‘Thriller’ 40th Anniversary: 40 things you didn’t know (or simply forgot) about the world’s biggest-selling album

(November 24, 2022).  This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the biggest-selling album in history: Thriller by Michael Jackson.

Commemorative edition: ‘Thriller 40’ was released on Nov. 18, 2022

It was on Tuesday, November 30, 1982, that Epic Records released Jackson’s second solo album on that label—after 1979’s Off The Wall.  Over the next 18 months, Thriller would go on to break nearly every record known to man and give Jackson the kind of iconic status that no other Black entertainer and very few people in general had ever attained.  As you’ll read here, it was a very unlikely outcome given where music was at the time.  

A lot had changed in the music world between the releases of Off The Wall and Thriller.  For one, the former came in 1979 at the tail-end of disco’s peak, and that genre had taken a huge hit in mainstream popularity during the early 1980s.  

Secondly, a prolonged economic recession created significant losses in revenue for the industry in the years preceding Thriller, and with Black music in general experiencing an unprecedented backlash at pop radio in 1981 and ‘82, no one expected a new Michael Jackson album to be the commercial and creative spark the industry needed to turn things around.

Even Jackson’s label Epic Records conceded to the backlash against uptempo Black songs at the time by launching the album with the very safe, middle-of-the-road duet with Paul McCartney—“The Girl Is Mine”—as the first single.  

The pairing of Jackson with the most successful ex-Beatle—who had hit gold earlier that year with Stevie Wonder on the similarly maudlin “Ebony and Ivory”—was viewed as the best way to reintroduce Michael to pop radio at a time when only a handful of Black acts—Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Kool & the Gang, the Pointer Sisters and Ray Parker, Jr. among them—were getting consistent pop airplay on their own.

“The Girl Is Mine” lived up to its superstar billing and did very well on the charts, selling a million copies in the process.  But it was what came next that really blew the lid off and transformed Thriller into the biggest thing to happen not only to Black music, but to pop music in general since, well, the Beatles two decades earlier.

Epic Records ran this full-page ad in Billboard upon the album’s release

Not only did Thriller give the music industry the jolt it needed when it was needed the most, but it transformed Michael Jackson from pop and soul music superstar to a worldwide multimedia entertainment icon.

Thriller went on to become a musical and visual phenomenon.  It generated a then-record seven top-10 hits, won an unprecedented eight Grammy awards, and became the biggest-selling album of all time.

No album had generated seven top-10 hits before ‘Thriller.’ In fact, it had never even been tried.

It also changed how albums and singles were marketed in America, with several LPs over the next dozen years being mined for five, six and even seven singles in Thriller’s wake—something that had never been done prior to Michael’s triumph.

It also changed the way music videos were used to market albums, and made MTV—a fledgling music video channel before Thriller—a household word not only to its target, predominantly white market, but in Black homes as well.

To commemorate the album’s 40th anniversary—and the Friday (Nov. 18) release of its special anniversary edition, Thriller 40–djrobblog has put together 40 fun facts about Thriller that many people either didn’t know or likely forgot over the past four decades.  

These are unique little mini-stories, anecdotes and subplots that I hope you get as much a kick out of reading as this blogger did putting them together.  At the end of the article, feel free to provide in the comment section a Thriller memory you may not have read here.

Read on to learn more and relive the magic that was Thriller!

One.  Still under Daddy’s thumb.

Patriarch Joe Jackson standing in front of a double-platinum plaque for MJ’s 1979 opus ‘Off The Wall’

Just a month before Thriller was released, Michael’s father Joseph Jackson gave an interview to Billboard magazine.  In responding to questions about Michael—who was still being managed by his father—potentially leaving his brothers The Jacksons, Joe was quoted in the October 23, 1982 issue: “You never hear anyone from the family say that Michael is leaving the group or that the Jacksons are breaking up, only outsiders.”  He continued, “we’re a family, where is Michael going to go?”  Father Joe also mentioned that The Jacksons would start recording their next album in January (1983), only a month after Thriller’s release. “The recording should go quickly,” Joseph said. “All the songs have been written.  We have demos of everything.  All they have to do is go in and cut the tracks.”  So much for his expectations for Michael’s new album.

