This story was originally published in October, 2009, as part of a special U.S. issue dedicated to Michael Jackson.
Maybe it was a sign when the speakers in the studio burst into flames.
It was late October 1982, and a full battalion of musicians and technicians were working around the clock at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on Michael Jackson’s new album. The disc was the highly anticipated follow-up to 1979’s Off the Wall, which had established him as a solo superstar.
In fact, the first single from the new disc had already been released – “The Girl Is Mine,” a winsome duet with Paul McCartney – adding pressure to wrap things up quickly. And the song Jackson and crew were completing would prove to be the album’s most ambitious, radical achievement, the cut that ended up breaking the project wide open.
“When we were finishing ‘Beat It,’ we had three studios going,” recalls Quincy Jones, who was producing the sessions. “We had Eddie Van Halen in one; Michael was in another, singing a part through a cardboard tube; and we were mixing in another. We were working five nights and five days, with no sleep. And at one point, the speakers overloaded and caught on fire!”
One month later, Thriller was released, and pop music would never be the same again. The album reached Number One in February 1983, stayed atop the charts for a record-shattering 37 weeks and has sold more than an estimated 50 million copies worldwide. In today’s world of declining sales and fragmented audiences, it is almost impossible to imagine how much this one album dominated and united the culture.
When asked today about Thriller, Jones points out – taking care to insist that he is not minimising Jackson’s role – that it requires an entire brain trust to make a clas sic album. “Michael didn’t create Thriller,” he says. “It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs, and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.” Jones gives particular credit to the contributions of engineer Bruce Swedien and of songwriter Rod Temperton, who had written the hits “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights” as a member of the multiracial R&B group Heatwave. He had become a trusted Jones collaborator, contributing three songs for Off the Wall, including “Rock With You” and the title track.
Michael had started working on Thriller in the recording studio at the Jacksons’ home in Encino, California, in the days following the breakthrough of Off the Wall, which firmly established him as a major pop icon. He was determined, unwaveringly focused on the idea that he would create not just something to equal or even surpass Off the Wall, but an album on which every one of the songs would be a hit single.
The Jackson composition that formally kicked off the recording of Thriller (cited, in the notes to the 2001 “Special Edition” reissue of the album, as commencing on Wednesday, April 14th, 1982, at noon) was “The Girl Is Mine,” in which Jackson shared the vocals with Paul McCartney.
First, Jackson and Jones visited McCartney at his ranch in Tucson, Arizona, spending a couple of days rehearsing and indulging in the musicians’ shared obsession with cartoons. “When I approached Paul,” Jackson wrote in his 1988 book Moonwalk, “I wanted to repay the favor he had done me in contributing ‘Girlfriend’ to Off the Wall.”
McCartney, however, expressed some trepidation about the song’s bubblegum feel. He was especially concerned about the cloying use of the word “doggone.” “You could say it’s shallow,” he admitted. “When I checked it out with Michael, he explained that he wasn’t going for depth, he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel.”
“We’re fighting over this girl in the song,” Jackson said, “and it came out beautifully.”
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who had gotten a call from Jackson himself to play on several of Thriller’s songs (and cursed the singer out and hung up on him several times, convinced it was a prank), vividly recalls the “Girl Is Mine” session. “The McCartney duet was really insane,” he says. “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.”
Though far from Thriller’s finest moment, “The Girl Is Mine” has a breezy charm, and Jackson instantly knew his plans for the song, calling it “the obvious first single.” In Moonwalk, he wrote that “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.”
To Jackson’s record company, the song represented a chance to start thinking about a global strategy for Thriller that would prove historic. “We tried to take a worldwide view of Michael,” said Don Dempsey, then-senior vice president of Epic Records, in 1984. “We were seeing some initial interest in Michael outside the U.S., and we felt that one of the ways to really propel that was the duet with Paul McCartney.” (Still, Quincy Jones notes that there was some resistance to the interracial romance implied by the song. “Radio didn’t like the idea of Paul and Michael fighting over the same girl, and some stations wouldn’t play it,” he says.)
