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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Getz Meets Grover: Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha

sadaoElektra Records, released 25th May 1985

7/10

Ah, the joy of tape-to-tape machines. One day, when I was about 16, my parents’ cool music-biz friend Steve brought me round a pile of cassettes, all tape-to-tape recordings, two albums per tape. That was an important little selection right there: Little Feat’s Last Record Album, Steely Dan‘s Katy Lied, Talking Heads ’77 and a few others that have skipped my mind.

Sadao_Watanabe_jazz_musician

Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha was also amongst them. I’d never heard of Sadao. He’s a highly-regarded Japanese sax player who has performed in many different idioms from straight ahead to bossa nova, but is probably best known for his late-’70s jazz/funk material when he borrowed Grover Washington Jr‘s band (Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Ralph McDonald and Anthony Jackson) for some huge home-country gigs and a few fairly popular albums on CBS.

Maisha is a fairly light jazz-funk album of a mid-’80s vintage, but on reflection it’s got more in common with MJ’s Thriller than anything by Spyro Gyra or Shakatak. This is due to a really phenomenal rhythm section and very subdued production with no blaring synths, drum machines or digital reverb.

Instead, it’s a lesson in groove construction. Drummers John Robinson/Harvey Mason and bassists Nathan East (fresh from Anita Baker’s The Songstress, Randy Newman’s Trouble In Paradise and Lionel’s Can’t Slow Down) and Jimmy Johnson have seldom played better. Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante’s keys are typically tasteful and considered, sticking to a Rhodes and acoustic piano rather than synths, while Jerry Hey adds brilliant horn arrangements to various tracks. Paulinho Da Costa is his usual effervescent self on all manner of percussion. And finally, guitarists Carlos Rios and David Williams play beautifully, the latter of course a mainstay of Thriller.

sadao 2

In general, the musicianship is loose and spontaneous, a world away from the studied session-head sounds usually associated with the ’80s LA studio scene. John Robinson marshals the band through ‘Paysages’ with a fantastically loose interpretation of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle. Herbie Hancock pops in to contribute a ridiculously great synth solo to ‘What’s Now’ (which is surely due a big-band cover version) while Brenda Russell’s attractively-artless vocals feature on the Calypso-tinged ‘Tip Away’ and infectious ‘Men And Women’. And not even Stanley Clarke could have bettered Nathan East’s bass-and-scat solo on ‘Good News’.

Unfortunately Sadao’s sax chops get a bit swamped by all this classy playing, but he does have a lovely tone, like an alto-playing Stan Getz, and writes several memorable themes on the album.

So, thanks for this one, Steve, and for the Steely, Little Feat and Heads. Oh, and the China Crisis. I knew I’d remember eventually.

In a movingtheriver.com first, I’m afraid I can’t bring you any excerpts from Maisha because I can’t find any decent ones. So let’s instead enjoy a bit of Harvey Mason from 1985, stadium-funk style. Why not.