(#275: 5 March
1983, 1 week; 19 March 1983, 1 week; 21 May 1983, 5 weeks; 28 January 1984, 1
Track listing: Wanna
Be Startin’ Somethin’/Baby Be Mine/The Girl Is Mine (with Paul
McCartney)/Thriller/Beat It/Billie Jean/Human Nature/P.Y.T. (Pretty Young
Thing)/The Lady In My Life
Scenario 1: “OK, guys,” said Quincy Jones to his team as
they prepared to record Thriller, “we’re here to save the recording industry!”
A recording industry which – at least from an American perspective – had
singularly failed to deal with disco and punk and had been superseded by those
new-fangled video games. It is true to say that the recording industry had no
real idea what to do with disco, and one wonders how many people at the major
recording companies had even heard of punk.
Michael Jackson’s disquiet following Off The Wall is therefore understandable. Hadn’t the record at
least attempted to break down so many boundaries? But it was almost entirely
ignored at the 1980 Grammy Awards; Jackson won Best R&B Vocal Performance
(Male) for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” but Record of the Year went to 52nd Street by Billy Joel; “What A Fool
Believes” by the Doobie Brothers won the equivalent single award. In the same
year Jackson attempted to get Rolling
Stone interested in doing a cover feature on him but was curtly told that
black faces on the magazine’s cover meant a drastic reduction in readership
Putting aside the idea – which remains prevalent – that
the judging panels are in the unfortunate habit of giving out Grammys to the
kind of records which don’t really get made anymore, displaying deferential
adherence to a twisted relationship between art and commerce which I’m not sure
they really understand (in 1980, “I Will Survive” won for “Best Disco
Recording,” but that award has never been given before or since), it is easy to
see why an angry Jackson should consider Off
The Wall “not good enough” and wish to top it with a record which nobody
could ignore, which had to be played and, more importantly, loved everywhere.
Whatever “loved” meant.
Scenario 2: Rod Temperton in his hotel room, thinking of
a title for what will be the title track of the new Michael Jackson album.
Temperton has freely admitted that he hates writing lyrics, that it’s his least
favourite part of songwriting, but he couldn’t quite get this one right.
“Starlight”? “Midnight Man”? He fills a notepad with some four hundred possible
titles, but none clicks, none has that extra-special factor that will make
people take notice. So he sleeps on it and awakens the next morning; a
metaphorical ray of light strikes him – of course! “Thriller”! It’s so simple,
so directly communicative – and he thinks how everyone will clean up on the
merchandise that will follow in its wake.
And so was generated the idea for Thriller, a record that would cut across customs posts of race,
creed, sexuality and musical prejudices, an album where every track was a hit,
a phenomenon whose notes and looks would be known everywhere from Timbuktu to
Vladivostok. An album whose speed and colour could compete with any video game
– even if it proved instrumental in dragging popular music down to the level of
Make no mistake; if you were, say, ten years old in 1983,
Thriller is likely to be your pop
year zero, a beginning of time as definite and irrevocable as Please Please Me a generation before.
Many informed commentators happily proceed to assess music today as though Thriller were the original ancestor;
anything before it doesn’t really communicate to younger people in the same
way, become virtual dinosaurs, the Records That Rocked Like CDs or Downloads. A
commenter on I Love Music said the
following about my reluctance to continue with Then Play Long:
“I don't feel it as keenly as MC does, because the world
of pop that it represents was largely gone, or seen as hugely old-hat, by the
time I really started listening. That world isn't mine, what it represents
isn't woven through the fabric of my understanding of pop…”
I suspect that this gets truer by the year. But if you
accept what pop music has done to us as a direct or indirect result of Thriller, then you have to recognise
that Thriller is the line in pop’s
sand, and ultimately was disastrous for pop.
it seemed that just being a pop record wasn’t enough. Astute observers will
say, well, wasn’t that why the album came along in the first place – because
some snobs thought that 78s weren’t enough? And perhaps the story which this
blog has tried to tell between 1956-83 is one which can only be regarded in the
past tense. It is on the cards that albums will eventually disappear, that
people will get back into their original habit of listening to individual
songs, that these songs will transcend identity or even their recording and
become part of a generalised folklore.