Two.  Speaking of low expectations… 

In the post-disco era of 1982, despite the success of Off The Wall three years earlier, industry expectations for Thriller were modest at best. Upon first hearing the album, one radio programmer noted (and this was optimistically) to Billboard, “If people react to Thriller the way I expect them to, then Michael Jackson has a platinum—and possibly double (platinum)—record on his hands.”  That translates to one—and maybe two million copies sold (total).  

Three.  Before MJ moonwalked, he moonlighted…with E.T. (the Extraterrestrial).

Michael Jackson and E.T.

Michael was busy with a number of side projects while recording Thriller from April to November 1982.  He performed on session keyboardist Bill Wolfer’s album Wolf, and on Diana Ross’ Silk Electric album, notably the hit single “Muscles,” which he wrote and produced.  Jackson also narrated and provided music for the audiobook and soundtrack companion album for 1982’s biggest movie, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” on MCA Records.

Four.  E.T. was considered a threat…to Thriller.  

CBS/Epic Records, Michael’s label, was so worried about his affiliation with E.T. that they sued MCA for distributing the storybook album prior to Epic’s scheduled Thriller release, noting that they had only given MCA permission to use Michael on one song (and that it was not to be released or promoted as a single).  MCA had pressed and shipped 500,000 copies of the E.T. album and had shipped the song “Someone In The Dark” to radio stations to market “E.T.” as MJ’s latest product, potentially confusing fans who’d also been hearing “The Girl Is Mine.”  Epic was granted an injunction by the courts and MCA had to cease issuing anymore copies of E.T. until after Thriller was in stores. Check out the beautiful “Someone in the Dark” below.

MJ’s “Someone In The Dark” from “E.T.” storybook

Five.  Introducing the “Rodney Dangerfield” of Thriller.

Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “The Girl Is Mine” got little to no respect (and still doesn’t today).  Still it was an out-of-the-box smash. The song was in the Hot 100’s top ten (at No. 9) in only its fourth chart week, making it one of the three fastest-climbing singles of 1982.  It was tied with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, who were also at No. 9 in their fourth week with “I Love Rock and Roll” earlier that year.  Only “Ebony and Ivory”—Paul’s duet with Stevie Wonder—made it to the top 10 faster; in three short weeks it was already at No. 6.  Both “Rock and Roll” and “Ebony” hit No. 1, “The Girl Is Mine” stalled at No. 2 in January 1983 (more on that below).

Six. Genre marvel No. 1: McCartney gets first No. 1 soul chart hit.

In the category of “hard to believe,” “The Girl Is Mine” ultimately did better on the soul chart than it did on the pop chart.  On the soul ranking, it peaked at No. 1 for three weeks (displacing the biggest soul single of the 1980s—Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”—in the process).  On the pop chart, it got stuck at No. 2 behind Hall & Oates “Maneater” and Men At Work’s “Down Under.” Notably, Michael recorded a funkier 25th anniversary version of “The Girl Is Mine” in 2008 with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, in which ex-friend McCartney’s lines are replaced by Michael.

Seven.  Genre marvel No. 2:  Crossing rock music’s barriers.  

Album-oriented rock—or AOR—radio stations added “Beat It” to their playlists immediately after the album’s release.  According to Billboard in December 1982–before the album even entered the charts—Epic Records reported that “50 of the nation’s estimated 500 AOR stations” were playing “Beat It.”   But it would be another four months before the song made Billboard’s Rock Tracks chart (debuting alongside Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”).  At the time it was unheard of for Black acts—especially pop and soul-oriented ones—to make Billboard’s rock-focused charts.

Eight.  Second single dilemma: “Billie Jean” or “Beat It,” which will be next?

Stills from videos for “Billie Jean” (top) and “Beat It”

Epic Records was initially coy about which song would be the second single (after “The Girl Is Mine”).  With rock radio jumping so fast on “Beat It” and Black stations all over “Billie Jean,” Epic Records had a mini-dilemma on its hands.  Tipping the label’s cards, Don Dempsey, Epic’s senior VP and general manager at the time, told Billboard in December 1982 it was “unlikely” that “Beat It” would be the second single after “The Girl Is Mine” noting that he was reluctant to hand Black radio “two pop oriented singles in a row.”  Three weeks later, “Billie Jean” was issued as the second 45 from Thriller.  Not to worry though: “Beat It” would come a mere five weeks after that, a rapid follow-up scenario that was unheard of back then.

