ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
We've got another birthday to celebrate. Happy 25th to Michael Jackson's album "Thriller." It first hit record stores 25 years ago this week. "Thriller" rocketed up to be the biggest-selling record of all time - for about a decade, at least. Today, "Thriller" is still the second biggest-seller of all time. Seven songs from the album hit the top 10, and there are only nine songs on the album. This one, "Wanna Be Starting Something," climbed to number five on the pop charts in 1983.
(Soundbite of song, "Wanna Be Starting Something")
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) I said you wanna be starting something. You got to be starting something. I said you wanna be starting something. You got to be starting something.
SEABROOK: Before "Thriller" became that juggernaut, Rolling Stone magazine had this review. It said, Jackson has cooked up a zesty LP whose uptempo workouts don't obscure its harrowing, dark messages. Jackson's new attitude gives "Thriller" a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.
That review was written by Chris Connelly back in 1982. I asked him to dust off his copy and remind me what Michael Jackson was like B.T. - before "Thriller."
Mr. CHRIS CONNELLY (Correspondent, ESPN, ABC): I mean, he was still known as the, you know, sensational, pint-sized lead singer of the Jackson 5. He had an enormously successful solo record with "Off the Wall," but he was coming into a pop music environment that was deeply polarized - it was the post-disco period. There was a lot of resistance from rock fans towards music made by black people. I think the thinking was that, perhaps, this was the record that could bring everybody back together again; that everyone would like.
SEABROOK: You know, reading your review now with the hindsight that we have, it's almost kind of shocking how reserved it was. It's like you saw it raw (unintelligible).
Mr. CONNELLY: Yeah. And I think I saw the record as to the left of his previous music and to the right of stuff like Prince or like Rick James. I don't think any of us understood at the time how his use of the music video form - the chance that people would have to see him dance - would also reshape the landscape of pop music.
SEABROOK: Well, let's talk about the first single. The album "Thriller" could have been a bomb right from the front because the first single was this sort of, you know, syrupy, completely non-funky duet with Paul McCartney.
Mr. CONNELLY: "The Doggone Girl Is Mine."
(Soundbite of song, "The Girl Is Mine"
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Because the doggone girl is mine.
Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY (Singer): (Singing) She's mine.
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing): She's mine.
Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) No, no, no. She's mine.
Mr. CONNELLY: I don't think I fully appreciated how much they were out for world domination on this record. And I think a lot of the choices that were made in retrospect were made to appeal to different areas of the populace, you know? That song, I was supposed to hate a song like that. A rock critic in 1982 was supposed to hate a song like that, but that was the first single for a reason. You know, that was designed to position him, I think, as friendly, inoffensive, with a Beatle, you know?
Mr. CONNELLY: In no way a rebel.
SEABROOK: Yeah. It was really…
Mr. CONNELLY: But that transformative second single was "Billie Jean," you know? And…
SEABROOK: Right. And that changed, you know, MTV up to that point. It was totally Wonder Bread white. I mean, Duran Duran, the Culture Club…
Mr. CONNELLY: Well, it was playing music that radio stations weren't playing at the time. But, yeah, there was - there seemed to be some kind of resistance towards playing black music at the time, and Michael Jackson kicked the door down with the most talented foot in show business.
(Soundbite of song, "Billie Jean")
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene. I said don't mind, but what do you mean I am the one who will dance on the floor in the round.
SEABROOK: One song we haven't really talked about on the album is the title track - "Thriller."
Mr. CONNELLY: Yeah.
SEABROOK: It wasn't one of your favorites when you reviewed it. What do you think now?
Mr. CONNELLY: No. It seemed a little campy to me. You know, it seemed…
SEABROOK: Well, you know, I mean, it's…
Mr. CONNELLY: Yeah. Call me crazy which was sort of the point.
SEABROOK: Vincent Price rapping.
Mr. CONNELLY: But it seemed a little indulgent and campy and ooky-spooky and all that kind of thing.
(Soundbite of song, "Thriller")
Mr. VINCENT PRICE (Actor): Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand.
Mr. CONNELLY: But, boy, people love it. I mean, you go on YouTube right now and you can find weddings where the bridal party will dance the "Thriller" dance in the middle of it.
But I think that's a track that really came to life when he did the video. And I think when people think of the song "Thriller" now, they really think of that video. And he's the guy who got you thinking about these songs, not just as tracks on a record, but as videos - music videos.
(Soundbite of song, "Thriller")
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night. There ain't no second chance against the thing with 40 eyes, girl.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Thriller…
SEABROOK: So, Chris Connelly, looking back on it now, 25 years later, what's your favorite song in the album now?
Mr. CONNELLY: I think "Beat It" is my favorite song.
Mr. CONNELLY: Just because it's exciting. It has that fantastic break from Eddie Van Halen in the middle. That video, that dance, the power of that song; that would be my favorite.
SEABROOK: Chris Connelly, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. CONNELLY: Thank you, Andrea.
SEABROOK: Chris Connelly wrote the review of "Thriller" for Rolling Stone magazine back in 1982. The record was released 25 years ago. Connelly is now a correspondent for ABC's 20/20 and for ESPN.
(Soundbite of song, "Beat It")
Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) They told him, don't you ever come around here. Don't wanna see your face; you better disappear. The fire's in their eyes, and their words are really clear, so beat it, just beat it.
SEABROOK: Go to our fabulous site, npr.org/music, where you'll find the whole review, plus, interpretive dance. We've compiled a few videos of people attempting to do the "Thriller" zombie dance. I'm doing it here in the studio.
(Soundbite of song, "Beat It")
SEABROOK: And speaking of dancing, our parting words for you today comes from a surprising source considering the topic. This man said dancers are the athletes of God. Who said that? None other than Albert Einstein.
And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.