represented the firing of the starting, or stopping, pistol. After Thriller, it was taken as read that
every pop record had to sound “big,” be an “epic,” appeal to the lost video
game generation (broadly: 12-24 years), say yes to some kind of future or
worship its own present tense. The market for small, ambiguous, complicated
low-budget records – and musicians – began to shrink, such that even in the
eighties those bravely still scouring the indie coalface could be accused as
pedalling “music for losers.” If you weren’t a winner in the age of Reagan and
Thatcher, you simply didn’t count.
Apropos the merchandise, it also became the unquestioned
case that after Thriller, pop records
no longer really existed as things in themselves; they became merely the most
prominent link in the merchandising chain, a chain which would also involve
videos, tours, T-shirts, commemoration mugs, profits being diverted away to
fund multinational arms companies. The video for “Thriller” which appeared
almost exactly a year after the album’s release set this in concrete; how many
people could listen to the record alone after seeing Jackson act out what pop
had done to him, and by extension was about to do to the rest of us?
So the stage was set for pop music whose entire field of
interest and methodology of presentation began and ended in adolescence;
shouldn’t adults be going to the cinema, or listening to jazz (although the
horrendous mid-eighties “jazz revival,” which jazz itself was lucky to survive,
demonstrated that the tentacles of Thriller
stretched out as far as, and frequently further than, they needed to have
Given the sphere of inescapable influence that the record
has had, it is, however, interesting to note that initially Thriller nearly died a death. Released
in November 1982, it was predictably swamped by the Christmas market, and was
generally reviewed scathingly. This may in large part have been due to the
still bizarre choice of a lead single: “The Girl Is Mine.” It was the first
song to be recorded for the album, back in April 1982, and a nervous Epic may
have thought that it was a play-safe option.
In the event, it proved to be too safe; although the song
reintroduced interracial love rivalry to pop for the first time since West Side Story (let’s leave Catch My Soul out of this for now), it
was a bland broth; as McCartney swapped good-natured Radio 2-friendly
platitudes with Jackson over a neutralised soundtrack, it was hard to credit
that this was the same man responsible for “Penny Lane” and “Helter Skelter.”
Observers and fans saw the record as a sellout to whitey; in Britain the
single, which was not accompanied by a video, rose in kneejerk fashion from 33
to 9 before people suddenly did a doubletake, say “hold on; what IS this
shit?”; the record climbed just one place higher before falling back
precipitously and dropping out of the Top 75 altogether after barely two
upon its release, was slammed. This was no Off
The Wall; gone was the easy charm of “Rock With You,” the dervish intensity
of “Don’t Stop.” In their place was – what?
A jagged, snarling, paranoid “Don’t Stop” wannabe (startin’ somethin’) clone.
And “Baby Be Mine” was nice but no “Rock With You,” not by the longest of
chalks. Furthermore, what was it with all those hammy guest stars – Eddie Van
Halen? Vincent Price? Had Off The Wall
needed any of that?
It was regarded as a major disappointment, and thus its initial commercial progress was relatively muted. It looked set
to be the season’s, if not the year’s, if not the decade’s, most expensive
flop. Then came the single of “Billie Jean,” and the slow
turnaround, and then the video, and then Motown
25, and then suddenly Michael Jackson had clambered, or surfed, onto the
top of the whole pop heap, for better or worse (ours and his). The irony about
such a superficially unassuming record like Thriller
pulling it off is that it was clearly a transitional piece of work; about half
the record looks back, warmly and lushly, at the seventies and Off The Wall and is, in that regard,
deeply conservative and consolidatory. The other half looks radically and
remorselessly at the future, with songs built on rhythm first and melody
second, and overall a far more brutal rhythmic tow. All of that other half was
based on songs written by Michael Jackson; he also wrote “The Girl Is Mine,”
perhaps as a desperate wave back at what he once was, and clearly with
McCartney’s “Girlfriend” – which he had performed on Off The Wall – in mind, but on the album sleeve the lyrics to the
latter are accompanied by a deeply disturbing drawing by Jackson of McCartney
and himself, both grimacing and playing tug of war with a screaming woman
caught in mid-air between them; the entire upper half of her head is invisible,
such that one cannot tell whether she is horrified by or laughing at the act of
being pulled apart (she’s stuck in the middle, and her pain is thunder).