Nine.  A Soul Chart No. 1 trifecta.  

The first three singles from Thriller—the poppy “The Girl Is Mine,” the funkier “Billie Jean,” and even the rock-edged “Beat It”—all topped the soul chart (Billboard called it “Black Singles” back then), which meant Epic’s worries about Michael’s Black fan base never materialized.  As it also turned out, his pop fan base was fully intact as well, as both “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” hit No. 1 there (after “Girl” got stuck at No. 2).

“Beat It” is still this blogger’s favorite MJ video

Ten.  In the blink of an eye…he’s No. 1 again.   

Only one week separated the No. 1 postings of “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean” on Billboard’s Black Singles chart.  The song that intervened at No. 1 was “Outstanding” by the Gap Band out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Michael’s triumph marked the first time an artist had such a rapid turnaround at No. 1 on the soul chart since Aretha Franklin in 1967 (only one week separated “I Never Loved A Man” and “Respect”).

Eleven.  In the second blink of an eye…

Similarly, only one week separated the No. 1 postings of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” on Billboard’s pop chart (the Hot 100).  The intervening song there was “Come On Eileen” by Irish band Dexy’s Midnight Runners.  It was the first time an artist had been able to experience such a rapid No. 1 turnaround on both the soul and the pop charts, and the first time on the pop list since the Beatles in 1964 (they had several songs replace each other at the top).

Twelve.  “I hate my MTV.”

MTV infamously was reluctant to play Black artists yet, contrary to popular belief, the fledgling network did play some Black musicians (okay, three or four) before they added “Billie Jean” to the rotation in February 1983.  They just weren’t soul-oriented ones.  Some of the Black artists MTV played before MJ included Bus Boys (a mostly Black rock band), Musical Youth (British-Jamaican reggae band), The English Beat (mixed-race ska/pop/reggae band out of Birmingham), and Prince (along with bands that included one Black member like Haircut 100 and Culture Club).

Thirteen.  Eddie Van Halen…rock sell-out?

The late geniuses: Eddie Van Halen (left) and Michael Jackson, circa 1984

The late Eddie Van Halen, who contributed a scorching electric guitar solo on “Beat It,” initially got flack from his Van Halen bandmates and their fans for “selling out” to perform on a song by a mainstream pop artist like MJ.  Eddie had provided his amped-up solo free of charge as a favor to Quincy Jones, who Van Halen initially believed was pranking him when he got the call from the legendary producer.  In an interesting twist a year later, the Thriller LP, which was still No. 1, prevented Van Halen’s biggest-selling album 1984 from reaching the top spot.  It was stuck at No. 2 behind Thriller for five weeks in March and April 1984.

Fourteen.  Thriller was huge BEFORE Motown 25.  

History likes to attribute Thriller’s astronomical success to Michael’s performance of “Billie Jean” on “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever.”  But few people remember that, although the show was taped on March 25, 1983, NBC didn’t broadcast it until eight weeks later on May 16.  By that time, Thriller had already been No. 1 for months and both “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” had already done the same and were on their way down the Hot 100 list.  It’s true though that the show increased Thriller’s sales worldwide to levels not seen since the early days of the Beatles, approaching a million copies sold per week at one point in the show’s aftermath.

Fifteen.  Game changer for albums by Black artists:  

Things were so bad for Black musicians in the early 1980s that no albums by Black artists reached No. 1 from January 1980 until when Thriller topped the chart in February 1983.  The last before Thriller was Donna Summer’s compilation On The Radio: Greatest Hits Vol. I and II, which topped the chart the first week of January 1980 (and that album was released in 1979). Thus, Thriller ended a 3-year drought and, more importantly, began a streak that has lasted for 40 years and counting, where at least one Black album has topped the chart every year since 1983.  Cause and effect of Thriller?  You be the judge.

Sixteen.  Did he steal it?

