When twenty-three-year-old Michael Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, began recording Thriller, they hoped to create a great record that would at least equal the 8 million unit sales of Jackson's prior solo outing, Off the Wall. "No matter what you do, you are competing against your previous product and everybody expects more," Jackson told a reporter in 1983. What they ended up with eight months later became the biggest-selling album in history.
Thriller, reportedly recorded for $750,000, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide — and it still sells. It earned Jackson over 150 gold and platinum awards worldwide and a record seven Grammys. At the height of Michaelmania in 1984, Epic Records was selling in excess of 1 million Jackson records a week. Thriller was the musical equivalent of the Hula-Hoop, an item that everybody had to own.
At the center of all the madness was a slick, entertaining, endearingly innocent forty-two-and-a-half-minute collection of pure pop music that produced seven Top Ten singles: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "The Girl Is Mine," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." "It felt like entering hyperspace at one point," says Quincy Jones about the phenomenal success of Thriller. "It almost scared me. I thought, 'Maybe this is going too far.'"
With Thriller, Jackson and Jones were aiming for a dynamic, balanced collection of potential hits. Jackson supplied many of the best songs on the album, writing "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" (as well as the slight number "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney). Jones went through over 300 songs in search of additional material. "I was trying to find a group of songs that complemented each other in their diversity," says Jones. "Give me a ride, give me some goose bumps. If 'Billie Jean' sounds good, it sounds even better followed by 'Human Nature.' 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ' into 'Baby Be Mine.' I look at an album as a total piece."
It began during the spring of 1982 at Michael Jackson's Tudor-style mansion, in Encino, California, where he had been working on material in his sixteen-track studio. Jones and his engineer, Bruce Swedien, spent several days there with Jackson, listening to "Polaroids," their term for the crude demos Jackson had made.
In April they moved to Westlake Audio, in Hollywood, where the majority of the album was recorded. Jones called on a crew of seasoned studio veterans, including guitarist David Williams, drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler, bassist Louis Johnson and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa as well as a number of synthesizer and keyboard players, including Greg Phillinganes, Michael Boddicker, David Foster and Steve Porcaro. The first song cut was "The Girl Is Mine." "Michael and Paul worked very fast," says Swedien. "Three days and it was done."
The album is full of special touches, from Vincent Price's campy introduction to "Thriller" to Eddie Van Halen's raging hard-rock solo on "Beat It." Many of these ideas were Jackson's own. Particularly innovative was the repeated vocal motif — "ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" — that ends "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." "That's based on an African riff from the Cameroon region," says Jones. "Michael came up with it, and we added harmonies and made a whole thing out of it."
Price's "Thriller" rap was written by Rod Temperton during a cab ride to the studio, and Jackson recorded the wolf howls in the alley outside the studio. "I think the idea of 'Thriller' was to incorporate drama into pop," says Jones of the song, which was originally titled "Starlight Love." "It's like a one-act play."
Jones had to coax Jackson into writing "Beat It." "I bugged him for three months about doing a strong rock thing," said Jones. "Finally he wrote it. I had to squeeze it out of him."
He was also reluctant to do what Jones calls a "beg" on "The Lady in My Life." "That's asking a girl to give you some," says the producer, laughing. "That's against Michael's nature." But at other moments, the singer's enthusiasm was obvious, and he frequently danced as he sang his final vocals — indeed, Jackson's dancing can still be heard in the final mix of "Billie Jean."
Jones and Jackson thought they had the album wrapped in November. They were wrong. "I took Michael home, and he went to sleep on the couch," says Jones. "Three hours later we went back to the studio and listened to the acetate. Biggest piece of shit in life. We were horrified. So we took two days off, then spent the next eight days remixing. One song a day. We put those babies in the pocket."
Thriller has been an extremely influential album. "I hear it a lot in the records produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis," Jones says. "[Janet Jackson's] 'Funny How Times Flies (When You're Having Fun)' is 'The Lady in My Life.' The new jack swing. Everybody began to understand the power of melody again after Thriller."
Perhaps Thriller's biggest accomplishment has been its influence on other black musicians. "It inspired black artists not to look at themselves in a limited way," says Jones. "Before Michael, those kinds of sales had never happened for a black artist. Michael did it. He did it for the first time."