In addition, Jackson’s lyrics were anything but
reassuring. “Wanna Be Startin’
Somethin’” is, on its surface, a retread of “Don’t Stop,” but where the
latter’s groove grooved, so to speak, fluid and natural, this song’s beats and
propulsion are all gritted-teeth aggressive, ruthless, jittery, agitated.
“Don’t Stop”’s naïve Star Wars
foreplay is replaced by an extended “Soul Makossa” climax – where “Don’t Stop”
steadily atomised to its essence, “Startin’ Somethin’” adds more or more, even
if what is being added is mostly padding. David Williams’ midsong rapid-fire
descending guitar lines are technically impressive but impassive; the listener
does not necessarily get the feeling that these are being played by a human
Meanwhile, Jackson sings of rumours, harassment, the
sudden absence of fun involved in being a pop star and the attendant paranoia.
Billie Jean is introduced in the third verse almost as a joke – the song’s real
intent is to set the stage for the rest of the record – and Jackson’s
mock-exasperations (“They said she had a BREAK-down!”) uncannily presage Robin
Thicke’s “Tried to do-MESTICATE you!” of three decades hence. But then there
are bland homilies from the Reagan Book of Uncommon Prayer – “If you can’t feed
your baby! Then don’t have a BABY!” – which in part seem to mask the
possibility that the cause of Jackson’s suffering is an actual, rather than
metaphorical, baby, or else that the “baby” is his own soul, slowly dying.
But why the “Soul Makossa” turnaround at the end? Why, in
that case, “Soul Makossa”? It has been cited as one of those records which, by
accident or design, causes history to be rewritten or redefined or clarified;
and yet Manu Dibango wrote and recorded the song as a B-side for a promotional
single about the Cameroon national football team (“Mouvement Ewondo”). Still,
it is fortunate coincidence that the DJ David Mancuso chanced upon a copy in a
West Indian record shop in Brooklyn, began spinning it at The Loft and, well,
started something, as well as demonstrating how closely James Brown’s thing
echoed the multitextural rhythm-upwards propulsions of African music. Did it start
“disco”? Whether it did or not, its existence, discovery and projection –
within weeks of Mancuso playing the record at The Loft, at least two dozen
cover versions hit the streets – meant that an awful lot of music which
wouldn’t have happened without it, including the solo work of Michael Jackson
from 1979 onwards, happened.
As the chant spreads, Jackson presents a Spartacus-like
picture of defiance: “Lift your head up HIGH!/And scream out TO THE WORLD!/I
know I am SOMEONE!/And let the truth UNFURL!” A little later, he asks: “Yes, I
believe in me/So, you believe in you?” Or perhaps it’s an instruction: “So –
you believe in YOU!” And the song lifts itself out of its singer’s morass, even
if only temporarily.
Temperton’s “Baby Me Mine” indeed is no “Rock With You”
but is pleasant enough in a backward-looking way; there’s a lovely little
cross-channel tingle of string synthesiser notes falling like icicles from
neglected December curtains over the line: “I guess it’s still you thrill me” –
five people are credited with synthesiser on the song but Temperton did the
arrangement. Then on the album comes “The Girl Is Mine,” which is forgotten as
soon as, or before, the song disappears.
