It may be the most profitably spent quarter of a year in music history: [artist id="1102"]Michael Jackson[/artist] and Quincy Jones holed up in the studio and cranked out Thriller, the biggest-selling album of original material of all time, in less than three months.
"In three months, we had to deliver Thriller and the 'E.T.' songbook and storybook [url id="http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2009/06/26/michael-jackson-performs-et-in-todays-ebay-prop-watch/"][Jackson's now-rare narration of the film],"[/url] Quincy Jones told MTV in December of 1984. "Yes: three months, two LPs, and that's what we did. It's probably the best thing that ever happened, because otherwise we'd start to think about [it too much] and getting paralysis from analysis and that sorta thing. But we didn't have time to think. We had a great motivator and incentive, which was just fear of making this deadline.
"All we were trying to do was to get finished and hope that it did as good as Off the Wall did. At the time, Off the Wall was the biggest-selling black album at the time," Jones told MTV News last year. "You can't think about the stuff. We come from an old-school world. We weren't into fame and money. The mindset was to do something you really believe in, something spiritual that gives you goosebumps."
Prior to Thriller, Jones and Jackson were coming off of Jackson's crowning achievement at the time: 1979's Off the Wall. That album marked Jackson's transition from child star to superstar and solidified his status as one of the great talents of the era. Songs such as "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" were solid hits, and the album was certified platinum many times over. So the young singer and Jones — with whom he had fostered a relationship during the filming of the movie "The Wiz" — had to come with the next great thing.
"Well, we had three years to reflect on a lot of things, and we also had to deal with the intimidation of trying to follow Off the Wall," Jones said. "It was intimidating, but we pushed ourselves into a schedule that eliminated any way that we could reflect on anything. I scheduled this so we just had to go forward, be intuitive and believe, and go straight ahead."
The first single from Thriller was "The Girl Is Mine," a duet Paul McCartney (with whom Jackson later collaborated on McCartney's hit "Say, Say, Say"). Years later, the two would have a falling out over the King of Pop purchasing the Beatles' publishing catalog, but in the early '80s, the two legends were thicker than thieves, despite their light tussling over the affections of woman on "The Girl Is Mine."
"I was surprised that Paul was as professional as Michael is," Jones said in 1984. "They just like each other a lot, so there was no friction. It just flowed."
"The Girl is Mine" never had a video and Thriller was far from a blockbuster out of the gate. However, two strategies helped to push it into the stratosphere: releasing the undeniable hits "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" in quick succession — and, more significantly, the powerful videos that accompany both songs.
"MTV had just started, and at that time, MTV wasn't playing black artists," Jones told MTV News last year. "[Warner Bros. executive] Steve Ross asked us what the next record was; we were down in Acapulco at the Warner Bros. villa. We said it was going to be a double-clutch of 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It.' He said, 'That goes on MTV next week.' "
"It's kind of surreal and different," Jackson told MTV in 1999 about the video for "Billie Jean." "I didn't come up with that concept. It was a British fellow, Steve Barron. I thought he had wonderful ideas but I let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece was I said, 'Give me a section where I can dance a little,' because he'd said no dancing. I said, 'Just give me one little moment,' so that whole section where you see this long street and this billboard of these two girls — one of them is Billie Jean — and I'm dancing. That's the only part I contributed.
"[Looking at the video for 'Beat It'] makes me think of the song and working with Quincy Jones and all those wonderful people," Jackson added. "I love Quincy. He is a wonderful guy to work with and I remember him telling me to write a song that I would enjoy, with an edge. So I went into my room and wrote 'Beat It' — I don't know why but I did — about two gangs coming together. The song is so self-explanatory that it's so easy to make this short film, and I had seen ... I think it was a McDonald's commercial, and I said, 'God I like the rhythm and the cut of this commercial.' I said, 'I want this director [Bob Giraldi] for this piece,' so I reached out to him."
But of course, the best was yet to come.
"In my perspective, Michael and MTV rode it to glory," Quincy Jones said last year. "At last, 14 months after Thriller came out, the video for 'Thriller' [the song] came out — it had 10 cameras, nobody had seen anything like this. We were fearless! You have to know you're just a terminal being used by a higher power. It's not about us."
"The first time I saw the 'Thriller' video, I was waiting for it," Diddy told MTV News last week in Los Angeles. "It was a premiere for it — they showed you the making of it and all of that. It was something! Everyone had their VHS tapes, I think they had Betamax tapes out then. You waited for it, and your mind was blown. It's a definition of having your mind blown. Michael Jackson is the truest definition of having your mind blown."
Jackson told MTV in 1999 that part of the inspiration for making the "Thriller" video into a short film was being a fan of the Three Stooges.
"I always try to be a pioneer and be an innovator in whatever I do, and my dream was to always make short little films," he said, talking about the inspiration for the legendary video he made with director John Landis. "Because I'm a big fan of the Three Stooges — and I love watching Curly, who I think is wonderful — and they make these, like, 15-minute shorts. [A great video] has to be completely entertaining and have a linear sense of continuity as far as ... umm, I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, so you can follow a story and not just be a collage of images. And sometimes that's great too, it depends on what the director, as a visionary, what he sees, really. I'm very much involved in the complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be from my soul."
Part 1: Wiz Kid (1958-78)
A major part of the video's captivating power is the now-legendary dance moves. Jackson said coming up with the steps was one of the toughest parts.
"Well, it was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was, 'How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?' " he recalled. "So I said, 'We have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn't become something that you laugh at.' But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with [choreographer] Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror. I used to come to rehearsal sometimes with monster makeup on, and I loved doing that. So he and I collaborated and we both choreographed the piece and I thought it should start like that kind of thing and go into this jazzy kind of step, you know. Kind of gruesome things like that, not too much ballet or whatever."
Of course, the video helped push Thriller to record-breaking sales status. While Madonna released her self-titled debut in 1983 and Prince became a superstar in 1983 and '84 with the double-shot of 1999 and Purple Rain, no one reigned in the '80s like Michael Jackson.
On March 25, 1983, Jackson had another defining moment when he introduced the world to the one of the greatest dance moves of all time: the "Moonwalk," on the Motown 25th anniversary special. It was hip-hop, it was Grace Kelly, it was alien, it was the moment that those who saw it will probably never forget. It was as if he was defying gravity — not gliding, but almost floating across the stage.
Countless would-be imitators tried to mimic the move, but few succeeded. "I tried to do what he was doing," Paul Wall told MTV News. "But I had no skills on the moonwalk. Growing up with Chamillionaire, he had the skills on the dancing tip. I was like, 'You gotta show me how to do that.' I had the white glove, the microphone, I even had the doll — but I couldn't get the moonwalk down."
Michael received eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including Record of the Year for "Beat It," Best Male Pop Performances in the Rock and R&B categories and "Album of the Year." In May, he was even invited to the White House to receive an award from then-President Ronald Reagan to commemorate his support for charities that helped people overcome alcohol and drug abuse.
Instead of a Thriller tour, Michael undertook the Victory Tour with his brothers, which hit stadiums in the summer of 1984 and ran through December. The tour reportedly grossed $75 million, and Michael donated his earnings (a reported $5 million dollars) to an assortment of charities. Although the tour had met with some controversy because of the way some tickets were sold, the outing was a huge success. Michael remained the biggest star in the world — but the pressure was beginning to show.
"Right now it's too much, and no one can dream of that kind of a level," Jones said of his friend's fame in 1984. "I think it was too hot. It's what you say you want, but it really is too hot. ... Fortunately you're talking about somebody that's been on the other side of screaming fans since he was 5 years old, so you're talking about a 20-year veteran. I mean, it's not new to him, and I imagine that between Off the Wall and Thriller for the public at large — because he gained so many new fans — they saw a vast difference because it was a discovery. But for Michael, I don't think the ratio was as big as it was for the fans as it was for him, because he couldn't get out of his hotel without protection since he was a little kid. It was pretty crazy — when a buzzsaw hits you, it's hard to tell which side blade hits you first. They were crazy after Off the Wall, any place with him was insane. And it's still insane, just on a larger scale, because it's international. I think he's done an incredible job of being just a real person. He is in touch. Very simple things make him happy."
However, cracks in the façade began to appear in the wake of Jackson's nearly unprecedented fame. Reports emerged of discord between Michael and the family during the run-up to the Victory Tour, and — worst of all — his hair caught fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial in 1984.
The singer's behavior became eccentric during the years following Thriller, and as he and Jones began work on the follow-up, 1987's Bad, it would become even more so.