IT WAS close to midnight when the phone rang. There was a long-distance pause and then a voice – elderly, black, southern, smooth – calling Glasgow from Tennessee.
“This is Fred Cash. You wanted to talk about Michael Jackson?”
Fred Cash is a member of The Impressions, the soul group once led by Curtis Mayfield. He first met Michael Jackson in 1967 when the Jackson 5 supported The Impressions at a show in Gary, Indiana. I contacted him, a while back, seeking revelation by proxy. I wanted to see the King of Pop, uncrowned, through his eyes.
“Michael was such a talented kid,” Cash recalled. “The way he expressed his lyrics and sang his songs, he sounded like he’d been here before. I think he studied us and all the artists that were hottest at the time. He was happiest when he was performing. I wasn’t surprised he became such a star. It was in him from when he was born.”
It was in him. He studied the best and biggest performers. He sounded like he’d been here before. Those words sing out, now, as Jackson’s album Thriller approaches its 30th anniversary. This was a record in which God-given artistry met studio mastery met manifest destiny. Released on November 30, 1982, Thriller was intended to conquer America and the world and it did. It has sold somewhere in the region of 110 million copies, more than any other record ever has and – most likely – ever will.
Why? “It’s one of the greatest albums of all time,” says Colleen Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays, the communal music appreciation events taking place in cities, including Glasgow, during which a single LP is played from beginning to end. “These songs are incredibly hooky and have lasted the test of time. Billie Jean has the best bass line in history, and Quincy Jones’s production is just sublime. When you listen to the whole thing on an amazing hi-fi, it’s spectacular. But listening to Thriller is also quite bittersweet because of what happened after that.”
Part of the thrill of Thriller, now, is the sense, audible in the vaunting verve of Jackson’s performance, that here is an artist at the peak of his powers – and the knowledge of the precipice a few steps ahead. Jackson, by the time he came to begin work on Thriller, was already a big star. His Off The Wall album was critically acclaimed, but he remained ghettoised by the industry, being named Billboard’s Top Black Artist of 1979 and winning Top Black Album. He saw Thriller not just as an opportunity to break into the mainstream but to own it. This was a hostile takeover set to music.
The broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove was, at the time of Thriller’s release, a young journalist working for the soul and reggae paper Black Echoes. He had been familiar with Jackson’s music since his days as a child star but this album, for Cosgrove, was a masterpiece in which all his performance skills and populist nous, honed on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit”, came together. “He had been groomed from birth to be the perfect entertainer,” says Cosgrove. “He lived in a bubble of permanent childhood, but it’s also the case that from a very early age he was being cultivated by his father to be the great money-spinner of the family. He was being taught to do flips and spins when he was three, four years old. Most of the stuff in Thriller he’d been doing since childhood.”
Thriller was, in a way, all too much. Too good. Too loved. Impossible to top. But Jackson tried. He intended the 1987 follow-up, Bad, to be a bigger and better record. It sold “only” 40 million. There is a sense, too, that Jackson began to wither creatively from Thriller onwards. His music fell out of favour with the public and critics and, increasingly, became disregarded altogether as the media focus shifted from the grooves of his records to the crooked furrow of his personal life. Abuse – of children, of alcohol, of drugs, of his own face; these became the things with which most people associated Michael Jackson.
Yet, arguably, his death in 2009, at the age of 50, has made it possible to listen his music in a more pure, open-eared, open-hearted way than has been possible for many years. Spike Lee’s new documentary about the making of Bad, in which he foreground’s Jackson’s perfectionism and songwriting gifts, is part of this process. But, really, all anyone need do is click on YouTube. In the course of writing this article I watched Jackson’s 1983 performance of Billie Jean at Motown’s 25th anniversary concert in Pasadena, the show at which he debuted the moonwalk. Forget pity, revulsion or regret. Surely, no one seeing that can feel anything but awe?
Too often, Jackson’s significance is measured in cold statistics – albums sold, tickets sold, online clicks. Now, thanks to his autopsy report, we even know that his brain weighed 1,380 grammes and his heart 290. But what those figures don’t tell you is what he did with that heart and mind, and they don’t give any sense of his true cultural weight; what he meant to people. He meant – he means – a lot.
In 1982, when Jackson was learning to moonwalk, I was nine years old and learning about Michael Jackson. My teacher was an eight-year-old called Tracy Watson. We played her older brother’s copy of Thriller and tried to copy the zombie dance. As the years passed, Tracy, like many committed fans, kept the faith. Never believed the allegations. Never stopped playing the records. Whenever she wears out a copy of Thriller she buys another and doesn’t grudge the expense. Now in her thirties, a wife and mother, Jackson has been the soundtrack to her life. When he died, she had a nine-inch picture of him, mid-dance move, tattooed on her back.
“He was definitely my hero, and I never wanted to forget what a big part he had played in my growing up,” she explains. “In another 30 years, we’ll be listening to Michael Jackson’s music and it’ll still be relevant. But nothing will beat Thriller for me. It’s just the best album ever.” «