Thriller: 25 years on
This month it was 25 years ago that Michael Jackson released Thriller, and we’ve all been rather over-excited about it ever since. Perhaps rightly so. When it came out, it was all quite fresh and innovative, and we had no knowledge of the fame and psychological defects which would eat MJ, even if the dabbles in extreme plastic surgery were already apparent. Like that other epochal album, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s, the cracks in the hype’s facade are very visible now.
I must confess to what is probably heresy, I’ve always, from the moment I first heard it, hated “Billy Jean”, a track that would have stood out on the far superior Off The Wall for all the wrong reasons. It is still madly popular, so I’ll chalk it up as a classic, my own views on it notwithstanding.
The title track is melodically rather mediocre. Play it on a piano. But that weakness is masked by a fantastic production, Jackson’s iconic vocals and Vincent Price’s menacing voiceover. And then there is that groundbreaking video.
The opener “Wanna Be Starting Something” — despite sounding like the inspiration to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” — remains a fine ’80s disco stomper. “Human Nature” is a lovely little ballad. Written by Steve Pocarco of Toto, it was sampled to good effect by SWV on the “right Here” remix in 1993. It is actually my favourite track off Thriller.
“P.T.Y.”, on the other hand, sounds very much like a product of its time. Play it alongside Phil Fearon at your next ’80s party for that old kitsch effect (I’m being uncharitable towards poor Mr Fearon here). Don’t play the equally dated (though not unpleasant) “Baby Be Mine” — only the diehard Thrilleristas (the type who in 1987 began dressing in leather outfits with lots of zippers) will remember it.
“Beat It”, which had a most hilarious video (a jheri-curled MJ preparing for the feast of comedy that was the “Bad” promo), is flaccid cocaine rock at its worst. I cannot imagine anyone hearing the Thriller album for the first time, and thinking it is one of the set’s better tracks. Unless you like Van Halen’s guitar wankery. And I don’t.
MJ’s duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine”, is a conundrum. Clearly it is a very bad song. But I like it for nostalgic reason; more or less the same reason why I still think the Sweet’s “Poppa Joe” is a great song. Sentiment aside, both are deficient in the artistry stakes. I know which one I’d rather listen to now, though.
And that was the relative mediocrity that was Thriller. Three noteworthy songs, a couple of decent tunes, a couple of plodders. And the clonker which has MJ whimpering: “I’m a luvva not a fighdda”.
Oh no, I didn’t forget “The Lady In My Life”. I bet you did, though.
And for your thrills (oh yes, I’m from the Yoshi school of comedy), the bonus songs from the special edition set released in 2001.
“Carousel” was supposed to be on the album, but was bumped in favour of “Human Nature”. It is not quite clear why Quincy Jones thought that “The Lady In My Life” was less expendable. Or why ten songs seemed excessive. “Carousel” is a pretty good mid-tempo number. Ignore the terrible lyrics, and listen to the chorus: it could be a Steely Dan song. A Michael Jackson track worth owning.
Michael Jackson – Carousel.mp3
“Someone In The Dark”, however is quite awful. MJ was never good at ballads, anyway, but this is a real ’80s dirge. Which means that Celine Dion must be about to record it. Why is it worth owning? Because this was recorded for a storybook of the E.T. story, and features E.T. groaning in the background, possibly anticipating a role for Michael Bolton in Celine’s cover version. And here’s a picture of MJ and E.T. hanging out together. E.T. is the on the right.
Michael Jackson – Someone In The Dark.mp3
I’ve uploaded it before, but what the hey; here is the demo for the song I don’t particularly like, recorded in 1981, apparently in MJ’s home studio. The bones of the song we all love (except me) are there: the hook, the bassline, the rhythm, the guitar break. But no shrieks yet. Which reminds me of the story I’ve heard about Quincy kicking the shit out of Michael for overdoing that “hee-hee” stuff. I want video footage of that.
Michael Jackson – Billy Jean (Demo).mp3