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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Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.

Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby: 30 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 13th July 1987

9/10

Yeau! The headline of Q Magazine’s September 1987 feature said it all. Perrier-quaffing Terence was correctly predicting a phenomenal critical and commercial reaction to his debut album and ready to dish the dirt. He had done it all on his terms; wrongfooted his record company (who had wanted a slick, current, ‘upwardly-mobile’ soul album) and played the press at their own game. But at what cost?

D’Arby had lived quite a life before becoming a ‘pop star’: he was born in the States, the son of a preacher father and gospel-singing mother, studied journalism in New York, became a half-decent boxer in his late teens, joined the army and was based in Germany throughout most of the ’80s during which time he worked on his music and acquired a manager (a strategy not dissimilar to another ex-army musical maverick, Jimi Hendrix).

Decamping to London in 1985, D’Arby worked on demos with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and, after being turned down by several major labels, finally got the nod from CBS. They pulled off a pre-release masterstroke when D’Arby was block-booked for four weeks running on ‘The Tube’ after a knockout debut live TV performance (I remember it well). To say that there was a buzz about him would be an understatement. The general consensus was: ‘Who the hell is this guy?!’

Hardline still sounds like one of the better debut album of the ’80s or any other decade. From the opening bars of ‘If You All Get To Heaven’ (mastered directly from a Walkman, by the sound of it), it’s clear that something pretty special and pretty different is going on, though the album inadvertently tapped into the ‘retro-soul’ revival that had built up in the UK over 1986 and 1987 – Ben E King and Percy Sledge had both had number ones in the months before Hardline‘s release, and The Pasadenas, The Christians and various others would bring forth similar grooves in the months to come.

Hardline also reminded critics and audiences alike of some of the great soul vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and especially Sam Cooke. All went into the mix but finally D’Arby sounded just like himself. He peppered ‘Dance Little Sister’ – a track that Prince would have killed for – with some outrageously over-the-top vocals. But, refreshingly, his singing throughout the album ain’t perfect – he’s much more into getting the emotion across and bringing a party vibe to the studio.

‘Sign Your Name’, ‘If You Let Me Stay’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are funky yet accessible (if the latter doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead), but the a cappella, African-themed ‘As Yet Untitled’ is totally original. He even takes on Smokey Robinson and emerges unscathed on the closing ‘Who’s Loving You’. He plays a lot of instruments himself and only gets in occasional help when absolutely necessary (including future Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Pop Group/PiL drummer Bruce Smith). As such it’s a remarkably cohesive album.

Hardline was a big hit, reaching number one in the UK, number four in the US and selling over eight million copies worldwide. D’Arby got the rep of being a ‘difficult’ artist when his follow-up album Neither Fish Nor Flesh missed deadlines and went over budget. Things would probably never be the same again. But we’d always have Hardline.

Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely in their fingers and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he put out some fine studio albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing with Steely Dan but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range so effortlessly. He kills on the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and has spent a lot more time on the road in his later years.

The Wackiest Guitar Solos Of The 1980s

eddie_van_halen_at_the_new_haven_coliseum_2Pop music has always featured its fair share of brilliantly ‘inappropriate’ instrumental solos, from the (uncredited) honking tenor break on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ and Tony Peluso’s brilliant fuzz-guitar feature on The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye To Love‘ to Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s unreconstructed rampage through Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’.

And then of course there are the jazz solos that occasionally enhance ‘pop’ material – Sonny Rollins lighting up the Stones’ ‘Waiting On A Friend’, Ronnie Ross’s memorable break on Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and Phil Woods/Wayne Shorter/Pete Christlieb’s tasty leads on some of Steely Dan’s best work.

In the ’80s, there was a lot of demand for the wacky solo, often thrown in to pep up some pretty light/fairly inconsequential material. One in particular really set the benchmark for the decade, and it’s naturally where we start our rundown…

6. Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’ (Solo by Eddie Van Halen)

Eddie’s shock-and-awe break was a perfect distillation of all his trademark techniques: lightning-fast picking, close-interval tapping routines, whammy-bar divebombs and even a cheeky Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along The Watchtower’ homage.

