Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' at 40: 10 fascinating facts about the best-selling album of all time

22 November 2022, 17:07

Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'
Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'. Picture: Epic/Sony/MJJ/Alamy

By Tom Eames

In 1982, Michael Jackson unleashed his latest studio album, which would become a cultural milestone and took pop music to a totally new level of excellence.

40 years later, Thriller still sounds incredible, and every single track on the album is timeless. It cemented Michael Jackson as the King of Pop, and it is still regarded as the world's best-selling album of all time.

Just look at the amazing tracklist:

  1. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
  2. Baby Be Mine
  3. The Girl is Mine (with Paul McCartney)
  4. Thriller
  5. Beat It
  6. Billie Jean
  7. Human Nature
  8. PYT (Pretty Young Thing)
  9. The Lady in the My Life

To celebrate the milestone, here are just a handful of the most interesting facts about the LP:

  1. Toto were instrumental in making the album sound great

    Toto in 1982
    Toto in 1982. Picture: Getty

    Best known for their '80s anthem 'Africa', Toto were also in-demand session musicians for pretty much everyone that decade.

    Producer Quincy Jones and Jackson brought in the band for Thriller, and they played on most of the tracks, giving it the tight pop-rock sound that it needed.

    Steve Porcaro co-wrote and co-composed 'Human Nature', while Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather also appeared on Thriller on multiple tracks, most notably the Jackson/Paul McCartney duet 'The Girl Is Mine'.

  2. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson fell out

    Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson
    Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. Picture: Getty

    The relationship between Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones had become strained during the recording of the album.

    Michael apparently spent most of his time rehearsing dance steps alone.

    When the album was completed, both men were unhappy with how it all sounded, and proceeded to remix every song, spending a week on each.

  3. The full front cover features a tiger cub

    Thriller's 30th anniversary album
    Thriller's 30th anniversary album. Picture: Epic/Sony/MJJ

    The album cover for Thriller features Michael wearing a white suit that belonged to photographer Dick Zimmerman.

    The full gatefold sleeve for the album reveals a tiger cub at Michael's leg, which the singer apparently kept away from his face, as he was scared that he would be scratched.

    A different picture from the shoot, with Michael hugging the cub, was used for the 2001 special edition.

  4. The album title was originally Midnight Man

    Quincy Jones asked songwriter Rod Temperton to come up with an album title.

    He came up with 200 to 300 possible titles in his hotel room, before deciding on Midnight Man.

    However, the next morning he is said to have woken up and the word 'Thriller' popped into his head.

    "Something in my head just said, this is the title," Temperton said. "You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller.'"

  5. Thriller had intriguing recording methods

    Bruce Swedien later recalled how he recorded some background vocals in the Westlake shower room.

    The 'Don’t think twice!' lines in 'Billie Jean' was actually Michael Jackson singing through a five-foot-long cardboard tube.

  6. People thought the album's barcode was Michael Jackson's phone number

    After this rumour spread far and wide, a hair studio in Bellevue, Washington received up to 50 phone calls per day.

    A woman in Youngstown, Ohio who also had the phone number, said that while the kids that called were friendly, some of the adults were “pretty rude and ignorant.”

  7. Freddie Mercury could have appeared on the album

    Freddie Mercury in 1982
    Freddie Mercury in 1982. Picture: Getty

    Around the same time as Michael Jackson worked on Thriller, he recorded with Queen singer Freddie Mercury on the songs 'State of Shock', 'Victory' and 'There Must Be More to Life Than This'.

    According to Queen's manager Jim Beach, their relationship soured when Jackson brought a llama into the recording studio, and Jackson was upset by Mercury's drug use.

    Eventually released in 2014, the songs could easily have ended up on Thriller if things when differently.

  8. It helped break racial barriers

    Michael Jackson's Thriller video
    Michael Jackson's Thriller video. Picture: Alamy

    The incredible success of Thriller saw the breaking down of long-time racial barriers on American (and worldwide) radio at the time.

    For instance, with Eddie Van Halen's appearance on 'Beat It', New York's WPLJ, a traditionally 'white' station, played it often.

    MTV was also known for favouring white performers at the time, but its heavy playing of Michael Jackson videos helped change this for good.

    In 1980, when Rolling Stone declined to run a cover story on him, Michael Jackson replied: "I've been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn't sell copies ... Just wait. Some day those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I'll give them one, and maybe I won't."

  9. Michael Jackson wanted it to be a perfect album

    Michael Jackson stars in cool 1979 Suzuki advert

    While his previous album Off the Wall was a success, Michael wanted to do even better for his follow-up.

    Michael wanted to create an album where "every song was a killer".

    He was frustrated by albums that would have "one good song, and the rest were like B-sides. Why can't every one be like a hit song? Why can't every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single? That was my purpose for the next album."

  10. There were lots of unused songs

    In 2022, the Thriller 40 anniversary album was released, featuring a handful of previously unreleased tracks and demos from the Thriller sessions.

    These included 'Starlight', the original title and version of 'Thriller', and other songs called 'The Toy', 'Got the Hots' and 'Sunset Driver' among others.