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MusicGlobal issues

Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' turns 40

Silke Wünsch
November 30, 2022

An album that made music history; a King of Pop cast out of the pop music Olympus. DW's Silke Wünsch looks back — with a mix of enthusiasm and unease.

Cover of Michael Jackson's album "Thriller." Jackson is in a white suit against a black background.
'Thriller' turned the music world upside down in 1982Image: Sony Music/dpa/picture alliance

It's not easy to write about Michael Jackson these days. On the one hand, there's this incredibly talented singer and dancer who transported pop music to a completely new dimension. On the other hand, there's a man accused of sexually abusing children.

I don't need to reflect on Jackson's career here — enough has been written about that. I also don't want to comment on the accusations made against him, which gained greater traction with the 2019 documentary "Leaving Neverland," and that will be attached to his name forever.

Making music history

I'm writing here about an album that was released 40 years ago, that broke records and sound barriers, that has sold more than 100 million copies to date — and that today is treated very gingerly by DJs, whether on radio, in clubs or at parties.

Michael Jackson holds several Grammys in his arms while producer Quincy Jones looks on smiling.
Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones won a clutch of Grammys in 1984Image: Lennox McLendon/AP/picture alliance

I'm writing about a man who helped shape the soundtrack of my youth, whose music and art influenced me and whose alleged deeds the public knew nothing about at the time.

"Thriller," Jackson's sixth studio album, was released on November 30, 1982. Its cover featured Michael Jackson wearing a white suit. His skin then was darker than it would be in his later years, but he already looked different than he did on the cover of his previous album, 1979's "Off the Wall." Was his face narrower? Had he done something to his cheekbones or his lips? He definitely sported shorter hair, gelled in the style that was typical for the 1980s.

I had already been blown away by "Off the Wall," by the innovative power of its songs and by its producer, Quincy Jones. As a fan of jazz and jazz-rock, I'd admired Jones for years. Suddenly he'd produced a pop album with such a clear sound, that was so dynamically rhythmic and danceable that I listened to it constantly. And then Jones produced "Thriller." 

Irresistible sound of 'Billie Jean'

I didn't find the first single release from "Thriller" all that exciting. It was "The Girl is Mine," a cheesy tearjerker that Jackson warbled along with Paul McCartney. Just a few months earlier, McCartney had released a similarly schmaltzy tune that was recorded with Stevie Wonder. Stuff like that wasn't enough to convince me to buy the album.

But then came "Billie Jean." What a sound! Drums just marching through the song, and a pumping bass. Synthesizer keyboard sounds, a crunchy guitar playing nothing but rhythm, and strings that echoed the disco sound of the 1970s. And above it all, Michael Jackson singing, whooping, chirping and gasping.

Michael Jackson and Eddie van Halen perform on stage.
Eddie van Halen played that recognizable opening riff in 'Beat It'Image: Carlos Osorio/AP/picture alliance

In the music video for the single, Jackson strolls and dances through a city at night, and everything he touches lights up. MTV was only available in some parts of the US back then, and YouTube hadn't yet been conceived. We in Germany had a music program called "Formel 1," which was broadcast in the early evening, and it aired the "Billie Jean" video over and over again.

'Moonwalk' lands on Earth

Even more impressive than that video was Jackson's live performance at a gala celebrating the Motown record label's 25th anniversary. Standing at the mic, he wore a hat and a sequined jacket and single glove and white sequined socks.

With the first bars of "Billie Jean," he started to move, jerkily, almost supernaturally, to excited shrieks from the audience. Toward the end of the song there was an instrumental section. And that's when it happens: Jackson suddenly seems to float above the ground while moving his feet. This astonishing dance step — the "Moonwalk" — hit like a meteorite.

Of course, "Thriller" then made it into my record collection. This was no pop album, nor was it soul or funk. It was something completely different: Electronic and electrifying.

And I was pleased to see the names of so many great artists of the time, who, although successful in their own right, lent their talents as session musicians on "Thriller." Names such as Steve and Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather from the band Toto, and singers James Ingram, Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, Greg Phillinganes, and Jackson's sisters La Toya and Janet, to name just a few. 

Michael Jackson dances in the video for "Thriller" in a red jumpsuit, behind him are dancers dressed as zombies.
Those zombie dance moves were iconicImage: Sony/Mary Evans/IMAGO

'Thriller' set new standards

Jackson wrote many of the songs on "Thriller" himself. But three of the tracks are by the well-regarded composer Rod Temperton. That includes the title track, which would go on to outshine everything else.

The year before, the film "An American Werewolf in London," a comedy-horror film directed by John Landis, had hit cinemas. Landis had previously shown that he had a talent not just for horror, but also for music films, as demonstrated with his earlier hit, "The Blues Brothers." He was hired to direct the music video for "Thriller."

Landis pulled out all the stops. He transformed the pop star into a werewolf using techniques that were spectacular at the time. Zombies rise from their graves, and suddenly Jackson also becomes undead and leads the troupe in twitching and dancing. This dance remains iconic to this day. 

Also iconic was the voice of actor Vincent Price, who gleefully gushes about creatures crawling around and the foul stench of death and who bids us farewell with a devilish laugh at the end of the video.

The video is almost 14 minutes long and came out in 1983. It's a short film, with clever twists and turns and everything that a popcorn movie of the time needed.

Late-night 'Thriller' sessions 

But German fans had a problem: it wasn't so easy for us to watch this video. Because of the horror scenes, it could only be aired after 10 p.m. So the producers of popular music show "Formel 1" broadcast a special edition of the program at night.

We all sat in front of the TV, watching the special broadcast. But first we had to sit through long background reports and presenters' chit-chat before they finally showed the video. Nevertheless, anyone who managed to stay up and wait and who didn't get caught by their parents or who weren't terrified of zombies could count themselves among the cool kids at school the next day.

I saw Michael Jackson live twice, and could witness firsthand that all the legendary dance steps from his music videos were real — even the way Jackson and the backup dancers slowly leaned forward with their entire bodies for the song "Smooth Criminal." To this day, I wonder how they managed to defy gravity. 

Michael Jackson and another dancer lean forward with their whole bodies.
Jackson and his dancers defied gravity in ‘Smooth Criminal'Image: Imago/EntertainmentPictures

Man vs. the music

Jackson's death in 2009 came as a shock. But it's also the way of the world: pop stars die just like everyone else. We've already had to say goodbye much too early to many idols.

But what came after Jackson's death was almost worse for me. Jackson had already "self-destructed" during his lifetime and had, to me, become more and more a zombie himself. His increasingly extreme plastic surgeries, his quirks, when he dangled his baby out of his hotel room window, all disturbed even me. And finally, the abuse allegations, which I struggled at first to accept, as to do so would mean the destruction of one of my idols.

Michael Jackson holds a baby over the parapet of a balcony.
In 2002, Jackson responded to fans by briefly dangling his 9-month-old son out of his hotel room window in BerlinImage: Olaf Selchow/dpa/picture-alliance

But if I block all of that out, what remains for me is a man with a huge musical and artistic gift, who wrote music history in the early 1980s with "Thriller."

To mark the album's 40th anniversary, a special reissue of "Thriller" is being released. It contains remixes that were done for the 25th anniversary in 2008, as well as numerous other bonus tracks.

This article was originally written in German.