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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‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince has invited his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more. Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other sacked Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’. But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin. Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends. But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince. ‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime. ‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’. The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.