Jackson’s instincts proved correct – the song made it to Number Two on the pop charts and all the way to Number One on the R&B singles chart. Not only was it the first time a Beatle topped the R&B list, but the song that it knocked out of that slot was “Sexual Healing,” the comeback smash by Jackson’s old Motown labelmate Marvin Gaye.
As “The Girl Is Mine” headed into the marketplace, Jackson continued record ing for the album. He and Jones listened to hundreds of songs, trying to find the range and balance that would create the album he was dreaming of. He cut “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a song he reportedly started writing during the Off the Wall period. Its chattering groove and swirling arrangement are the closest thing on Thriller to the previous album, which may be one reason it was chosen as the opening track. But there was a new tone in Jackson’s lyrics, an edge of fear and paranoia (“You’re a vegetable/Still they hate you. … You’re just a buffet … they eat off of you”).
The song’s other memorable feature was an African chant in the concluding section, a slight variation on Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s 1972 proto-disco hit “Soul Makossa.” “Michael heard that, and he liked it,” says Jones. “I said ‘Michael, that’s Manu Dibango’s record,’ and he said, ‘But I need it!'” (Dibango was not given a songwriting credit, but a financial settlement was eventually reached.)
Among the other songs cut during the early phases of the Thriller sessions were Rod Temperton’s loose, swinging “Baby Be Mine” (which, Jones points out, has a melody similar to a John Coltrane-style progressive jazz line) and another Temperton song that began life under the innocuous title “Starlight.”
Somewhere along the line, the British songwriter picked up on Jackson’s love of horror movies, and gave the lyrics a more ominous feel. “Starlight” became “Thriller” and was given a theatrical, dramatic arrangement. The song found a balance between a Broadway-style narrative and a thumping, irresistible dance-floor beat. “I had always envisioned a talking section at the end,” Temperton said in an interview included on the CD reissue of Thriller, “but I didn’t really know what to do with it.” It turned out that Jones’ wife, Peggy Lipton (best known as Julie from The Mod Squad), knew the legendary horror movie actor Vincent Price.
“The idea was that he would just talk some horror talk like he would deliver in his famous roles,” said Temperton. “The night before the session, Quincy called and said, ‘I’m a bit scared. Perhaps you better write something for him.’ ” Temperton wrote one verse of the groovy ghoulish rap that closes the song while waiting for a taxi to the studio and then two more verses during the ride. “Rod wrote this brilliant, Edgar Allan Poe spiel,” said Jones. “And Vincent really understood it. … Vincent did it in two takes.”
Guitarist Lukather recalls Jackson’s intensity during the album’s creation. “Michael was very focused, he knew what he wanted,” he says. “When he’d start dancing to a groove, that’s when we knew we were playing the right shit. He wasn’t, like, moonwalking across the room, but the hands and feet were going, he and Quincy were bopping. That would create a whole other vibe, and you’d really want to kill it. It was a great working environment.”
The most hotly debated song from the first half of Thriller’s sessions would prove to be the album’s central track. As the demo included on the 2001 reissue reveals, Jackson had a very clear sense of the sound and the groove for “Billie Jean” – one of the four songs he contributed to the album – from the beginning.
But Jones contended that the instrumental introduction was too long. “You could shave on that intro,” said Jones. “But he said, ‘That’s the jelly, that’s what makes me want to dance.’ And when Michael Jackson tells you that’s what makes him want to dance, well, the rest of us just have to shut up.”
Michael said the real Billie Jean had sent him a weapon with instructions to kill himself. “I want to memorize her face,” he said, “in case she ever does turn up someplace.”
Drummer N’dugu Chancler was brought in to give extra propulsion to an already massive beat. “Michael always knew how he wanted it to sound,” Chancler once said. “There was originally just a drum-machine track on it. I came in and cut a live-drum track over the overdub.” To add another layer of “ear candy,” jazzman Tom Scott plays an uncredited solo on an obscure horn called a lyric on that is woven throughout the song.
