|B-side "Things I Do for You"|
|Released November 2, 1983 (1983-11-02) (worldwide) January 23, 1984 (1984-01-23) (US)|
Format 7" single 12" single CD single
"Thriller" is a song recorded by American singer Michael Jackson, composed by Rod Temperton, and produced by Quincy Jones. It is the seventh and final single released by Epic Records from his 1982 studio album Thriller. A 14-minute video showing Jackson in a horror-themed performance premiered on November 14, 1983. It was first shown on MTV on December 2, 1983. The song was not released as a single until January 23, 1984.
- Background and composition
- Recording and production
- Critical reception
- Chart performance
- Music video
- Live performances
- Cover versions
- Appearances in other media
- Film adaptation
"Thriller" has appeared on multiple greatest hits compilation albums from Jackson, including HIStory (1995), Number Ones (2003), The Essential Michael Jackson (2005) and Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009) and was remixed for the Immortal album in 2011. The song has a voice-over from actor Vincent Price.
In the song, sound effects such as a creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds and howling dogs can be heard, and the lyrics contain frightening themes and elements. "Thriller" received positive reviews from critics and became Jackson's seventh top-ten single on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart from the album, while reaching the top of the charts in France and Belgium and the top ten in many other countries.
"Thriller" was adapted by director John Landis into a highly successful music video, known independently as "Michael Jackson's Thriller". At fourteen minutes the video is substantially longer than the song, which ties together a narrative featuring Jackson and actress Ola Ray in a setting heavily inspired by horror films of the 1950s. In the video's most iconic scene, Jackson leads other actors costumed as zombies in a choreographed dance routine. Though it garnered some criticism for its occult theme and violent imagery, the video was immediately popular and received high critical acclaim, being nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 and winning three. In 2009 it was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, the first music video ever selected.
Background and composition
"Thriller" was written by Rod Temperton, and produced by Quincy Jones. An inspiration was the Jacksons' hit "This Place Hotel". Early titles include "Starlight", "Starlight Sun" and "Give Me Some Starlight". The title was changed to 'Thriller' after Michael told Temperton he wanted something that would appeal to kids. While still titled "Starlight", the song's hook lyrics were "Give me some starlight! Starlight sun...", but after the song was changed to "Thriller" the hook was rewritten to "'Cause this is thriller! Thriller night...". Temperton commented,
Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man'. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word... Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'.
While Temperton was writing "Thriller" he stated that he'd "always envisioned" a "talking section at the end" on the song, but did not really know what "to do with it", until deciding "to have somebody, a famous voice, in the horror genre, to do this vocal." Jones' then-wife, Peggy Lipton, who knew Vincent Price, suggested Price for the vocal part, which Price agreed to do.
"Thriller" is considered a disco-funk song. Set in the key of C♯ Modern Dorian, its instrumentation consists of synthesizer, guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, saxophone, flute and trombone. The song has a moderate tempo of 120 beats per minute. The lyrics and sound effects on "Thriller" pertain to frightful elements and themes.
Recording and production
"Thriller", along with other songs from Thriller, was recorded by Jackson over the course of eight weeks, in 1982. Jackson recorded the song at Westlake Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Bruce Swedien, the song's engineer, said of the song being recorded,
When we started 'Thriller', the first day at Westlake, we were all there and Quincy [Jones, the producer] walked in followed by me and Michael and Rod Temperton and some of the other people. Quincy turned to us and he said, 'OK guys, we're here to save the recording industry.' Now that's a pretty big responsibility – but he meant it. And that's why those albums, and especially 'Thriller', sound so incredible. The basic thing is, everybody who was involved gave 150 percent … Quincy's like a director of a movie and I'm like a director of photography, and it's Quincy's job to cast [it]. Quincy can find the people and he gives us the inspiration to do what we do.
Swedien and Jones stated that Vincent Price recorded his introduction and voice-over rap for the song in two takes; Jones, acknowledging that doing a voice-over for a song is "difficult", praised Price and described his recording takes as being "fabulous". Swedien said of Jackson recording the song, that, "I tried all sorts of things with Michael – for instance, he would sing the main vocal part and we'd double it one time and then I'd ask him to step away from the mic and do it a third time and that really changed the acoustics in the room so it gave Michael's vocals a unique character … We recorded some of those background vocals in the shower stall at Westlake."
