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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Sly Meets Scritti: Tony LeMans’ 1989 Debut Album

downloadPaisley Park/Reprise, released 29th September 1989

Bought: Mr CD, Soho, 1992?

7/10

This is an intriguing, very promising, almost completely forgotten debut album by a young singer and songwriter who very sadly died only three years after its release.

I came across Tony LeMans completely by chance at the Mr CD shop on Berwick Street, Soho. It had piles and piles of albums at five quid a pop, quite a steal by ’90s standards. You just never knew what you would find, in the days when you would take a chance on an album just on the strength of the label, cover, musicians and/or producer. Me: I saw the words ‘Sylvester Stewart’, ‘David Gamson’ and ‘Paisley Park’ on the back and had to have it. I’m pretty sure I’d never have read about it in a magazine or seen it advertised on TV.

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Gamson plays keyboards and produces beautifully, fresh from Scritti Politti’s Provision. Tony LeMans was released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records – rumours were abound of the Purple One’s involvement, but he doesn’t appear.

But other ’80s funk masters do: Bernard Wright supplies some cracking wah-wah clavinet to a few tunes, though bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. are fairly nondescript. Prince cohort Boni Boyer adds occasional back-up vocals alongside Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett (phenomenal on the opening ‘Higher Than High’).

The sonic clarity and mastering of Tony LeMans are outstanding; it would make a brilliant CD for auditioning a hi-fi. It’s also a real relief from the over-loud, over-compressed music of today. Musically and lyrically, it initially comes on like a ‘standard’ late-’80s pop/soul/funk album, but closer inspection reveals a strong psychedelic flavour. Mainly though, due to Gamson’s total involvement, the album sounds like Provision-era Scritti fronted by Sly Stone.

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The opener ‘Highest High’ fuses the synth hook from Prince’s ‘Lovesexy’ with Sly’s ‘The Same Thing’ (though neither get a songwriting credit) to great effect. ‘Forever More’ is a luxuriant ballad with a fine falsetto vocal from LeMans and some classic Gamson chord changes, while ‘Good For You’ is an infectious, catchy slice of doo-wop-influenced pop.

There’s a bit too much filler on side two, but the closing ‘Different Kind Of Thing’ is possibly the stand-out and the nearest thing to a Prince song (very much influenced by ‘Erotic City’), though it was only an extra track on the original CD release.

LeMans toured the album in the States, sometimes supporting MC Hammer (!), and was recording his second Paisley Park album at the time of his death. It was due to feature a Prince composition called ‘Fuschia Light’. Sadly, we’ll probably never hear what it sounds like.

You can get hold of Tony LeMans and listen to it here.