FEATURE: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’: 26th February, 1983: The Start of Thriller’s Chart Dominance




Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’



26th February, 1983: The Start of Thriller’s Chart Dominance


SOME might say this is not the best time...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson in a photoshoot for the Billie Jean video in 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

to be celebrating Michael Jackson but, as his name and reputation is being dragged through the mud, I do not feel embarrassed putting him in a good light! It is hard to separate the artist from the person but, today, I want to focus on the music and one of the greatest albums ever made. This day in 1983 was the start of Jackson’s Thriller dominating the U.S. charts – it hit number-one thirty-six years ago. I was not even born then but I got hold of Thriller as a child and instantly connected with it. Maybe albums such as Dangerous and Bad are more consistent in terms of quality and hits but Thriller has that legacy and huge reputation. It is amazing how fast Thriller took off and how it seemed to elevate his status from the Off the Wall days. That album was denied a lot of awards and Jackson was unhappy that it was overlooked by many people. That 1979 gained some huge reviews but there was a feeling it was underrated in some fields and deserved more. Thriller, perhaps, was Jackson’s response: a confident, huge and tight album that provide some of the biggest hits of the 1980s and took Michael Jackson to a new level. Thriller explores genres like Disco – that was a big staple of his previous record – and, in just over a year, Thriller became the biggest-selling album in the world.

Unlike some of Jackson’s other albums, Thriller sounds tougher and tauter. There is Funk and Rock melting inside Disco. Thriller would go on to win a record-breaking eight Grammys (including Album of the Year) and sent Jackson’s career into the stratosphere. Before then, he was a huge star but Thriller exploded his career and meant he was the undisputed King of Pop. Jackson would struggle to get his singles played on MTV – due to the station not playing many black artists – but the eventual exposure of Billie Jean and Beat It was a huge milestone. The fact MTV would eventually rotate his videos and gave him that boost meant many rushed out to buy the album. I do wonder whether we will ever see anything like Thriller again! We do not see big albums from huge artists arriving and there being this storm and enormous celebration. Maybe we will never see that again and, whilst that is sad, it is good to look back at Thriller and how it made such an impact. Off the Wall was a big commercial and critical success but one feels there was unhappiness in Jackson’s mind regarding its lack of Grammy attention – it did not scoop as many awards as it deserved. Around the time (1979 onward) Jackson was in an unhappy state of mind and experiencing loneliness. It was a definite time of transition and, in many ways, music was his outlet and comfort.


IN THIS PHOTO: Paul McCartney (who duetted with Michael Jackson on the song, The Girl Is Mine) captured on the Upper West Side (N.Y.C.) in 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: David McGough

Jackson teamed with Quincy Jones (who produced Off the Wall) and the two would go on to work on Thriller’s follow-up, Bad (1987). Relations between Jones and Jackson would become strained as both were looking for different sounds. Jackson and Jones remixed each song alone after the album was recorded and spent a week doing so. Even though both were on different pages, you can hear unity a common goal on Thriller. Jackson wanted to create a muscular album where every song was a potential hit. Even if there are one or two slightly forgettable songs – such as P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) and The Lady in My Life – there were plenty of solid-gold smashes! Many dislike the Paul McCartney and Jackson duet, The Girl Is Mine, but I kind of like it! Jackson’s duets received a bit of scorn – he did not receive great reviews for his Bad duet, Just Good Friends (with Stevie Wonder) – but this one works well. Jackson was always unconventional when it came to songwriting and, for Thriller, he would dictate songs into a recorder (rather than write them down) and play them from memory when in the studio. It is remarkable to think a songwriter could work that way, less they could create something as iconic and revolutionary as Thriller! Thriller was the first album where Jackson was moving away from lighter themes and embracing something darker and a bit more shadowy.

There is paranoia and obsession; the tense and supernatural. Billie Jean is about an obsessive fan who alleges Jackson fathered her child. Beat It is about gang violence and is the first successful attempt of Disco/Pop-Rock crossover. Maybe it was Jackson’s increased fame and loneliness at the time contributed to the lyrical themes but there was a sense of this artist changing and maturing. I love the fact Jackson was balancing the more traditional and familiar love songs with this new thread that was tougher and more electric. Many artists would struggle to unite them and make a cohesive album but Jackson’s assurance and exceptional command ensured Thriller was a giddy success. Songwriters like Rod Temperton created some of the best tracks on the album – Temperton’s Thriller and Baby Be Mine are highlights – but Jackson was blossoming as a songwriter. Jackson penned, debatably, the greatest trio of songs on the album: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Beat It and Billie Jean (he also wrote The Girl Is Mine alone). Critics were noting how Jackson was expanding his vocal range and losing a lot of the boyish side. Gone was the purely sweet sound and in its place was this incredibly rounded and complex voice. Tough and gritty at the one moment, sensitive and lovelorn the next – nobody in the world could match Jackson in vocals terms in 1982. When Thriller arrived on 30th November, 1982, people were amazed by the vocal performances and how extraordinary there were!

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson in 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It was unsurprising reviews for Thriller were universally positive. In fact, I do not think another Michael Jackson album has fared as well with critics. AllMusic, in 2008, had their say:

It's calculated, to be sure, but the chutzpah of those calculations (before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut) is outdone by their success. This is where a song as gentle and lovely as "Human Nature" coexists comfortably with the tough, scared "Beat It," the sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," and the frizzy funk of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." And, although this is an undeniably fun record, the paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in the record's two best songs: "Billie Jean," where a woman claims Michael is the father of her child, and the delirious "Wanna Be Startin' Something," the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded. These give the record its anchor and are part of the reason why the record is more than just a phenomenon. The other reason, of course, is that much of this is just simply great music”.

