Thriller


Wait. You aren't going to do Michael Jackson again today are you?

This was such a different Michael. Still producing hits - seven of the nine songs were top ten hits. The album sold 100 million copies and is the best selling album of all time. You feel Michael's hand all over this album guided by Quincy Jones.

I start up Thriller, the album, on Apple Music.

Whirrr.

That's the sound of a wormhole opening up and I'm traveling through time with the end of "Wanna Be Startin' Something'" playing as I rotate as some cool effect swirl behind me.

I land in Newbury Ohio at an Urban Contemporary radio station WDMT where I'm working on air on weekends and subbing from time to time on overnights.

We're playing the hell out of this album but so are the white rock stations. This is an album with something for everyone.

Yet not all of it is for me. I pause in my time travels to skip past "Baby be Mine" I never really liked it and "The Girl is Mine" which is too poppy even for me. Paul McCartney doesn't save it for me.

Oh man - that brings us to the title track. The song "Thriller" was great - we played it to death at WDMT.

Then the bonus - after a great song we get Vincent Price's voice in the outro.

"Darkness falls across the land. The Midnight hour is close at hand."

"The funk of forty thousand years."

And then the music stops abruptly.

And Price laughs.

The demonic laugh of horror movies. A door creaks shut. The song is over.

And yet it was far from over.

And at the end of '83 the Thriller video was released on MTV.

Whirr.

Yesterday I explained what 45's and 33's were.

Today I should probably tell you that in the old days MTV played music. In fact the "M" in MTV stands for music.

Crazy, I know.

I'm in Baltimore reuniting with friends from college for New Years.

"Guys," Lisa calls down the stairs, "Thriller's on."

The video was almost 15 minutes long and it was on every two hours that weekend and we probably watched it every time.

Listening to the album as I write this and I forward past "Beat It".

"Why", you ask, "it's a great song."

Yeah, but all I can hear in my head is the Weird Al Yankovic spoof.

That brings us to "Billy Jean". We played that to death as well.

It has a long intro with several posts you can hit when you're intro-ing it on the radio. The drums start off with a simple beat. Enter the bass. A percussion highlight. The synthesized strings. And then the vocals.

So great.

It's easy to forget now that we heard the album before we saw the Thriller video.

We heard the album before we saw the moonwalk.

Whirr.

May, 1983. Thirteen years since I stood around the record player in fifth grade. Michael is still a year older than me - but now he's in his mid twenties.

In his mid twenties and he's part of a Motown television special. He hasn't performed with his brothers for years. Jermaine is still with Motown. Most of the others aren't working. Michael has moved on.

But here he's come back to perform with his brothers. That's why my roommates and I are watching.

We're watching Michael perform with his brothers. He's doing songs they used to do together and he's doing his own songs.

"Billy Jean" starts up. He's got that hat that he's playing with. On his head. Off. Rolling down his arm.

Michael turns to the side and starts his moonwalk. My roommate Steve leaps up and shouts "Oh, Sh**".

Whirr.

It's 1984 and the Jacksons are coming to Cleveland in a concert that includes Michael playing with them and playing music from his Thriller album. By then I'm the news director at WDMT in the same sense that Les Nessman was News Director of WKRP. The main concert station is WMMS. Sure they're a white rock radio station but they've been playing "Billy Jean" and "Thriller" and they can fill Cleveland Municipal Stadium. We're one of three black stations in town so we have some special affiliation with the concert as well and I get to go down to the stadium for a walk around with the concert organizers.

A bunch of us were there with our recorders going. Asking questions. Following the organizer around.

Ed "Flash" Farenc, the news guy from WMMS, followed along with us but his recorder wasn't going. Twice on the tour he had a question, quietly asked it and recorded the answer. He had the best story on the air the next day.

Less is more.

Whirr.

I leave the listening of the rest of the album, "Human Nature", "PYT", and "The Lady in My Life" as an exercise. I'm approaching the present again and have to return my tray and seat back to their full and upright positions.