Throughout the song, sound effects such as a creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds and howling dogs can be heard. Bruce Cannon, a sound effects editor for "Thriller", said that, "Things like the lightning may have come from old Hollywood movies – we'll never know which movies – but the best sound-effects editors do go out in the desert and find a coyote, so I have a feeling that was a real howl."
The backing track, especially the bassline, has certain similarities to the 1981 number-one R&B hit "Give It to Me Baby" by Rick James. The bass part was made from two modified Minimoogs playing in unison.
"Thriller" is a contemporary critical favourite. Ashley Lasimone, of AOL's Spinner.com, noted that it "became a signature for Jackson" and described "the groove of its bassline, paired with Michael's killer vocals and sleek moves" as having "produced a frighteningly great single." Jon Pareles of The New York Times noted that 'Billie Jean', 'Beat It', 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ' and "the movie in the song 'Thriller'", were the songs, unlike the "fluff" "P.Y.T.", that were "the hits that made Thriller a world-beater; along with Mr. Jackson's stage and video presence, listeners must have identified with his willingness to admit terror." Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times described "Thriller" as "adequately groovy" with a "funked-out beat" and lyrics "seemingly lifted from some little kid's 'scary storybook'".
50 Cent told NME that the song is the one he wished he'd written: "I had his poster on my wall. He had me moonwalkin' around my bedroom. I'd love to have written any Michael Jackson song, so maybe start with one of the greatest."
Prior to "Thriller"'s official release as a single, six other songs from the album had charted. "Thriller" became Jackson's seventh and final Billboard Hot 100 top-ten single from his Thriller album. In Billboard issue date February 11, 1984, the song entered the charts at number 20 on the Hot 100. The song entered the top ten the following week at number eight. One week later, it reached number five, then the next week it rose to number four; its peak position which it held for a second week. The song was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on December 4, 1989, for sales of over one million physical units in the U.S. (the requirement for gold and platinum singles was lowered after 1989). It has sold a further 3.6 million copies in digital downloads as of October 2014 in the US. As of November 2016, the song sold 4.024 million total copies in the US.
For the issue date February 25, 1984, "Thriller" charted at number 19 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart. The following week, the song placed at number five. On March 10, 1984, it charted at number 3, where it peaked. "Thriller" peaked at number 24 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart. "Thriller" debuted on the UK Singles Chart on November 19, 1983, at number 24, and the following week charted at number ten, where it peaked; the song appeared on the chart for 52 weeks. Beginning on February 5, 1984, "Thriller" peaked on the French Singles Chart at number one and topped the chart for four consecutive weeks. "Thriller" also topped the Belgian VRT Top 30 Chart for two weeks in January 1984.
Following Jackson's death, his music experienced a surge in popularity. In the week of Jackson's death, "Thriller" was Jackson's best-selling track in the US, with sales of 167,000 copies on the Billboard Hot Digital Singles Chart. On July 11, 2009, "Thriller" charted on the Billboard Hot Digital Singles Chart at number two (its peak), and the song remained in the charts' top ten for three consecutive weeks. In the United Kingdom, the song charted at number 23 the week of Jackson's death. The following week, the song reached its peak at number 12 on the UK Single Chart. On July 12, 2009, "Thriller" peaked at number two on the Italian Singles Chart and was later certified gold by the Federation of the Italian Music Industry. "Thriller" reached at number three on the Australian ARIA Chart and Swiss Singles Chart and topped the Spanish Singles Charts for one week. The song also placed within the top ten on the German Singles Chart, Norwegian Singles Chart and Irish Singles Chart, at number nine, number seven and number eight respectively. "Thriller" also landed at number 25 on the Danish Singles Chart. In the third week of July "Thriller" peaked at number 11 in Finland. The song finished at #78 for the year on Billboard Hot 100 of 1984.
In 2013, the song re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 42.
