NY Times: ‘Thriller’ and the Lessons of the Mega-Super-Album

billyworld99

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
2,021
Points
0
images

By ROB HOERBURGER

Published: August 31, 2012 Comment






Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” turns 30 this year. It is still the biggest-selling album ever, worldwide, by a lot. As is the case with most biggest-evers, actual or perceived (“I Love Lucy,” say, or “Star Wars”), it’s hard to imagine a world in which “Thriller” didn’t exist. And who would want to remember the pre-“Thriller” days anyway, at least the stretch of months right before it was released, which were nasty ones for the music business? To paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the year that “Thriller” came out, 1982, was the year the music almost died.

Since the beginning of time (1954, or when Elvis came along), there had never been a bleaker year for pop than 1982. Disco had been gone for a couple of years, but nothing — not punk, not new wave, not Journey — had replaced it as the music industry’s cash cow. Top 40 radio, the usual confluence of musical rivers, where Motown met Zeppelin, was in decline. MTV was ascendant, but black artists were routinely shut out there. There was no one place where an open-eared music fan could find Luther Vandross and the Clash and Grandmaster Flash and Tom Petty. Perhaps the clearest indication of the parched pop-music field, other than the fact that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was the summer’s biggest song, was that there were only 16 No. 1 singles that year (the average in the ’70s was more than 25). As Time magazine reported, the music industry was floundering among “the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop”; it needed a messiah.

As early as April, the industry was looking to Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles. That’s where Michael Jackson and the producer Quincy Jones started to record the follow-up to Jackson’s 1979 album, “Off the Wall.” Jackson had been a superstar for more than a decade, since he was a Motown wunderkind, and “Off the Wall” was a critical and commercial juggernaut, one of a handful of albums to have four top-12 singles. (The Carpenters’ 1972 album, “A Song for You,” had five, which was unheard-of at the time.)

Yet as spring dragged into summer dragged into fall, there were more than two dozen songs recorded for “Thriller” and still no release. Word circulated that there was no money track on the album. And as pressure was mounting from Jackson’s label, Epic, then a division of CBS Records, he was growing increasingly frustrated. He wanted something bigger than “Off the Wall,” and he wasn’t quite hearing it yet. And probably, not seeing it yet, either. “ ‘Thriller’ sounded so crappy to me that tears came to my eyes,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Moonwalk.” He then told someone to “call CBS and tell them they are not getting this album.” At that point he decided to take a few days off.

How Hall and Oates Saved Pop
Of course, in the end, “Thriller” had several money tracks. There were four solid cornerposts: a blistering rock song (“Beat It”); a sublime ballad (“Human Nature”); an R&B dance sizzler (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ”); and a video-friendly story song (“Thriller”). And at the center of it all, connecting the entire work and providing access routes to its outer regions, was a song whose musical basis came from the lone bastion of hope on pop radio in those dark days, Daryl Hall and John Oates. Their solid amalgams of pop, soul, rock and even light electronica had been breaking through the dross for a few years. In January, their “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” logged a week at No. 1 between Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band. Jackson liked “I Can’t Go for That” and heard in it the basis for his own album’s elusive unifier. He lifted its bass line for a song that made him want to dance. (And no wonder; that bass line was itself an echo of ’60s soul.) He could hear it. He could see it. That track was “Billie Jean.” It was one of the last songs completed for “Thriller” — it was reportedly mixed 91 times — and even though Quincy Jones fought Jackson about its inclusion, Jackson insisted. By early November, he was finally satisfied, and the album was rush-released into stores at the end of the month.

