song is a killer]?’

While Epic Records were incredibly impressed with the success of Thriller’s lead singles Billie Jean and Beat It, they viewed the title track as an afterthought and novelty track. Little did they know that it was the start of the Michael Jackson thriller era.

It wasn’t until the album started to fall on the charts in 1983 that the label considered doing a third video clip. To quell Jackson’s angst about declining sales, promoter Frank DeLio chose Thriller and said, “All you’ve got to do is dance, sing and make it scary.”

The lyrics and spoken word were even inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, which is represented masterfully in the clip. John Landis had an epic personnel crew around him at the time, and asked his wife, Deborah Nadoolman, to design a jacket for the movie. The iconic red leather jacket became almost as famous as the one she designed for Indiana Jones.

At the time of filming Michael Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness who was frequently seen on set carrying religious books. After production had wrapped Jackson started to panic as members of his church had told him the song promoted demonology.

Even MTV who had great success with Billie Jean and Beat It turned down Thriller thinking it was last year’s news. Afraid that the church was going to excommunicate him, Jackson begged Landis’ to destroy the film. Longtime lawyer John Branca convinced him to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to distance it from his own beliefs. In a stroke of marketing genius, the entry disclaimer just enflamed the hype surrounding the video and added to its spooky mystery.

The resulting clip is a work of pure entertainment and more than doubled the sales for the album which sold more than 66 million copies worldwide, 16 million more than #2 holder AC/DC’s Back In Black. 

The official YouTube video for Thriller is frequently growing with a massive 633million hits to its name. Take a peep below:

Thriller spawned some of the greatest hits, including Michael Jackson lady in my life, and let’s not forget to pay homage to the incredibly iconic Michael Jackson white suit. And if you can get your hands on a signed Michael Jackson Thriller album let me know.

While we’ve got you, check out Why It Mattered: