Michael Jackson: Thriller (25th Anniversary)
Hard to imagine, but for a teenage listener today Michael Jackson’s Thriller is buried deeper in the mists of time than Elvis Presley’s ‘56 sessions were for me when I started buying music. Will this reissue be as significant a pointer and as revelatory a discovery as RCA’s two-volume reissue of those Sun sessions were for me? There are common qualities which make the comparison a little less odious than it may appear. Both artists had to push against institutionalised racism– redneck radio for the first King, redneck MTV for the second – and both managed to do so by creating an unclassifiable and unique sound with the help of visionary producers. And both managed to make a uniquely androgynous asexualised and sophisticated version of source music supposedly carnal and simple, and suffer at the hands of purist critics as a result. And both would sell squillions of records.
But Thriller is not the best argument for these comparisons. And it’s not Michael Jackson’s best record. There are no hints of the sheer sense of unfettered glee that informed it’s predecessor Off The Wall (all this thinking about dates throws up another surprise - there were six years between the two) and – apart from the riveting tightly reined delirium of 'Wanna Be Startin’ Something' – no hint of the sheer shiny metallic wonder of its follow-up, Bad. A saccharine duet with McCartney (some gesture to smooth over Jackson’s buying of the entire Beatles catalogue, perhaps) his worst ballad ever… but then there are the singles, of course.
Musically: all rather pale and derivative hybrids, barely held together by some of Jackson’s plainest vocals. But of course, Thriller’s reputation really rests on supra-musical ground. What it does demonstrate is an unfailing ability to give an unknown public exactly what it didn’t realise it wanted. And as soon as it got it, it wanted more and more of it and Michael Jackson made sure there was plenty to go round. For perhaps the first time, buying the music wasn’t enough - all three big singles were really soundtracks to the videos anyway. The associated music films that were made to support three of the singles from the record and their importance as marketing tools is so well documented that we needn’t really discuss them here, though their tightly choreographed twentieth century Broadway style was an important element in Michael Jackson’s distancing himself from the sex of soul that he would explore more and more through his voice. But any appearance of cynicism is purely retrospective – no one had done anything like this before, no one had any idea it would work. An absolute moonwalk of faith. But like Never Mind The Bollocks, a listener coming to it today will be disappointed that a record so all-pervasive culturally should be so dull.
This reissue does the record no favours either – missing the opportunity to collect the original remixes - particularly of ‘Startin’ Something' and it’s miraculous segue into Soul Makossa that signals the breathy experiment that would take Jackson into an examination of the soul voice as rigorous as Scott Walker’s (Engel is pleased to have removed all elements of ego from pop singing. Jackson can be prouder of taking the sexuality out of soul) – and instead lining up some tawdry remixes from the truly talentless Black-Eyed Peas. There were no remixes at all on those Sun recordings collected for my teenage ears to discover, just a primal and thrilling sound that seemed ancient and futuristic at once. Michael Jackson could – and did – make similarly timeless music. Thriller isn’t it. The marking of dates always dates the marked.