In his 1988 book Moonwalk, Jackson expressed interest in having director John Landis direct the music video for "Thriller". Having seen Landis' previous work on the horror film An American Werewolf in London, Jackson envisioned the main character of his short film to undergo similar transitions parallel to those of the characters in Landis' horror film. Hence, Landis was asked to direct the video seeing as Michael felt he would make the best fit towards properly conveying his personal concepts for the short feature film. Landis accepted Jackson’s invitation and production began soon thereafter, filming in various locations in New York and Los Angeles.
Contrary to reports of $800,000 to $1 million production budgets, Landis stated that the music video was made for $500,000. Within the same excerpt of Moonwalk, Jackson noted how he personally financed much of the short film for "Thriller" out of his own pocket. Due to all the technical details of production and the nature of the video, the budget nearly doubled in costs. John Branca—Jackson's attorney and advisor—suggested creating a documentary outlining the process of creating the short film. The behind-the-scenes documentary was aimed towards seeking a third-party sponsor to finance the project and thus alleviate some of the costs of the doubled budget. The documentary was entitled, "The Making of Thriller", and achieved significant sales among audiences.
Jackson also said of making the music video, in an interview that aired on December 11, 1999, for MTV's 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made:
My idea was to make this short film with conversation ... I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story. I'm very much involved in complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul. Usually, you know, it's an interpretation of the music. [...] 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?' 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.
The music video of the song also included on the video albums: Video Greatest Hits - HIStory, HIStory on Film, Volume II, Number Ones, on the bonus DVD of Thriller 25 and Michael Jackson's Vision.
Following the release of the music video, a 45-minute documentary was released that provided candid glimpses behind the scenes of the music video's production. Entitled Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, it, like the music video, was shown heavily on MTV for a time and was the top-selling home-video release of all time at one point, with over nine million copies sold. MTV paid $250,000 for the exclusive rights to show the documentary; Showtime paid $300,000 for pay-cable rights; and Vestron Video reportedly paid $500,000 to market the cassette, in a profit participation agreement.
Set in the 1950s, Michael and his unnamed date (Ola Ray) run out of gas near a dark wooded area. They walk off into the forest, and Michael asks her if she would be "his girl"; she accepts and he gives her a ring. He warns her, however, that he is "different". A full moon appears, and Michael begins convulsing in agony, transforming into a werewolf. His date runs away in terror, but the werecat catches up to her, knocking her down and begins lunging at her with his claws. The scene then cuts to a modern-day movie theater where Michael and his date, along with a repulsed audience, are actually watching the scene unfold in a movie called Thriller.
Michael's date leaves the theater as Michael hands his popcorn to a stranger, catches up to her, and assures her that "It's only a movie". Some debate follows as to whether or not she was scared by the movie. They then walk down a foggy road as Michael teases her by singing the verses of "Thriller". They pass a nearby graveyard, in which zombies begin to rise out of their caskets as Vincent Price performs his soliloquy. The zombies corner Michael and his date threateningly, and suddenly, Michael becomes a zombie himself. The zombies then break into an elaborate song and dance number, followed by the main chorus of "Thriller" (during which Michael was reverted to human form), frightening his date to the point where she runs for cover.
Michael (turned back into a zombie) and his fellow corpses then back the frightened girl into the corner of a nearby abandoned house. Michael then reaches for his date's throat as she lets out a bloodcurdling scream, only to awake and realize it was all a dream. Michael then offers to take her home, and she happily obliges. As they walk out of the house, Michael turns around and looks at the camera, thus revealing his yellow werewolf eyes and fangs from the beginning of the video, as we hear Vincent Price's haunting laugh.
Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly commented on the music video, "Every aspect of the 14-minute horror musical, directed with creepy-comical zest by John Landis, is beyond iconic, from Michael's red leather ensemble to the immortal (no pun) herky-jerky zombie dance and bwah-ha-ha Vincent Price narration." Though the video was met with widespread praise, it was also criticized for its content. In 1982, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) classified more than half of 200 MTV music videos surveyed as "too violent". Both "Thriller" and Jackson's duet with Paul McCartney, "Say, Say, Say" made the list. The Los Angeles Times quoted Dr. Thomas Radecki, chairman of the NCTV, as saying, "It's not hard to imagine young viewers after seeing 'Thriller' saying, 'Gee, if Michael Jackson can terrorize his girlfriend, why can't I do it too?'