Not My Lover
Few blockbusters are sleeper hits. They usually start strong and then keep lapping the pack — think Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” or U2’s “Joshua Tree.” But “Thriller” didn’t get out of the gate as fast as everyone expected. The first single, a pallid duet with Paul McCartney called “The Girl Is Mine,” was a hit but failed to ignite a frenzy for the album, which had only nine tracks. More than two months after its release, “Thriller” still hadn’t reached No. 1. I was a D.J. at the time at a small rock-oriented bar on Long Island, and I started playing “Beat It,” with its surprising guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, but at that early point the song was less a phenomenon than a curiosity. It wasn’t until “Billie Jean” was released as a single in early 1983 that “Thriller” really took off. It had that long, sinuous bass-line intro, paranoiac synth warnings, a hiccupping vocal; it was the ultimate crossover dream, a song both timely and out of its time. And it had a first-rate video in which Jackson came off like a musical James Bond, sexy, sly and licensed to dance. The song climbed to No. 1, stormed the ramparts at MTV and, buoyed even further by Jackson’s dazzling performance on the “Motown 25” TV special that May, led the way for the album’s other hits and for other black artists. By the end of 1983, “Thriller” had become a nine-track stimulus package for the entire music business.
And yet: just nine songs, four of which don’t merit any substantial discussion now. So what made “Thriller” such a big hit? Some schools of thought contend that it wasn’t even the best album of Jackson’s career. “Off the Wall” was, in many ways, more sophisticated musically, and almost all of its songs are still memorable. A conductor/arranger friend of mine, who is classically trained but appreciates a good pop tune, says he never cared much about “Thriller” but still perks up whenever he hears the upper-level harmony on “Rock With You,” the biggest hit from “Off the Wall.” I like “Off the Wall” more than “Thriller,” too, maybe because it’s a happier and a sweatier album, the last blast of the smiley-face pop-and-soul ’60s and ’70s.

And maybe “Thriller” wasn’t even the best album of 1982. A good number of critics would probably tell you that Prince’s “1999,” a double album released a few weeks before “Thriller,” was much more ambitious and that its pioneering electro-sex-funk was what kept the music business churning through the mid- and late ’80s. A similar dynamic existed between Carole King’s “Tapestry” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” bellwethers of the singer-songwriter era that were released within a few months of each other in 1971. King’s album sold millions and is generally considered the first true blockbuster of the rock era; Mitchell’s sold about a tenth as much but has aged better critically and is regarded the more erudite and influential album (though part of that could be because rock critics still seem to relate best to lyrics, Mitchell’s greatest strength, while King’s poetry has always been in her melodies).
And yet while King/Jackson may have been relatively prosaic compared with Mitchell/Prince, you can feel in their multiplatinum opuses a conscious effort to raise craft to art, to regain the multipartisan musical platforms that had slipped away in their respective eras (for King, post-Beatles; for Jackson, post-disco), to be both smart and simple enough to reach the greatest common denominator. They were musical populists and were building from the bottom up. What you can hear in their landmark albums most of all is the need to be heard.


Which brings us to Adele.
‘21’ and Counting
More than a year and a half after its release, Adele’s album “21”continues to carry the music biz on its husky, soulful pipes. I’m a fan of this record, and of her, but neither it nor its capable predecessor, “19,” has as much artistic heft or variety as, say, Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” The still-staggering sales of “21” — more than nine million in the United States alone — has had me asking the same question I used to ask year after year about Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”: Who’s still buying it?

I got part of my answer a few months ago when I was in a Target on Long Island and saw a woman who looked to be about 65 casually pick up a copy of “21” and deposit it in her cart next to her Tide and her toothpaste. This wasn’t long after Adele swept the Grammys, so perhaps this purchase was a ripple of that wave. But it may also have been that “21” has become, as the writer J. Randy Taraborrelli once said about “Thriller,” a “household staple.” And I was reminded again of my D.J. days, when the song from “Thriller” that got everyone moving — the club kids, the disco holdovers and the bar’s core audience, whom I’ll call young plumbers and electricians — was “Billie Jean,” because it dared to offer a little something for everyone.

There’s also a herd mentality in place with “21.” As it did with “Thriller” and “Tapestry,” the herd has moved toward something durable and dependable in a world when so much seems flimsy or broken (or overproduced). This is the same mind-set that probably has me occasionally standing in line at Shake Shack even though I don’t really like fried burgers or French fries.

