Tuesday, July 30, 2013

‘Thriller’ and the Lessons of the Mega-Super-Album

Illustration by Tom Gauld

‘Thriller’ and the Lessons of the Mega-Super-Album
by Rob Hoerburger

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” turns 30 this year. It is still the biggest-selling album ever, worldwide, by a lot. As is the case with most biggest-evers, actual or perceived (“I Love Lucy,” say, or “Star Wars”), it’s hard to imagine a world in which “Thriller” didn’t exist. And who would want to remember the pre-“Thriller” days anyway, at least the stretch of months right before it was released, which were nasty ones for the music business? To paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the year that “Thriller” came out, 1982, was the year the music almost died.

Since the beginning of time (1954, or when Elvis came along), there had never been a bleaker year for pop than 1982. Disco had been gone for a couple of years, but nothing — not punk, not new wave, not Journey — had replaced it as the music industry’s cash cow. Top 40 radio, the usual confluence of musical rivers, where Motown met Zeppelin, was in decline. MTV was ascendant, but black artists were routinely shut out there. There was no one place where an open-eared music fan could find Luther Vandross and the Clash and Grandmaster Flash and Tom Petty. Perhaps the clearest indication of the parched pop-music field, other than the fact that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was the summer’s biggest song, was that there were only 16 No. 1 singles that year (the average in the ’70s was more than 25). As Time magazine reported, the music industry was floundering among “the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop”; it needed a messiah.

As early as April, the industry was looking to Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles. That’s where Michael Jackson and the producer Quincy Jones started to record the follow-up to Jackson’s 1979 album, “Off the Wall.” Jackson had been a superstar for more than a decade, since he was a Motown wunderkind, and “Off the Wall” was a critical and commercial juggernaut, one of a handful of albums to have four top-12 singles. (The Carpenters’ 1972 album, “A Song for You,” had five, which was unheard-of at the time.)

Yet as spring dragged into summer dragged into fall, there were more than two dozen songs recorded for “Thriller” and still no release. Word circulated that there was no money track on the album. And as pressure was mounting from Jackson’s label, Epic, then a division of CBS Records, he was growing increasingly frustrated. He wanted something bigger than “Off the Wall,” and he wasn’t quite hearing it yet. And probably, not seeing it yet, either. “ ‘Thriller’ sounded so crappy to me that tears came to my eyes,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Moonwalk.” He then told someone to “call CBS and tell them they are not getting this album.” At that point he decided to take a few days off.

How Hall and Oates Saved Pop

Of course, in the end, “Thriller” had several money tracks. There were four solid cornerposts: a blistering rock song (“Beat It”); a sublime ballad (“Human Nature”); an R&B dance sizzler (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ”); and a video-friendly story song (“Thriller”). And at the center of it all, connecting the entire work and providing access routes to its outer regions, was a song whose musical basis came from the lone bastion of hope on pop radio in those dark days, Daryl Hall and John Oates. Their solid amalgams of pop, soul, rock and even light electronica had been breaking through the dross for a few years. In January, their “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” logged a week at No. 1 between Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band. Jackson liked “I Can’t Go for That” and heard in it the basis for his own album’s elusive unifier. He lifted its bass line for a song that made him want to dance. (And no wonder; that bass line was itself an echo of ’60s soul.) He could hear it. He could see it. That track was “Billie Jean.” It was one of the last songs completed for “Thriller” — it was reportedly mixed 91 times — and even though Quincy Jones fought Jackson about its inclusion, Jackson insisted. By early November, he was finally satisfied, and the album was rush-released into stores at the end of the month.

Not My Lover

Few blockbusters are sleeper hits. They usually start strong and then keep lapping the pack — think Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” or U2’s “Joshua Tree.” But “Thriller” didn’t get out of the gate as fast as everyone expected. The first single, a pallid duet with Paul McCartney called “The Girl Is Mine,” was a hit but failed to ignite a frenzy for the album, which had only nine tracks. More than two months after its release, “Thriller” still hadn’t reached No. 1. I was a D.J. at the time at a small rock-oriented bar on Long Island, and I started playing “Beat It,” with its surprising guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, but at that early point the song was less a phenomenon than a curiosity. It wasn’t until “Billie Jean” was released as a single in early 1983 that “Thriller” really took off. It had that long, sinuous bass-line intro, paranoiac synth warnings, a hiccupping vocal; it was the ultimate crossover dream, a song both timely and out of its time. And it had a first-rate video in which Jackson came off like a musical James Bond, sexy, sly and licensed to dance. The song climbed to No. 1, stormed the ramparts at MTV and, buoyed even further by Jackson’s dazzling performance on the “Motown 25” TV special that May, led the way for the album’s other hits and for other black artists. By the end of 1983, “Thriller” had become a nine-track stimulus package for the entire music business.

