the staggering success of thriller -- 6/26/23

Today's selection -- from Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Fredric Dannen. In the early 1980s, Michael Jackson’s Thriller surpassed Saturday Night Fever as the best-selling album of all time:

“1982 would prove an even worse year for CBS Records than 1981. The company was cold. Boston's Tom Scholz still hadn't delivered his third album, and never would--not to CBS, anyway. Columbia had a hit with Paul McCartney's Tug of War, but little else to brag about. 

“When the full year's results were tallied, the numbers were depressing. …

“Toward the end of 1982, two hit albums were released by CBS. The first of them entailed a bit of irony. It was a record that Dick Asher championed over the objections of Epic, whose staff often criticized his musical savvy. Earlier in the year, CBS Records International signed the Australian band Men at Work to an overseas, non-U.S. deal. The group promptly delivered its first album, Business as Usual, which sold 200,000 copies in Australia, an unheard-of feat. Asher was convinced that the record would do well in the United States, but he could not get Epic to distribute it. Finally, he demanded that either Epic head Don Dempsey or Columbia's Al Teller option the album. Teller at last agreed. ‘We put it out just to shut Dick up’ a Columbia man later confessed, sheepishly. The album yielded two number one singles -- ‘Who Can It Be Now?’ and 'Down Under' -- and sold 6 million copies. 

“The second album, released in November 1982 by Epic, was a monster of unprecedented proportions. It would ultimately sell 38. 5 million copies worldwide, spend thirty-seven weeks at number one on the Billboard album chart, and spawn seven hit singles. The Guinness Book of World Records would proclaim it the biggest album of all time. Most important, it would earn at least $60 million for CBS Records, restoring to full strength the company's bottom line -- and Walter Yetnikoff's power. 

“The album was Michael Jackson's long-awaited Thriller. CBS had been desperate for it, and the pressure Epic put on Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, to complete it in time for Christmas was palpable. Jones was busy with a Donna Summer album, and Jackson faced a number of distractions as well, not the least of which was his parents' divorce. Finally, Jackson wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, ‘CBS said it had to be ready on a certain date, do or die.’ He and Jones found they had three months to record the album, during which time they also had to produce The E.T. Storybook, a children's record, in a one-shot deal with MCA. 

Michael Jackson's Thriller music video

"The deadline crunch took its toll when it came to mixing the dozens of vocal and instrumental tracks for the album. ‘When we finally listened to the tracks we were going to hand in,’ Jackson wrote, ‘Thriller sounded so crappy to me that tears came to my eyes.’ Jackson put his foot down. He would not release the record. There was ‘yelling and screaming’ from CBS, he wrote, but he and Jones took another month to remix the album. Handed over at last, Thriller was put on a crash production schedule, and Epic began shipping it just before Thanksgiving. 

“Few expected Thriller to surpass the sales record previously set by Saturday Night Fever, but no one was surprised that it was an instant smash. Jackson had been at the top of his profession ever since November 1969, when Motown released ‘I Want You Back,’ a Jackson Five single on which he sang lead. It sold 2 million copies in six weeks and went to number one. Michael Jackson was eleven years old. The next three Jackson Five singles were also number-one records. 

“In 1975 Michael Jackson and all but one of his brothers moved over to Epic. Four years later, Jackson cut his first solo album for Epic, Off the Wall, also produced by Quincy Jones. Jackson wrote the words and music to two songs and coauthored a third. One of his solo compositions, ‘Don't Stop Till You Get Enough,’ went to number one. The album sold 8 million copies, making it the biggest hit of a bad year. 

“So though there was a precedent for Thriller, the magnitude of its success was staggering. The United States alone accounted for 20 million units sold, which meant the record landed in one of every 4.25 American households. A number of factors conspired to make the album the monster it was, aside from its undisputed merits. For starters, seven of Thriller's nine cuts went top ten; ‘Billie Jean,’ a Jackson composition, stayed at number one for seven weeks. Meanwhile, MTV's ratings were at an all-time high, and videos of three of the album's songs were aired incessantly. 

“One other factor played a key role in Thriller's success. On May 16, 1983, the NBC television network aired a special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, seen by an estimated 50 million Americans. It featured nearly all of Motown's greatest stars, most of whom had by then left the label. At the time of the show's taping, ‘Billie Jean’ was the nation's number one single. Donning a black jacket and a Fedora, Jackson lip-synched ‘Billie Jean’ and went into a dance routine that left the audience agog. He took the occasion to debut a new step, the ‘Moonwalk,’ in which he appeared to defy gravity. 

“Though the public made him out to be living on the edge of fantasy, Michael Jackson was an ambitious man with extensive knowledge of the record industry's workings. ‘I consider myself a musician who is incidentally a businessman,’ he wrote."



Fredric Dannen


Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business


Vintage; Reprint Edition


July 2, 1991


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