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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Fist Of Fun: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk

Apart from some sojourns with Faith No More, Neil Young, Nirvana, The Rollins Band, Tin Machine, Blur and Suede in the ’90s, the last time I was really into rawk was during that incredible wave of bands who hit their straps in the late-’80s – Faith No More, Living Colour, Fishbone, 24/7 Spyz, Mr Bungle.

And this lot. Mother’s Milk, released by EMI Records in August 1989is rock all right, channelling Led Zep and various LA punk heroes, but these boys had some serious funk chops too. You knew they’d studied P-Funk, James Brown, The Meters, Fela Kuti, Hendrix. This immediately separated them from a lot of second-rate imitators.

After the sad death of great original guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer issues to rival even Spinal Tap, they’d finally hit on two top-notch permanent members (don’t ask about the initiation rituals…). John Frusciante channels Hendrix, Jimmy Nolen and Adrian Belew (and even dares to take the p*ss out of Slash at the end of ‘Punk Rock Classic’) and contributes serious songwriting chops. Chad Smith is an excellent groove player. And Mother’s Milk is one of the great bass albums of the ’80s: take a bow, Flea AKA Michael Balzary.

It screams: YOUTH! Listening back now after 10 years or so, it’s an extremely enjoyable listen and a real contact high for my teenage years of 1989/1990.

The issue for producer Michael Beinhorn was capturing the band’s incredible energy in the studio. In general, he achieves it really well here; it explodes out of the traps, though its gated snares, multiple guitar overdubs and occasionally dodgy Anthony Kiedis vocals overpower it from time to time.

But it’s hard to think of any other band of the era who could pull off the controlled mayhem of ‘Magic Johnson’, ‘Stone Cold Bush’ and ‘Subway To Venus’ (and is that a homage to Faith No More at the end of ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’?). The ‘pop’ tracks ‘Taste The Pain’ and ‘Knock Me Down’ work fine too, and they have something to say.

Mother’s Milk also has the feeling of ‘last chance saloon’. It was just successful enough, going gold in the US although failing to chart in the UK. The boys had bought themselves some time. They signed a shiny new deal with Warner Bros in 1990 and then made their magnum opus Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the one that truly fulfilled their potential.

David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.

Robbie Robertson (1987): 30 Years Old Today

robbie robertson

Geffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’. He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987. But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.

Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart). The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.

‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.

Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.

But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em). This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there. However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.

Thelonious Monk: That’s The Way I Feel Now

Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk. Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).

During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).

That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel: ‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’

So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk. (Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)

Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.

First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’. NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.

Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’. Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.

The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.

*a Denon DRR 6.5, if you’re interested…