And yet: just nine songs, four of which don’t merit any substantial discussion now. So what made “Thriller” such a big hit? Some schools of thought contend that it wasn’t even the best album of Jackson’s career. “Off the Wall” was, in many ways, more sophisticated musically, and almost all of its songs are still memorable. A conductor/arranger friend of mine, who is classically trained but appreciates a good pop tune, says he never cared much about “Thriller” but still perks up whenever he hears the upper-level harmony on “Rock With You,” the biggest hit from “Off the Wall.” I like “Off the Wall” more than “Thriller,” too, maybe because it’s a happier and a sweatier album, the last blast of the smiley-face pop-and-soul ’60s and ’70s.

And maybe “Thriller” wasn’t even the best album of 1982. A good number of critics would probably tell you that Prince’s “1999,” a double album released a few weeks before “Thriller,” was much more ambitious and that its pioneering electro-sex-funk was what kept the music business churning through the mid- and late ’80s. A similar dynamic existed between Carole King’s “Tapestry” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” bellwethers of the singer-songwriter era that were released within a few months of each other in 1971. King’s album sold millions and is generally considered the first true blockbuster of the rock era; Mitchell’s sold about a tenth as much but has aged better critically and is regarded the more erudite and influential album (though part of that could be because rock critics still seem to relate best to lyrics, Mitchell’s greatest strength, while King’s poetry has always been in her melodies).

And yet while King/Jackson may have been relatively prosaic compared with Mitchell/Prince, you can feel in their multiplatinum opuses a conscious effort to raise craft to art, to regain the multipartisan musical platforms that had slipped away in their respective eras (for King, post-Beatles; for Jackson, post-disco), to be both smart and simple enough to reach the greatest common denominator. They were musical populists and were building from the bottom up. What you can hear in their landmark albums most of all is the need to be heard.

Which brings us to Adele.

‘21’ and Counting

More than a year and a half after its release, Adele’s album “21”continues to carry the music biz on its husky, soulful pipes. I’m a fan of this record, and of her, but neither it nor its capable predecessor, “19,” has as much artistic heft or variety as, say, Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” The still-staggering sales of “21” — more than nine million in the United States alone — has had me asking the same question I used to ask year after year about Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”: Who’s still buying it?

I got part of my answer a few months ago when I was in a Target on Long Island and saw a woman who looked to be about 65 casually pick up a copy of “21” and deposit it in her cart next to her Tide and her toothpaste. This wasn’t long after Adele swept the Grammys, so perhaps this purchase was a ripple of that wave. But it may also have been that “21” has become, as the writer J. Randy Taraborrelli once said about “Thriller,” a “household staple.” And I was reminded again of my D.J. days, when the song from “Thriller” that got everyone moving — the club kids, the disco holdovers and the bar’s core audience, whom I’ll call young plumbers and electricians — was “Billie Jean,” because it dared to offer a little something for everyone.

There’s also a herd mentality in place with “21.” As it did with “Thriller” and “Tapestry,” the herd has moved toward something durable and dependable in a world when so much seems flimsy or broken (or overproduced). This is the same mind-set that probably has me occasionally standing in line at Shake Shack even though I don’t really like fried burgers or French fries.

Was “21” the best album of 2011? Will it be the most innovative or influential album of its decade or era? Probably not. Some critics have carped that it’s retro, safe, rewarded for its comfortable landings within the contours of “quality.” (Critics have been known to complain when women walk off with the year’s big musical prizes anyway.)

Well, yes, “21” is retro, just as “Thriller” could be (that reconstituted Hall and Oates bass line) and “Tapestry” was (Brill Building tunesmithing wrapped in hippie drag). But “21” is also a Very Professional Work from a woman with an extraordinary voice and a strong yet uncomplicated point of view, one whose unadorned “traditional” talent and image is as much of a selling point as Jackson’s moonwalk was. It, like “Thriller” and “Tapestry” before it, or even something like the current TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” not only solves the riddle of the masses but also manages to elevate them. To what heights is an argument for the ages. But what’s inarguable is that each album marks an occasion when the masses got something very, very right. — New York Times

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