The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #226: Thriller by Michael Jackson (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #226: Thriller by Michael Jackson.

I would be willing to go out on a limb and predict that “Thriller” by Michael Jackson is one song that everyone who reads this post, will know. “Thriller” was the seventh consecutive Top Ten release from the album of the same name. It saw Michael Jackson at the very top of his popularity. The album, “Thriller” still ranks as the biggest selling album the world has ever seen, with album sales of between 75-100 million worldwide. But, I think, if we were all being honest, it is not the song, “Thriller” that is so memorable but, instead, it is the video that accompanies the song that is what “Thriller” has become famous for. So, let’s spend a few minutes talking about the song, for sure but, in reality, we will be focussing on the ground-breaking video that has come to define “Thriller” in our minds.

If you examine any lists that rank Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, the song, “Thriller” usually struggles to make his own Top Ten of all time. It was a song that came into existence only after Jackson and his songwriting team had spent countless hours struggling to come up with a name for his upcoming album. Titles such as “Starlight” and “Midnight Man” were bandied about but, eventually, when the word, “Thriller” was uttered aloud, everyone agreed that it would be the title. With the title nailed down, it was always the plan that there would be a title track of the same name so, work began on the song, “Thriller”. At first, there was some debate as to what the subject matter of the song, “Thriller” would be. This was because, outside of “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon, there aren’t a lot of Pop songs that have monsters as their subject matter. But Jackson, having seen the movie, “Werewolves of London”, directed by John Landis, was determined to have his own werewolf song and thus, the howls of wolves and the spoken word ending by veteran Hollywood Horror legend, Vincent Price, came to be. The song is built upon a funkified bass track that gives the song a solid foundation. Michael supplies the rest of the song’s ingredients with his vocal inflections and soulful singing style. The song, “Thriller” was the seventh, and final, single to come from the album, “Thriller”. It was released almost a full calendar year after the first single dropped.

But, any discussion of the song, “Thriller” really begins and ends with the video. As mentioned earlier, Michael Jackson was at the height of his fame as the hits poured out of that album. To have observed Michael Jackson during the mid-1980s was to watch one of the world’s richest men indulge his fantasies; everything from the creation of the theme park at his “Neverland Ranch”, to how he came to make of one the most memorable music videos of all time. What Michael wanted, Michael tended to get so, when the song, “Thriller” was first written, it was always Jackson’s intention to shoot a short-form movie to go with the song. Michael Jackson was heavily influenced by the movie, “Werewolves of London” and was particularly impressed with the scenes in which the main character transformed from a human into a werewolf on screen. So, without allowing any expense to be spared, Jackson hired John Landis to direct his video for “Thriller”. In addition, he hired special effects master, Rick Baker (who won an Academy Award for Best Make-up and Visual Effects” for “Werewolves of London”) to do the work of turning Jackson into a werewolf on screen, too. It was Jackson who came up with the idea that there would be a dancing zombie scene. It was, also, the first time that he donned his now, iconic, red leather jacket on screen, too. When the video was completed, it ran at almost 14 minutes so, in order to make it playable on stations such as MTV, a shorter, five-minute version was created out of the longer form film. In order to finance such an endeavour, Jackson was clever enough of a business person to have thought ahead and had arranged for a “Behind the scenes”-style documentary to have been shot as the actual video was being made. This documentary was then, packaged as a made-for-tv event that saw the long-form film make its world wide debut. As a piece of Art, the “Thriller” video stands alone, in terms of the depth of the story that it tells and in how it uses the song to augment the action on screen. The video for “Thriller” is the top-selling music video of all-time (at a time when consumers had to actually go to a store and purchase their new VHS tape of the song in order to watch it at home). The woman in the video, Ola Ray, was a Playboy Playmate of the month, at the time of the film’s release. Her specific background was an intentional marketing ploy aimed at making Jackson appear more manly in terms of his public image. Not too sure if her inclusion helped Jackson, in that regard but, what do I know?

Well, I do know this……”Thriller”, the song, will be played and the video will be shown in, literally, tens of thousands of schools all over the world whenever Halloween approaches. “Thriller”, the song and the video, will live on forever because of their association to Halloween and the way Michael Jackson was able to stylize monsters and zombies. He made it cool to be a ghoul, I guess one could say.

So, get your popcorn ready because here is one of the most well-recognized songs/videos ever made. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Michael Jackson and a cast of thousands with, “Thriller”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, can be seen here.

The link to the official website for Michael Jackson, can be seen here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the most memorable music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.