Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’: 30 Cool Facts

From its zombie dancers and star cameos, we recall the album on its 30th anniversary.

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    Thriller's album cover (Amazon.com/Epic Records)

    Three decades since its release, Thriller remains the biggest selling album not only of Michael Jackson’s own illustrious career, but on all of planet Earth. Between sales, awards and sentimental loyalty, the album’s achievements continue to dazzle in the outer stratosphere of what was once and may never again be possible in the music business from an artist who shattered color lines. To celebrate the 30th anniversary (which is on Nov. 30) of one of the greatest full-length recordings of all time, The Root presents 30 facts you may have overlooked about Thriller.


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    Thriller 25th anniversary album (Amazon.com/Epic Records)

    Thriller 25 was released in 2008 (technically into its 26th year) in a package featuring new remixes with contemporary artists Kanye West, Akon, will.i.am and Fergie. But, as Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield wrote in his February 2008 review, the additional tracks are utterly non-essential: “All the new artists sound cowed by the originals, and they know nobody will ever play their versions twice.” The album remained memorable on its own merits, capturing Jackson at the peak of his solo superstar powers — cool, slinky and pretty, like “Boy George times Rick James.”

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    Filipino prisoners dance to "Thriller." (YouTube)

    Re-enactments of the dance sequence performed by zombies in the “Thriller” video have gone viral on YouTube. Inmates at Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in central Philippines kick-started the trend with a 2007 video in which they executed the choreography with impeccable precision. The clip now has more than 51 million views. Flash mobs around the world and fans of all ages have since recorded their own viral versions.

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    Michael Jackson with John Landis (left) and Rick Baker (via classicmoviemonsters.blogspot.com)

    Jackson hired John Landis — who had been known in the late ’70s and early ’80s for making popular comedy films such as National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers — to direct the Thriller mini-movie. Inspired by Landis’ fright-night farce An American Werewolf in London, the video was a 13-minute epic that featured elaborate dance numbers with the walking dead and Jackson, at turns, in zombie makeup and a werewolf getup. When it came time to transform Jackson, Landis reached out to Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, with whom he had worked on the latter feature film.

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    Thriller Live performance (via Thriller Live)

    Thriller Live, a contemporary musical, has toured Europe since 2006. Producer Adrian Grant’s show features music from the album as well as hits from the Jackson 5 catalog. And with MJ Academy, Grant is training a new generation of young actors to play the role of Michael Jackson. In November, celebs got involved with Thriller Live. Soul singer Macy Gray sang “Rock With You” at a performance the troupe arranged for BBC Children in Need.

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    Michael Jackson in "Billie Jean" video (Epic Records)

    Jackson wrote four of the album’s nine songs himself: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Beat It,” “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean.” Off the Wall collaborator Rod Temperton, producer Quincy Jones, singer James Ingram and songwriters Steve Porcaro and John Bettis round out the album’s song credits.

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    Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson (AFP/Getty Images)

    “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, was the subject of two plagiarism cases in court. The first lawsuit was filed in the mid-’80s by Illinois musician Fred Sanford, who sued for $5 million, claiming that the star jacked the tune from Sanford’s “Please Love Me Now.” Then about 10 years later, Reynaud Jones and Robert Smith charged that parts of their work ended up three Jackson songs. Though Jackson wound up winning both cases, the litigation put a temporary cloud over the album.

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    Bruce Sweiden (via SoundOnSound.com)

    “Billie Jean” was the result of a lot of studio perfection. The song was reportedly mixed 91 times before it was completed, says engineer Bruce Swedien.

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    La Toya Jackson (Alessandro Bianchi/AFP/Getty Images); Janet Jackson (Getty Images)

    Michael Jackson loved to record his own backing harmonies, but his sisters La Toya and Janet did the honors for “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” Janet, who was 16 at the time the song was made, later joked about not receiving a platinum plaque for her contribution.


