It was sometime after 11:00 pm on a Monday night in late 1982. I was in my basement bedroom, working on some sort of university assignment with the local rock radio station on in the background. Then the announcer, the venerable Howard Manshein on 92 CITI-FM/Winnipeg, started to speak.
“I’m going to play you something, but I’m not going to tell you who it is. I want you to go into this without any judgment, any prejudices and any preconceptions. Just listen to the music and judge it for what it is.”
It should be noted that I was an extremely snobby, extremely opinionated, extremely obnoxious music fan back then. Not only was rock the only music that mattered–that was good! Proper! Righteous!–I wouldn’t ever hear any arguments to the contrary.
Then this came out of the radio.
After the song was over, I had to agree that it was pretty damn good. But when it was revealed that the artist was Michael Jackson, I nearly stroked out. A trap had been skillfully set by the DJ and he caught me in my own prejudices. I never forgot that lesson. It turned me into a much better music fan.
Since Thriller was released on November 30, 1982, it has sold somewhere beyond 65 million copies and perhaps as high as 100 million. This will never, ever be beaten. You can wait until the sun turns into a red giant and devours the inner planets and Thriller will still be the biggest-selling album in this part of the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way.
It didn’t start out this way. When the record was released on November 30, 1982, it was hardly greeted with hallelujahs and hosannas. Many mainstream outlets (including the venerable Time), missed mentioning it altogether.
The music market operated in a vastly different environment than it did today, especially when it came to black performers. Remember that MTV was very white, still fancying itself as a video version of Album Oriented Rock. Rap was still in its nascent formative years. Funk and R&B still largely lived within its often segregated spheres.
Yet within weeks, the album started on a run of selling more than 200,000 copies a week and continued at that pace for at least two years. Seven of the thirteen songs were released as singles. “Thriller” was turned into a short zombie film by John Landis and was accorded a primetime network TV premiere. Songs like “Billie Jean” are credited with breaking the colour barrier on MTV. It won more awards than anyone can count.
From early 1983 forward, Jacko was in the news almost constantly, whether it be his TV performances…
…his collaboration with other superstars…
…or his chimpanzee friend…
…or any of the other weird (and later disturbing stories). And the longer we paid attention, the more Thriller sold. The world agreed that Thriller was a brilliant album and that everyone needed to have a copy. It marked the golden age of albums and CDs.
From a sheer sales perspective, we will never, ever see another album like this again. Consider the awesomeness of its timing:
- The album arrived while the music industry was in the depths of the post-disco crash and a horrible recession that plagued the entire economy.
- Thriller came out within days of the introduction of a new technology called the “compact disc,” a format that ushered in nearly twenty years of double-digit sales growth for the music industry.
- It dropped in the lap of MTV, which wasn’t yet 18 months old but was on an upward trajectory. It needed as much telegenic content as it could get.
- Pop music was in the doldrums, caught between disco, New Wave, technopop and rock scene that had yet to discover hair metal. All corners of the public were looking for something exciting.
- Generation X, the sons and daughters of the Baby Boomers, were just becoming of age musically. This cohort wanted their own music and not something that their parents liked.
- Meanwhile, even Baby Boomers, flush with cash and ready to plunk down money on CDs and high-end stereo gear, had to agree that Thriller was pretty good.
Let’s say for a second that the record has moved 66 million units, which seems to the general consensus within the industry. Those heights will never be reached again by a physical album. CD began their fall in the 2000s and haven’t stopped. We just don’t buy pieces of plastic containing music that way anymore. There is no way in hell that any album will ever sell 66 million copies ever again.
Thriller will forever remain #1.