SLANT, in 2003, reviewed Thriller and were (as you’d expect) suitably impressed:

With three quick rimshots, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is like the court fanfare. What is a seemingly silly fight song is actually a complicated tapestry of colliding hooks and pop references. Jackson starts with his own collection of non-sequiters (“You’re a vegetable,” “My baby’s slowly dying”) and puts them in the context of other borrowed quips. (“Too high to get over, too low to get under” is almost an exact copy of Funkadelic’s opening salvo for “One Nation Under a Groove,” and anyone who loved Manu Dibango’s underground disco hit “Soul Makossa” knows where the holy-rolling “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah” came from.)...


By combining the hooks of earlier black pop benchmarks with his own, it’s as if Jackson was suggesting that everything in pop history was setting the stage for his arrival. One wonders if Jackson’s statement in a recent TV Guide interview that he is no longer satisfied with the way “Wanna Be” turned out is less a comment on the quality of the song than it is about the unsatisfactory implications it has for a man whose career afterglow seems scarcely worth a “coo-sah.” Think Norma Desmond watching her own youthful glory in isolation. Thriller is still big, and Jackson’s getting small only serves to highlight its pop (musical and cultural) achievements”.

Thriller is the second-biggest-selling album of all-time and, by the end of 2015, it was certified thirty-times platinum! Its popularity cannot be dented and there was no doubt it would go to the top of the U.S. album chart. It hit the number-one spot on 26th February, 1983 and it would spent thirty-seven weeks in on the Billboard 200 – setting a record for the longest run at number-one by a studio album. Thriller transformed Pop in the 1980s and turned Michael Jackson into a global megastar. Jackson struggled to get his videos played and threatened MTV by saying he would tell the world they were refusing to play videos by a black man.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson and some zombie pals on the set of the Thriller video/PHOTO CREDIT: Sony/Legacy

They would relent and Jackson’s videos soon were being played; giving Thriller more exposure and being a big reason why people tuned into MTV. There are several iconic videos from Thriller but none more memorable than the John Landis-direct title cut. Its zombie theme and incredible choreography was a revelation at the time and became the standard in terms of direction, editing and performance. It remains one of the best videos ever (if not the very finest) and is impossible to forget! One of the great things about Thriller is the videos and how you associate them with the songs. By that, I mean you listen to Beat It and picture Jackson and that red jacket. You hear Billie Jean and can see Jackson and the famous scenes. At a time when MTV is not really playing videos there is not the same commercial zeal and appeal, it is wonderful looking back at the 1980s and remembering a time when music videos were important. Jackson’s Thriller helped put MTV on the map and take it to new heights. A lot of classic albums tend to fade with time and do not age as well as you’d imagine. Thriller has gained new generations of fans and will continue to do so. A lot of 1980s-released albums have that dated production and decade-specific sound that seems odd and cheesy now. Thriller’s exceptional production strength – even if Jackson and Quincy Jones were on different pages and not getting along all the time – is one of the reasons the songs continue to amaze and compel.

Thirty-six years ago today, Thriller started its chart dominance. That might have been helped by the fact Beat It was released twelve days before and proved to be another huge hit. Many argue – including myself – Dangerous is a much bolder and hits-packed record (look at all the songs on there and how many are regarded as Jackson classics!) – but Thriller was a huge step forward and an evolution from Michael Jackson. Off the Wall was a triumph but he stepped up a level by 1982 and crafted this album that was taking no prisoners but, at the time, retained its heart and compassion. Thriller helped break down racial barriers on MTV and opened the door for black artists to have their videos seen. Listen to the artists who came after Michael Jackson and how they try to embody his same moves, mixture of sounds and vocal traits. You can trace this back to Thriller; an album that still holds a very space in music and is indispensable. If I were to recommend anyone buy an album that is near-perfect Pop then this would be it. There are so many moods and stories being told; Jackson’s vocal work is insane and the catchiness of the material is peerless. It is an album with very few songwriters so seems a lot more focused and personal than many Pop albums of today.

I was not alive to see Thriller hit number-one on the U.S. charts and grow from there but it arrived in my life by the late-1980s. Its trio of world-class gems – Thriller, Beat It and Billie Jean – did not overshadow the rest of the album and I think there is only one disposable track, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). It is great listening to the album through and having every song hits you and sink into the brain. I am not sure whether we put as much emphasis on chart positions these days and whether Thriller would gain the same acclaim and popularity in 2019. When it hit the top of the album chart in 1983, many could not predict it would stick around as long as it did and sell so many copies! Listening now and it is clear why Thriller was such a mega-seller and, today, is regarded as one of the finest albums ever! If you have not heard the album in its entirety – or not investigated it for a long time – then I urge you to. It is a remarkable album and one that extends beyond the songs themselves. There is so much to unpack and discuss regarding Thriller and how it changed music. Jackson would record several more studio albums before his death in 2009 but none received the same acclaim and stature as Thriller. It is a masterpiece (albeit a flawed one) and an album that was still at the top when I was born on 9th May, 1983. It is a remarkable thing and, in 2019, and album whose potency, layers and songs sound as striking as they did...


IN THIS PHOTO: Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson (circa 1982)/PHOTO CREDIT: Ron Galella/WireImage

BACK in the 1980s.