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The Thriller Diaries

Nancy Griffin writes about the making of the “Thriller” video in Vanity Fair. There weren’t even plans to promote “Thriller” as a single at first, but as time went on Jackson wanted to stay on top:

... the Thriller campaign, concocted by the album’s brain trust—Jackson; his lawyer and closest adviser, John Branca; CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff; and Epic head of promotion Frank DiLeo—did not include plans for a third video, and certainly not a video of the title track, which wasn’t even going to be released as a single. “Who wants a single about monsters?” says Yetnikoff, summing up how the group felt at the time about the song’s potential.

But in June of 1983 the album, after four months as No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, was bumped from the top slot by the Flashdance soundtrack. It briefly regained the top position in July, then was toppled again, this time by Synchronicity, by the Police…. Jackson was upset. Obsessive about tracking his sales figures, he compared them constantly with those of his competitors in the top echelon, including Prince and Madonna. “He enjoyed being on top,” says Larry Stessel, Epic’s West Coast marketing executive, who worked closely with the star. “He reveled in it. He didn’t like it when it ended.” With his own album making history, Jackson yearned to shatter records held by the Fab Four. “It was all about the Beatles,” says Stessel. “He knew in his heart of hearts that he would never be bigger than the Beatles, but he had such tremendous respect for them, and he certainly wanted to come as close as he could.”

In the summer of ’83, Yetnikoff and Stessel answered calls at all hours of the night from Jackson. “Walter, the record isn’t No. 1 anymore,” Yetnikoff remembers Jackson saying. “What are we going to do about it?” “We’re going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow,” Yetnikoff told him. It was DiLeo who first mentioned the idea of making a third video, and pressed Jackson to consider the album’s title track. “It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary,” DiLeo recalls telling Jackson.

Of course, as we know now, the result made history:

The A-list turned out for the premiere at the 500-seat historic Crest Theatre: Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, Eddie Murphy…. [Co-star] Ola Ray looked for Jackson before the lights went down and found him in the projection booth. He told her that she looked beautiful, but refused her entreaty to come sit in the audience. “This is your night,” he told her. “You go enjoy yourself.” Landis warmed up the audience with a new print of the Mickey Mouse cartoon “The Band Concert.” Then came “Thriller,” with its sound mix cranked up to top volume. Fourteen minutes later the crowd was on its feet, applauding and crying, “Encore! Encore!” Eddie Murphy shouted, “Show the goddamn thing again!” And they did.

I still can’t get over the fact that the video makes you wait almost ten whole minutes to hear the chorus. I recommend reading the whole article: It’s a great tribute to a phenomenal moment in pop culture history.

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Tagged: music

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