MJ Studies Today LXXXV

Abstract: This month, MJ Studies Today columnist Kerry Hennigan follows up last month’s article on the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller short film with an informal essay about her personal reflections on the iconic album itself, along with some of the Disc 2 “extras” from the 40th anniversary edition released November 22, 2022.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a student of Ancient and Medieval History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has a Certificate in Archaeology from Cambridge University.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXXV: ‘Listening to Michael Jackson’s #Thriller40 anniversary album. Some personal reflections.’” (14-01-2023). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 9, No. 3 (2023). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxxv/

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Listening to Michael Jackson’s #Thriller40 anniversary album. Some personal reflections.  By Kerry Hennigan

Collage © Kerry Hennigan

Expressing an opinion on a Michael Jackson album can be hazardous, even among fellow fans – you never know when someone is going to get upset over something you’ve said about their favourite (or perhaps, least favourite) track. I’m not a musicologist, and as I admitted in the January 2023 editorial of A Candle for Michael Newsletter, I feel the tracks as originally released on Thriller back in 1982 were the “cream of the crop” from those recording sessions. [1]

Take “Wanna Be Starting Something” – it has to be one of the best opening tracks to an album ever, and a brilliant concert opener as was acknowledged by Michael’s set list for “This Is It.” “Billie Jean,” probably his most often-played track, still deserves all the attention and admiration it receives. [2] Ditto for “Beat It” which, subsequent to the making of its short film, gave us one of Michael’s signature dance routines.

Whenever I hear the sublime “Human Nature” my mind goes back to the first time I saw the aerialists performing to it in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour. Their MJ One version is also magical. Those synth strings set the mood from the outset, setting the scene for what one critic called “a thing of unnatural beauty.” [3]

Toto’s Steve Porcaro wrote the music for this track (with lyrics by John Bettis), which Toto passed on because they were looking for a big stadium number. Porcaro tells a humorous story about it becoming the one and only track Michael would allow the media to hear being rehearsed when he was on the Victory tour, which played large stadiums all over the United States. [4]

Unlike Bad 25, I admit to initially finding it difficult to get really excited about the demos and rarities on Thriller 40. One exception was the different mix of “Behind the Mask,” a track I’ve loved since its release on the Michael album in 2010. When I first listened to it, the Thriller40 version lacked the drive of the mix on the Michael album, though not everyone agrees with my view. For example, Andy Healy in his review for Albumism says “this rawer version feels more in line with Jackson’s intent for the song.” [5] It’s certainly a highly infectious track – the more I listen to it, the more I am enamoured of it, and as always, my opinion at any given time has the potential to change.

For everything else rarely heard, or never heard, I needed more time and more listens, preferably via the physical CD, with headphones and the volume turned up. Digital streaming of music is fine for casual listening but runs the risk of being forgotten as quickly as consumed after a few clicks, as expressed by Brice Najar in his article about his own Thriller 40 experience. [6]

Once the physical copy was in my possession, I quickly warmed to the contents of Disc 2. It’s fun to hear “Starlight,” the Rod Temperton track that “Thriller” might have been had it not gone to a darker, more “thrilling” place, setting the mood for the short film that would come a year later (see last month’s MJ Studies today column). [7]

“Got the Hots,” another Temperton track first heard by many fans on some of the international King of Pop compilations of 2008, has an infectious groove with a high degree of polish, certainly as polished as most other artist’s completed recordings. In the chorus we have Michael singing with himself many times over. And what a glorious sound that is: a choir of Michael Jacksons!

“Sunset Driver,” written by Michael and mixed by Bill Bottrell for Thriller went unreleased until The Ultimate Collection in 2004. “She’s Trouble,” though neither a Jackson or Temperton composition, is a bit of a standout for me and sounds fully realised in this demo.

