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THRILLER... A 35-Year Moonwalk Into History

Updated on May 24, 2018
R. Martin Basso profile image

In addition to producing, writing and acting entertainment developer Basso spearheads his arts PR cooperative Three Doves Media.

Can anyone imagine a world without the phenomenon of THRILLER?

THRILLER by Michael Jackson is easily one of entertainment’s most culturally significant sensations. As a body of work, THRILLER went on to define a generation. It was a worldwide experience encompassing more than just moonwalking and monsters.

Family influence, religious overtones, social change, fashion, dance, and even the early evolution of MTV, all are attributed to the cultural revolution that was first an album, later a film, and ultimately… History.

THRILLER helped new media –primarily music videos- to emerge as standalone broadcast creations. Likewise, THRILLER helped to birth music television entertainment.

All in all Michael Jackson’s distinct contribution defined a generation, galvanized a planet, and left lasting, indelible impressions upon new technology.

Just as 2017 celebrated the music’s 35th birthday, December 2018 will mark the companion short film’s 35th year as well.

In appreciating THRILLER’s cultural contributions, a retrospective stroll through the labyrinth of the Jackson universe reveals creativities and complexities alike.

THRILLER is one of entertainment’s most culturally significant sensations.
THRILLER is one of entertainment’s most culturally significant sensations. | Source

Thrilling Roots: The Business of Family …

Entertainment has always been a multi-billion dollar industry. Where there is big money there are assuredly industry mavericks and business tycoons safeguarding their investments.

From Colonel Tom Parker, who pimped-out his cash-cow Elvis, to Quincy Jones who legitimized Black America’s Rhythm & Bluesvia Motown, the entertainment industry is not run to mechanized perfection by foolish intent.

It is run with deliberate, exacting precision.

As such, so was the Jackson musical dynasty from its earliest days in the kingdom where the Jackson clan’s patriarch, Joseph Walter, reigned supreme.

Parents Katherine and Joseph had a total of ten children. Nine lived to adulthood and all become skilled musicians, singers or dancers to some degree.

Marlon's twin brother Brandon died hours after birth on 12 March 1957.

Once sixth son Michael was born in 1958, Joseph, a skilled music manager and industry businessman, had already asserted himself with the reputation of someone not to be regarded lightly or crossed.

From early on, what they played, if they danced, how they sang –all of it- was predetermined by the managing patriarch’s decree.

Joseph’s temper was matched only by his power and thirst for success.

Snapshot: The Jackson Siblings

SIBLING
TALENT
BORN
REBBIE
Voice
29 MAY 1950 (1st daughter)
JACKIE
Voice, Dancer
04 MAY 1951 (1st son)
TITO
Guitar
15 OCT 1953 (2nd son)
JERMAINE
Bass, Voice
11 DEC 1954 (3rd son)
LA TOYA
Voice
29 MAY 1956 (2nd daughter)
MARLON
Drums, Percussion
12 MAR 1957 (4th son)
BRANDON (lived 1 day)
* * *
12 MAR 1957 (5th son)
MICHAEL
Voice, Dancer, Writer, Business
29 AUG 1958 (6th son)
RANDY
Back-up Voice
29 OCT 1961 (7th son)
JANET
Piano, Voice, Dancer
16 MAY 1966 (3rd daughter)

A Thrilling Dynasty: The Complex Family...

As youngest sister Janet would later recant in documentarian Jane Cornwell's biography entitled JANET JACKSON: "No one ever asked me if I wanted to go into show business, it was expected. I just wanted to be a horse jockey."

Through that candid interview Cornwell discovered that by "about the age of eight," the Jackson children were to no longer address their mogul father as anything other than Joseph.’ By that point Joseph Jackson was their business manager and theoretically no longer “dad.”

Initially, it was third son Jermaine who found favor in his father's eyes, and who was selected to steward the musical menagerie. However, although a skilled bass guitarist (by Joseph's decree), Jermaine fell from his father's good graces when his singing voice failed to meet approval.

Further, Joseph saw in Jermaine a genuinely ‘good' person; one who truly loved people because they loved him right back. Simply put, Joseph wouldn't stand for that in his business leader and soon deemed Jermaine as too "soft."

Upon receiving Joseph's proverbial ‘godfather blessing', Michael quickly emerged from the not-so-obscure shadows of his other talented siblings. Following Jermaine’s sidelining, and at the age of only eight, the younger and eager-to-please Michael was preened for leadership.

As ‘front man' of Joseph's musical review The Jackson 5, heir-apparent Michael was soon immersed in the cut-throat world of entertainment business management.

I’m glad I was tough on them,”Joseph Jackson would say when asked about his business practices and child rearing. “I am proud of how hard I was on them.”

Janet never wanted stardom or fame. Instead, she just wanted to be a horse trainer.
Janet never wanted stardom or fame. Instead, she just wanted to be a horse trainer. | Source

Thrilling Heir: A Child Chief Op's Officer ...

With a velvety, spunky voice on loan the from angels above, Michael Jackson effortlessly commanded center stage while helping plot the course of the bottom line. An apt pupil with a voracious appetite to learn, Michael grasped strategies and caught on well.

Joseph instructed Michael in finance, brand management and leadership. He also interwove lessons with esoteric concepts such as the best business practices of influential American family dynasties like the Kennedy’s, the Rockefellers, and others.

Throughout the 1970's, bright-eyed Michael grew into his role as Chief Operating Officer in the family's “corporation.” He became an adept young executive amongst the best late 1970s entertainment leaders.

But the times they were a-changin’…

Thrilling Influences: Internal/External...

Fresh on the heels of Michael’s 1979 smash album “OFF THE WALL”; the music industry began to lose steam. A general uneasiness settled in as Generation-Xsought to define itself through new media, tech, fashion, politics, and the like.

A pervasive national fatigue started to settle in upon the early 1980s. Anything -or anyone- capable of resetting society’s rattled nerves was already poised to seize the brass ring of idolatry.

This was demonstrated when icon John Lennon, one time pop culture ambassador to the preceding generation, was assassinated in 1980.

Lennon’s death abruptly heralded that “Generation Freelove” was over.

Michael Jackson album count...

My favorite solo MJ album is...

See results

Thrilling Origins: From A Place In 'The Wall'...

Just as horses inspired sister Janet from an early age, Michael drew inspiration from his music and another decidedly less-popular topic; the supernatural. For years he privately toyed with an illicit creative idea: a “monster movie musical.”

For religious reasons Michael disclosed his idea to very few. Growing up, and even until after OFF THE WALL’s release, Michael remained a devoted Jehovah's Witness, the Jackson family’s de facto faith.

While working on OFF THE WALL, Jackson and executive producer Quincy Jones began casually exploring what would ultimately become their next album three years later: THRILLER.

Interestingly, Michael’s initial THRILLER chords are teased in the first twenty seconds of OFF THE WALL’s namesake single. The opening sequences for each song are in fact practically identical. Both also include a chorus of howling ghouls and droning pipe organs woven throughout.

Clearly, OFF THE WALL was the ‘original' THRILLER.

Although ‘technically’ a celebrity during the waning days of Disco, the two agreed that Michael didn’t yet command the star firepower needed to pull off the monster musical idea at that time.

THRILLER was temporarily shelved. They focused on OFF THE WALL.

OFF THE WALL went on to sell over 20 million copies and holds a distinction as the first album to generate four Top Ten singles.

By The Numbers: Some Thrilling Stats...

THRILLER would ultimately become Jackson’s defining tour de force.

The work still today is the music industry’s best selling album over 35 years after its initial 1982 release. Categorically, although Michael Jackson’s stellar career produced a plethora of commercial successes, THRILLER remains the most notable of all his solo albums.

By the numbers alone, THRILLER’S statistics are staggering:

The accolades are unending; as any Internet search will confirm.

Thriller (1982)- An album defines generations.
Thriller (1982)- An album defines generations. | Source

Creating A Thrill: It All Begins...

After a brief period of readjustment, society’s malaise had dissipated.

While Jones and Jackson tinkered, a cultural music explosion was already underway outside the walls of THRILLER’s recording incubator, Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles.

A revolution in synthesizer “new wave” music, synthetic walking bass lines, and even a new cable medium called the Music Television Network (“MTV”) was paving THRILLER’s way.

As with The Beatles in the 1960's and “Disco” in the 1970's, the fledgling 1980's needed an archetype, a direction, and a leader.

It was decided then that Michael Jackson would be that leader.

Driven by Michael’s original musical vision, the stars aligned and Jackson and Jones began recording THRILLER on April 14th, 1982. Recording concluded seven grueling months later on November 8th.

Almost from the start of recording, the entire THRILLER session was notably under the gun to get completed. The recording process was arduous as the pair crafted the direction of the work.

Jones and Jackson auditioned over 700 demos, a staggering amount.

They eventually narrowed the search to nine, of which four were replaced by four of Michael’s own:

On November 30th, music history was made when THRILLER debuted to immediate and unparalleled success.

Thrilling Numbers: Some Monster Stats …

THRILLER would ultimately become Jackson’s defining tour de force.

The work still today is the music industry’s best selling album over 35 years after its initial 1982 release. Categorically, although Michael Jackson’s stellar career produced a plethora of commercial successes, THRILLER remains the most notable of all his solo albums. By the numbers alone, THRILLER’S statistics are staggering:

The accolades are unending; a mere Internet search will reveal that.

Source

A Thrilling Film: At Age 35 Don't Call It A “Music Video” …

THRILLER smartly remained in worldwide, Top 40 relevance for well over two years following its mega-smash musical debut on November 30th 1982.

Thirteen months later, short film MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER re-infected the world as a stunning visual personification of his opus.

Directed by John Landis (‘AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON'), and containing many of the elements in conventional cinema, Jackson’s horror-spoof is often mislabeled a ‘music video.’

Even though only fourteen minutes in length, several elements define the work as more of a traditional movie musical than music video, including:

  • A huge world-class budget.
  • A world-class cinematic director (Landis).
  • Screen acting legend Vincent Price.
  • Open casting calls and competitive auditions.
  • Extensive choreography by satin-footed dance master Michael Peters.
  • Costume, make-up and special effects by film heavyweight Rick Baker.
  • The stunning Playboy Magazine supermodel Ola Ray, in her 1950's get-up as Jackson's doomed girlfriend.

At the time of its release, MICHAEL JACKSON'S THRILLER was the most expensive short film ever made. Upon its debut the budget had surpassed $500,000 or roughly $35,700 per production minute.

Additionally, because MICHAEL JACKSON'S THRILLER had debuted alongside a special theatrical screening of Disney’s FANTASIA, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in ‘Short Film.’

Lovebirds Jackson & Ray; Stunning one-time Playboy Magazine centerfold and supermodel Ola Ray as MICHAEL’s girlfriend.
Lovebirds Jackson & Ray; Stunning one-time Playboy Magazine centerfold and supermodel Ola Ray as MICHAEL’s girlfriend. | Source

A Thrilling Revelation: The National Treasure That Almost Did Not Happen …

As unbelievable as it seems MICHAEL JACKSON'S THRILLER, the most popular musical short film of all time, actually came very close to not having been made at all.

According to director and co-writer John Landis, the film was doomed, almost from inception. Throughout the pitch/pre-production phase, problems getting buy-in seemed to mount by the day. The main concern, amongst industry ‘decision-makers' was cost, which -at over $500,000- was simply too much.

Jackson was already making history –and money- with his opus. Industry financing heavy weights couldn’t figure out what exactly Michael was seeking to prove. By the time Jackson and Landis seriously sought to move forward, industry leaders shot it down as unneeded, excessive expenses.

However, literally overnight, Landis, brilliantly turned the resistance around.

He pitched a revolutionary marketing idea: A special "making of" documentary, outtakes, bloopers and of course the film; all for $24.95.

Industry executives immediately shifted from "absolutely NOT!" to "hell YES!" It was a prudent business maneuver, inspiring 10 million additional THRILLER sales. Jackson and Landis' $500,000 production translated into an additional $249 Million windfall.

"The critics just dammed me for this." Landis admitted lightheartedly, in a TODAYShow.com article from April 2008. Thanks to some quick thinking on the part of John Landis, an important part of our national Arts heritage was retained.

MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER came very close to not having been made at all. According to famed director and co-writer John Landis, the 'mini movie' (oft erroneously thought to be a 'music video') was doomed, almost from its inception.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER came very close to not having been made at all. According to famed director and co-writer John Landis, the 'mini movie' (oft erroneously thought to be a 'music video') was doomed, almost from its inception. | Source

In the end, a thrilling enchantment...

Joseph Jackson identified Michael’s potential early, giving him the spotlight and the business acumen needed to be impactful. And what an impact it was. This, coupled with his coming of age alongside a cultural shift allowed him to step into the role of musical icon.

Michael Jackson defined history with this single creative vision. With THRILLER, he and Quincy Jones unearthed a creative monster, unmatched to this day.

The historical legacy of THRILLER can be attributed to the following:

He was in a perfect position… to create expressly what was needed… with the precise support required… at exactly the right time.

Yet, the core question remains…

Can anyone imagine a world without the phenomenon of THRILLER?

... It is impossible to imagine.

* * *

Comments

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    • R. Martin Basso profile imageAUTHOR

      Reid Martin Basso 

      21 months ago from San Francisco, CA

      Hi Louise

      I can't disagree! He was a Shakespeare, a Beethoven. He was that rare creative talent who in a century or more will still be studied.

      Thanks :-)

      Reid

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      21 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Yes, Thriller is definitely my favourite album. Michael Jackson was, and still is, an icon. I love him.

    • R. Martin Basso profile imageAUTHOR

      Reid Martin Basso 

      21 months ago from San Francisco, CA

      Wow thank you for the kind compliment, Meshun. I'm happy you enjoyed :-)

    • profile image

      MeShun 

      21 months ago

      Reid this is amazing, I learned info I didn’t know and had an amazing time reminiscing!!

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