In the 80s, Michael Jackson was known as the undisputed King Of Pop. His ear for lyrics that connected with so many people, together with tunes that moved so many more, was unmatched anywhere in the music world.
Jackson was a prolific singer, songwriter and producer. But, contrary to what many people think, he didn’t write the final version of one of his best-loved songs.
The song was written by Rod Temperton, taking its inspiration from an early Jacksons hit called, ‘This Place Hotel’. It wasn’t produced by Jackson either. That was Quincy Jones.
Like most creative work, it went through several rounds of naming, including, ‘Starlight’, ‘Starlight Sun’ and ‘Give Me Some Starlight’.
Accordingly, the main hook contained the lyrics, ‘Give me some starlight! Starlight sun’.
But, nearing the end of wrapping things up, Jackson told Temperton he wanted a song that kids would ‘get’ more.
Quincy pretty much had the Starlight demo done until Jackson threw in a last-minute googly. So with a tight deadline, and the heavy weight of expectation, Temperton went back to his hotel to crack out another three hundred titles, eventually settling on ‘Midnight Man’.
‘Midnight Man’ doesn’t really sing to kids, so Temperton needed help.
And he got it from a few hours’ sleep, taking his mind momentarily from the task in hand.
As soon as he woke, the word was in his head. And in his mind’s eye, that word was number one in the charts, on billboards and t-shirts everywhere.
That word was, ‘Thriller.’
Suddenly, the new hook was, ”Cause this is thriller! Thriller night …’
And through Michael Jackson’s undoubted talent, a musical phenomenon was born–with a little help and a minor copy tweak, that had a major effect.
Thriller spawned a 14 minute-long video which, in-turn gave way to thousands of copies of ‘The Making of’ videos, available on VHS and Betamax. The music video was way ahead of its time and smashed all awards records including Best Performance, Best Choreography and Viewers’ Choice at the MTV Music Awards in 1984.
Thriller then went on to become the title of the album, from which the single was the last of seven US top 10 hits. Even the hype surrounding the album was scary; the seven-digit barcode on the cover was rumoured to be Jackson’s phone number and hundreds of people with the same number with different area codes were inundated with unwanted calls.
But hype aside, it’s also a great lesson to people working in marketing and marketing agencies.
It’s especially a great lesson to young hot-shot art directors and copywriters, who, no matter how good they think they are, or even actually are, should never pass on that four-letter word: HELP.
I’ve been in plenty of integrated marketing agencies, where so-called creatives lock themselves away for days on end to create magic. They either heap the responsibility on their own shoulders or, conversely don’t want to give away any secrets of their magic circle. And, in thinking no one else should have valuable input into the creative process, there is no in-between.
Now, over the years, these creative types either learn to chill out or realise they need help in the form of insight, thoughts, ideas and inspiration from anywhere they can get their hands on it. That includes, colleagues, family, friends and even Mary, the office cleaner. And it may come in the form of a damn good sleep, a refreshing shower or an even more refreshing pint of beer down the pub.
So if you know anyone in marketing who thinks they can, or need to do it all themselves, remind them about the recognised planet-leaders, the experts and the world’s favourites who all need a little help from elsewhere from time to time.
As a final note, when Temperton was struggling for a great way to end the song, Quincy Jones’ spouse, Peggy Lipton suggested using her friend, Vincent Price.
Can you imagine Thriller now without the help of Michael Jackson’s producer’s wife?