Then there were the lyrics. “Billie Jean” told a chilling tale of being falsely accused and living in terror, a caution to “be careful of what you do, ’cause the lie becomes the truth.” These were emotions no one had ever heard before from the former boy wonder. “I figured that he was making a conscious effort … to change his image,” wrote Michael’s mother, Katherine, in her book, My Family, The Jacksons. “I think he felt that his image had become too goody-goody. Once I recovered from my shock, I heard “Billie Jean” for what it was, a number-one song.”
Drummer N’dugu Chancler was brought in to give extra propulsion to an already massive beat. “Michael always knew how he wanted it to sound,” Chancler once said. “There was originally just a drum-machine track on it. I came in and cut a live-drum track over the overdub.”
Really, though, the song’s story was based in fact – though Jackson never revealed that to his closest collaborators, not even Quincy Jones. When Gerri Hirshey of Rolling Stone noticed a snapshot tucked into a picture frame in Jackson’s dining room, Jackson acknowledged that she was the real Billie Jean; Hirshey described her as “a black teenager of average countenance, posing, most likely, for a high school yearbook.” Jackson explained that she had written him, claiming that he had fathered her child, and sent him a weapon with instructions about when and how he should kill himself. “I want to memorize her face,” he explained, “in case she ever does turn up someplace.”
In Moonwalk, Jackson changed his account, presumably to discourage any future psychopaths. “There never was a real Billie Jean,” he wrote. “The girl in the song is a composite of people we’ve been plagued by over the years.” Even as late as 2001, Jones said the song’s subject was “a girl who climbed over the wall … and invaded the place … she accused him of being the father of one of her twins!”
The final hurdle was convincing Jones to stick with Jackson’s title for the song. It was almost released as “Not My Lover,” because the producer was concerned that people would think it was a song about tennis player Billie Jean King.
With “Billie Jean” wrapped, Jackson and Jones had nine songs in the can. “When we got down to nine,” says Jones, “we put those on their feet to see if they stood up. I tried to be as objective as I could and take the four weakest out of those nine and replace them. They weren’t weak, it was great stuff, but you have to be realistic.”
“There was a point we thought it was all over, that we were all finished,” remembers Thriller keyboard player Greg Phillinganes. “There had been so much hard work and long hours, and Quincy’s saying, ‘It’s not there yet,’ and Michael, almost distraught, is saying, ‘What are we going to do now?’ Quincy felt that there were certain elements that were missing still, and we went back to the drawing board.”
One of the songs that got knocked out was a light, lyrical song called “Carousel,” which eventually saw the light of day on the 2001 Thriller rerelease. But another song had presented itself that had the same sort of mood.
“Toto [some of whose members appear on much of Thriller] sent over two demos,” said Jones. “They were OK, but we left the tape running, and at the end was all this silence, then there was this dummy lyric, a very skeletal thing … but such a wonderful flavor.” Jones sent the demo to a writer named John Bettis, who responded with a lyric titled “Human Nature.”
As the song developed, Lukather added “all these weird, metered hooky parts,” earning an arranging credit. (“Quincy was very good about that stuff,” he says.) Jackson gave a breathy, lighter-than-air performance, resulting in Thriller’s most memorable pure-pop moment. “Human Nature” would also become a staple of jazz giant Miles Davis’ live set during the trumpeter’s later years.
The final additions to the Thriller lineup revealed the tactical thinking of Jackson and Jones. The singer was setting out to make the biggest album in history. As Jones would put it, “To penetrate, you have to go for the throat in four, five, six different areas: rock, AC, R&B, soul.”
Temperton’s “The Lady in My Life,” a classic Sinatra-style ballad, would close the album, providing the final grace note. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” – named after a brand of lingerie Jones’ wife liked – was the only track on Thriller on which the producer was credited as a songwriter, alongside soul balladeer James Ingram. It was the album’s closest thing to straight-up contemporary R&B, with a flirty Jackson vocal over some chirping synthesizers and slightly embarrassing Eighties slang (would Michael Jackson ever really say “to the max” or call a girl a “tenderoni”?). “It was just another groove,” says Jones. “I’ve been playing those kind of grooves since I was with Ray Charles.”
