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On This Day In Music… February 26, 1983: 'Thriller' Tops the U.S. Charts

The revolutionary, genre-mashing album would produce seven Top 10 singles and go on to become the best-selling LP of all time.

michael jackson thriller video
Source: YouTube / Michael Jackson

'Thriller' mixed disco, soul, funk, pop and rock in a way never heard before.

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On February 26, 1983, Michael Jackson scored his first solo Billboard 200 No. 1 album. He had enjoyed huge success with the Jackson 5 a decade earlier, and Off the Wall, released in 1979, had made No. 3 and showed the former child star had serious disco cred, but Thriller – Jackson’s sixth solo release – would be something else altogether.

He later told Ebony magazine that he wanted to make an album where “every song was a killer”, adding, “Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single? That was my purpose.”

Jackson was true to his word. No fewer than seven singles would be released from Thriller: “The Girl Is Mine”, “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, “Human Nature”, “P. Y. T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, and the title track itself. All reached the Top 10; “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” both topped the charts. No album in the history of popular music had ever contained so many hits.

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michael jackson thriller
Source: Epic Records

'Thriller' has gone on to be the best selling album of all time.

Thriller would go on to spend a record 37 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1, at one point selling a million copies worldwide a week. By the end of the year it had shifted some 32 million copies and over 40 years later it remains the best-selling album of all time, with worldwide sales topping 70 million. At the time of its release Jackson was just 24 years old – and if he was a star before Thriller, after the album’s release he would be the undisputed biggest music artist in the world… and perhaps the biggest ever.

Although Thriller was very much Jackson’s vision, it took what Rolling Stone later described as a “brain trust” to make that vision a record-breaking reality. Speaking to the magazine, producer Quincy Jones said: “Michael didn’t create Thriller. It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs [‘The Girl Is Mine’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’, and ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’], and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.”

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michael jackson onstage
Source: mega

'Thriller' would make Michael Jackson the biggest star in the history of music.

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Other contributors – apart from Jones himself – included songwriter Rod Temperton, who wrote three songs including the title track. In an interview included in the sleeve notes for the CD reissue of the album, Temperton described how he roped in celebrated horror actor Vincent Price to add a little atmosphere to “Thriller”.

“I had always envisioned a talking section at the end,” he said, “but I didn’t really know what to do with it. The idea was that he [Price] would just talk some horror talk like he would deliver in his famous roles. The night before the session, Quincy called and said, ‘I’m a bit scared. Perhaps you better write something for him.’”

Temperton duly wrote one verse of Vincent’s spoken word rap while waiting for a taxi to the studio – and the other two during the journey. Price nailed it in just two takes.

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Other contributors included guitarists Steve Lukather of Toto and Eddie Van Halen, who both played on “Beat It”. When Van Halen came to record his now-legendary solo, Quincy Jones is said to have provided no instruction, telling him instead: “I’m not gonna sit here and try to tell you what to play. The reason you’re here is cos of what you do play.”

“Billie Jean,” however, was Jackson’s creation – and he even fought with Jones to ensure that it sounded exactly as he wanted. The producer argued that the extended, atmospheric intro to the song was too long. Jackson disagreed… and he got his way. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Jones said: “[I told him] you could shave on that intro. But he said ‘That’s the jelly, that’s what makes me want to dance.’ And when Michael Jackson tells you that’s what makes him want to dance, well, the rest of us just have to shut up.”

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Released at the end of November 1982, Thriller’s exuberant mash-up of genres including disco, soul, funk, pop and rock was nothing less than revolutionary. It took nearly three months to climb to the top of the charts, but once there its impact was unprecedented. The album won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards at the 1984 ceremony including Album of the Year, with Jackson taking home another record haul of eight American Music Awards the same year. In 2008 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the National Recording Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” recordings.

In 2015, after Thriller became the first album to be certified 30x multi-platinum, Epic Records summed up its impact: “More than just an album, Thriller has remained a global cultural multi-media phenomenon for both the 20th and the 21st centuries, smashing musical barriers and changing the frontiers of pop forever. The music on Thriller is so dynamic and singular that it defied any definition of rock, pop or soul that had gone before.”


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