Thriller, the best global selling album of all time, turns 40 in 2022. It changed pop music and dance forever. It broke down racial barriers and elevated MTV to the mainstream. But it also marked the beginning of the slow descent of Michael Jackson that would see him dead by 50.
When Michael Jackson released The Girl Is Mine, the cute, smooth - almost cloying - ballad, duet with Paul McCartney, in April of 1982, it hardly signalled what was to come from the rest of his 6th studio album. At that time - with the album still yet to be named Thriller - it would have been logical to expect more post-disco R’n’B pop in the vein of Off the Wall; Jackson was again working with Quincy Jones who had helped establish 21-year-old Jackson as a solo artist three years earlier.
But things were changing for Michael Jackson, in ways that people could not even begin to imagine.
“There out to get you, better leave while you can;
Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man.”
“And be careful what you do, ‘cause the lie becomes the truth.”
Forgetting the narrative of its obviously sinister title track, even the catchy dance-pop anthems Beat It and Billie Jean had quite harrowing and dark lyrics, mirroring the sadness a young Jackson was already beginning to feel.
Nevertheless, when Thriller was released at the end of 1982, with an overly polished, softly focused, but fairly normal, great looking young black man in a white suit on the cover, the world expected more of the same from the 8th Jackson sibling - if slightly better. Michael Jackson was 24 at the time.
What they got was a genesis of the The King of Pop. The greatest selling album the world has ever seen. It’s said that Jackson wanted to create an album with no filler tracks: Thriller had seven Billboard top ten singles - the first time any album had done so - including two number ones, the above mentioned pop classics.
What they got was a genesis of the The King of Pop. The greatest selling album the world has ever seen
Human Nature and Pretty Young Thing had echoes of Off The Wall, while Wanna Be Starting Something hinted at Bad, which would follow.
Thriller itself went beyond being just a single. The 14-minute video with Vincent Price’s chilling Edgar Allan Poe-esque ramblings, and incredible make-up and choreography for the time, was a huge global event. In a pre-social media world, people sat round their TV at Halloween of 1983, for the live unveiling.
In fact it’s hard to separate Thriller the album, from Thriller the visual and audio experience. Beat It and Billie Jean in particular broke the dominance of white artists on MTV, and propelled the little known cable channel into the mainstream. Jackson also debuted his seminal moonwalk dance while performing Billie Jean on a televised performance for Motown’s 25th anniversary.
But as an album, Thriller has sold 70 million copies - 20 million more than its nearest rival. It stayed at number one in the US for 37 weeks and was the best-selling album in the States for both 1983 and 1984. It won a record eight Grammys in 1984.
It is the greatest Pop album of all time. Although pop alone fails to encompass the musical genres it touches.
By the time Bad was released in 1987 - another Quincy collaboration, with five number ones - Jackson himself was in decline. He had already had his fourth nose surgery, his skin was becoming paler and the suglasses were a permanent fixture.
Within a few years his health would wain further, his behaviour escalate eccentrically, and the first of many child-abuse claims would surface. Only 25 years after the release of Thriller, the drug-dependent recluse would be dead from a heart attack.
Today his legacy is slightly tainted. But Thriller stands the test of time.
“You're fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller, ow…”
Meanwhile, The Godfather turns 50
Every bit as seminal as Thriller, The Godfather set the standard for Goodfellas, Heat, Scarface and even Pulp Fiction to try and follow.
It’s hard to picture how different and out of time The Godfather was in 1972, a year of kaftans, bubble writing, and Are You Being Served. Donny Osmond sang Puppy Love and Carry on Abroad was the latest bawdy offering from Sid James and Kenneth Williams.
Onto that backdrop landed Francis Ford Coppola’s 3-hour adaptation of Mario Puzo’s late 60s novel about the Corleone family. A film that is still as relevant, impressive and watchable as it was 50 years ago.
Without The Godfather, there might never have been Goodfellas, Casino or Scarface. It was a groundbreaking movie and in many ways remains so.
Epic in both length and scale, it was initially hard to find a director for the film - perhaps they made Coppola an offer he couldn’t refuse. Whatever, it was an inspired choice, as was the casting of Brando, who was then on the nose; a muscular presence of the 50s, his career seemed practically over by the late 60s. His portrayal of patriarch Vito Corleone earned him his second best actor Oscar, almost 20 years after his first. Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now would later follow.
Much would later follow for Al Pacino, and although he didn’t win an Oscar, The Godfather is perhaps his film. His character Michael is the returning war-hero, sucked reluctantly into mafia family life, whose gradual metamorphosis into ruthless boss is at the core of the movie. Pacino, James Can (as brother Sonny) and Robert Duvall (as lawyer and unofficially adopted brother, Tom) all received supporting actor nominations. Arguably Pacino should have won over Brando, for his brooding, controlled performance.
Fifty years on the film regularly nears the top of any Best Movies list. Usually it sits behind Citizen Cane in second place. Maybe it’s time I gave Citizen Cane another watch, but I know I’ll probably sit through three hours of The Godfather every year for the rest of my life.