Side one concludes with the title track, which really is
a rather traditional song under its Great Pumpkin deelyboppers; the spectre of
“Boogie Nights” haunts the entire piece, but what is more haunting, to the
point of being profoundly disturbing, is Jackson’s calmly demented vocal. We
already received notice on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” that something wasn’t
quite right in MJ’s world – all 362 seconds of that song exist to disrupt and
unnerve the listener – since besides the gossip note-taking and the “We Are
Soul Makossa’s World” shoutouts, there are words, buried in the mix, like
“You’re a vegetable…Still they hate you…You’re just a buffet…,” sung in as
frightening and distorted a procession of voices as any that could be found on
the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion
Technician half a decade hence; a strangulated gasp-cum-umbilical cord
cackle which reminds us at at the time of Thriller
Jackson also recorded and narrated a children’s storybook adaptation of the
film E.T.; on his projections here,
the sounds more powerfully resemble the voices buried within the television set
on that other side of the E.T. coin, Poltergeist, than any amiable mongrelisation of Carl
Sandburg and Debra Winger.
But the entirety of Jackson’s vocal performance on
“Thriller,” the song, is designed to give the listener nightmares, and not the
commoner or more expected ones either. Every fibre of Jackson’s larynx, lips
and teeth are dedicated to the highest possible intensity of delivery, such as
those gasping and grunting tics, hitherto punctuation marks as natural as
Lester Young’s periodic play-your-own-bassline tenor sax honks, now become
atoms of oxygen, things he needs to do in order to stay alive.
And what exactly is Jackson proposing in “Thriller”? Why
precisely is he making his partner sit down and be scared witless by a horror
movie on TV? As written by Temperton, the lyrics are comic book ticksheet hokum
worthy only of Bobby “Boris” Pickett on an off day. But as sung by Jackson, the
words become creepier, more painful, more fascistic. It is as if he is chasing
his lover – if his lover she be – around the house, promising her the
apocalypse with the grimmest of smiles. He systematically locks all escape
routes and positively chuckles in triumph when he reaches “There’s no escape
from the jaws of the alien THIS TIME! (his own backing vocals: “They’re open
wide!”)/This is the END of your LI-IFE! WHOOOOHH!!”
“I mean, white Reaganite fuckers,” he appears to be
implying, “I’m just going to EAT your fucking WORLD and get my REVENGE!”
Then the remote control and the collective huddle on the
sofa, and the song slowly backs off from its own implications. To a point,
anyway; Vincent Price got the job because he was a friend of Quincy Jones’ then
wife, the actress Peggy Lipton, who recommended him. He was by all accounts an
absolute gentleman, and did his work in two takes. There was a second verse of
his “rap” which was omitted from the final recording but can be found as a
bonus track on the Thriller: Special
But in any case, Price performs what is actually an
extremely corny sequence of lyrics with the straightest of faces; this
cultured, affable and palpably harmless man, a former member of Welles’ Mercury
Theatre and long-standing art adviser to Sears Roebuck, knew that he was boss of the shallowest genre in
cinema, and that his position was borne out of a paradoxical goodness of heart
multiplied, or divided, by disillusion with what little forties Hollywood could
find to do with him (hence his breakthrough role in House Of Wax was a reaction against always being seventh on the
cast list). So he needs do little on “Thriller” other than intone some
off-the-peg horror nonsense as though it were The Last Trump and bury pop with
his Number 2 cackle.
It was enough, though, and a year later the song’s video
appeared with an even more sinister subtext; now all of pop’s audience were
doomed only to be eye-dead zombies, looking, dressing, dancing and breathing
the same as their steel cube of idolatry which on closer inspection was made of
the purest paper. Jackson’s werewolf glance back at the camera at the end of
the video suggested that there was no turning back; I am pop’s future, shrink
back and go back to jazz.
Side two begins with chimes of doom; not the Dies Irae
but a Synclavier, possibly sampled (actually played live by Tom Bahler but
adapted from a 1981 demonstration record entitled The Incredible Sounds Of Synclavier II). Then drum machine and
drumkit enter sequentially, and not quite locked together; for the record’s
token rock song, “Beat It”’s beats never quite beat – there is a sideways
shuffle surprisingly reminiscent of Slade. Jones was reportedly looking for
something in the ballpark of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” although Devo’s “Whip
It” and especially “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band are more readily called to
But, once again, the desperate urgency of Jackson’s
performance overrides any need to resolve gang wars (despite Jackson casting
members of rival L.A. gangs the Crips and the Bloods to perform in the video)
or get black music on MTV; this seems to be about more than just
run-for-your-life-Tony stuff. As Jackson sings lines like “They’ll kick you and
they’ll beat you and they’ll tell you it’s fair,” the spectre of his own father
springs much more readily to mind; the real source of his pain, the reason why
he kept having to run away, escape and change. Jackson raps on the side of a
drum case with a beater, and Eddie Van Halen solos (remember, Van Halen is what
most of late seventies America had instead of punk). Oddly, his solo, played
with what music writers tend to label as “commendable gusto,” is the antithesis
of the macho moves being played out around it, suggests that there is more to
rock than waving one’s plectrum.
Then there is “Billie Jean,” the principal reason this
record is what it is, and the horrific hall of mirrors at the centre of the
labyrinth, where pop is forced to look at itself, and doesn’t like what it is
being made to see.
To put it plainly, this isn’t something you would have
expected from Donny Osmond.
The voice of a weekday morning Radio 1 DJ, early 1983,
playing “Billie Jean” just before it becomes a big hit: “Give it a chance. It’s
A twenty-five second intro, and Jones didn’t want that;
too long, Michael, you’ll alienate people, you’ve got to give it to them on the
You don’t understand, Quincy, he replies, I want to go
somewhere new. It’s good for segueing at discos. What’s wrong with disco music
And what about
Twenty-five seconds, twice as long as the introduction to
Gaye’s “Grapevine,” although even that was considered audacious in its day.
On the full album version of the Temptations’ “Papa Was A
Rolling Stone,” it’s a good three-and-a-half minutes before Dennis Edwards remembers, remembers, the third of September.
“Billie Jean” – unimaginable, of course, without Norman
Whitfield setting the precedents; not just of space and the beat, beat, beat of
that drum, but also the stoked-up, possibly unfounded paranoia.
The child is turning into an adult, and doesn’t like it.
All the spring and bounce of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” has solidified
into an air of petrified wariness. The ceaseless multirhythmic matrix remains
in “Billie Jean” but now the rhythms and guttural punctuation whoops are all
tensed, coiled, hunched into its thin, turned-up lapels. Whereas Jackson
previously yelled out of exultation, now his gasps tremble in their own dread.
Now the jagged guitar lines and cross-cutting percussion are like surfing
barbed wire rather than waves of passion.
But it was those waves of passion which led Jackson into
his own shadow; here he is being pursued by someone whose child may or may not
be his – and the tension is made uncomfortable (and therefore generated) by the
knowledge that, despite his would-be assertive denials in the chorus, he
suspects that he is likely to be the father; witness the anguished howl of
“People always told me, be careful what you do!” or the quivering “oh no” which
responds to “his eyes were like mine.” He is shitting himself.
The surface, however, has to stay as smooth as possible;
he moonwalks perhaps to avoid his bowels and bile spilling out onto the video’s
neon Yellow Brick Road; a video directed by the same man who directed the video
for “Don’t You Want Me.” Dancing only with himself, and maybe only for himself.
Jeffrey Daniel may have moonwalked first, and taught
Jackson how to moonwalk; the important thing was that it was Michael who was
doing the moonwalking, on a corny variety commemorative TV show which Berry
Gordy practically had to beg him to do. Suddenly he floated on the stage, and
the rest of show business ceased to exist.
On a musical level, despite Jones’ sublime deployment of
space and echo – and the string synth exclamation marks in the second and third
choruses may betray an early Lexicon Of
Love acknowledgement – “Billie Jean” is maybe the blackest of all Jackson’s
number ones, and in all senses; its circumferential catwalk of a bassline, its
forceful, decisive, dead-on beat, its recoiling handclaps present a new dynamic
to pop sonics, but its primeval fear…and that tom-tom beat, buried amid the
gloss but still at the song’s centre…connect it directly to “Grapevine.” In
addition, Jackson’s glaring, epileptic, wracked vocal is an exemplary portrait
of someone on the crown point of falling apart.
It was one of the best pop singles of any era, almost
certainly the best pop single of its year, and yet as a pop record it too
helped to bury pop.