But there was still one final card left to play. “I had been thinking I wanted to write the type of rock song that I would go out and buy,” Jackson wrote. Jones said back in 1984 that “we were very conscious of wanting a white rock & roll groove. And when Smelly [his nickname for Jackson, after the word the polite-to-a-fault singer used when he was too embarrassed to describe a song as “funky”] wrote ‘Beat It,’ we knew he’d come up with the nitroglycerin.” Later, the producer would say that he felt the album had needed “a song like ‘My Sharona,’ a black version of a strong rock & roll thing.”
“Beat It” was, like its companion song, “Billie Jean,” evidence of the growth in Jackson’s songwriting. Its words are a condemnation of violence that isn’t simpleminded or preachy. And the groove was a killer, with a convincing and unforced rock flavor. To guide the rhythm section, Jackson pounded on boxes in the studio (he’s listed in the credits as “drum-case beater”). But it was Jones who had the inspired idea to bring in reigning guitar god Eddie Van Halen. It helped that Jackson was friendly with Van Halen’s then-wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli.
Much like Lukather initially blowing off Jackson, though, Van Halen hung up on Jones several times before he could be convinced that it really was the legendary producer asking for help. The guitarist quickly came on board and even refused payment for the session: “I did it as a favor,” he said.
When Van Halen came in to record his solo, Jones told him, “I’m not gonna sit here and try to tell you what to play – the reason you’re here is ’cause of what you do play.” Lukather was working on the track to “Beat It,” and when he heard that Van Halen was going to add the solo, he decided to really kick out the jams. “When they told me Eddie was playing on it, and they were trying to do a crossover record, I whipped out the Marshalls and did a wall of fucking sound,” he says. “Quincy sent that back and said, ‘The guitars are too heavy, they’ll never play this on R&B radio,’ so I went down to little Fenders and just did it again.”
Even so, the sound of “Beat It” was simply outrageous, for both rock and R&B listeners. Island Def Jam chairman LA Reid remembers being blown away. “Today we do things called ‘mash-ups,’ right?” he says. “Take Linkin Park and Jay-Z and put it together, and it’s certainly unique, but it’s not unusual. But at that time, Eddie Van Halen was at the top of his game and fit right in with ‘Beat It.’ It didn’t feel like a guitar solo over some R&B track. It was very organic. The idea of it was really unusual, but the results weren’t strained at all.”
The overdubs on “Beat It” were the last parts recorded for Thriller. The team worked until 9 a.m. Bruce Swedien took the tapes to be mastered, and Quincy Jones took Michael Jackson back to his house. “I put him on the couch and pulled a blanket over him,” he says, “and then we had to go back at noon to listen to the master.”
Unfortunately, this late in the game, the album didn’t have the punch they were hoping for. It was too long to fit on a standard LP, for one thing, requiring thin grooves that produced tinny sound. They decided to cut a verse from “The Lady in My Life” and shorten that contested introduction on “Billie Jean.” Then, as the clock continued to tick, they opted to remix the entire album (except for “The Girl Is Mine,” which was already all over the radio), one track a day for eight days. The final day of mixing was Monday, November 8th, 1982. Twenty-two days later, Thriller was available in stores. Michael Jackson was 24 years old.
The amazing thing, claimed Gerri Hirshey in 1985, was that “Michael had predicted it all when I first met him – the media geek show, the staggering sales figures, the order of singles, the fact that ‘Billie Jean’ would be the breakout song.”
Which may be true. But, says Jones, there is never any way to predict a hit record. “You can’t explain something like that, you can’t aim at it,” he says. “It’s why I used to keep a sign in the studio saying, ‘Always leave space for God to walk into the room.’ “
He does admit, though, that there is one thing you can always be sure of. “When a record goes to Number One,” says Jones, “everything starts with the songs.”