Michael Jackson’s monster smash
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/11/2007
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It started with a howl (from the record company) and ended with latex, zombies and beansprout sandwiches. Twenty-five years after Michael Jackson turned into a werewolf, Peter Lyle talks to members of his inner circle about the making of a classic album – and the video that changed pop history In April 1982, Michael Jackson was the former Motown child star who would sporadically reunite with his brothers for tours and albums, had famous friends and collaborators, and had one hit solo album, 1978’s ‘Off the Wall’, to his name. That month, recording began on an untitled follow-up which was to alter for ever Jackson’s career, the concept of the pop video, and the record industry itself. Jackson has said that his inspiration was Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ because ‘every song was a killer’, and claimed last year that ‘My dream was for it to be the biggest-selling album ever.’
Bruce Swedien (engineer) When we started ‘Thriller’, the first day at Westlake [the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard where the album was recorded], we were all there and Quincy [Jones, the producer] walked in followed by me and Michael and Rod Temperton and some of the other people. Quincy turned to us and he said, ‘OK guys, we’re here to save the recording industry.’ Now that’s a pretty big responsibility – but he meant it. And that’s why those albums, and especially ‘Thriller’, sound so incredible. The basic thing is, everybody who was involved gave 150 per cent Quincy’s like a director of a movie and I’m like a director of photography, and it’s Quincy’s job to cast [it]. Quincy can find the people and he gives us the inspiration to do what we do.
Brian Banks (synthesisers) [Michael] was definitely the star, he didn’t interact a whole lot with us. I mean, he was around a bit, he did interact a bit he would usually be practising his dance steps if he was in the studio, in the corner. When he got to singing, nobody was around – it was just him and Bruce Swedien and Quincy.
Bruce Swedien I tried all sorts of things with Michael – for instance, he would sing the main vocal part and we’d double it one time and then I’d ask him to step away from the mic and do it a third time and that really changed the acoustics in the room so it gave Michael’s vocals a unique character We recorded some of those background vocals in the shower stall at Westlake.
Quincy Jones (producer) Michael wrote Billie Jean – and that stuff, you know, it was just highly, highly personal. According to him, he said it was about a girl who climbed over [his] wall and he woke up one morning and she was laying out by the pool, lounging, hanging out with the shades on, bathing suit on… and Michael said she had accused him of being the father of one of her twins [laughs]. And Michael, on Billie Jean, he had an intro you could shave on it was so long. I said, ‘It’s too long, we gotta get to the melody quicker.’ He said, ‘But that’s the jelly! That’s what makes me wanna dance.’ Now, when Michael Jackson tells you that’s what makes him want to dance, the rest of us had to shut up.
Bruce Swedien When Michael liked a groove, he’d call it ‘Smelly Jelly’. Also Michael doesn’t curse, and when he wants to say a bad word, he’ll simply call it ‘smelly’.
Rod Temperton (songwriter/arranger) Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, ‘You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I said, ‘Oh great,’ so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title ‘Midnight Man’. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word… Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller’.
Bruce Swedien [Temperton is] more like a classical composer than a pop composer – when he arrives, nothing is left to chance, and it’s the same with his demos… When we were recording, Michael went home, stayed up all night, and memorised every one of [Rod Temperton’s] demos, never had a piece of paper in front of him. Can you believe that?
Brian Banks It was late in the evening one night when we were working, and Quincy came to us. We all knew how Thriller was going, they were trying to get Vincent Price, they were doing all this stuff, but he wanted this huge chord sequence – he said, ‘There’s this sound that I’ve got in my head, there’s this underground, this new artist, that nobody’s ever really heard of but he’s great, he’s hot, he’s got this great song.’ And he pulled out the album and it was Prince, ‘1999’. And you know the opening sound on that? Duh-da da, Dur-duh-duh? Well that was the sound – that big, bitey chord sound at the opening of ‘1999’ – he wanted that, but bigger, for Thriller.
Rod Temperton When I wrote Thriller I’d always envisioned this talking section at the end and didn’t really know what we were going to do with it. But one thing I’d thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice, in the horror genre, to do this vocal. Quincy’s [then] wife [Peggy Lipton] knew Vincent Price so Quincy said to me, how about if we got Vincent Price? And I said, ‘Wow, that’d be amazing if we could get him…’
Quincy Jones Vincent did it in two takes – I’m telling you, it was so difficult [technically, to talk over the music track]… it was fabulous, man.