Was “21” the best album of 2011? Will it be the most innovative or influential album of its decade or era? Probably not. Some critics have carped that it’s retro, safe, rewarded for its comfortable landings within the contours of “quality.” (Critics have been known to complain when women walk off with the year’s big musical prizes anyway.)
Well, yes, “21” is retro, just as “Thriller” could be (that reconstituted Hall and Oates bass line) and “Tapestry” was (Brill Building tunesmithing wrapped in hippie drag). But “21” is also a Very Professional Work from a woman with an extraordinary voice and a strong yet uncomplicated point of view, one whose unadorned “traditional” talent and image is as much of a selling point as Jackson’s moonwalk was. It, like “Thriller” and “Tapestry” before it, or even something like the current TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” not only solves the riddle of the masses but also manages to elevate them. To what heights is an argument for the ages. But what’s inarguable is that each album marks an occasion when the masses got something very, very right.

http://www.nytimes.c...1&smid=tw-share
 

144000

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
10,312
Points
0
Location
united states
Well, everybody has their stories of Thriller and Billie Jean. Hall and Oates doesn't sound like it to me, but one thing is sure.. Michael knew what to do with it. Press can't predict what masses will like.
 

HIStory

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
6
Points
0
A good number of critics would probably tell you that Prince’s “1999,” a double album released a few weeks before “Thriller,” was much more ambitious and that its pioneering electro-sex-funk was what kept the music business churning through the mid- and late ’80s.

And yet, when I listen to "1999" and "Thriller" in 2012, "1999" sounds dated, very 80s, while "Thriller" is just eternal. Don't get me wrong, I like Prince and I like the 80s, but fact is sometimes (often?) critics just get things wrong. And I don't mean they got Prince wrong, because Prince is indeed a genius. I mean that they got MJ wrong. Or better to say: they never got MJ. He never really was a critics' darling (unlike Prince). That probably has a lot to do also with factors outside of music, like snobbism.
 

Petrarose

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2009
Messages
9,574
Points
0
Well, everybody has their stories of Thriller and Billie Jean. Hall and Oates doesn't sound like it to me, but one thing is sure.. Michael knew what to do with it. Press can't predict what masses will like.

My thoughts exactly. Here we go again with the "experts" of music saying that this and that album was better than Thriller, forgetting that many people do not buy music for its theoretical principles. It is almost as though they studied music in school, and then assume people enjoy or buy music because of these learned academic principles. I have heard these laments too many times. It seems some do not want to give Michael credit for his achievement. I thought this article was going to take another direction, but I see it is just one of the same. I mean, I did not buy Thriller and Off The Wall, because the songs in the albums followed the principles of 1960's pop and soul, or because their arrangements followed the rules of R & B, etc. Many buy music because it appeals to their emotions, sounds different, makes them dance, reminds them of good times, a love of the beat and instrumentation, etc.

I get the feeling that the author is trying to say that Prince's 1999 was better than Thriller, but it was Michael who won the crown. Well, according to millions of people worldwide, it was Thriller that they loved more. When I was dancing to Thriller at the clubs, I am sure people were not thinking about whether Off The Wall was more musically sophisticated than Thriller either. Further, at the clubs I went to in the 80s, I never heard 1999 being played. It was always music from the Thriller album and other artists songs. I heard Prince more on the radio, and I love Prince too. The big lesson here is read what the critics, media, and experts say, but get the music for your enjoyment.

I did not know that Thriller started off slow at the time. We were all simply buying Michael's music because we were fans and loved it. Of course, people have favorite albums and songs, but at times I become weary of these critical autopsies of songs. What is the point of them, since people will buy what grabs them anyway.

Respect I love what you had to say, and notice the author's need to compare Michael's work with Prince's and find Michael's lacking. Notice also that the song/album that most liked is reduced to the less musical sophisticated pile, while the album that did not sell as well as Thriller is crowned as the great masterpiece. Now, why didn't the critics come out with these praises for Off The Wall, when the album came out!!!!
 
