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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Story Of A Song: Toto/Miles Davis’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’

Toto-FahrenheitI’ve always had a somewhat ‘troubled’ relationship with Toto’s music, to put it mildly. Toto IV (1982) was obviously a classic of its kind, Hydra (1979) certainly had its moments and there are other classy tracks dotted around, but I’ve generally thought to myself: David Hungate, David Paich, late great Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather are fantastic musicians who have played on some of the greatest albums of all time – so what are they doing in this band, writing these songs?

But I found a solution of sorts when I came across a track buried at the end of their lacklustre Fahrenheit album from 1986. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ is a cracking instrumental with nice chord changes, a great melody, gorgeous bridge, slick playing from co-writers Paich and Lukather and a memorable guest spot from Miles Davis.

Of course Miles was no stranger to the world of Toto and the LA session elite in general. He was tight with Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album that heavily featured Jeff Porcaro, Paich and Lukather. Miles had also covered Thriller‘s ‘Human Nature’ (co-written by Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro) on his You’re Under Arrest album the previous year. He was also apparently a big fan of Jeff Porcaro’s painting, not to mention his drumming, so a full-scale Miles/Toto collaboration was surely always on the cards.

Miles and Robben Ford, Montreux Jazz Festival 1986

Miles and Robben Ford, Montreux Jazz Festival 1986

But the recording of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, which took place at Jeff Porcaro’s home studio in early 1986, wasn’t a walk in the park, as Steve Lukather told George Cole in the excellent ‘Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991′:

‘We cut the track and left the melody off – we just left open spaces. When Miles got there, we ran it down together with him and he wasn’t really playing the melody. So we figured, we’re not going to tell Miles Davis what to play, so we said, “Miles, we have a take of this, would you mind just giving it a listen and play whatever you want?” He says, “Okay, I’ll play like that. You like that old shit, right?” So he gets out the Harmon mute and he played it – one take. We’re all stood there completely freaked out – it was unbelievable. At the end, the song just kind of fades out, but he just kept playing the blues. I was sitting there with chicken skin on my arms – it was an unbelievable moment. And that’s how we ended the record, with just Miles blowing. Later on, David Sanborn came down to play on a different tune on the record and he’d heard that we had cut a tune with Miles. He said: “I gotta hear it!”, so we played it and he flipped and said, “Please just let me be on the track!” He doubled the melody and played a couple of flurries. So we got Sanborn, Miles and us on one track – that was pretty cool!’

Jeff Porcaro on the Fahrenheit World Tour, 1986

Jeff Porcaro on the Fahrenheit World Tour, 1986

But Steve Porcaro alluded to the wider issue of including a ‘jazz’ track on a ‘heavy rock’ album when he told George Cole: ‘I don’t know how thrilled the record company or our managers were, but for us working with Miles was a major feather in our cap.’

But that kind of political scene didn’t affect Miles: he loved ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and quickly integrated it into his own live set. It remained a staple of his concerts from 1986 right up until 1990, the year before his death.

It’s a beautiful piece of work.

But while we’re at it, has anyone got a lead sheet of the tune? I want to learn the chords…

New Wave Love Songs: Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Geffen Records, released October 1982

8/10

As Joni reported to Q magazine in 1988, she entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’ Apparently she attended a New Year’s Eve party at the house of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop which had the ghastly theme ‘Be nice to the ’80s and the ’80s will be nice to you’. On the way to the shindig, her beloved ’69 Bluebird was stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t a great start to the decade.

David Geffen and Joni, early '80s

David Geffen and Joni, early ’80s

There were other reasons to be worried. She was sued by her cleaning lady and found herself headhunted by old friend and media mogul David Geffen for his new label, though their relationship were never easy.

And then there was Reagan, Thatcher and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely, though she’d make up for that big-time with 1985’s potent Dog Eat Dog. Instead, buoyed by her marriage to new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date.

The simplistic critical reaction to Wild Things Run Fast was that she had turned her back on the ‘jazz’ period which culminated in the 1979 masterpiece Mingus (and live album Shadows And Light). But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Another clue was that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton. Her new recruits were guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Russell Ferrante and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was the superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, recently voted in Uncut magazine’s top 30 Joni songs (nominated by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason), the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan.

It’s a very moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and a beautifully intricate drum part by Guerin, a great companion piece to ‘Both Sides Now’.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazz Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a great (and extremely underrated) bassist of the ’80s and worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter. The great Larry Carlton does something similar on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’, playing a sublime accompaniment on the left channel while Joni bitterly surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’. Lionel Richie even shows up on ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ to deliver one line and add some vocal harmonies – who saw that coming?

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, though the latter is the weakest song on the album – Joni should probably have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast – a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta. And its appropriation of Corinthians 13 11-13 sums up Joni’s romantic worldview beautifully; hopeful about the future but constantly wary, ever aware of love’s tribulations.

TourProgram83RefugeGroup

Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured this album extensively with a superb band of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London for a date at the Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. But thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching 32 in the UK album charts and #25 in the States, and the single ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ reached 47 in the US singles chart.

One’s appreciation of Wild Things probably depends on when you were born. There are people who adore Blue and For The Roses who must loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.