Why? Because where
could pop have gone after this? What was left for it, when its rotten,
corrupt, vicious, villainous centre was exposed so fully and pitilessly? It is
as if Jackson is not just griping out a shaggy dog story about a groupie, but
that he is holding all of pop culture to the hammer. These songs about undying
love and undiluted passion for people whose ages rhyme easily, the very
material of fandom, the point where it leaps off the bridge and transmutates
into destructive worship…
…what do they all mean, what was it all worth, as Bardem’s
executioner asks Harrelson’s bounty hunter in No Country For Old Men, if this
is where it gets you?
You want to be a pop star? Good luck. Look at your
predecessors, and how badly they did. This is where it gets you…
…because the baby might be yours.
…because the baby might exist.
…because IT IS ONLY HAPPENING IN THE TWISTED MIND YOU
ONLY HEAR AT NIGHT. When you’re not lying nervously in bed, waiting for your
father to clamber in through the open window in full ghost costume and scare
you forever, making sure you’ll never be an adult…
We love you. OMG, we love you so much we want to BE you,
tear you limb from limb if we have to because that’s how much we LOVE you…
I mean, why do you think Elvis retreated into
security-sedated seclusion? Read the accounts of those early hayride/state fair
tours and there were always pissed-off boyfriends looking to start a fight,
idolising would-be lovers prepared to tear the skin off his back, never mind
his shirt, strip down his car to find…what? He put up the screens just so that
he could continue living, even if only for another couple of decades.
Because, with “Billie Jean,” pop hit a sudden but
definite dead end. Somebody else was turning it around and showing the
playground to have been a sham all along. A music based on being
non-conformist, about being dirty and deviant and stinking and impolite…well,
what if all of that turned out to be true?
What if pop was just a ghastly half-century of a mistake?
An aberration, something to be swept under the dust covers of history in a few
King of Pop, huh? Go ahead, Mike – you want to be the
King of THIS?
She says the baby is yours. But you know that in order to
become a father, to help beget and raise a family, you have to be an ADULT?
On the cover of Thriller
When Michael was nine, his father
Michael is reclining, in a white suit with black shirt,
black belt and a yellow/red handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket. He
looks slightly amused, more than a little sardonic – black or white, male or
female, who from a visiting planet could tell?
On the frontispiece of Thriller: Special Edition he is in nearly the same pose but he is
up, grinning a sickly grin, holding up a tiger cub as though he were holding it
hostage. He thinks he’s pleasing everybody, providing entertainment for the
Maybe that’s what pop thought it was doing all along.
But “Billie Jean” suggests that pop may only ever have
been an evil lie.
And what are adults doing listening to, or writing about,
pop music anyway? Shouldn’t they be going to the cinema, or listening to jazz?
The cinema; the video store, which came into being almost
entirely because of the The Making Of
Thriller video. Thirty years ago pre-recorded videotapes were generally
still too expensive to buy. But the Thriller
video proved so popular that people who couldn’t afford to buy it wanted to
rent it out. And so entire industries came into being because of Thriller. No bad thing, of course – but what
happens when things move on, when tastes or technology change?
But it was like – if you’re an adult, Thriller isn’t really for you. Not really.
(And there’s this theory, still quite popular, that “Thriller,”
both song and video, are allegories about coming out; but I’d be surprised if
Jackson ever knew what a closet looked like, apart from being somewhere to hide
from his father.)
And it turned out to be like – if you’re an adult, pop
music from now on won’t really be for you. Not really.
And then…things go quiet, just as they did on the second
side of Off The Wall. The stuff like “I
Can’t Help It” and “It’s The Falling In Love” which personally I would have
been happy if Jackson had kept on doing.
Because it’s when things go quiet that a realer Michael Jackson, a more tactile
Peter Pan, emerges.
“Human Nature,” one of the loveliest songs on the record,
meditative, encyclopaedic, a song of the night as liquid and truthful as John
Martyn’s “Small Hours,” a chord sequence Miles loved enough to record his own
…or so it would seem, because the song’s actually about a
nocturnal urban stalker, looking for a girl (“She likes the way I stare,” sung
as wistfully and painfully as once he sang about one day in your life), acting
like a less comedic George Hamilton vampire (“Then let me take a bite”), almost
sobbing with self-pity at times. “If they say why? Why?/Tell them that it’s
human nature.” Why WHAT, Michael? What have you done? “I like lovin’ this way,”
and, just before that, “Why, why, does HE do me that way?”