Last edited:

HIStory

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
6
Points
0
Petrarose, I agree.


Funny how NOW, in the hindsight critics say Off The Wall was Michael's best album and how great it was, but at the time they just pissed on it like they did on all of his other albums. Remember how hurt Michael was that he didn't get a single Grammy nomination for OTW? Or just see this, a letter from Rolling Stone to Michael's management in 1979, saying they don't feel MJ was a cover story! And OTW was one of the bestsellers of the year! But to RS it just wasn't a cover story. Who were? You can see here:
http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/1979-rolling-stone-covers-20040511

I don't even know who they are of most of those guys...

386117_10150470132462212_512517211_9069397_11322498_n.jpg


This was OTW era. An album about which now they praise as a great, musically very sophisticated album. Also keep in mind (and Joe Vogel wrote an article about it) that musical "greats" such as Madonna or Britney Spears got a LOT more covers from RS than Michael ever did...

IMO saying OTW was his best album is just another way by the media to stick it to him. To say he did not improve over time and of course to play down his bigger sellers. The fact is he was NEVER liked by critics. Not during OTW era, not during Thriller era and much less later. And when the same critics praise people like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake or the Spice Girls I just cannot see how their tastes are really so much more sophisticated than the average person's who bought Thriller and Michael's other albums.

I really feel in the case of Michael there were a lot of other factors of why critics disliked him. Maybe they didn't like a child star to turn out to become a serious, successful adult artist (it didn't happen often - and especially it did not happen to white artists, such as the Osmonds). Of course, he was black. I actually think there are, and especially at the time there were, a lot of racism going on at Rolling Stone in particular. Yes, Prince too is black. But he never threatened the status of the great white icons. They could afford to be generous to him and praise him. He was simply not a threat, like Michael was. Also Prince was more rock, and rock was always taken more seriously by white critics than so called black music. There is this rock-chauvinism in critics. A guy with a guitar is always taken more seriously than a guy who goes out and dances.

And yes, there is the factor that they are unable to grasp Michael Jackson because they approach with an analytical mind, like Petrarose said with academic principles they learned about music, whereas Michael was an instinctive artist. And he instinctively found how to reach people's heart and how to move them with his music. Prince is a genius, I love him. But with all his knowledge of playing a gazillion instruments and all, he just never gave me the emotional experience that Michael did. That's something that cannot be learned, and I'm afraid, it cannot even be grasped with an academic analysis. And that's what I think bothers critics regarding Michael - that here is this huge phenomenon whom they never could understand, never even could grasp, and despite of all their predictions and resistance (actually you could say that compared to a LOT of artists Michael lacked the support of the music media) he became one of the most successful and most influential artists ever.

There was an interesting discussion at the Dancing With The Elephant blog last week with Joe Vogel: http://dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/featuring-michael-jackson-with-joe-vogel/

A part of it is whether Michael was an Outsider or an Insider and the conclusion is that in a strange and unique way he was both. I agree. He seemed to be mainstream on one hand, but was he really? In terms of commercial success, no doubt he was. On the other hand, he was very much an Outsider and anti-Establishment when it came to his treatment by the media.

Joe Vogel put it best:

“The irony (and this is what I try to point out in the Dangerous piece and the Atlantic piece) is that critics like Dave Marsh delude themselves into believing that they and their traditionally white hetero-normative rock heroes are the “outsiders” when they are the ones operating within much more conservative scripts, they are the ones appearing on magazines, they are the ones who have no trouble getting on TV and radio, they are the ones who get fawned over by critics and executives.”
 

billyworld99

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
2,021
Points
0
Petrarose, I agree.


Funny how NOW, in the hindsight critics say Off The Wall was Michael's best album and how great it was, but at the time they just pissed on it like they did on all of his other albums. Remember how hurt Michael was that he didn't get a single Grammy nomination for OTW? Or just see this, a letter from Rolling Stone to Michael's management in 1979, saying they don't feel MJ was a cover story! And OTW was one of the bestsellers of the year! But to RS it just wasn't a cover story. Who were? You can see here:
http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/1979-rolling-stone-covers-20040511

I don't even know who they are of most of those guys...

