This article is part of Yahoo’s ‘On This Day’ series
Michael Jackson’s single ‘Thriller’ became one of the most iconic music videos in history – helping propel the album to become the best-selling of all time.
But the song, published on this day in 1983 in the UK, was nearly called ‘Starlight’ or ‘Starlight Love’ and the famous video (with Jackson dancing with a horde of zombies) nearly didn’t happen at all, due to Jackson’s Jehovah’s Witness beliefs.
Unlike other hits on the album Thriller (such as Billie Jean and Beat It) which were written by Jackson himself, Thriller was written by British songwriter Rod Temperton.
Temperton grew up in Cleethorpes and had been working in a frozen fish factory in Grimsby when he responded to an advert and joined disco group Heatwave as keyboardist.
His hit song ‘Boogie Nights’ with Heatwave attracted the attention of producer Quincy Jones, who asked him to work on songs for Jackson.
The song that became Thriller was initially called ‘Starlight’, but Jones – who had produced Jackson’s 20-million-selling Off The Wall – was not happy with the title.
Temperton (known as ‘the Invisible Man’ for his work in the background on major hits) said that he went back to his hotel room to think up an alternative title.
In a 2009 interview, he said, “I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles and came up with ‘Midnight Man.
“The next morning I woke up and I just said this word [Thriller]. Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title’.
“You could visualize it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller’.”
Temperton said that he had always imagined a spoken-word section in the song – and that Quincy Jones’ wife knew horror actor Vincent Price.
But when Price arrived at the studio, Temperton hadn’t finished writing the words, which he had begun in the taxi on the way, so told his driver to go round the block one more time.
The now-iconic video with Price’s doom-laden voiceover almost didn’t happen, due to a last-minute panic from Jackson over the film’s occult content.
The music video had been shot at a reported budget of $900,000 on 35mm film (usually used for cinema productions) by the director of American Werewolf in London, John Landis.
John Landis said, “Basically, I thought about it and my intention was to exploit Michael’s unbelievable celebrity at that point to make a theatrical short, a 14-minute short. I also insisted the dancers have at least 10 days of rehearsal, which is also never done because it’s so expensive.”
In the video, Jackson sprouts whiskers and turns into a werewolf.
MORE FROM ‘ON THIS DAY’
When senior Jehovah’s Witnesses saw publicity for Thriller, they warned Jackson he could be expelled from the religion – meaning his mother might not be allowed to talk to him.
In a panic and sobbing, Jackson phoned his manager John Branca and said, ‘No one must ever see it.’
But Branca suggested that the film should be published with a disclaimer (an idea Landis was distinctly unhappy about.
In the end, the video shipped with the disclaimer, saying, ‘Due to my strong personal convictions, ‘I wish to stress that this in no way endorses a belief in the occult.’
Three years later, Jackson disassociated himself from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In 2009, Jackson died of acute benzodiazepine and propofol intoxication.
Almost four decades later, ‘Thriller’ still remains the best-selling album of all time, worldwide.
Watch: Jacksons host ‘Thriller Night’ party