Well, he did talk a lot about startin’ somethin’. But when Michael Jackson’s Thriller hit No. 1 on Feb. 26, 1983, few imagined that the 24-year-old former kid star was throwing down the glove and boosting an 18-month-long top 10 run that would make the album the biggest seller in history.
Not that chart success was alien to the pre-Wacko Jacko: As one fifth of the Jackson 5, Michael lent his playful and preternaturally soulful vocals to such hits as ”I Want You Back” and ”ABC.” But after the cornball rodent serenade ”Ben,” the sleek disco shimmy of his first solo album on Epic, 1979’s Off the Wall, transformed the most showbiz-savvy Jackson from talented tyke to grown-up pop phenom, setting the stage for Thriller‘s worldwide success.
With assists from producer Quincy Jones and writer Rod Temperton (the latter of whom penned three tunes, including the title track), Jackson recorded Thriller over four months in L.A., hoping to create an album that would unite black and white listeners on the dance floor. ”He and Quincy had a real battle plan,” remembers journalist Gerri Hirshey, who interviewed Jackson extensively during that period. ”They were not just going for crossing over; there was a global-pop intent from the start. Michael…was horribly upset when [a song from] Off the Wall won an R&B Grammy and not a more mainstream Grammy.”
Fittingly, Thriller was loaded with crossover-friendly cameos: Paul McCartney playfully bickered with Jackson on ”The Girl Is Mine” (they’d feud for real in 1985, when Jackson shocked his old friend by buying the rights to the Beatles’ catalog); Eddie Van Halen contributed the guitar solo that toughened up the street-drama anthem ”Beat It”; and Vincent Price performed a ”rap” to the title track.
Such attention-getting guest stars not only propelled Thriller up the traditionally white AOR (album-oriented rock) charts, but also helped desegregate the still lily-white MTV, which placed Jackson’s videos — including the 14-minute, John Landis-directed horror spoof Thriller — in heavy rotation. Eventually, the combination of 24/7 airplay and a growing fascination with Jackson’s personal life helped make Thriller the best-selling album of all time, a record it held until fall 1999, when it was surpassed by Eagles: Their Greatest 1971-1975. (The most recent tally puts Thriller at 26 million copies and Eagles at 27 million.) For the self-proclaimed King of Pop, the changing of the guard was nothing to grab his crotch and woooo about. Still, 16 years as the best-selling album of all time? Hard to beat it.