The definitive blockbuster albums of an 80s childhood… maybe you weren’t there, but the Internet has made it so you might as well have been. Prince’s 1999 and Purple Rain, Van Halen’s 1984, Michael Jackson’s Midnight Man, the best-selling album of all time and biggest thing to happen to pop music since Off the Wall. Surely you remember the hit single “Starlight.” Its smooth grooves have burrowed into the brain of anyone who has ever seen a radio. Hit play above and tell me you don’t immediately start singing the chorus:
We need some starlight starlight sun
There ain’t no second chance we got to make it while we can
You need the starlight some starlight sun
I need you by my side you give me starlight starlight tonight yeah
But this sounds an awful lot like that other song, the one you actually remember singing—and dancing—along to every Halloween. In fact, it sounds exactly like “Thriller.” But what’s with these lyrics?
“Starlight” is the song writer Rod Temperton originally penned. And the album title? Temperton tells The Telegraph that after Quincy Jones gave him the assignment, he went back to his hotel room, “wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title ‘Midnight Man.’” It didn’t last long. The next morning, Temperton had an epiphany:
I woke up, and I just said this word… Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as “Thriller.”
The rest is a history so thoroughly embedded in the pop culture matrix that it’s nearly impossible to think things could have been otherwise. “Imagining ‘Thriller’ as anything else,” writes Patrick Rivers at American Music Review, “can be puzzling, even unfathomable.” In his short, but comprehensive survey of Thriller’s creation, Rivers wonders “whether unpolished products of popular artists should be made available.” Do such demos compromise or enhance our appreciation of the final, commercial product? “‘Starlight’ can really disturb prior understandings of Jackson’s career and image,” Rivers concludes; it “does not fit the product or artist that is Michael Jackson.”
And yet, such recordings almost invariably become public eventually: “While years of popular music creation remain behind the blissful curtain, the presence of ‘Starlight’ on social and peer-to-peer networks demonstrates an appetite for this content.” While no similar appetite may exist in the case of great literary works, the shock and surprise at hearing “Starlight” (readily available on YouTube) is akin to that feeling many students of T.S. Eliot’s poetry experience when they discover that his masterpiece The Waste Land was originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices” and was a very different work of art before it was heavily edited and even rewritten by Ezra Pound.
The comparison illuminates an important point about all art, commercial or otherwise: that it is very often the product of many hands and the result of many prior versions, and its success depends upon an often ungainly, trial-and-error process that might have led to very different results. “Starlight,” Rivers writes, “elucidates the calculated decisions made in the creation of commercial popular music.” Surely we knew this, yet when it comes to an artist like Michael Jackson at the height of his creative powers, we assume a kind of instant pop perfection, rather than the hit-by-committee process Rivers describes in his article.
In the case of “Thriller,” the committee mostly consisted of Temperton—whose “Starlight” demo had been chosen from hundreds submitted by others—and Quincy Jones, who gently pushed the songwriter toward an edgier theme and secured the great Vincent Price for the song’s outro (written by Temperton in a taxi on the way to the studio; Hear a studio outtake of Price’s voiceover above.) Album engineer Bruce Swedian remembers “the words ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ going between Quincy and Rod. Quincy saying it should be more Edgar Allan Poe. And that ‘Starlight’ isn’t, ‘Thriller’ is.”
Temperton recalled later in his commentary for the 2001 Thriller: Special Edition that as “Thriller” took shape along with “Billie Jean” and “Wanna be Starting Something,” the production team “were kind of giving the whole thing an edge and a direction that some of the other tracks didn’t have.” It was an edge, Rivers notes, “intended to represent Jackson’s unveiling as an adult recording artist,” jumpstarting his transition from child star and the boyish twenty-year-old of Off the Wall.
Delivering to the world a grown-up Michael Jackson in the artist’s next massive hit record was certainly Jones’ intent, though it was Jackson who penned most of album’s edgier songs. Hits like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” arrived nearly fully formed. (Hear “Billie Jean” in a home demo above and an a cappella demo of “Beat It” below.) But it took the brilliance of Quincy Jones and his production “A-Team” to bring these songs to the pop music marketplace, supplying just the right embellishments—like Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo—to etch these tunes into our collective consciousness forever.