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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Jeff Porcaro: ‘Rosanna’ Exposed

Jeff_Porcaro_Toto_Fahrenheit_World_Tour_1986Maybe it should have come as no surprise when Jeff Porcaro laid down one of the greatest recorded drum performances of all time on the Toto song ‘Rosanna’. After all, he had only been in the music business for less than a decade and was already being talked about as one of the finest drummers in the world. He had also always been a disciple of Bernard Purdie and John Bonham, those kings of the half-time shuffle, as well as legendary ghost-note masters Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner.

But it’s the way he brought together all these influences to come up with something totally his own. Recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles by engineer Al Schmitt, it may be the most analysed groove of all time, though Porcaro was always extremely humble about its genesis and execution.

Listening to it in its entirety, raw and uncut without any other accompanying instruments, the performance takes on a whole new meaning for me. Porcaro’s mastery of time and groove are impeccable. It’s the attention to detail I love, beyond ‘just’ the placing of the ghost notes and kick-drum doubles.

Keep in mind that he had to navigate the band through a tricky, mid-paced track with lots of ‘holes’ – a one-bar rest here, half-a-bar rest there – as well as apeing Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements, first heard at 1:08 (apparently written as a result of hearing one of Jeff’s fills in an early version of the song – check out this interview for more info). Whenever there are gaps, Porcaro puts in an extra hi-hat or kick-drum beat to dictate the time to the band (and himself), something very hard to notice on the released version of the song.

According to Schmitt (who deserves much credit for a beautifully-recorded drum kit), ‘Rosanna’ was the first song recorded for Toto IV. Jeff’s part was recorded at the same time as the rhythm section – bass, guitar, two keyboards – and it was the second and final take.

Written by David Paich and released as a single on 1st April 1982, it reached number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over a million copies. Finally, here’s the final version of ‘Rosanna’ to hear how Porcaro’s work perfectly compliments the rest of the band.

RIP Jeff.

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…

Crap Lyrics Of The 1980s (Part One)

dynasty_wallpaper_by_mabmeddowsmercuryDuring an interview in 1981, Peter Gabriel said: ‘Many great songs have really appalling lyrics, but no great songs have had appalling music. If you’re going to write lyrics, you might as well make them try and communicate something.’ Sadly, it was a maxim ignored by many of his contemporaries in the ’80s pop pantheon…

But these sad wretches have our sympathies; anyone who’s ever tried to pen a song knows the potential pitfalls. Got a good melody? Great, but you’ve got to sustain the lyrical narrative across the whole song in a cogent way (just ask Coldplay and Keane). Words first? Handy, but it can be very tricky to fit a melody to ‘poetic’ ramblings. Basically, for every ‘Talking Scarlet‘, there’s a ‘With Or Without You’.

So join us as we take a trip through a collection of the sometimes inane, occasionally coarse, often totally meaningless ramblings of the 1980s. And don’t forget – sometimes these lexical disaster-areas didn’t detract from the quality of the song at all. But sometimes they did…

‘Sittin’ on a mountain, looking at the sun
Plastic fantastic lobster telephone’.

THE CULT: ‘Electric’

 

‘Heart of mine, sewing frenzies of steel to the sky
By night, a child in a harvest of virginal mines’.

IT BITES: ‘Midnight’

 

‘This morning there was joy in my heart cos I know that I loved you so
Scrambled eggs are so boring, for you’re all, all that I want to know’.

PRINCE: ‘Life Can Be So Nice’

 

‘She’s got eyes like saucers, oh you think she’s a dish
She is the blue chip that belongs to the big fish’.

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘Big Sister’s Clothes’

 

‘I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti’.

TOTO: ‘Africa’

 

‘Only time will tell if we can stand the test of time’.

VAN HALEN: ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’

 

‘I’m so bad I can suck my own d*ck’.

LL COOL J: ‘Clap Your Hands’

 

‘Late spring and you’re drifting off to sleep
With your teeth in your mouth’.

REM: ‘You Are The Everything’

 

‘Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts
Look for the purple banana til they put us in the truck’.

PRINCE: ‘Let’s Go Crazy’

 

‘You set my teeth on edge
You think you’re a vegetable, never come out of the fridge
C-c-c-cucumber! C-c-c-cabbage! C-c-c-cauliflower!’

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: ‘Thorn Of Crowns’

 

‘Where does it go from here
Is it down to the lake I fear
Ay-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya/Ah-ya/Ah-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya’

HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED: ‘Love Plus One’

 

‘Oh babe
I wanna put my log in your fireplace’.

KISS: ‘Burn Bitch Burn’

 

‘A stripping puppet on a liquid stick gets into it pretty thick
A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears
But how do you know he really needs it?’

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’

 

‘Every second counts when I am with you
I think you are a pig, you should be in a zoo’.

NEW ORDER: ‘Every Second Counts’