The Great British Songbook #4: ‘Thriller’

What? Why the shocked face? If we’re pulling together a selection of the most influential, biggest British-written songs of all time, at some point we are going to have to acknowledge that the title track of the biggest-selling album of all time was written by a British man. The disco Cole Porter himself, Rod Temperton, to be precise.

Hailing from the seaside town of Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, Rod first made his name writing the magnificent “Boogie Nights” for the band Heatwave, before being snapped up by Quincy Jones to work on Michael Jackson’s first solo album for Epic Records, “Off The Wall.” He came up with some of the album’s biggest hits, including “Rock With You” and “Off The Wall,” both of which helped cement Michael’s reputation as a solo star, away from his brothers.

When it came time to record a follow-up, Michael was bringing in world-beating pop songs like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” which meant Rod had to significantly raise his game. He described going to bed after working on some 200 song titles, having been challenged by Quincy to once again come up with the song that named the album. He’d already demoed a song he called “Starlight,” but that didn’t quite have the killer hook it needed, especially now that Michael was a dominant songwriting force. What to do…what to do…

The next morning he woke up with the word thriller magically on his mind, and everything suddenly fell into place, from the spooky lyrics to the spoken word outro by Vincent Price. A perfect title for a perfect song for the perfect album. And the treatment for the video practically wrote itself, although there must have been plenty of people at Epic Records who wished it had also funded itself.

Before you could say boo! mega-super-ooper-stardom erupted for Michael and kids all over the wold began to seriously covet a certain red and black leather jacket.

And of course, being the title track of the biggest selling album of all time, the song does tend to pop up in all sorts of strange places. Like the Phillipine prison where the inmates reenacted the video, in full orange prison uniform:

Or this wedding:

Which has to make this the most efficacious night’s sleep in history, beating even the fever-dream which delivered “Yesterday” to Paul McCartney.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine