(#275: 5 March 1983, 1 week; 19 March 1983, 1 week; 21 May 1983, 5 weeks; 28 January 1984, 1 week)
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industry which – at least from an American perspective – had singularly failed to deal with disco and punk and had been superseded by those new-fangled video games.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 numbers.
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 video games.
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.
After Thriller, 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.
But Thriller 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 done)?
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 months.
And Thriller, 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 being.
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 Edition CD.
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 mind.
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 grower.”
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 nail.
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 anyway?
And what about Marvin?
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 centuries’ time.
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 whole family.
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 version…
…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 Jackson.