“Who Do You Know,” written by Michael, is a pure gem: smooth, subtle, yet with trademark Jackson percussive finger snaps and hiccups. Michael’s backing harmonies are, again, typically superb. With “The Toy” I was initially expecting something quite different from what turned out to be an early incarnation of “Best of Joy,” another track first released on the Michael album. Again, we have that beautiful effect that comes when many takes of Michael Jackson are combined for the song’s chorus.

“Can’t get outta the rain” takes me back to The Wiz, notable for Michael’s exceptional performance as the Scarecrow. The writing credits are shared by Michael and producer Quincy Jones with the latter’s influence predominant to my ears. It inevitably reminds me of the occasional comment one comes across on music forums post-HBO’s 2019 “mockumentary” e.g. “I propose we rename Thriller Quincy Jones’ Thriller…”

Such suggestions acknowledge the brilliance of the product, which was indeed a collaborative project (as duly credited in the Thriller 40 CD booklet) – but without the key component i.e. Michael Jackson himself, there would have been no Thriller. A recent video posted on social media by John Branca, co-executor of Michael’s estate, addressed this better than I ever could – and from a first-hand perspective. [8]

If this latest incarnation of Thriller does nothing else, it at least reminds the critics and jaded reviewers the many reasons why it is the world’s best-selling album. Those reasons are present in every groove cut into the vinyl of that original album. Now, the Disc 2 gems of Thriller 40 confirm that Michael’s success was never a fluke or a one off. It wasn’t simply a case of him coming out with the right record at the right time in the evolution of popular music. Rather, it was the result of an exceptional artist following the career arc he had planned for himself. [9]

In his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, Michael admitted that he had told his recording team that he wanted Thriller to be “the biggest-selling album of all time.” They started laughing, he wrote, admitting: “It was a seemingly unrealistic thing to want.” [10] However, with Thriller, Michael Jackson would, indeed, realise the goal he had set for his album before a single note had been sung.

Michael Jackson
Thriller 40th Anniversary Deluxe 2CD Album
Available in CD and digital formats. Vinyl reissues feature the original tracks only.
Release Date: 18/11/2022

Kerry Hennigan
January 2023


[1] Hennigan, Kerry. “Editorial.” A Candle for Michael Newsletter. Issue #117 published 1 January 2023. https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2023/01/01/a-candle-for-michael-newsletter-january-2023/

[2] Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXV: The Legacy of Billie Jean – 39 years after the release of Michael Jackson’s epic hit single.” (14-3-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 3 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxv/

[3] Vogel, Joseph. Man In the Music. Vintage Books paperback edition 2019, page 130. https://www.amazon.com/Man-Music-Joseph-Vogel/dp/0525566570/

[4] Rock Music History. “Toto’s Steve Porcaro: The Story Behind ‘Human Nature,’ Michael Jackson.” Sep 16, 2020. https://youtu.be/Y7Lc9NYHdNw

[5] Healy, Andy. “Expansive ‘Thriller 40’ Delves Deep into the Multiple Dimensions of Michael Jackson’s Musical Genius | Album Review.” Albumism. Nov 19, 2022. https://albumism.com/reviews/michael-jackson-thriller-40

[6] Najar, Brice. “Michael Jackson ‘Thriller 40.’” 20 Nov 2022. https://bricenajar.com/en/michael-jackson-thriller-40-the-review/

[7] Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXXIV: ‘One of the most triumphant, game-changing moments in show business history.’ Revisiting the book ‘Michael Jackson: the Making of Thriller’ by Douglas Kirkland and Nancy Griffin in celebration of 40 years of the Thriller album.” (14-12-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 9, No. 2 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxxiv/

[8] Branca, John. johnbrancaofficial on Instagram. “What made Michael Jackson great?” Posted December 7, 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cl1elLepV9S/

[9] CBS News. “MJ’s ‘manifesto,’ penned in 1979.” September 8, 2013. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mjs-manifesto-penned-in-1979/

[10] Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. Arrow paperback edition, 2010 page 181.

Illustration: #Thriller40 compiled by Kerry Hennigan using professional photograph of Michael Jackson. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.