‘Thriller’ producer Quincy Jones and the late Donna Summer

Speaking of Donna Summer, Quincy Jones—the producer of both Thriller and Donna Summer’s self-titled 1982 album—claimed that Michael stole the famous bass line for “Billie Jean” from Donna Summer’s “State of Independence,” released a few months earlier.  If you listen to both songs, “Billie” does sound like a slowed down version of “State,” which is one of Donna’s best, most underrated songs.  “State of Independence,” which ironically featured Michael in its all-star chorus, peaked at No. 41 on the Hot 100.

Seventeen.  Did he steal it, 2?  

Michael made the moonwalk famous during his performance of “Billie Jean” at the “Motown 25” event, but the dance had actually been used by several other legendary dancer/entertainers going as far back as the 1930s, including Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey, Marcel Marceau, and—perhaps most famously and influential to MJ—Shalamar singer and former Soul Train dancer Jeffrey Daniels.  Check out this comparison video of Daniels’ and Jackson’s dance moves.

Eighteen.  Giving credit where it’s due…to a guy named Manu.

Speaking of “stealing,” Michael Jackson, who admitted he borrowed the line “mama-say-mama-sa-ma-makossa” in the album’s fourth single “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” from Manu Dibango’s 1972 hit “Funky Soul Makossa,” was sued by Dibango…NOT for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” but because MJ granted Barbadian superstar Rihanna permission to use the chant for her 2007 smash “Don’t Stop The Music” without consulting with Dibango first.  Dibango, who had earlier received a settlement payment from Michael for using the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” eventually received a writing credit for Rihanna’s hit as well.

Nineteen.  What’s that sound, 1?  

Of all the instruments played on Thriller, the oddest had to be a “bathroom stomp board,” which was used on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and played by both Jackson and session musician Steven Ray.  Okay, I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and still can’t conclusively identify the bathroom stomp board.  My guess is it first occurs at the 3:33 mark where three distinct knocks are heard, although there are other knocking sounds heard throughout the remainder of the song, so it’s anybody’s guess.

Twenty.  Toto’s pop-soul influence…and auto-reverse?

The 7” vinyl single sleeve for 5th single “Human Nature”

Thriller’s fifth single “Human Nature” was conceived during the same demo sessions that produced the pop group Toto’s iconic Grammy-winning No. 1 hit “Africa.”  And if it wasn’t for the auto-reverse feature on a cassette player being listened to by Quincy Jones, it might not have ever happened.  The demo for “Human Nature” was created by the song’s writer, Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro, and included on the B-side of a cassette Toto bandmate David Paich had made at Quincy’s request for Thriller song candidates.  The two Paich songs they intended Quincy to hear were on the A-side.  After Quincy played them, he got distracted and the tape auto-reversed to the B-side where “Human Nature” was located.  Quincy heard it and was blown away…and the rest, as they say, was HIStory!

Twenty-one.  What’s that sound, 2?  

“Human Nature” has a funny thing going on in the left speaker channel that you’ll hear if you listen on a good set of headphones.  It’s a set of very faint, off-key sounding Fender Rhodes keyboard notes played mainly in the verses by the song’s co-writer and synth programmer Steve Porcaro.  I also highly recommend you watch this raw song deconstruction video (below) to hear isolated instruments and, of course, Michael’s individualized multi-tracked vocals on the song.

Twenty-two.  Michael backing Michael on all but one track.  

Michael Jackson provided background vocals for all the tracks on Thriller except one: sixth single “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).”  Those duties were instead handled by sisters La Toya and Janet, as well as friend Becky López, and established singers Bunny Hull, Howard Hewitt (of Shalamar) and James Ingram.

Twenty-three.  If MJ eats, the family eats…  

All nine of the Jackson siblings had at least one Hot 100 chart hit concurrent with the initial chart run of Thriller on the Billboard 200 (December 25, 1982- April 20, 1985).  The Jacksons—consisting of all six brothers—had three (“State of Shock,” “Torture,” and “Body”); Jermaine (solo) also had three (“Dynamite,” “Do What You Do,” and “When The Rain Begins To Fall” with Pia Zadora); Janet had two (“Young Love” and “Come Give Your Love To Me”); La Toya had one (“Heart Don’t Lie”); and Rebbie had one (“Centipede”).