The music video was nominated for six awards at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, winning three out of six of the nominations. "Thriller" won Viewers Choice, Best Overall Performance and Best Choreography—but lost Best Concept Video, Best Male Video and Video of the Year.
The music video was listed as the "Greatest Video" on VH1's "VH1: 100 Greatest Videos" in 2001. MTV listed the music video as being the "Greatest Music Video Ever Made" on their list, "MTV: 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" in 1999. In July 2011, the music video was named one of "The 30 All-TIME Best Music Videos" by TIME magazine.
Jackson performed "Thriller" on all three of his solo world concert tours. From the Dangerous Tour onwards, half the song was always performed by a masked backup dancer as Jackson prepared for his next song as part of a stage illusion. Despite Jackson performing multiple songs from his Thriller album, "Thriller" was not included on The Jacksons set list during their Victory Tour in 1984, as Michael Jackson was not satisfied with the way the song sounded live.
Jackson performed "Thriller" during his first world tour as a solo artist, the Bad world tour, lasting sixteen months, from 1987 to 1989, for a total of 123 shows. During the Bad tour, in both legs, the jacket had flashing lights in the middle of the song and at the end. An impersonator was only used for the introduction of the song; a masked dancer emerges from the costume tent at the side of the stage, and goes back in hiding while Jackson himself, also masked at first, swings down from a rope on the other side of the stage before taking off his mask.
"Thriller" was also performed during Jackson's second world tour, the Dangerous Tour, where stage illusions were used to transition between "Thriller" and "Billie Jean". In the middle of "Thriller", Jackson secretly switched places with a masked backup dancer who finishes the song appearing as Jackson prepares for Billie Jean. When the song ends, Jackson appears fully dressed on the upper floor as "Billie Jean" begins. In the third leg of the Dangerous Tour, there was no upper floor but the masked dancer still performed the latter half of the song.
Jackson performed "Thriller" for all of his 82 shows during his third, and final, world tour, the HIStory World Tour. Once again, a masked dancer posing as Jackson was used as a stage illusion, this time to the transition between "Thriller" and "Beat It". As with the Dangerous tour, Jackson switches with the background dancer in the middle of the song. At the end of Thriller, the masked dancer is taken by the zombie dancers into a coffin where it appears he is impaled with spikes and burned. Jackson would appear at the side of the stage in a cherry-picker, starting off "Beat It".
Jackson had planned to perform "Thriller" during his 50-show concert series, which would have been his fourth concert tour, entitled This Is It from 2009 to 2010. For Jackson's performance of the song, he had planned for the stage that he was to perform on to be set up with a background that looked like a "graveyard" (which was a brief setting in the music video) with 3-D effects. Jackson would emerge from a giant black widow spider. According to a setlist that was released in March 2009, "Thriller" was to close out the 16-song show, although the film Michael Jackson's This Is It, which documents the concert series, lists 18 songs and "Man in the Mirror" as the closing song for the planned shows.
Live versions of the song are available on the DVDs Live at Wembley July 16, 1988 and Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.
Appearances in other media
Michael Jackson's Thriller music video, particularly the songs dance routine in the video, have been referenced in television series and films including Donga (1985), Coming to America (1988), The Malibu Beach Vampires (1991), South Park (1997), Dead & Breakfast (2004), 13 Going on 30 (2004), Bo! in the USA (2006). Jelly Jamm (2007). Furby (2011).
The song is also used on Party City ads during Halloween.
The Chemical Brothers said in a January 2002 interview that if their song "My Elastic Eye" is played on large speakers, the bass would resemble "Thriller".
In 2011, the cast of American musical TV series Glee (Naya Rivera, Kevin McHale and Cory Monteith with New Directions) performed "Thriller" as a mash up with "Heads Will Roll" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs in episode "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle".
Pop singer Britney Spears made a reference to "Thriller" in her music video for "I Wanna Go" (2011). In the ending of her video actor Guillermo Díaz leads Spears out of the room. He then turns to the camera with glowing red eyes and his laugh is heard, similar to Vincent Price.
In October 2010, it was found that GK Films plans to produce a horror film inspired by the song, directed by Kenny Ortega and produced with Ivan Reitman. As of February 2016, there has been no further news.