One of the curious aspects of the year that Michael Jackson released the best-selling album of all time was the amount of hand-wringing about declining sales of the album format. The common refrain in 1982 was that home taping was killing the LP. While physical sales were — compared to today — exceptionally healthy, they were certainly on the slide.
Total shipments of albums in the US had gone from 344m in 1977 to 244m by 1982. That’s quite a decline. It was a similar story in the UK, where sales had decreased from 81m to 58m over the same period. Sales of singles may have been going through the roof in the early 1980s, but the real money was in albums, and the record industry tried everything it could to shift units, such as offering bonus singles and free posters.
Michael Jackson was so enmeshed in making his sixth solo album in 1982 that he would have been forgiven for giving little thought to the concerns his record company’s executives might have had about an industry in flux. But after the huge success of his banging 1979 album, Off the Wall, Jackson was determined that his new one, Thriller, would reach even more people.
Despite sales of 10m, he was frustrated that Off the Wall hadn’t won the Grammy for Album of the Year and he was deeply upset by a decision taken by Rolling Stone in 1980 not to feature him on its cover. “I’ve been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn’t sell copies,” he complained. “Just wait. Some day those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I’ll give them one, and maybe I won’t.”
He hired a new manager, John Branca, at the start of the decade and told him his ambition was to be the biggest star on the planet and nothing less. Jackson had a simple strategy to achieve that goal: his new album would be all-killer, no filler. He claimed to dislike albums with “one good song, and the rest were like B-sides... Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?”
In the end, seven singles would be released from Thriller — a remarkable number, especially for a nine-track album. But, despite his stated aim, not every song on Thriller was single material — more of which later.
Seven months were spent in the studio recording the album. Quincy Jones, who had helped Jackson achieve a glittering disco sheen on Off the Wall, returned as producer, although the working relations between the two would not be as smooth as before. Jones, apparently, was irked that his client seemed to spend as much time on his dance moves as he did on his vocal performance.
Jackson turned up with several demos, including future classics Billie Jean and Beat It. The songs, which centre on, respectively, an obsessed fan and gang trouble, would foreshadow a dark decade for the singer. Like so many of the tracks that would end up on Thriller, Jackson’s paranoia and general unhappiness was seeping into his music.
He had lived in the glare of fame since he was eight years old, when he first started singing publicly with his brothers. The family band, The Jackson 5, had been a sensation for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Michael was just 13 when his first solo album, Got to Be There, came out in 1972. As the decade wore on, it was increasingly clear that he was struggling with fame and with the fierce ambition that burned within him.
His description of his unhappiness in his early 20s makes for bleak reading. “Even at home, I’m lonely,” he said. “I sit in my room sometimes and cry. It’s so hard to make friends... I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home.”
Music, the cliché goes, was his salvation, and it does appear as though he was happiest in studio. Jones had assembled a team of crack musicians to bring the songs to life, including members of Toto and Eddie Van Halen. The latter’s guitar solo helped make Beat It become a crossover sensation.
Video of the Day
The English songwriter and composer Rod Templeton, who had penned some of the best tracks on Off the Wall, delivered a song he wanted to call Starlight. It would soon be renamed Thriller and would become the album’s centrepiece. In a moment of pure inspiration, Jones called on the veteran actor Vincent Price to deliver the track’s famous monologue.
All in, Thriller cost about €2m to record in today’s money, but Walter Yetnikoff, the legendary boss of CBS — Jackson’s label’s parent company — didn’t grumble. He was certain Thriller would out-perform Off the Wall, especially if the fledgling MTV got behind the songs.
For an album packed with sure-fire hits, Jackson’s choice of lead single was baffling. The Girl is Mine, featuring Paul McCartney, is — by a considerable distance — the weakest track on Thriller, and yet, it was the one he chose as taster for his first album of the 1980s.
The Beatle had written Girlfriend, which appeared on Jackson’s previous album, Off the Wall, but The Girl is Mine was the sound of two icons phoning it in. The single came out in October 1982 and failed to light up charts on either side of the Atlantic, and when the album was released on the final day of November, sales were comparatively modest for the rest of the year.
Thriller’s journey to the top began slowly. It wasn’t until February 1983 and the release of the all-conquering second single, Beat It, that Thriller truly began to grab hold.
Yet MTV was slow to get behind the star. Although there was a suitably slick video for Beat It, the cable channel claimed it didn’t fit with its rock-oriented schedule. Yetnikoff was furious and threatened to denounce MTV executives as a “bunch of racists” if they didn’t play the song. They soon relented and Jackson’s crossover appeal was guaranteed, especially
when the epic John Landis video for Thriller dropped at the end of 1983.
The director was chosen because he had enjoyed a box office hit with An American Werewolf in London, and Jackson and his team wanted something similarly spooky for Thriller.
With single after single being released in 1983, the album started selling a million copies every week, and by the end of the year it had become the best selling album of all time. The statistics are extraordinary. Thriller was number one in the US album charts for 34 non-consecutive weeks between February 1983 and April 1984. It was the best selling album of the year in the US for 1983 and 1984.
Worldwide sales have never been accurately quantified, but it is thought that it has shifted somewhere between 70m and 100m copies. Even with very serious allegations about Jackson being a paedophile, especially since his death in 2009, the album continues to sell about 100,000 physical copies a year. A new compilation of demos and alternate takes, Thriller 40, will boost sales even further.
‘Thriller 40’ is out now