Thursday, November 03, 2005

Thriller Revisited

After watching the newest episode of Yacht Rock yesterday, I was inspired to give Thriller a full listen again. Obviously I've heard the hits countless times, but this was the first time I gave the entire album my complete attention in over 20 years.

In one of the bonus tracks on the Special Edition, Quincy Jones says that Thriller "hit everyone from 8 to 70." I was 6 years old when I got my Thriller cassette - most likely shortly after my birthday on May 16, 1983, when Michael Jackson performed "Billie Jean" and introduced the country to the moonwalk on the Motown 25 television special. I don't specifically remember receiving it, but I remember playing the hell out of it everywhere I went - my room, the car, relatives' stereos. Anywhere I could listen to Thriller, I listened to Thriller.

While listening to it this morning, I was immediately brought back to that time in my life - when I would listen to both sides of that tape in one sitting, often singing and dancing along. I was genuinely surprised at how well the album holds up. But I don't know why I'm surprised. It's not like it sold as many copies as it did for reasons related to hype or publicity: Michael Jackson had sold an impressive amount of records with his previous release, Off The Wall (over 7 million), but by no means was he the icon he is today, and this was before the time where hype could carry record sales (at least through the first week). Thriller sold 51 million copies simply because it was a great fucking album.

With Quincy Jones producing, Thriller was an amalgam of so many different musical genres: songs like "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" were funky, "The Girl Is Mine" was soft rock, "Beat It" was rock (mainly due to an unreal Eddie Van Halen guitar solo), and "Human Nature" was yacht rock (what do you expect - it was written by the guys from Toto). I can't even figure out what category "Thriller" itself falls into.

Startling to me was the fact that, of the nine tracks on the album, seven were Top Ten hits. SEVEN! Here's the track list:
Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
Baby Be Mine
The Girl Is Mine
Beat It
Billie Jean
Human Nature
P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
The Lady In My Life
The only ones I couldn't sing off the top of my head were "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady In My Life," and I remembered them the instant I heard them again. "Baby Be Mine" is a fantastic track that deserved to be a hit - catchy, with smooth vocals (both lead and backing) from MJ. "The Lady In My Life" is the only weak link on the album, and even so, it's only due to its company. It's a schmaltzy ballad that can't compete with the others.

Obviously the biggest hits from the album were the three in the middle. Maybe it's because they've been played ad nauseum, but I find myself much more drawn to the lesser hits (and I use "lesser" with a heaping of salt). "P.Y.T." is an unbelievably infectious and funky record with a ripping bass line, a breakdown in the middle (complete with synthesized voices and grunts), a call-and-response immediately following, and tons of joyous backing vocals and other synthesized chirps. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is a get-the-hell-off-your-ass-and-dance opener. And I don't know how they wound up with the "mama say, mama sa, mama coo sa" chant, but it's so seamless that it doesn't even matter.

"The Girl Is Mine" is a simple Paul McCartney/MJ duet, and those chords are just beautiful. Ditto on the "Human Nature" chords, which is probably the most melodic track on the album. Well done, Porcaro brothers. (Jesus, "Human Nature" has a wiki! I found it while trying to identify who sings the falsetto "why" in the song. Still haven't figured it out. I don't think it's MJ.)

At 7 years old, way before I heard and understood any true "concept albums" like Tommy, Quadrophenia or SMiLE, I detected (or invented) some overlying theme in a number of the songs and their sequence on Thriller. To me (again, at 7), "Billie Jean" was about MJ being in a dangerous relationship, and choosing to end it. "Human Nature" was his lament over losing the girl and trying to get over the loss. In "P.Y.T.", he gets back with the girl - this is his joyous celebration of that moment - and "The Lady In My Life" is obviously the content, happy ending. I don't know how or why I came up with this concept at age 7, but it's a shame that my analytic abilities have only spiraled downhill since then.

The Special Edition features a number of additional tracks. Nothing earth-shattering, but if you don't have Thriller at all, might as well get the SE. The demo for "Billie Jean" is nothing special - you can hear some of the trademark sounds, but it's just a very rough version at this point. "Someone In The Dark" was recorded for The E.T. Storybook but was caught up in record label red tape for years. "Carousel" is some weirdo track about falling in love with a carny. It's good enough, but was left off because it didn't fit the overall feel of the album. The only reason I feel bad about this is that it was written by Michael Sembello, and he probably could have used the royalties.

The best bonus tracks are the interviews with Quincy Jones, who reveals the backstory behind "Billie Jean" (MJ found a woman in sunglasses lounging by his pool, who insisted she had twins, and MJ was the father of one of them), getting EVH for the "Beat It" solo (EVH cursed him out and hung up on him three times, thinking it was a prank call) and how "Human Nature" was more of an accident than anything else (David Paich from Toto submitted two demos for MJ, but taped them over a previous tape that Steve Porcaro had used for recording. After the two demos, Q heard a leftover snippet of "Human Nature." Paich must be still reeling from this one.)

Finally, there are some outtakes of Vincent Price recording his now-famous "Thriller" spoken poetry. The best part is the juxtaposition of Price with MJ's high-pitched, feminine speaking voice.

While re-listening to Thriller, the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around is the thought that, to borrow an overused phrase, Michael Jackson really used to be about the music. His career began a gradual downhill spiral since Thriller, but in 1982, Michael Jackson was just a young man trying to break free from his famous childhood group and become a successful solo artist. His songwriting skills, his voice, his outlook - all at the peak. It's so hard to believe that the first thing we most likely think of when we hear his name has nothing to do with this amazing record at all.


At 11/03/2005 6:34 PM, Blogger Brian said...

see when you make an album with 7 out of 9 songs being good songs, it appeals to me at many price points. I'd pay $15.99-$19.99 for an album like that.

But charge me those prices for one hit wonders????

At 11/04/2005 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is why I love making Yacht Rock.



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