Big sister Rebbie benefited greatly from MJ’s popularity with “Centipede,” which Michael wrote and produced

That’s not to mention Michael’s chart singles outside of Thriller (“Say, Say, Say” with McCartney, “Farewell My Summer Love” from Motown’s vaults, and “We Are The World” as part of USA for Africa; plus backing vocals on “Muscles” by Diana Ross and “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell).  Counting the seven Thriller singles, that’s a total of 22 Jackson-affiliated Hot 100 hits (that we know of) during the 28-month Thriller era.  Whew!

Twenty-four.  Birthday certifications.  

Largely considered Thriller’s most forgettable top-10 hit in 1983, sixth single “P.Y.T.” has shown remarkable staying power in the decades since.  In the RIAA’s most recent update of Michael Jackson’s sales certifications—ironically done on what would’ve been his 64th birthday (August 29, 2022)—“P.Y.T.” was certified at quadruple platinum (four million sold).  That places it behind only the iconic singles “Billie Jean,” “Thriller” and “Beat It” as the album’s fourth best seller.

Twenty-five.  They’re Still the Big Three.  

Consistent with their iconic status, “Billie Jean” (14 million sold worldwide), “Thriller” (13 million) and “Beat It” (11 million) are by far the three biggest selling songs from Thriller and, with the possible exception of “Man In The Mirror,” of all MJ songs.  It’s not a coincidence that those were the only three Thriller songs to get music videos.

Twenty-six.  “Baby Be Mine” stands alone.  

“Baby Be Mine” is the only song on Thriller that hasn’t received at least gold or platinum certification.  Although it joins “The Lady In My Life” as the only two album tracks not released as singles during the album’s initial cycle, “Lady” was certified gold by the RIAA on August 29, 2022, as a result of the track’s cumulative digital downloads and streaming numbers over the past two decades, leaving “Baby” as the album’s lone black sheep.  (“Baby Be Mine” was also the only track to be relegated to a B-side when it appeared on the flip of “Human Nature,” which perhaps sealed its fate forever).

Twenty-seven.  It’s not where you start… 

Of the album’s seven released singles, the one that entered the Billboard Hot 100 in the lowest position was, surprisingly, “Beat It.”  In order from highest to lowest, the songs debuted on the Hot 100 in the following positions: “Thriller” (20); “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (41); “The Girl Is Mine” (45); “Billie Jean” (47); “Human Nature” (48); “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (75); and “Beat It” (78).  Of course, it went on to become the album’s second-biggest hit (behind “Billie Jean”). The slow start of “Beat It” was clearly due to the popularity of “Billie Jean,” which was still climbing the charts when “Beat It” was released.

February 26, 1983 Hot 100 Chart: “Beat It” débuts at No. 78, while “Billie Jean” climbs from No. 6-4

Twenty-eight.  “Who wants a song about Monsters?”  

Title track “Thriller,” originally called “Starlight” (more below) before its metamorphosis into the song we came to know and love, was originally considered by Michael’s label to be a novelty song.  Epic Records initially had no intention to release “Thriller” as a single.  In July and August 1983, as the album’s sales were slowing down after the earlier hits had waned, Michael pleaded with Epic Records to come up with a plan to return the album to the top.  Yet, even after the chart success of the album’s first five singles, Michael Jackson had to convince Epic not only to promote additional singles but to fund the iconic video for “Thriller” as well.

Reluctantly, Epic Records became a “minor partner,” providing $100k funding towards the million-dollar production budget of the “Thriller” video.  The song “P.Y.T.,” also not originally a single candidate, was released in September 1983 to bridge the time between the decline of “Human Nature” and when the “Thriller” video would be ready for its premiere by year’s end.

Twenty-nine.  Cause this is “Thriller”!  

“Thriller,” the video, featured young actress and former Playboy Playmate Ola Ray as Michael’s love interest (many of us fanboys wanted MJ and Ola to become a thing in real life!).  Directed by acclaimed Hollywood talent John Landis and choreographed by the late Michael (“Beat It”) Peters, the video, which premiered on MTV in December (not Halloween, contrary to popular belief) featured Michael and a host of dancers in full zombie-like costumes doing the iconic “Thriller” dance.

