Tag Archives: Bad

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #577: The Village People – ‘Cruisin’’ (1978)

RITA#577On Saturday mornings in Manchester, we would hit the local record stores; usually Kingbee in Chorlton, followed by Sifters a little further afield in Fallowfield. Of the two, I always preferred the selection in Kingbee. Even though the shop looked like it was never blessed with direct daylight, the rock and pop section was pretty good, although pretty pricey at times.

It was always a bit harder to navigate around the shop in Kingbee though. It isn’t the largest record shop in the world, and with only four or five racks of rock and pop – usually a record store’s most popular section – you’d always be fighting to get back into the L to R section after another buyer ruined your alphabetised digging.

RITA#577aIf pickings were not rich enough in Kingbee, we’d jump in the car and go to Sifters, the record store made famous by Noel Gallagher’s lyrics in Shakermaker. Sifter’s was such a different experience to Kingbee. It was always a bit quieter and not populated with the usual serious record buying types you would see in Kingbee.

I filled a lot of gaps in my record collection in Sifters. It seemed to be the record store where popular rock records ended up. My copies of Hysteria and Brothers In Arms probably came from Sifters, and I think I picked up the whole of ZZ Top’s pre-Eliminator output there once I figured out how good their early material is. My copies of Thriller and Bad were from there, and while I already owned Frampton Comes Alive by the time I first set foot in Sifters, I reckon I would have been able to pick up a copy there every week if I needed to.

RITA#577bOne of the records I always saw in Sifters was a copy of the Village People’s third studio album, Cruisin’, from 1978. I have a soft spot for Y.M.C.A. – it’s such a banging tune that I don’t really care about anything else the song – or the band – symbolises. The album just refers to the band’s collective love of driving around, right? And the visual gag concerning the band’s attire in Wayne’s World 2 puts such a big smile on my face that I just have trouble taking them too seriously.

It was always on my agenda to pick up that copy of Cruisin’ in Sifters. I never got around to it for one reason or another. I must have picked it up a few times, but had to put it back once I’d figured my other records had easily surpassed my budget. I always regretted this after I left Manchester, but I was lucky to pick up a beat-up (or should that be ‘rough trade’?) second-hand copy here in New Zealand last year.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Village People were a one-hit wonder, but nearly every song on this record sounds like a reworking of Y.M.C.A. There’s a really tasty horn break in I’m A Cruiser which I’m having major trouble placing. Either it’s lifted from something else, or it’s been samped since (it’s at 02:50 here, if you can help me out).

Hit: Y.M.C.A.

Hidden Gem: Medley: The Women / I’m A Cruiser

Rocks In The Attic #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall

Rocks In The Attic #278: Fleetwood Mac – ‘Tango In The Night’ (1987)

RITA#278When I was growing up, I heard a lot of this era of Fleetwood Mac. I’m not sure why, but maybe when Michael Jackson brought Bad out in 1987, I became a little more aware of music because of all the hype surrounding him, and as a result I probably took a little more interest in the Sunday Top 40 countdown on radio 1, and Thursday’s Top Of The Pops. I probably caught the occasional performance from this album, whilst waiting for the latest Michael Jackson video to appear.

For that reason, this album feels very natural to me, like slipping into a warm bath. For this era of Fleetwood Mac, it’s nowhere as good as Rumours, and I think you’d have to be crazy to suggest it’s even close, but it’s still a decent album with a lot of very strong pop songs.

I’ll always prefer the original, Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac. In my eyes, they’re two very different bands, linked by that strange mid-period of albums after Green left and before Buckingham and Nicks came along. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy this line-up of the band though. It’s just a different prospect.

The three big singles from this album – Little Lies, Everywhere and Big Love – are very, very strong. The album seems to be pinned around them, and some of the lesser album tracks point to a lack of quality overall – something you can’t say about Rumours where every track is a killer. There were a total of six singles lifted from the album, with Seven Wonders, Family Man and Isn’t It Midnight rounding out the six.

My favourite song from the album is opener Big Love – and I love Lindsey Buckingham’s stripped-down live version of the song I heard on Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown soundtrack; but my favourite moment from the album is on side two opener Little Lies. The vocals on this Christine McVie track – Christine leading the chorus, followed by Stevie Nicks and finally by Buckingham sounding other-worldly – sounds just sublime to me. It’s a key moment when the whole band – and most importantly the three vocalists – lock-in so well together.

Hit: Little Lies

Hidden Gem: Caroline

Rocks In The Attic #164: Michael Jackson – ‘Bad’ (1987)

This was probably my first experience of hype – prior to this music was just something that other people listened to, for reasons I wasn’t sure of, then this album landed and things made a bit more sense.

Say what you want about Michael Jackson but Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad are all timeless. Anything and everything that came later was sub-par and obviously less interesting than his private life. Bad is my least favourite of those three albums, but I still love it. The key changes in Speed Demon – and I’m usually the first person to turn my head and walk away at the mere hint of a key change – are out of this world, and as a fellow musician they’re humbling to the core.

I don’t know what happened to Michael after this record – it might be that he ended his very fruitful partnership with Quincy Jones, or that he just went a bit too weird and detached from reality – but this album is definitely his last peak before a very rocky stumble down the other side of the mountain. As a piece of work it might not reach the same highs as Thriller but it’s far more consistent (hit after hit after hit).

The vinyl version of this album removes Leave Me Alone, which is only available on the CD release. That’s a shame as it’s one of my favourite singles (just one of ten – yes, ten – singles taken from this album). If it was up to me, and sadly it’s not and never will be, I would have left Dirty Diana off the album in favour of Leave Me Alone, but hey, who cares?

Hit: Bad

Hidden Gem: Speed Demon