WANNA BE STARTIN SOMETHIN - THRILLER - Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George

Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)


IN THE AGE OF DOWNLOADS AND ITUNES, I STILL own lots of vinyl, including hundreds of albums and countless 45 rpm singles, some of which I liberated decades ago from my mother’s once-vast record collection. I treasure them all, even if I haven’t played any of them in years. The albums sit high on a white bookshelf, and one level down, in milk crates, are my battered, almost ancient, singles. I have a digital turntable, which I received as a gift, with great enthusiasm, thinking I’d turn all my vinyl into MP3 files. But that technological transfer has fallen victim to my schedule, so mostly my albums sit on their shelf, giving me old-school cred while collecting dust.

On this day I walk over to the pile and, as a young DJ might say, start “diggin’” for a particular album. There’s a tactile pleasure in navigating through the pile, a connection to the not-too-distant past when many of my days involved looking for an LP I really wanted to hear. It was an act of physical labor, sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating, to find that special combo of cardboard and vinyl calling out to you. Finally, I find the album and slide it out of the pile.

In a white suit with pleated pants, black-zippered shirt, and leopard-print handkerchief and coiffed with a nicely backlit jheri curl, Michael Jackson gazes out from the cover of Thriller. His name and the title are written in a quirky script. The gatefold album cover opens up to reveal a lounging Michael Jackson balancing a baby cougar on his right knee.

On the back are the song titles, written in the same script, along with the production and management credits. On the inner sleeve are the lyrics to every song (actually readable, unlike inner-sleeve copy in the coming CD age) and two of the many pen-and-ink drawings the singer rendered during Thriller’s production. On side one Michael and Paul McCartney pull at a very skinny woman in a re-creation of the lyrics of “The Girl Is Mine.” On the other side Michael and a strangely haired friend (who looks more like a child than the vivacious Ola Ray of the video) are watching Frankenstein and other monsters escape the screen to surround them. The cartoons give this very-well-designed 1980s record package an endearingly idiosyncratic touch.

In fact, I could use similar words to describe Thriller’s music: a very-well-designed 1980s package with enough idiosyncratic touches to make it seem an individual statement. This album is both a calculated commercial product and a projection of a singular, cartoony, passionate, odd, dreamy, anxious individual, enabled by a crew of skilled artists and craftsmen.

Both God and the Devil can be found in the details. Almost all significant cultural expressions, no matter how elaborate the final presentation or how global the reach, are created in little rooms, often dark, small, definitely out of the way, and usually grimy. Great work is created in a tedious accumulation of raindrops that its creator hopes will eventually become a powerful storm of art.

In previous centuries, the cliché was that an artist worked in damp basements or cold attics, he or she chipping at stone or sliding a brush stroke across a tall canvas. The twenty-first century version is a bedroom lined with laptops and digital equipment as the artist hopes to one day upload something of emotional and commercial value after too many days of takeout Chinese food. Thriller was recorded from April to October 1982 at one of the state-of-the-art studios of the predigital era: Westlake Studios, a nondescript building where glittery LA pop was created. Wood-paneled walls held gold and platinum records, a lounge held a color TV, and there was a kitchen for coffee, tea, and expensive takeout from places like Mr. Chow. As in Vegas casinos, there were few clocks visible, only timepieces that monitored the length of tracks being cut.

Westlake was located on Beverly Boulevard, just a few blocks from the Beverly Center, which in the 1980s was the preeminent shopping mall in Los Angeles county, a place where people went to meet as much as shop. Every New Yorker I knew stopped by the Beverly Center when in LA whenever he or she was suffering from the sensory underload of the town’s car culture. I know because I made my first trip to Los Angeles in 1981 and would become a regular visitor to LA, the Beverly Center, and Westlake Studios, where I’d conduct a number of interviews with Quincy Jones and his creative associates in the years before and after the explosion that was Thriller. In the pages that follow, I’m gonna lean a lot on some of those twenty-five-plus-year-old conversations because they bring me back to that time without the haze of nostalgia or the smooth glow of revisionism.

THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS to look at the biggest-selling record of all time, a prime artifact of the early years of block-buster American culture. Like Roots on television (which Quincy scored) and Star Wars in movie theaters, both in 1977, Thriller redefined how big and culturally binding a commercial entertainment product could be. The album eclipsed the sales of all that had come before and set an unreachable mark for recordings to come. A success this massive can be seen retrospectively not only as the beginning of something but also as the end of an era. Thriller was both.

Thriller was one of the last predigital (analog) albums. It proved to be the apex of decades of striving by black artists for mainstream acceptance. The album set unrealistic expectations for what black music success could be. It confirmed that music videos in general, and MTV in particular, would be as important as radio and record companies for popular music during the next twenty-five years. It reconnected the history of rock ’n’ roll to the narrative of black popular music. It brought an African influence to the pop charts. It contained songs whose videos were more enduring than the often-mediocre music that generated them. It epitomized the pop craftsmanship of Los Angeles session cats while supporting the playful nightmares of its star. It was the high point for a record industry that is now as weak as the auto industry, though for Sony, Warner Music, Universal, and the rest, there is no government bailout in sight.

In spring 1982, I traveled to Westlake Studios to meet with forty-nine-year-old maestro Quincy Delight Jones Jr. (I did a major interview for Musician magazine, and the cover subject of the September 1982 issue in which the interview was published was guitarist Eddie Van Halen.) Quincy was the most charming man I’d ever met, uncannily able to put me at ease and to make me like him and want to please him. Within ten minutes of meeting him at Westlake, he’d told me my writing reminded him of a best-selling author. I don’t even remember the author’s name, but the idea that Quincy was paying that much attention flattered me. Given the range of talent he’s worked with—Frank Sinatra, Leslie Gore, Dinah Washington, Michael Jackson—I’ve always thought that his greatest gift, even more than his musical acumen, is this charm.

“What kind of man is able to deal with such a wide variety of music?” I wrote.

Well, for one thing, a man who lives in Los Angeles, the car craziest town in America, and doesn’t drive… . [He] has the cool, hip quality associated with veterans of the bebop era. Words like “cat” and “man” flow easily from his mouth, as do references to pretty women, hanging out and the urban street life that you’d expect from someone years his junior. That youthful vitality, tempered by a wisdom acquired the hard way, are strong elements of Jones’s personality and both are definitely felt in his music.

Digital recording technology was already making inroads in studios in 1982, but Quincy wasn’t yet a fan. Thriller would be recorded at the crux of the transition from analog to digital, with its feet firmly on the old-school side of the fence. In producing George Benson’s Give Me the Night, Quincy and engineer Bruce Swedien had utilized some digital equipment, but for the Donna Summer album he was finishing when we talked and the Michael Jackson album he was about to dive into, analog tech would dominate. “It [digital] will be ready soon,” he observed, “but it still has to be developed to deal with all the characteristics of sound. It scans the sounds and analyzes them scientifically, but it loses unscientific sounds. There is a build up and dirt that you want that it eliminates. It’s too clean and I don’t want my music to sound like that because it’s not conceived that way. Music is conceived in passion and should sound like it.”

In later years, there’d be some confusion over who played on what Thriller track. Drummer Ndugu Chancler has always claimed that he, not Jeff Porcaro, played drums on “Human Nature.” On the original pressings of the album, Dean Parks was listed as the guitar player on “Billie Jean” when David Williams actually did the playing. Much of this confusion over the credits was due to Swedien’s approach to engineering Thriller.

He used two twenty-four-track tape machines to record and often four to five reels of tape per song, which the album notes called the Acoustic Recording Process. This often translated into one hundred tracks per song, a fantastic number of options for a producer and a nightmare for someone tabulating musicians’ credits. Once the rhythm tracks were recorded, Swedien ran off work tapes with a cue mix and put the masters away until the final mix, minimizing sonic wear and tear.

Quincy and I talked a lot about the producer’s role in record-making and his relationship with the artist he’s producing. Quincy told me:

The producer has to be concerned also with an overall vision that comes organically from what the artist is all about, their essence. I don’t believe that the artist necessarily has to agree with how you perceive them. Sometimes it is very difficult for them to understand what they’re about and the things they haven’t tried. They know very well what they’ve done before, but not the new things.

