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The 'invisible man' behind Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'

Del Cowie

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, directed by John Landis, was unquestionably the scariest music video ever made at the time of its release. Debuting on Dec. 2, 1983, the ghoulish 15-minute horror-movie inspired clip featuring zombies and werewolves was more than a music video. It was an event. And rightfully so. As the title track from what would turn out to be the biggest selling record of all time for many years from the 20th century’s biggest pop star, the song’s ambitious visuals (it was the most expensive music video at the time) matched the heights the music reached.

But the framework and foundation behind Landis’ screen vision and Jackson’s iconic dance moves and vocal performance is the song itself, written by late songwriter Rod Temperton, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 66. Temperton’s death was announced on Oct. 5.

In contrast to Thriller’s inescapable ubiquity in popular culture, Temperton himself kept a very low profile, earning the ‘invisible man’ nickname in the process. He gave few interviews and when his name is mentioned, it is almost exclusively in relation to the songs he wrote for Jackson and many other artists.

Songwriter Rod Temperton at rehearsals for the 'We are the Future' all-star humanitarian concert May 15, 2004 at Circus Maximus in Rome, Italy.

Songwriter Rod Temperton at rehearsals for the 'We are the Future' all-star humanitarian concert May 15, 2004 at Circus Maximus in Rome, Italy.

Temperton, born in the northern English town of Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, began his unassuming career behind the scenes of popular songs when he hooked up with singer Johnnie Wilder Jr., a U.S. soldier who had just finished serving  in Germany in the late '70s to form the disco/R&B group Heatwave. Temperton would go on to write tracks like the heartfelt ballad “Always and Forever,” the raucously energetic “Boogie Nights” and the heliocentric “Star of the Story” for the group.

Temperton’s soulfully intricate compositions caught the ear of Quincy Jones, who had begun to work with Jackson after the two had collaborated on the film musical The Wiz. Jones and Jackson were beginning to work on what would become Off the Wall and Temperton had left Heatwave to work with the superstar duo on the album, writing “Burn This Disco Out,” “Rock With You” and the album’s title track.

By the time it came to work on 1982's Thriller, Temperton’s working relationship with Jones and Jackson was firmly established. However, the title of the record wasn’t firmly established when he got involved. At various points, the song that would become “Thriller” had different titles, including “Starlight” and “Midnight Man.”

However, Jones wanted Temperton to go back to the lab and try a different title. In a 2007 Telegraph article, Temperton explains the situation.

“Originally, when I did my 'Thriller demo,' I called it 'Starlight,'” says Temperton. “Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man'. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word. ... Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as Thriller.”

Of course, "Thriller" wouldn’t be "Thriller" without the spoken word outro voiced by British actor Vincent Price, known for his many roles in horror films.

“When I wrote "Thriller" I'd always envisioned this talking section at the end and didn't really know what we were going to do with it,” Temperton said in an interview for the special edition of Thriller released in 2001. “But one thing I'd thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice, in the horror genre, to do this vocal. Quincy's [then] wife [Peggy Lipton] knew Vincent Price so Quincy said to me, how about if we got Vincent Price? And I said, 'Wow, that'd be amazing if we could get him.”

Price agreed to appear on the song, but Temperton didn’t have the spoken word/rap section ready, even as Price headed to the studio in a limousine.

In a recent obituary written for Temperton in The Guardian, the frantic scene around the song's creation is revealed, with Temperton barely finishing writing the now famous words before Price arrived and handed his hot-off-the-photocopier notes to the actor in the recording booth. The actor nailed the lengthy voiceover in two takes.

Consequently with “Thriller,” Temperton cemented his role as a pivotal figure in helping to navigate Jackson’s phenomenally successful career transition from child star to the biggest pop star on the planet. Not only that, but it provided the sonic inspiration for arguably the most imitated and most influential spooky music video ever created, invariably ensuring the song an eternally spooky spot on Halloween playlists.

More to explore:

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Rod Temperton, 'Thriller' songwriter, dead at 66

CBC Archives: Michael Jackson