386117_10150470132462212_512517211_9069397_11322498_n.jpg


This was OTW era. An album about which now they praise as a great, musically very sophisticated album. Also keep in mind (and Joe Vogel wrote an article about it) that musical "greats" such as Madonna or Britney Spears got a LOT more covers from RS than Michael ever did...

IMO saying OTW was his best album is just another way by the media to stick it to him. To say he did not improve over time and of course to play down his bigger sellers. The fact is he was NEVER liked by critics. Not during OTW era, not during Thriller era and much less later. And when the same critics praise people like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake or the Spice Girls I just cannot see how their tastes are really so much more sophisticated than the average person's who bought Thriller and Michael's other albums.

I really feel in the case of Michael there were a lot of other factors of why critics disliked him. Maybe they didn't like a child star to turn out to become a serious, successful adult artist (it didn't happen often - and especially it did not happen to white artists, such as the Osmonds). Of course, he was black. I actually think there are, and especially at the time there were, a lot of racism going on at Rolling Stone in particular. Yes, Prince too is black. But he never threatened the status of the great white icons. They could afford to be generous to him and praise him. He was simply not a threat, like Michael was. Also Prince was more rock, and rock was always taken more seriously by white critics than so called black music. There is this rock-chauvinism in critics. A guy with a guitar is always taken more seriously than a guy who goes out and dances.

And yes, there is the factor that they are unable to grasp Michael Jackson because they approach with an analytical mind, like Petrarose said with academic principles they learned about music, whereas Michael was an instinctive artist. And he instinctively found how to reach people's heart and how to move them with his music. Prince is a genius, I love him. But with all his knowledge of playing a gazillion instruments and all, he just never gave me the emotional experience that Michael did. That's something that cannot be learned, and I'm afraid, it cannot even be grasped with an academic analysis. And that's what I think bothers critics regarding Michael - that here is this huge phenomenon whom they never could understand, never even could grasp, and despite of all their predictions and resistance (actually you could say that compared to a LOT of artists Michael lacked the support of the music media) he became one of the most successful and most influential artists ever.

There was an interesting discussion at the Dancing With The Elephant blog last week with Joe Vogel: http://dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/featuring-michael-jackson-with-joe-vogel/

A part of it is whether Michael was an Outsider or an Insider and the conclusion is that in a strange and unique way he was both. I agree. He seemed to be mainstream on one hand, but was he really? In terms of commercial success, no doubt he was. On the other hand, he was very much an Outsider and anti-Establishment when it came to his treatment by the media.

Joe Vogel put it best:

applausegif.gif
 

love is magical

Proud Member
Joined
Sep 27, 2009
Messages
4,704
Points
0
Location
New Jersey, US
I sure do not agree everything in the article. But, I have to say this article is refreshing because the writer did not bring in Michael's personal matters into the discussion. The word "eccentricity" is not mentioned onece. The writer talked about his opinions on music and never passed judgement on Michael's later legal troubles. I think this is a step to the right direction.
 

HOTEL

Proud Member
Joined
Jul 25, 2011
Messages
59
Points
0
I remember being asked in high school by a classmate whether I had heard Billie Jean yet and telling her that I hadn't. She knew I liked disco, black r&b and such and was telling me how much she liked the song. I felt a little awkward I hadn't heard it yet. Ha Ha
And then the Thriller video in '84...we didn't have cable at that time so no MTV. I don't think I saw Thriller until a few months after it had been shown. The girl I was with at the time (who BTW I took to the Victory Tour concert in Buffalo, NY a few weeks later) couldn't believe I hadn't seen the video and looked irritated and bored as hell as she stood by me watching it for the first time on a television in a store. I do remember seeing the "world premeire" of Beat It on Solid Gold though!
 
Top