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    Vincent Price (via Wikipedia)

    “Thriller” the song features the voice of the late actor Vincent Price. His reputation as a master of silver-screen horror made him perfect to punctuate Jackson’s spooky tune. Price told talk show host Johnny Carson that he could choose between a percentage of the album sales or a one-time fee of $20,000, and he unfortunately chose the latter.

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    Thriller, Michael Jackson's tiger (via mirror.co.uk); Jackson (Getty Images)

    Michael owned a 375-pound tiger named Thriller. She passed away of lung cancer at Shambala Preserve in Southern California in June 2012 at age 13, where she and her brother Sabu lived since moving there from Neverland in 2006. Her twilight years were spent under the care of Hitchcock actress-turned-animal-activist Tippi Hedren, who owns Shambala.

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    The Eagles' Greatest Hits (Asylum)

    Thriller has sold more copies than any album in the United States, followed closely by the Eagles’ collection Their Greatest Hits. The booklet for Jackson’s Ultimate Collection box set, released before his death, estimated that the album sells as many as 100,000 units per week.


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    Thriller platinum plaque (Wikipedia.com)

    Thriller is certified 29 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Worldwide sales are estimated to be more than three times that figure, making it the top-selling album of all time. The album also has gotten the elusive Diamond Award for selling more than 10 million copies.

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    Michael Jackson at the Grammys in 1984 (AFP/Getty Images); Michael Jackson at the AMAs (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

    Between the album as a whole and its hit singles, Thriller collectively won five American Music Awards and eight Grammys. Santana managed to tie Jackson’s spectacular Grammys feat in 1999 with Supernatural, sharing the honor for most wins in a single year.

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    Ola Ray with Jackson in "Thriller" (Epic Records); Ola Ray in Playboy magazine (Playboy)

    “Thriller” leading lady Ola Ray was the Playboy Playmate of the Month in June 1980; she got the video role when Flashdance star Jennifer Beals rejected the part. Ray sued Jackson for royalties on the video two months before he died in 2009. The case was ultimately settled by the estate.

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    Zombies in the "Thriller" music video (Epic Records)

    The zombie dancers in the video worked 16- to 18-hour days for six weeks to perfect their dead shuffles. Not only do many of them still keep in touch, they even had a 25th-anniversary get-together.

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    Eddie Van Halen (left) with Michael Jackson (via guitars101.com)

    The distinctive rock guitar riffs on “Beat It” belong to none other than Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen. But this is often overlooked since Van Halen’s record label would not allow him to appear in the video. That legal issue didn’t keep the guitar god from joining Jackson and his brothers during their Victory Tour. Check out the rocker (at around the 3:00 minute mark) here.

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    Rihanna; Manu Dibango (Simone Joyner/Rodger Bosch/Getty Images)

    The infectious chant of “ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coo sa” on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” has roots in the Duala language from Cameroon, and is more directly credited to musician Manu Dibango, who chanted the phrase on his 1972 afrobeat song “Soul Makossa.” He successfully sued Jackson for its appropriation, and later sued Rihanna as well for sampling the refrain on “Don’t Stop the Music.”

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    Public Enemy; N.W.A. (via alancross.ca/thugradio.net)

    Vincent Price’s laugh on “Thriller” has been sampled by numerous electronic music and hip-hop recordings, most notably by Public Enemy (“911 Is a Joke”) and N.W.A. (“100 Miles and Running”).

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    Weird Al Yankovic in "Eat It" parody (Youtube.com)

    Weird Al Yankovic won a Grammy in 1984 for best comedy recording for “Eat It,” a food-forward parody of Jackson’s “Beat It.” The goofy song, for which he dons a fat suit in the video, has been his highest charting U.S. single on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than 20 years.

