The Sonic Secrets Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

14th April 1982, Westlake Studios, Los Angeles: the recording sessions for Thriller commence. Producer Quincy Jones gathers his ‘crew’ – including mixing engineer Bruce Swedien, MJ and chief songwriter/arranger Rod Temperton – for a pep-talk. ‘We’re here to save the music business’, it begins…

It might sound a bit dramatic but the global recession of the 1980s was very much impacting a post-disco, pre-Madonna/Prince recording industry too. The team-talk worked: Thriller – released 35 years old today – is by far the biggest-selling non-greatest-hits album of all time.

For some, it’s bland, over-familiar and inferior to Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall. For this writer it’s the last truly great example of song-led, musician-crafted, post-disco R’n’B, beautifully produced, arranged and mastered. And Jackson was absolutely at the top of his game and still relatively ‘normal’.

Thriller was the soundtrack to 1983 and 1984 in my corner of London, loved by geeks, sporty kids, BMX riders and B-Boys alike. But sometimes it feels so familiar that it defies analysis. Here are a few aspects that jumped out during a recent reappraisal:

13. Michael’s lyrics. These are disturbing, ominous visions. ‘You’re a vegetable!’ he sneers on opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. ‘Billie Jean’ is about a deranged stalker, though Jackson claims she is a ‘composite’ of many obsessive fans. Is it any wonder he struggled with fame?

12. The African chant in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, stolen from Manu Dibango’s superb ‘Soul Mokassa’.

11. Paulinho Da Costa’s African percussion and cuica on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.

10. Jerry Hey’s string arrangements on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He supplies superb horn parts throughout Thriller but his strings are often neglected.

9. Tom Scott’s Lyricon interjections during the chorus of ‘Billie Jean’, a contribution that has sadly been left off the credits of many subsequent reissues.

8. The brilliant rhythm guitar playing throughout from David Williams, Paul Jackson Jr. and Steve Lukather.

7. For me, ‘Beat It’ is the weakest song on the album by some stretch (despite the great guitar riff and brilliant solo), but intriguingly it was apparently Jackson’s response to a Quincy remark that Thriller needed a ‘black version of “My Sharona”’!

6. Rod Temperton’s compositions throughout, and also his superb vocal arrangements – check out how he uses Michael’s stacked background vocals.

5. Greg Phillinganes’ superb Rhodes and synth bass work, particularly on the title track.

4. Ndugu Chancler’s drums, enhanced by Bruce Swedien’s sonic mastery. Have there ever been better-recorded drums than on ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘PYT’? According to Swedien: ‘I ended up building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat’.

3. Steve Lukather’s gorgeous guitar counterpoint throughout ‘Human Nature’, particularly in the closing 20 seconds.

2. Michael’s vocals. On ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, he sounds like three or four different singers. His backups throughout are also pretty special, and he takes ‘The Lady In My Life’ out.

1. Quincy knew that every song would have to be a killer, covering all styles. Around 30 compositions were considered. Among the many demo’d but scrapped included ‘She’s Trouble’, ‘Niteline’, ‘Carousel’ (only binned at the eleventh hour), ‘Got The Hots’ and ‘Hot Street AKA Slapstick’. These were all new to me until this week, but I’ve developed a particular liking for the Quincy/Jackson co-write ‘Got The Hots’:

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2 thoughts on “The Sonic Secrets Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

  1. I worked at a record store in the Staten Island Mall (the first of three jobs at the same number of stores in that mall over a five year period) during Thriller-mania, so I heard this album…or at least some of the singles…nearly every day for at least a year. Being around 17 at the time and a devoted “rock guy,” this was not really my thing, although EVH’s guitar solo bridged the gap for us rockers as it was intended to do. I never owned the album in any format simply because I didn’t need to…every song was etched in my brain. About 5-6 years ago I finally added a copy of the expanded CD to my collection when I found it at an insanely low price, since I already had the expanded version of Off The Wall and figured it needed a companion on the shelf beyond some Jackson 5 & Jacksons CDs. I already knew some of the info you shared but a lot of those tidbits were new to me, so thanks for this post.

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    • Interesting one, Rich. Good to get some background from a ‘rock guy’! It’s certainly a familiar one but listening to the 20th anniversary remaster really loud on some decent speakers after a few years away I was really blown away by the sonic detail and arrangements. It was always my favourite MJ album but I noticed lots of new stuff.

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