The smallest, tiniest detail can make a tremendous difference. You don’t indiscriminately put on a horn part, a percussion part or a guitar part. I’ve been in a recording studio thirty-two years. By now I understand intuitively that there are certain things you can put on a record to create an illusion or an emotion. You can’t pile things on. You can put a lot of things on a record and the listeners will never hear them. You have to have a big vision of the entire project… . You have to have more and more enthusiasm, not less, as time goes on. By the time you’re mixing, you have to have more enthusiasm than when you started.

At the time we were talking, Quincy had already started working on Thriller, wading through the hundreds of songs he and Michael were considering for inclusion. Quincy was, of course, highly complimentary of his chief collaborator:

He is the essence of what a performer and an artist are all about. Michael has got all you need emotionally, but he backs it up with discipline and pacing… . Oh man, he’d come in during Off the Wall and put down two lead vocals and three background parts in one day. He does his home-work and rehearses and works hard at home. Most singers want to do everything in the studio. They’re lazy.

When he commits to an idea, he goes all the way with it. He has the presence of mind to feel something, conceive it and then bring it to life. It’s a long way from idea to execution. Everybody wants to go to heaven and nobody wants to die. It’s ass power, man. You have to be emotionally ready to put as much energy into it as it takes to make it right.

If Off the Wall represented Michael’s maturation into young manhood, Thriller fully fleshed out a theme in his writing and singing that had already peeked out in the Jacksons albums. As Michael became a man, anger became as prominent a part of his work as his oft-mentioned childlike quality. Between Off the Wall and Thriller, Michael found a fierce, judgmental, and combative voice. The paranoia that “This Place Hotel” had revealed was given free reign on this record. (When Michael’s vocal range lowered slightly with age, he found a new sweet spot that spoke to his displeasure with media, family, women, and the endless legion of users he’d encountered.)

LYRICALLY, THREE KEY SONGS (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It”) constitute Jackson’s personal trilogy of terror, revisiting some earlier ideas and introducing themes that would recur throughout his work. The evil women of “Heartbreak Hotel” have returned in the form of one treacherous gal named Billie Jean, who torments Michael, accusing him of fathering her son. In “Startin’ Somethin’,” another woman (perhaps the same one?) spreads lies and uses her body as a weapon to upset Michael’s “baby” and cause pain.

In both songs, Michael sings with great anger and palpable paranoia about being observed, talked about, and desired. In “Billie Jean,” he recalls his mother’s advice to be careful about whom you love because of the ease with which lies are confused with truth. His fear of the outside world, and its designs upon him, lead him to compare his body to a buffet and then a vegetable that “they” (media, father, family, record business) feast on. He reinforces that notion on “Beat It,” noting that given a chance, “they” will attack you physically and mentally and still justify their actions. Taken coldly, without Michael’s voice giving these sentiments dimension, these ideas may seem less than profound, but, of course, his voice gives them depth.

Children play a prominent role in “Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean,” but not as the objects of joy Michael spoke of so often. The little boy in “Billie Jean” is the result of an affair Michael regrets. In “Startin’ Somethin’,” he bluntly states that people shouldn’t have a baby if they can’t feed the child, a pragmatic and unromantic view of sex. Such comments might be traced to the Jehovah’s Witnesses tenets that Michael learned from his mother, a group that makes stern admonitions against premarital sex. The very moralistic, conservative view of the world embedded in this wondrous pop music was as fearful of the modern world as was the neo-conservative movement ascendant at the time of Thriller’s release.

The irony is that musically speaking Michael is totally progressive, always pushing for sounds and approaches different from what came before. It is this tension between his old-fashioned morality, his fear of the outside world, and his artistic boldness that makes these three songs such enormous achievements.

I’m going to look at each song on Thriller track by track in the order it appears on the disc. Sometimes I’ll be doing a close reading of the production and lyrics, sometimes looking both backward and forward in time, seeing how some of the songs comment on the pop music that came before and how others altered (or didn’t) the music that came after. Also, since Michael’s untimely death, many of the songs have taken on renewed, or in some cases new, cultural relevance. In the continuing dialogue over what Michael means and what his legacy is, as both artist and man, Thriller should be the central point of reference.


ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BY-PRODUCTS of the late 1960s was a building of bonds between Africa and the newly named “black” Americans, folks who just a few years before had been known as Negroes. The phrase “Black is beautiful” spoke to the transformation of a people’s sense of identity that had many profound manifestations. One of the best was an earnest, if sometimes naïve, identification with Africa, a continent that black Americans had been physically and psychologically separated from by white racism for generations.

The Tarzan films and thousands of other equally racist movie depictions of Africans as savage cannibals easily outwitted by white folks and in need of white folks to save them were commonplace. It took a great act of collective will to begin the long process of breaking the mental shackles that made black Americans ashamed of their skin. Africa, in truth, was a land of ancient cultures and traditions blacks knew little about in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Music was the most obvious link between two peoples who’d been separated by slavery and centuries. Consequently, several multiact American soul music concerts were organized and, thankfully, recorded and filmed. The “Soul to Soul” concert was held in Accra, Ghana, in 1971 and featured a smart mix of jazzy soul acts (Roberta Flack, Les McCann, Eddie Harris), unconventional Latin musicians (Santana, Willie Bobo), and straight-up soul power singers (the Staple Singers, Ike and Tina Turner) who performed before 100,000 people. Ike Turner, whose extraordinary skills as a bandleader have been overshadowed by his abuse of Tina Turner, was quite moving in his reactions to visiting the motherland.

James Brown, whose funk was the crucial influence on the creation of West African Afro-beat music, ventured to Africa several times in the 1970s, most famously as part of a concert to accompany the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. The strong lineup included Bill Withers, the Spinners, the Fania All-Stars featuring Cecila Cruz, B. B. King, and Miriam Makeba. It took twenty-two years for the documentary of this historic heavyweight battle, When We Were Kings, to reach theaters. It took another thirteen years for Soul Power, the documentary record of those concerts and the performers’ interaction with local musicians and fans, to be completed.

One memorable scene in Soul Power follows Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian saxophonist, as he plays for a dancing, adoring group of children. Dibango, who had a strong following throughout West Africa, was able to achieve worldwide pop success, at the time a rare occurrence, which was very much tied up with the rise of disco. His 1972 recording “Soul Makossa” was the B side of another single and surely would have remained obscure if not for David Mancuso, a visionary New York DJ, who threw legendary parties in a lower Manhattan loft. The party itself became known as the Loft and featured Mancuso, with his turntable in the center of the room, playing an eclectic mix of dance records that attracted a lively cult audience, one that veterans of the New York club scene argue created the first disco music experience. Mancuso, who was the first to play many songs now regarded as disco classics, found Dibango’s record in a West Indian record store in Brooklyn.

“Soul Makossa” might have remained a cult item if Frankie Crocker, the adventurous WBLS program director and DJ, hadn’t heard it at Mancuso’s party and put it on the air in New York City. By 1973 “Soul Makossa” had become a minimania, with some thirty cover versions being recorded, while Dibango’s original went on to reach number thirty-five on the pop chart. This musical journey, from progressive New York disco to WBLS playlist to international success, would be replayed scores of times during the disco era.

COMPARED TO “SOUL TO SOUL” and Soul Power, the Jackson 5’s pilgrimage to Africa in 1973 was much more modest. At the urging of promoter Mamadu Johnny Seeka and with the backing of the government, three shows were organized in Senegal, West Africa, as were trips to villages, official ceremonies, and the ancient slave deportation site on Goree Island. Joe, Michael, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and young Randy, who was apprenticing on congas, landed in Dakar late at night and were greeted by drummers, dancers, and cheering fans.

But for activist Johnny Seeka, this trip was as much about education as it was about entertainment. The same was true for the documentary he planned, the footage of which was lost for decades, only resurfacing after Michael Jackson’s death. At a Harlem screening organized by ImageNation, a community-oriented African American film exhibition company, on July 14, 2009, a packed house viewed a print of The Jackson 5 in Africa, a film rarely seen in the United States.

The film, narrated by popular black TV actor Robert Hooks, is a straight-up piece of black nationalist propaganda. It uses the Jackson family’s visit to give viewers a primer on postcolonial African politics, the cultural connections between blacks and Africans, and the need for more investment in Africa by its stolen peoples.

