When Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was released on Nov. 30, 1982, Quincy Jones' goal was not to produce the highest-selling album in history.
"Our underlying plan was to take disco out. That was the bottom line," Jones said last month while attending a fundraiser for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation in Denver.
"I admired disco, don't get me wrong. I just thought that it had gone far enough," he said. "We needed to go someplace else."
They went places pop music had never gone before: A 14-minute music video that all but obliterated MTV's color line. The moonwalk dance craze. The Van Halen-infused "Beat It" guitar riff. The zombie line-dance that supplanted the hokey-pokey at cheesy wedding receptions for decades to come.
From the moment needle touched vinyl 30 years ago this month, dorm-room dance parties changed forever. No, check that. The utterly ordinary first single was the Paul McCartney duet, "The Girl Is Mine." No surprise that two months after its release, "Thriller" still hadn't reached No. 1.
It was the second single, "Billie Jean," that made Jackson the King of Pop and catapulted "Thriller" on its way to 104 million records sold, a figure unlikely ever to be touched in an industry that no longer subsists on album sales.
The first true multimedia album was "the ultimate crossover dream, a song both timely and out of its time," wrote The New York Times. And then there was that John Landis mini-movie takeoff on "An American Werewolf in London" that changed the way all pop songs would be crafted for the next decade. After "Thriller," every song would be conceived with its video in mind. And even though vids have long-since made way for slime-ball reality TV on MTV stations, the cultural impact of "Thriller" is still being felt worldwide.
"Everywhere we go," said Jones, "I don't care if it's Soweto or Cairo or Monte Carlo or Abu Dhabi or Shanghai, if we're at a disco at midnight, they still play that song."
"It's close to midnight, and something evil's lurking in the dark..."
Reece Livingstone, a Colorado State University graduate now living in Golden, was a zombie dancer in the "Thriller" video. You can see blood coming out of his mouth in a street-scene close-up. He went on to teach at-risk students at a South Central Los Angeles high school where Jackson visited a year after "Thriller" was released.
"One really angry black kid at the school thought Jackson was a sellout who was not content with the color of his skin," Livingstone said. Jackson shook the teen's hand that day, "and from that moment on, he was a different person. The one legacy I take from that whole experience was that, because of Michael Jackson, that kid is not dead."
It's fair to say that most people have first-hand experience with the "Thriller" craze. Denver's Josh Gaffga does.
When he was growing up on Long Island, Gaffga and his brothers put on "Thriller" lip-sync shows for neighborhood kids, each sporting signature M.J. jackets. After Jackson died in 2009, Gaffga sent a vintage photo of the "pleather" trio to the Awkward Family Photos website. Now the Brothers Gaffga are featured in the franchise's board game, jigsaw puzzle, on Target birthday cards, and, most recently, on a T-shirt sold at the Buckle clothing store in Broomfield.
Former Denver actor Murphy Funkhouser Capps lived overseas until she was 7, when her military father was assigned stateside.
"We came home in 1982, and the first thing I saw on TV was a Michael Jackson video," she said. "My first thought was, 'Whoa ... this is America? Awesome.' "
Army veteran John Paul Rojas of Denver was 9 and growing up in Sidney, Neb., when he caught the fever: "I remember sliding around on our shiny, linoleum floor in my onesies PJs with that album playing while my parents entertained their friends," he said. The next year his parents bought Rojas a red M.J. jacket with a glittery glove for Christmas — and a Broncos coat. "And I was teased more for the Broncos coat than for the M.J. jacket," he said.
1982 was a time when pop music was undergoing sonic changes, with dance music becoming more rock-oriented. Jackson's contemporaries included the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Elvis Costello, Roxy Music, Queen, Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby and Peter Gabriel. But perhaps the biggest single of pre-"Thriller" 1982 was "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls.
"Thriller" had only nine songs, but four money tracks — a rocking "Beat It"; a ballad ("Human Nature"); an R&B dance hit ("Wanna Be Starting Something"); and, of course, the title jam. But "Thriller" was not many critics' pick as the best album of 1982. Most preferred Prince's electro-sex-funk pioneering "1999" double-album.
Livingstone remembers Jackson as being "a little pissed" by the lack of artists of color on MTV at the time and said Jackson enjoyed breaking through that barrier.
Jones said the 30th anniversary of "Thriller" will likely pass without fanfare because of Jackson's death. He says he has been unable to come to any kind of meaningful resolution on Jackson's death.
"It's just tragic that somebody had to leave us at 50 years old," said Jones, who was in Luxembourg when Jackson died. "I was there at the invitation of the duke and duchess. There was a band that gave us a wonderful reception at the airport, and on the way into town, the duke told me, 'Oh, by the way, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon and Michael Jackson just died.' It just knocked me off my socks... .
"Michael had it all: Talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. He was the consummate entertainer, and his contributions and legacy will be felt forever."
John Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/moorejohn
Five facts about "Thriller"
*"Billie Jean" was inspired Hall & Oates' "I can't Go For That." Jackson lifted the bass line, and the song was reportedly re-mixed 91 times.
*It took Eddie Van Halen 15 minutes to come up with the guitar solo on "Beat It."
*The video for "Beat It" featured real life gang members, Crips and Bloods. It was Jackson's idea, as a way of creating peace between them.
*Playboy centerfold Ola Ray landed the part of Jackson's girlfriend in the "Thriller" video after "Flashdance" star Jennifer Beals turned it down.
*The red jacket Jackson wore in the "Thriller" video sold at a 2011 auction for $1.8 million.