“Thriller,” which zoomed back to the top of the charts last week following Michael Jackson’s unexpected death, changed the music industry forever. The album, which came out in 1982, was the first released around the world at the same time and the first to spawn seven singles from the same project.
With such groundbreaking videos as “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and, of course, “Thriller,” Jackson also changed the face of MTV and videos forever.
My former Billboard colleague, Gail Mitchell, and I wrote this piece for the brand new issue of Billboard, out now, about how the music industry was never the same after “Thriller.” We talked to the people who were there on the time, the people who helped make the magic happen, including producer Quincy Jones, Jackson’s then co-manager Ron Weisner, Epic Records execs, MTV’s head of programming Les Garland (who gave us his only interview about MJ following his death) and many, many more.
While Jackson’s label always maintained that record company head Walter Yetnikoff forced MTV to play “Billie Jean” by threatening to pull all of CBS Records acts’ videos off the cable outlet since the channel was not playing many black artists at the time. (CBS owned Columbia and Epic) MTV hotly disputes that version as “folklore.” Today, after I posted the story link on my Facebook page and tweeted about it, some other parties involved emailed me with their versions. Really amazing and I wonder how MTV’s playing “Billie Jean” really came down…and if it matters.
The act remains that mystery surrounded Jackson back then and even more so now, but nothing can take away or distract from the brilliance of “Thriller.”