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    Eddie Murphy (via avclub.com)

    At the height of Thriller’s success, comedian Eddie Murphy routinely poked fun at Jackson’s sexuality on Saturday Night Live. He imitated Jackson’s featherweight voice in one skit that’s a PSA for Jackson’s male fans who misinterpreted “Billie Jean.” “A lot of people thought I actually got a girl pregnant and walked out on her,” the character explains. “Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth … Nice boys don’t get girls pregnant.” In another appearance, Murphy shows off an anatomically incorrect MJ doll on the program’s “Weekend Update.”

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    Brooke Shields with Michael Jackson (via Washingtonpost.com)

    Jackson publicly dated actress Brooke Shields during this album’s reign. He had taken her as his date to watch him win five American Music Awards and seven Grammys at both ceremonies in 1984. The pair even landed their own cover of JET Magazine. But the rumors swirled about if their relationship was romantic. At the time, Jackson told Ebony that they were just friends. After his death in 2009, Shields told People: “He was an extraordinary friend, artist and contributor to the world.”

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    Emmanuel Lewis (via tmz.com)

    Jackson met pint-size actor Emmanuel Lewis, the young star of the popular sitcom Webster, during the shooting of the “Thriller” video. Some speculate that the ensuing friendship signaled the beginning of Jackson’s very public fascination with child stars.

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    Flashdance and The Police's Synchronicity (via last.fm/icollector.com)

    Synchronicity by The Police and the soundtrack to the film Flashdance go down in history as the albums that dislodged Thriller from the top spot on the U.S. charts.

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    The Jacksons' Victory Tour (via mjhumberto.deviantart.com)

    At the pinnacle of Thriller’s success, Jackson reunited with his brothers for the Victory Tour in 1984. The hugely successful North American run set a world record by grossing approximately $75 million over 55 dates.

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    Michael Jackson after scorching his hair during a Pepsi commercial shoot (via michaeljacksonrememberedwithlove.com)

    When Jackson and his brothers filmed a commercial for Victory Tour sponsor Pepsi in 1984, he suffered severe head and scalp burns in a pyrotechnic accident. But before that tragic incident, MJ’s co-branding efforts with the soft drink helped extend his popularity. In this clip, we see his brothers and a young Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) in full-MJ mini-me mode.

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    Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones (via online.wsj.com)

    Turn the beat around: Quincy Jones teamed up with Jackson on Thriller with the goal to kill disco. “Our underlying plan was to take disco out. That was the bottom line,” Jones said in October while attending a fundraiser for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation in Denver. “I admired disco, don’t get me wrong. I just thought that it had gone far enough,” he said. “We needed to go someplace else.”

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    Prince; his album 1999 (via Prince.org/theburtonwire.com)

    For some critics, Thriller wasn’t even the best album of 1982; Prince’s 1999 — an ambitious double-album that featured its fair share of remarkable songs such as the title track, “Little Red Corvette,” “International Lover” and “Lady Cab Driver” — was considered a better effort, which didn’t help quell rumors of a feud between the artists.

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    Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates (via Youtube.com)

    While it has been suggested that Daryl Hall and John Oates’ bassline for their 1982 hit “I Can’t Go for That” was lifted and used for “Billie Jean,” Jackson himself told Martin Bashir in their infamous interview that he thought of the riff while driving down Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.

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    Michael Jackson; Smokey Robinson (via articles.nydailynews.com/spokeo.com)

    On Thriller, Jackson had the best falsetto since Motown singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, said a review in the New York Times: “Ever since the craze for the castrato in the 17th century, high male voices, with their paradoxical blend of asexuality and sensuousness, ecstasy and pain, have been the most prized of all vocal types, and Mr. Jackson epitomizes such singing for our time better than anyone, in any musical genre.”

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    MTV logo (via tumblr.com)

    Jackson demolished MTV’s color lines with the airing of his groundbreaking videos for “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” but such a feat wasn’t easily accomplished. Initially meeting resistance from the network, CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff threatened to keep his rock artists off MTV if Jackson’s videos weren’t played.

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