The original, 13-minute version of “Thriller,” the video

The video was seen on television by tens of millions, which triggered the Thriller album’s return to the phenomenal sales levels it had seen earlier in the year, and propelled the album’s rebound to the top of the charts at the end of 1983, where it would remain through April 1984.

Thirty.   Smothered and covered.  

Every song on Thriller has been covered by another artist, including the two non-singles “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady In My Life.”  This blog commemorated the album’s 35th anniversary five years ago by compiling a collection of the best Thriller song remakes… click here to see/hear all of them.

Thirty-one.  Covered and sampled.  

Similarly, every song on Thriller has been sampled by another artist…and all of them at least eleven times apiece.  According to WhoSampled.com, the breakdown from highest to lowest is as follows: “Thriller” (257 songs, who knew?); “Billie Jean” (178); “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (77); “Beat It” (72); “The Lady In My Life” (69); “Human Nature” (68); “P.Y.T.” (38); “Baby Be Mine” (28); “The Girl Is Mine” (11)—for a total of 798 samples spread across the nine tracks. (Fans of “Baby Be Mine” will note that it has been sampled 28 times, which is more than twice that of the lowly “The Girl Is Mine”).

Thirty-two.  Don’t stop…it’s human nature. 

The aforementioned Rihanna sample for “Don’t Stop the Music,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007, wasn’t the biggest hit to sample a song from Thriller.  That distinction belongs to ‘90s R&B trio SWV, who took “Right Here (Human Nature)” to No. 2 for three weeks in the fall of 1993.  Various mashups of the SWV song with the original “Human Nature” have been produced since.

This extended mix is the best one of “Right Here (Human Nature)” by SWV and MJ

Thirty-three.  Billie Jean, go back, Jack.  

The first song from Thriller to be used in a “sample” was “Billie Jean,” which was interpolated by an Italian studio outfit named Club House in 1983 for a medley with Steely Dan’s hit “Do It Again” from ten years earlier.  That version did well in several European countries but only reached No. 75 here in America.  That same year, the Detroit-based group Slingshot released a cover of the medley and took it to No. 1 on the Billboard Dance/Disco Chart and No. 25 soul.

“Do It Again”/“Billie Jean” – by Slingshot

Thirty-four.  The songs that didn’t make the cut?  

With the release of Thriller 40 this month, there’s been a lot of buzz (again) about the songs and demos that MJ recorded in 1982 that didn’t make the original cut, several of which are on the new anniversary album.  Some of these were unveiled previously, like “Behind The Mask,” which was included on the 2010 posthumous album entitled Michael, and “Carousel,” which has appeared on several commemorative and/or compilation albums since MJ’s death.  “Sunset Driver,” which was demo’d for both Off The Wall and Thriller, first appeared on MJ’s The Ultimate Collection.  The rollicking “Can’t Get Out Of The Rain,” which first appeared as a B-side to, oddly enough, both “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean,” is also included on Thriller 40.

Some were previously unavailable, including “She’s Trouble,” which continued Michael’s recurring theme of songs about ill-willed women.  The sparse demo of the tune “The Toy,” which was intended for the 1982 Richard Pryor film of the same name, is also included, as is the surprisingly pleasing “What A Lovely Way To Go.”  Of all the songs that didn’t make the original Thriller cut, that one could’ve been reworked into an anthemic classic!

Thirty-five.  “Thriller” vs. “Starlight.”

Perhaps the best decision Michael made was to change what would become the album’s title track from “Starlight” to “Thriller.”  First, “Thriller” is more exciting and enticing. Secondly, we would never have had that iconic, horror-themed video.  Plus the original song’s lyrics for “Starlight” were kind of cheesy.  Check out these lines:  “There’s indication, that someone close is standing on the ground.  Across the nation, there’s always people trying to pull you down.  Now is the time…for us to spend this evening close together (yeah).  Deep in the night, we’re holding on to someone else’s dream.  Girl, can’t you see?  We need some starlight!  Starlight sun!”  Wth?  Here’s an audio clip of “Starlight,” taken from the new Thriller 40 anniversary album, for your listening pleasure.

