Listen to 'Starlight', the early version of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' you've never heard before

9 August 2021, 17:38 | Updated: 9 August 2021, 17:44

Michael Jackson performing 'Thriller' live, and a still from the 1983 music video
Michael Jackson performing 'Thriller' live, and a still from the 1983 music video. Picture: Getty/Epic Records

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' is one of the most instantly recognisable pop songs of the past 40 years.

But it took several attempts for the iconic final version as we now know it to come to fruition.

'Starlight' sounds almost exactly like 'Thriller' because it is virtually the same song, just with very different lyrics.

It's slightly discombobulating on first listen, given that 'Thriller' was one of the 1980s blockbuster songs and music videos that's been etched into popular culture for nearly four decades since its release.

Read more: Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' is no longer the best-selling album in the US, but what is?

The title track from Michael Jackson's sixth studio album still has the same disco-funk sound in its demo versions, but the element of horror and movie spectacle was added much later.

Michael Jackson - 03. Starlight (Original Thriller Demo) [Audio HQ] HD

Penned by English songwriter Rod Temperton, who also worked on Jackson's breakthrough solo album Off The Wall, the aim was to write a song befitting of Michael Jackson's love of cinema and his evolving persona.

Quincy Jones who produced Thriller thought that the song itself should be the album's title track, but that 'Starlight' was a weak title.

Read more: Michael Jackson asked Duran Duran to make a record but they turned it down

Temperton then changed it to 'Midnight Man', but it still didn't sit right as he recalled in The Telegraph:

"I woke up, and I just said this word… Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise 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'.”

Michael Jackson dancing in the iconic 1983 music video for 'Thriller'
Michael Jackson dancing in the iconic 1983 music video for 'Thriller'. Picture: Epic Records

It proved to be an inspired change, seeing Thriller later become the biggest selling US album of all time and making Michael Jackson pop music royalty.

Once the song's title was settled upon, Temperton supposedly wrote the entire lyrics in just "a couple of hours".

Read more: Where is Ola Ray, the girl in Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' music video, now?

Any concern about the track's title was put to rest when Jackson entered the studio, with Temperton saying it was "a crap word to sing ... It sounded terrible! However, we got Michael to spit it into the microphone a few times and it worked."

'Thriller' was the last of seven singles to be released from the album. Its accompanying music video, directed by horror movie director John Landis, changed pop music forever and arguably defined Michael Jackson's career from then onwards.