Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’ Thriller continued to shatter records and expectations years after its release on November 30, 1982. Epic Records sold more than one million copies per month for a year in the USA alone.
35 years after its release, Thriller still stands as the best-selling studio album in the USA, going 28-times platinum. Another 70 million copies have been sold internationally.
Thriller changed how the music business promoted and marketed superstar releases. It also changed MTV, breaking down the cable network’s racial barriers and raising the quality of video productions.
Epic made Thriller the first major release to debut worldwide. It was the first album to be in production for close to two years instead of the usual six months, and the first album to spin off seven singles to radio, more than double the normal number.
Thriller redefined the expectations for blockbuster releases. Because of Thriller’s massive sales, in 1984, Columbia Records released seven singles from Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. all of which landed in the Top 10. Warner Bros. released five singles from Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack. Both albums sold more than 10 million copies each in the USA.
The music business had been suffering from its second slump in three years. At the time, record sales had declined by 50 million units between 1980 and 1982. It was a bleak time for musicians. But, Jackson changed that. After Thriller, Epic Records was epic, with major hits by Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, REO Speedwagon, the Flashdance soundtrack, and The Police’s Synchronicity.
Jackson was famous in the early 1970s as the young lead singer of Motown’s Jackson 5. The Jacksons left Motown in 1975 and released three albums on Epic. Destiny peaked at Number 11 in 1978. But, Jackson became a bona fide superstar with his first solo album for Epic, Off The Wall. Its first single, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, debuted in summer 1979 and became Jackson’s first Number One R&B and Pop Music single as a solo artist since his hit Ben in 1972. That was followed by four more Number Ones.
Jackson had met Jones when he played the Scarecrow in the film version of The Wiz which Jones produced. At the time, Jones was struck by Jackson’s profound discipline and focus. Jones began planning Thriller in December 1981, when he took Jackson to spend three days recording the Paul McCartney duet The Girl Is Mine.
Jackson wrote: Beat It, Billie Jean, and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ in just a few weeks. Rod Temperton, who wrote Rock With You for Off The Wall, brought them a song he had titled Starlight Love, which eventually became the song Thriller.
Jones writes that his relationship with Jackson was about creativity for creativity’s sake:
“You don’t make records to say how many you’re going to sell. You can’t control that. You make something that touches you and will hopefully touch someone else.”
Jones and Jackson spent four months reviewing more than 700 Jackson tunes. Eventually they settled on nine, including The Lady In My Life, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), Human Nature and Beat It.
Their priority was to balance Thriller between R&B, pop, Disco, Rock, Funk and Ballads. During that era, Disco still dominated, and Jones and Jackson wanted to transcend it. Beat It happened because Eddie Van Halen wanted to do a black Rock ‘N’ Roll song.
Jackson and Jones continued refining the album through the fall of 1982. Epic had to move back the album’s release date many times. The day before Jones finally turned in Thriller, after he and Jackson had worked all night on it, they realized that there was too much music on each side. Jones and Jackson pared down the intro to Billie Jean, removed a verse from The Lady In My Life and finished the album. Then, still unhappy with some aspects of the album’s sound, they remixed the entire album over a marathon weekend.
Epic executives were eager to release Thriller in time for Christmas 1982. Jackson and Jones continued to tweak it. Then the album was leaked to radio stations who began playing cuts from it. Epic decided to rush-release it on this day in 1982.
After 10 weeks on the chart, Thriller knocked Men At Work’s Business As Usual off the Number One spot and it stayed there for 37 weeks.
Epic decided to release two singles at the same time to broaden the album’s audience. The second single, Billie Jean, climbed the top of Pop charts, followed by Beat It with its searing Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. It landed at Number One on the Rock charts.
From the start, Jackson’s plan for Thriller was to marry the album with a visual extension. MTV had played videos by a few black artists, including Joan Armatrading. They had declined to air the video for Rick James’ Super Freak leading James to brand the channel as racist.
Billie Jean immediately went into heavy rotation with eight plays per day, catapulting Jackson and MTV to another level of success. Plus, Jackson’s success broke down the barrier for Prince.
In Spring 1983, NBC broadcast Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, where Jackson performed his iconic version of Billie Jean and introduced his sequined glove and the moonwalk. The next day, Fred Astaire called Jackson to congratulate him.
Epic had trouble keep up with production. And, that was before the video for the song Thriller itself. The 14-minute video for Thriller became a major pop culture phenomenon.
Made for one million in 1983 dollars, Thriller was the first video shot by a film director, John Landis.
MTV paid one million dollars for the exclusive rights to air it, the first time it paid a label for a video. The love of the video was so strong that Epic created an hourlong documentary called Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller which aired on MTV. It was sold as retail also, the first time a package had been created around a single video, and it started a commercial market for videos
Thriller spent 122 weeks on the Billboard Top 100. Rolling Stone Magazine puts the album at Number 20 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. Thriller is included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of culturally significant recordings, and the Thriller video is included in the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry of culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.
The album won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album Of The Year.
With the decline in album sales, and the rise of digital downloads, it remains unlikely another album will ever dominate the way Thriller did.