But the song’s final verse finds him in the morning after;
they are lying together, he is awake and already impatient: “Reaching out/I
touch her shoulder/I’m dreaming of the Street.” The song fades on the saddest
closing chord since “Dreams.” The
reverie has changed nothing, and does not put the uncertain heart at ease.
Then there is the placid
bubblegum of “P.Y.T.” which slips by as though having been outtaken from The Dude, and finally, my favourite song
on the record (and also, almost certainly, its least known and least played
song), Temperton’s “The Lady In My Life” – it is as though the nightmare played
out throughout the rest of the record has been dreamed, and the awakener has
awakened, and somewhere it is still the seventies, always and forever. A
wonderful ballad with a divine chord sequence to which I could listen forever
(as well as paving the way for Erykha Badu, Jill Scott etc.), Jackson sings
simply, and elegantly, and beautifully, about moments in love (although the
album’s dedication – “lovingly dedicated” - may suggest that Jackson may in
part be thinking about his mother). Like “Thriller,” the two of them are alone
at night; unlike “Thriller,” there are no televisual horror demons lurking. As
if this is how it has always been; if only Michael Jackson could always have
been like this – when the song is finished, as such, Jackson takes off into a
bliss-laden sequence of abstract slow-motion scat-singing, and we think not
just of Miles and Coltrane, but of an unlikely counterpart; Elizabeth Frazer of
the Cocteau Twins. Or perhaps not so unlikely, since, like Frazer, Jackson’s
voice, at its best, frequently works as an instrumental voice, the words not
always decipherable, but the emotions always clear.
And yet Thriller was the beginning of the end of pop’s life. As I hope I
have demonstrated, what the record set in motion is not necessarily its fault –
the adjective I could best use to describe Thriller
would be “tentative.” It wants to be new, but at the same time is careful not
to cast old Jackson fans aside. With a couple of exceptions, I do not believe
it to be a great album. When it returned for the last time to number one in
early 1984, in the wake of the “Thriller” video, listening to it was like
playing PacMan, whizzing by as it did with hit after hit. But then again, why
not just play PacMan? What happened after Thriller
is, as far as I am concerned, the route down the other side of the hill. It was,
and is, a disaster in which not even the artist who recorded Thriller could be saved, or save
himself. I thought long and hard about writing this piece – is it better to
tackle demons head on or avoid them altogether, for there are many demons now
to come in this tale? The statistics are there to be found – to date, Thriller’s estimated worldwide sales
range between 51-65 million. In the USA, it has sold 29 million units, and its
place as the all-time best-selling album there is subject to a regular
tug-of-war with the Eagles’ Their
Greatest Hits (1971-1975). If you believe what Greil Marcus has to say
about Jackson, then Thriller marks
the point where the pop star, rebel or otherwise, transmutates not into a god,
but a commodity for compliant consumers existing in a world which fundamentally
hates them. The thing around the thing, rather than the thing itself. And now,
an exhibit on the ground floor of the museum to be glanced at with brief, bored
respect before going upstairs to the colourful, loud, interactive features
which will continue to interact in loud colours long after there have ceased to
be people with whom it could interact.
On Thriller: Special Edition there is a bonus track of an unused song
from the Thriller sessions entitled “Carousel.”
It is among the most sheerly haunted of Michael Jackson songs, about a circus
girl who ran away – or did she? “I’m from a world/Of disappointments and
confusions” he sings, and later, after she’s gone, he ponders, chillingly: “What
I can’t recall/Is if there was a girl at
all/Or was it just my imagination?”
Running away with the circus
girl. I wonder if Vincent Price ever saw Wings
Of Desire, heard the words about “I’m an old man with a broken voice, but
the tale still rises from the depths” and wondered sometimes about Michael