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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Jukebox - Thriller by Michael Jackson

At last count, there have been tens of thousands of musical artists that have graced the Billboard Charts, the radio airwaves, MTV, and even the background music at Walmart. Some of the artists are one or two hit wonders, while others have had five or more albums reach double platinum. But with thousands of songs and artists out there in this world, you would think that I would have no shortage of topics to talk about in the Sunday Jukebox portion of this blog.

Yet here I am, featuring an artist that I already featured back in July of 2011.

But there's a reason for my madness here. It's Halloween tomorrow, and my theory is, what better way to celebrate the day before Halloween than by having the subject be one of Michael Jackson's most known songs, as well as one of the most quintessential songs to have for a haunting soundtrack to any spooky party.

The song in question happens to come from one of Michael Jackson's highest-selling, and most critically acclaimed albums of all time. The album was Michael Jackson's sixth full-length studio album as a solo artist, and when it was released on November 30, 1982, most expected it to do very well, but few knew just exactly how much staying power it would have, nor did they understand just how important the album ended up being to the music industry as well as tearing down racial boundaries that previously existed.



Let's just take a look at Michael Jackson's 1982 album Thriller for a little bit. Here are some of the statistics.

Of the nine songs that appeared on the album, seven of those singles managed to hit the Billboard Top 10 between 1982 and 1984. The album also netted Michael Jackson a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards in 1984. As of 2011, Thriller remains the best-selling album of all time with over 110 million copies sold worldwide since 1982. The album became so popular that it was credited with breaking the colour barrier on MTV. Prior to 1983, the channel played videos by mostly white artists, but when Thriller was released, Michael Jackson's videos started to be played in heavy rotation, and paved the way for other artists of African-American descent, such as Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, and even Michael's younger sister, Janet.

Thriller made the list of Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, placing an incredibly respectful #20, and the album was eventually preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry, deeming it culturally significant.

And certainly Thriller still gets radio airplay today. Songs like 'Billie Jean', 'Beat It', and 'Human Nature' were all huge songs. But perhaps the crown jewel of the Thriller album happens to be its title track, and the seventh and final single to be released from the album, in the first few weeks of 1984.

The video is known for its extreme length. At thirteen minutes and forty-two seconds long, it was more than three times the length of the average music video that played on MTV at that time. The video, which combined music and horror films cost over half a million dollars to film, and until Madonna released 'Express Yourself' in 1989, was the most expensive music video ever filmed.

But the amount of work that went into the filming of the video was well worth it.  Just watch the video below to see what I mean.



ARTIST: Michael Jackson
SONG: Thriller
ALBUM: Thriller
DATE RELEASED: January 23, 1984
PEAK POSITION ON THE BILLBOARD CHARTS: #4

Here's a confession. I didn't get a chance to see the entire Thriller music video in its entirety until I was 12 or 13. Reason being was that I was only two at the time it was released, and was way too young to watch something that could have given me nightmares for years. And, by the time I had grown old enough to watch it, by then Michael Jackson had newer stuff out, so the Thriller videos were rarely played. But I happened to catch the video one day on MuchMusic's Spotlight series, and immediately loved it. It remains one of the most loved music videos of all time.



But did you know that when the song was first conceived, Thriller wasn't even supposed to have been the original title choice?

Both Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton (who both worked on the Thriller album) confirmed that the original name for Thriller was 'Starlight'. And instead of the song hook lyrics being 'Thriller, in the night', they were originally supposed to be Starlight! Starlight sun!'.

Yeah, not exactly the lyrics that make you think of something scary and spooky...well, unless you're watching an apocalyptic thriller about the sun exploding and scorching the earth into a giant ball of ash.

According to Thriller's songwriter, Rod Temperton, he described the way Starlight changed to Thriller in this snippet from an interview he did.

Originally when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, 'you managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote about two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man'. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word...something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'.”

So, that's how the song (and ultimately the album) came to be named. The production of the song was another story in itself. When Temperton was writing the lyrics for 'Thriller', he had wanted the song to have a spoken word verse located towards the end of the song, but wasn't exactly sure how he was going to pull it off. It then dawned on him to use a famous actor who had a history of performing in horror films do the voiceover. This worked out very well, as Peggy Lipton (who was married to Quincy Jones at the time) knew of such an actor who had an extensive resume of horror work to his credit and that he would have been perfect for the job.

The actor? Vincent Price. And Price wasted no time. He immediately agreed to doing the work on the track, and it only took him two takes to get the extensive monologue down pat.

The track was recorded in 1982, along with several other tracks for the Thriller album over a period of eight weeks at the Westlake Recording Studios in Santa Monica, California. Song engineer Bruce Swedien talked about the recording process of the song in this interview snippet.

When we started Thriller, the first day at Westlake, we were all there, and Quincy walked in followed by Michael and Rod Temperton and some of the other people. Quincy turned to us and said, 'OK guys, we're here to save the recording industry.' Now that's a pretty big responsibility – but he meant it. And that's why those albums, and especially Thriller, sound so incredible. The basic thing is, everybody who was involved gave 150 per cent. Quincy's like a director of a movie and I'm like a director of photography, and it's Quincy's job to cast it. Quincy can find the people and he gives us the inspiration to do what we do.”

I think that much is true, and blink if you miss it, there's your life lesson for today. Let it be known that having a team that can work together to create a brilliant project is great, but having a good leader to join all the pieces together and inspires people to do their best work for the sake of the project is ultimately the goal for that project to become great. I think that's the kind of leader Quincy Jones was, and I think that's why he became so well-respected in the music industry because he inspired everyone he worked with to give their best.

I only wish I could have that much leadership!



As a result of the team coming together, Thriller became a masterpiece of a performance, and that masterpiece deserved one kick-ass video. So in late 1983, production for the Thriller video began. Directed by John Landis, the video  was a celebration of 1950s B-horror films, and starred Jackson and his love interest (as portrayed by actress Ola Ray). The video has consistently been on several lists, proclaiming the music video to be amongst the cream of the crop, and in 1999, was declared the greatest video ever made by MTV. In that 1999 airing, Michael Jackson described the act of filming the music video for Thriller.

My idea was to make this short film with conversation. I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story. I'm very much involved in complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul. Usually, you know, it's an interpretation of the music. It was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was 'How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?' So I said, 'We have to just do the right kind of movement so it doesn't become something you laugh at.' But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with (choreographer) Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror. I used to come to rehearsal sometimes with monster makeup on, and I loved doing that. So he and I collaborated and we both choreographed the piece, and I thought it should start like that kind of thing and go into this jazzy kind of step, you know? Gruesome things like that, not too much ballet, or whatever.”

In this case, I think Michael's vision came to life through...well...death. The dancers who played the zombie backup dancers were very convincing and really got into their parts, as did Michael, and in the end, it made for one very entertaining and successful video. A 45-minute documentary was also filmed alongside the video shoot entitled “Making Michael Jackson's Thriller”, which was played quite often on MTV during the mid 1980s. MTV paid a quarter of a million dollars for the exclusive rights to show the documentary on television, while Showtime paid $300,000 for the rights to show the documentary on Pay-TV. Now, how's that for a hot video?



It's been almost 28 years since Thriller debuted on MTV, and yet the video is still wildly popular. Flash mobs have recreated the video's dance steps, and the video has been spoofed a number of times. And after Michael Jackson's sudden death in 2009, the song topped the Billboard Digital charts the week he passed away.

Looking back on it all, what other song COULD I profile today?














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