Michael Jackson's Thriller at 40: How the world's biggest selling album changed pop

From dark lyrical matter to cutting-edge sounds, Thriller is the original blockbuster record

Michael Jackson redefined pop music with 1982 album Thriller. WireImage
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The biggest selling album of all time turns 40 this week.

With the release of his sixth album, Thriller, in 1982, Michael Jackson cemented his position as the indisputable king of pop. The album spawned seven hit singles and won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards.

More than 70 million copies have been sold and it remains the benchmark for commercial and creative success in pop music, a feat generations of artists have aspired to but have yet to achieve.

From left, moderator Ben Fong-Torres, Thriller producer Quincy Jones and assistant producer Bruce Swedien at the Dream Team panel discussion at Dubai Music Week in 2013. Pawan Singh / The National

A key factor behind that triumph is that Jackson surrounded himself with some of the finest musical minds in the business, such as executive producer Quincy Jones, the late Bruce Swedien, assistant producer, and songwriter Rod Temperton.

While the trio discussed making the album in separate interviews throughout their career, they made a rare joint appearance in 2013 as part of Dubai Music Week, where they shared their experiences of working on one of the most influential music releases of all time.

Here are seven things you need to know about Thriller — the original blockbuster album.

1. Thriller was a revenge mission

Michael Jackson was at the peak of his powers in 1982. WireImage

Despite his benign early public persona, Michael Jackson was fiercely competitive and ambitious. His decision to push the envelope with Thriller was primarily fuelled by frustration.

His previous album, Off The Wall, generated big sales and critical acclaim. But Jackson was irked that it did not win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.

“It was totally unfair that it didn't get Record of the Year and it can never happen again,” he told manager John Branca.

Thriller went on to win a record-breaking eight Grammys in 1984.

2. The original name was Starlight

The song Thriller was originally called Starlight.

Can you imagine Jackson bellowing out starlight instead of thriller in that thrilling chorus?

Me neither. Fortunately, that was never part of the plan.

When co-writing the song, Temperton used the word starlight as an instruction tool for Jackson in the studio.

“I never write lyrics until the very end,” he said at Dubai Music Week.

“So Thriller was actually called Starlight and that was just some rubbish word I put down to demonstrate to Michael how the melody went.

“Then during breakfast the next morning, the word shot into my head. It was like electricity and immediately I started thinking of the lyrics. That’s how Thriller came to be.”

3. With Thriller, Jackson became a man

Jackson wanted to shed his youthful image once and for all to explore full-blown adult themes.

“The aim with Thriller was [for it] to be Jackson’s 'mature' album,” Jones said in Dubai.

“The transition from Off the Wall to Thriller was to say that he has moved from being a youth to man,” Jones said.

The propulsive production of Beat It disguises Jackson's socially conscious lyrics, in which he despairs the rise in gang violence in the US stemming from toxic masculinity — a line of thought epitomised in the killer line “don't be a macho man”.

Billie Jean found him striking new-found lyrical territory as he narrates a story of a woman claiming he is the father of her newborn son — a charge he denies emphatically in the glorious chorus.

Those emotions were matched with Jackson’s most brooding and aggressive sounds to date, such as the gnarly guitar riffs of Beat It and the screeching cinematic horns of the album’s title track.

4. The music video to Billie Jean broke the racial barrier

The music video for Billie Jean was a game-changer for the music industry and became a social sensation.

Not only was it the first video by an African-American artist to broadcast on MTV, it also revealed Jackson's new look ― leather suit, pink shirt, red bow tie and his signature single white glove. It was a style copied by children throughout the US.

It caused one school, New Jersey's Bound Brook High, to ban students from coming to class wearing white gloves.

The track received such attention that Jackson was forced to address rumours regarding the identity of Billie Jean.

According to his memoir, Moonwalker, she doesn’t exist: “The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years.”

5. The music video to Beat It was shot like a movie

The gritty music video cost a reported $100,000 at the time.

It was set in Los Angeles' notorious Skid Row district and featured up to 80 real-life members from the city's notorious street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.

6. Thriller used cutting-edge recording techniques

Thriller represented a new mark for production.

This is down to the Acusonic Recording process used to record the album.

“It actually means accurate sonic recording, which is what Quincy and I do all the time,” said the album’s assistant producer, the aforementioned, Bruce Sweiden at Dubai Music Week.

“Sometimes I would have Michael sing close to the mic and double [track] it and then tell him to move back further and the third time even further.

“What that does is create a sonic energy with the sound and then you can stagger it, making the sounds come from the left [speaker], the right and the middle. When it all combines together on the record, it just sounds magical.”

7. Jackson sings in harmony and rhythm

Thriller is a premiere showcase of Jackson's rhythmic vocal style, particularly in the album title track, Beat It, Billie Jean and the underrated funk of Baby Be Mine.

“He always sat on top of the beat and really pushed it along and gave it a lot of melody,” said Temperton, who also co-wrote earlier Jackson hits Rock with You and Off the Wall.

“Writing for him, I knew he loved songs with a strong melody with a lot of short notes in it.

“The other thing I noticed about Michael is that he loved a lot of vocal harmonies on the song, so that was something I included. I always tried to make the words melt into the melody.”

60 things you may not have known about Michael Jackson — in pictures

Updated: December 02, 2022, 2:02 PM