Bruce Cannon (sound effects) I was an assistant editor on the film E.T. Following that, Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy had me help out on a record they were doing with Michael Jackson called ‘The E.T. Storybook Record’, which was produced by Quincy Jones, and Bruce Swedien was like his mixer. It was Michael narrating – I’m only laughing because he was very emotionally involved when he was performing, reading the lines – at times he almost breaks into tears telling parts of the E.T. story.
Following that, Quincy called me and said he was doing this Michael Jackson record and he needed sounds for the Thriller song. I went to as many sound editors as I could and listened, found – what was it? – a creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds, howling dogs, all that. These were really good editors and I think they recorded some of the effects themselves. Things like the lightning may have come from old Hollywood movies – we’ll never know which movies – but the best sound-effects editors do go out in the desert and find a coyote, so I have a feeling that was a real howl…
Quincy Jones The Girl is Mine was fun: Paul was in Tucson and we had to go down there and work with him for two or three days, which was fun, and rehearsing the song, and finding things to make them tailor-made for him, like the verse at the end and the rap that they had, fighting over the same girl.
David Paich (keyboards) Working with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson on a duet, The Girl is Mine: that was a very magical night. Even though I wished it had been a better piece of material, it was great working with those two people…
In between takes there is me, [guitarist] Lukather, [drummer] Jeff Porcaro, and we’re jamming… with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, singing all these Stevie Wonder songs. Linda is about two inches away, snapping all these photographs of me and everybody else in the room.
Quincy Jones [Beat It] was really key to this record, with its power, with everything it has, because I said at the time, ‘I need a song like [The Knack’s 1979 hit] My Sharona – we need a black version.’ That’s a strong rock ‘n’ roll thing there – that has the power of everything else [Jackson] writes. And he says, ‘I got something here but I don’t have any voices on it.’ It was just what we needed. I decided to call Eddie Van Halen, and I didn’t know him, to come play the solo on Beat It.
Eddie Van Halen (guitar soloist) Everybody [from his band, Van Halen] was out of town and I figured, ‘Who’s gonna know if I play on this kid’s record?’
Steve Lukather (guitars/bass) Quincy Jones [said Beat It] was way too heavy and to tone it down – it’s Michael’s record, not Led Zeppelin’s. So I went back in and re-recorded it. Basically, me and [drummer] Jeff Porcaro remade that record to Michael’s vocals, Eddie’s solo and Michael playing two and four on a drum case. We spent a lot of time messing around with that song and to be honest, when we heard it I was like, ‘This is rock ‘n’ roll? I don’t think so.’
Quincy Jones Toto, whom I just adored – [writer/keyboard player Steve] Pocaro, all those guys, Lukather – they sent over two songs they thought might be right for Michael and we left the tape on and forgot to take it off, the tape with the first two songs – which were OK but we were not impressed, you know?
And all of a sudden, at the end, there was all this silence and then [sings the melody to Human Nature]: ‘Why, why, da-dum dah dah da-dum dah dah, why, why…’ Just a dummy lyric and a very skeletal thing and I get goosebumps talking about it. I said, ‘This is where we wanna go ‘cos it’s got such a wonderful flavour.’
Brian Banks You gotta remember the time and place. The record business was in the dumps right then. I remember one night, when they were looking at a bunch of proofs, large blow-ups of the [eventual image for the vinyl] centrefold, spread out on the console, and I was just there in the background doing my thing while Quincy was talking. ‘Off the Wall’, I think it sold something like eight million records, and I remember Quincy saying – I’m paraphrasing here – ‘the record business is not what it was a couple of years ago, and if we get six million out of [‘Thriller’], I’m gonna declare that a success.’ And what’d they do, 53 million or something? It was in that context that it did 53 million…
The Girl is Mine trailed the ‘Thriller’ album in 1982, and reached Number 2. It was followed by two Number 1 singles with great videos in 1983, Billie Jean and Beat It. Three more singles followed, each stalling lower down the charts (‘Thriller’ was the first album to spawn seven Top 10 hits; only Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ have managed the same feat since), and without their own videos. Then Michael Jackson had an idea…