“Starlight” (a/k/a “Thriller”) by Michael Jackson

Thirty-six.  No New Year’s Day Celebration for Thriller.  

To this day, no non-soundtrack studio album has spent an entire calendar year in the Billboard 200 chart’s top ten.  But Thriller came closer than any has before or since. The album first entered the Billboard 200 at No. 11 on the chart dated December 25, 1982, and would likely have been in the top 10 the following week (ending January 1, 1983) had it not been for Billboard’s quirky chart policy at the time.  Back then, Billboard didn’t publish a new chart during the last week of the year due to the holidays, so the chart from Christmas 1982 was considered “frozen” for New Year’s Day 1983, which meant all songs and albums “held” their same position for both weeks.  Thriller, which held at No. 11 on January 1, didn’t move into the top ten until the following week (January 2-8, 1983).  It remained in the top ten until July 1984, which meant it spent every day of 1983 in the top ten except one: January 1.

The boxed caption above appeared in the December 25, 1982 issue of Billboard

As it turned out, Lionel Richie’s album, Can’t Slow Down, would become the first album to spend every “chart” during a calendar year in the top ten when it ranked in the region continuously from November 1983 through the last chart of December 1984.  But that last chart date was December 29, 1984.  The following week (chart date Jan 5, 1985) Lionel fell to No. 12.  Since that chart week included December 30 and 31, 1984, Lionel technically missed having a complete calendar year in the top 10 by two days.  Got all that, fellow chart geeks?

Thirty-seven.  Motown alumnae alone at the top: Michael is one of three.

With Thriller, Michael became only the second former Motown act to get a No. 1 album after leaving the label (the first were the Isley Brothers who, in September 1975, topped the pop album chart with The Heat Is On on the T-Neck label after having left Motown in the late 1960s).  The Isleys and Michael weren’t joined in this elite class until nearly 30 years later when ex-Motown legend Lionel Richie topped the chart in 2012 with Tuskegee, an album on the Mercury Nashville label.  These three acts remain the only ones to leave Motown’s classic roster of artists and get No. 1 albums afterwards (with Michael having done it six times…all with Epic/Sony Records).

Thirty-eight.  Expectations for Thriller were greatly exceeded!  

Remember those low expectations mentioned earlier?  Thriller has now been certified platinum 34 times over in the U.S. alone, making it the second-highest certified album domestically, behind Eagles Greatest Hits (1971-75), which stands at 38 million.  Worldwide sales of Thriller are estimated at 70 million and counting…more than any other album…period!

Thirty-nine.  No globe-trotting. 

Thriller broke all of its sales records without the benefit of an accompanying concert tour from Michael.  Instead, Thriller was bookended by concert tours he did with his brothers (Triumph in 1981 and Victory in 1984).  Michael’s first solo world tour wouldn’t happen until the Bad album, which commenced in 1987.  The success of Thriller was a testament to the marketing power of great music and amazing videos that stood on their own merits.

Forty.  And now…forty years later.  

Thriller is still on the chart today (it rebounded to a new recent high of No. 19 this past month in the wake of its perennial Halloween resurgence). It’s now at No. 115 with 548 weeks and counting on the Billboard 200.  But those 10-and-a-half years of cumulative weeks on the chart are nowhere near the record, which is still held by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, an album that has totaled 962 weeks on the Billboard 200 since its release in 1973.

From the Billboard 200 chart dated November 26, 2022

The good news for MJ fans: Thriller is still charting while Pink Floyd’s album isn’t.  Michael needs another 414 weeks (or roughly eight years) to break the British group’s record. The bad news: there are eight other albums ahead of Michael in the race, and all eight of them are still charting today.  Michael is expected to make another splash on the charts next week when his newly released Thriller 40 anniversary version impacts the rankings.

And that’s it MJ fans!  I hope you enjoyed reading this Thriller retrospective as much as I did putting it together.  Feel free to provide your related thoughts in the comment section below!

DJRob

Lifelong Michael Jackson fan DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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DJRob
Djrobblog.com
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