5. Michael Sembello – ‘Maniac’ (1983)

Sembello, hitherto best known as a very able jazz/R’n’B session player for the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Sanborn and George Duke, unleashed this overblown post-‘Beat It’ solo (starting at 2:50) which sounds like it belongs to a completely different song. Maybe he should have stuck to the jazz and R’n’B…

4. Bros – ‘Chocolate Box’ (Solo by Paul Gendler)

Gendler was a respected UK-based session player (and member of Modern Romance!) before getting the call from the Goss boys. He tosses off a Francis Dunnery-esque, way-too-good-for-the-charts solo at 2:40 on this wafer-thin but very catchy single.

3. Europe – ‘The Final Countdown’ (Solo by John Norum)

This song is obviously crying out for a widdly guitar solo, but Norum’s brilliant Malmsteen-esque playing (starting at 3:17) goes beyond the call of duty even by the standards of a mid-’80s hair-metal band.

2. Al Jarreau – ‘Telepathy’ (Solo by Nile Rodgers)

Nicely set up by Steve Ferrone’s wrongfooting half-bar drum fill, Nile plays all the notes he knows and a few more too in this seriously weird but rather brilliant harmonized/double-tracked break (starting at 2:05) from the L Is For Lover album.

1. Allan Holdsworth – ‘In The Mystery’ (1985)

Jazz/rock guitar genius Holdsworth inexplicably saved some of his wackiest solos for vocal-based, ‘commercial’ material. This one, starting at 2:20, is fairly astonishing and, arguably, totally wasted on the song… (Bassist Jimmy Johnson also deserves a mention for his frenetic, Red-Bull-sponsored performance.)

Any more for any more? There’s a very poppy Five Star track with an insane guitar solo, the name of which escapes me…

Rod Temperton (1949-2016)

When MJ and Quincy are requesting your songs, you know you’ve made it. Rod Temperton’s compositions are timeless, uplifting, full of detail and subtleties, with lots of vamp-busting major-7th/9th chords and joyful melody lines. It’s also important to note that he arranged all his own tunes for Jackson and Quincy too, outlining the rhythm, vocal and keyboard parts.

Like many kids of my age, I was kind of obsessed with Rod’s ‘Thriller’ during the mid-’80s. It was a perfect musical storm. Jackson’s red-hot vocal performance, the killer groove, brilliant horn arrangements, silly but spooky horror-movie lyrics, intriguing sound effects and Vincent Price’s rap/monologue all left an indelible mark.

But there was much more to Rod Temperton’s career than that obvious highlight. He was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, beginning his public life playing keyboards and writing songs for Heatwave, writing every song on their 1977 debut album Too Hot To Handle including ‘Boogie Nights’ and classic ballads ‘All You Do Is Dial‘ and ‘Always & Forever’. This led to his work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album for which he wrote the title track, ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Burn This Disco Out’.

Temperton started the 1980s contributing to George Benson’s Quincy-produced Give Me The Night, composing the title track, ‘Love X Love’, killer disco/jazz instrumental ‘Off Broadway‘ and the extraordinary ‘Star Of The Story’:

There were other classic Rod compositions and arrangements around this time for Patti Austin, The Brothers Johnson, Rufus, Herbie Hancock, Karen Carpenter and Bob James, as well as this classic Donna Summer floorfiller:

He contributed to Quincy’s fine 1981 solo album The Dude, supplying the title track, ‘Somethin’ Special’, ‘Turn On The Action’ and of course the stunning ‘Razzamatazz’:

Then came the epochal Thriller. Temperton was all over the record, composing and arranging ‘Baby Be Mine’, soul standard ‘The Lady In My Life’ and of course the title track. He famously wrote most of Vincent Price’s rap/monologue in a car whilst being rushed over to Ocean Way Studios to join Price’s vocal session. In fact, he was so prolific that he found time to write a third verse for the monologue, edited from the album version but available in outtake form here:

In the mid-’80s, Rod supplied three more classic compositions: Michael McDonald’s ‘Sweet Freedom’, McDonald’s duet with James Ingram ‘Yah Mo B There’ (co-composed by Ingram, McDonald and Quincy) and also the underrated ‘Spice Of Life’ by Manhattan Transfer featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica:

Rod enjoyed somewhat of a songwriting/arranging/producing renaissance in the early ’90s, including some great work for Mica Paris’s Whisper A Prayer album and also Q’s Jook Joint. His contributions to music won’t be forgotten, and he was by all accounts a lovely fellow too.

Rodney Lynn Temperton, 9th October 1949 – October 2016