The print screened that night in Harlem was in terrible shape. There were numerous frames with sound but no image. Sometimes the sound was in sync and sometimes not, which was particularly frustrating during the concert footage. Apparently, all the shows were shot with one camera, so most of the concerts were shot in wide masters, with some occasional pans and zooms. Compared to a beautifully photographed documentary such as Soul Power, the film was a frustrating mess. (By the end of 2009, a color-corrected trailer of The Jackson 5 in Africa was up on YouTube, but there was no word of a formal release.)

But the film does give some depth to the photographs and stories from that trip. Photographer Kwame Braithwaite, who was also a political activist in Harlem, accompanied the Jacksons and observed: “The poverty they saw there seemed to really bother them. Gary, Indiana, is not a rich city, but they had never seen people live as they are forced to live in Africa.”

The trip to the slave quarters at Goree Island, a holding area where chained Africans were kept before boarding ships for the Middle Passage to the Caribbean and the Americas, was especially jarring for the Jacksons. “I studied Goree in high school and college,” Jackie Jackson later said, “but I never did know exactly what it was like until I came over here and saw. I never did know the places were that small or how they captured them and chained them up like that.”

Michael Jackson was fourteen years old in 1974, a lanky, pimply adolescent wearing geeky white sweaters as he walked through African villages, visited Goree, and listened to the drummers of Senegal play. During these experiences, he felt a swelling sense of racial pride. “I always thought that blacks, as far as artistry, were the most talented race on earth. But when I went to Africa, I was even more convinced. They do incredible things there. They’ve got the beats and rhythm. I really see where drums come from… . I don’t want the blacks to ever forget that this is where we come from and where our music comes from. I want us to remember.”

MEMORY HAS ALWAYS BEEN a crucial tool for a pop musician, even before the current era of sampling. Remembering older songs and mining them for riffs or harmonies are how new songs are often inspired and created. On the demo of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the melody, Michael’s vocal approach, and the rhythm shifts that made the final song a dance classic are already in place, even though the demo is clearly still a work in progress.

But the use of the African chant “Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa, ” which lifts the record up and sends it soaring, is still being worked out. About three minutes into the song, the phrase pops up awkwardly and then disappears. That happens again about thirty seconds later, before Michael and his background singers sing this hook full on during the last forty-five seconds of the demo. These voices perform over a collage of percussion instruments that are much more African sounding than in the dynamic final version.

When you compare Dibango’s superfunky original, “Soul Makossa” (from the Cameroonian dance the kossa, which evolved into a regional genre of music called Makossa), and the final version of Michael’s song, you get a deep insight into Michael’s musicality. He arranges the words in a much higher key and at a faster rhythm, turning Dibango’s monotone delivery into a high-spirited chant. Up until the last bridge, the song’s lyric presents a paranoid vision of the world. Michael reshapes Dibango’s old hook, turning the fear in the song’s first two-thirds into an inspired celebration.

Dibango called his song “Soul Makossa” to make it sound more Western and modern. Though not credited as a co-writer on “Wanna,” Dibango did make a financial settlement with Jackson’s camp, a good investment for all involved because the makossa phrase would continue to appear in the twenty-first century. Rihanna used a version of the chant in her 2007 smash “Don’t Stop the Music.” Via Michael Jackson and Rihanna, that West African cadence has now filled dance floors around the globe for four decades.

On August 29, 2009, on what would have been Michael Jackson’s fifty-first birthday, filmmaker Spike Lee invited a few friends to help him celebrate. Spike had great affection for Michael, having directed not one but two videos for Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” in 2007, and even had him over for a meeting in Fort Greene. On the flyer was an angelic photo of young Michael Jackson with a halo around his Afro. An estimated 20,000 men, women, and children, including lots of babies in strollers, turned up in Prospect Park to dance, dance, dance to Michael’s music. Spike, who’s always loved giving parties, distributed hundreds of signs with the words “Ma ma say ma ma sa mama ma kosa” to the crowd.

So toward the day’s end, when DJ Spinna played “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the already festive throng grew frenzied, waving the signs like church ladies fanning in a Baptist church. In Nike sneakers, flip-flops, Birkenstocks, and bare feet, thousands of Brooklynites leaped up and down, twisting and turning as the magical chant filled the air. Michael was dead. Senegal and Cameroon were an ocean away. But at that moment, Brooklyn was as connected to Africa as it could ever be.