Hear “Starlight,” Michael Jackson’s Early Demo of “Thriller”: A Version Before the Lyrics Were Radically Changed

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.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ori­gins of Michael Jackson’s Moon­walk: Vin­tage Footage of Cab Cal­loway, Sam­my Davis Jr., Fred Astaire & More

Miles Davis Cov­ers Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (1983)

Hear the 1962 Bea­t­les Demo that Dec­ca Reject­ed: “Gui­tar Groups are on Their Way Out, Mr. Epstein”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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