Friday Song: “Thriller”

A groundbreaking song, still fun, and perfect for the spooky season.

As part of marketing a superb pop song with horror elements, Michael Jackson made one of the most famous music videos ever, one the Library of Congress added it to its National Film Registry in 2009, making it the first music video in their registry.

For the video, Jackson brought in old hands — John Landis to direct (American Werewolf in London) and Vincent Price to narrate and provide the final evil laugh.

Price was such a pro that he recorded the central spoken section on his second take, after it had been written by Rod Temperton (who also wrote the song) in the taxi on the way to the studio for the recording session. Price also narrated Alice Cooper’s horror stage show for Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975. (Trivia: Alice Cooper was Keanu Reeve’s babysitter at one point.)

Price was offered royalties or $20,000 for his narration, and chose the $20,000. He later laughed about the millions in royalties this decision cost him.

In addition to “Thriller,” Temperton wrote a few hit songs for Jackson, including “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall.” The original working title for the song was “Starlight,” or “Starlight Love,” which became “Midnight Man,” until Temperton woke up one morning and realized the word he was after was “thriller.”

The video was a milestone, introducing cinematic elements and elaborate choreography into the format, as well as the concept of the long-form music video. The long version runs nearly 14 minutes, yet has remained popular ever since it was released on MTV in 1982. A shorter version, which ran a little under five minutes, still contained about a minute of non-song content in its storyline. Both versions are available below.

The video cost $500,000 to make, which was financed through an elaborate set of deals with Showtime and MTV. It won for Best Performance Video, Best Choreography, and Viewers Choice at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.

The dance has inspired groups across many cultural boundaries — from the US to the Phillipines to the UK. The largest performance was a group of more than 13,000 who performed it in Mexico City in 2009.

The album Thriller is the best-selling in the world, and had seven Top 10 singles over the span of more than a year, a record of longevity for an album.


If you want the full 13m 41s version: