More of my comments from Popular, lightly remixed for the archives. I’m leaving my own blog comments off to encourage people to go there instead.

Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”, 5 March 1983

A handful of albums and singles from this year rush me back to it more than most, and Thriller is certainly one of them. Just thinking about it, let alone hearing any of it, recalls those few months at the start of my pop obsession when I didn’t yet own a stereo, and had to listen to my new purchases on the one in the dining room while the rest of the family were off watching telly in the lounge. I remember it always being dark, because this was hitting the Australian charts as we were entering winter, and hovering over the turntable, gatefold sleeve with luxurious photo of Jackson and tiger cub to one side, lifting and replacing the needle-arm to re-listen to key tracks.

This was one; that soft-shoe shuffle down the video’s peach-coloured road had drawn me in, like so many others. “Billie Jean” sat on top of the Australian charts for five weeks, so we saw it on TV a lot, and a single this good made it clear that buying the album was a good bet. With only two singles at that point, there was a real sense of discovery in exploring Thriller, and the stand-out tracks soon became clear: besides this, “Beat It” was an obvious hit in waiting, and “Thriller” itself still sounded fun before two decades of bad theatre-restaurants turned it into a zombie. But one stood out for me: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. How many times did I lift the needle back to the start of that track? It was like nothing else around, the weird “vegetable” moments heightening its sense of danger and excitement, and the closing chant tying it to a world-music tradition of which we were scarcely aware. And of course the lyrics tied it to this, its funk soul brother. These are the two that still sound fresh to me, although “Billie Jean” is almost brought low by a glaring 1980s synth at one point.

If I’d followed those cues to their logical conclusion, I might have bought Off the Wall and spent the next year exploring Sly and the Family Stone. But Thriller was a poor road-sign, pointing in too many directions at once. Besides infectious funk, world music and cheesy horror, it gave us smooth R&B, high-profile duets, cod metal and pseudo-Chipmunks. Something for everyone, which helped it succeed, but a guarantee that almost any listener would find some of it inessential. On re-listening to it today, I don’t actually mind “The Lady in My Life”, but at the time both that and “Baby Be Mine” sounded like filler, an impression that niggled as the album became a smash: should Thriller have filler? Shouldn’t it all be killer? Worse was “The Girl is Mine”, which sounded contrived and dated even then; it’s a miracle that I still tolerated McCartney enough to begin a major Beatles obsession.

The road-sign I ended up following was “Beat It”, down Guitar-Solo Lane to early-’80s metal; but like so much of early Van Halen and Iron Maiden, it sounds thin and stiff to me today. But “Billie Jean” still has it. Maybe its early release saved it from the fate of the later singles: its success felt like a surprise, while the 15-minute “Thriller” video felt indulgent. By the time the latter emerged, I’d had enough of the album, and had swapped it with my brother for something long-forgotten. Jackson was now so ubiquitous that it was hardly an act of self-deprivation. But part of me wishes Thriller was still sitting in my cupboard between 1983 The Hot Ones and The Beatles Number Ones (the albums that preceded and followed it at the top of the Australian charts—I was far too impressionable), if only for that luxurious gatefold sleeve and two killer songs. 8.

Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, 12 March 1983

It’s impossible to choose one song to sum up the 1980s, but if I were choosing one to sum up 1983 it would have to be this. The most striking thing about the UK charts compared to the Australian ones is how briefly their number ones reigned compared to ours; it’s a rare exception indeed that dominated their charts for as long as this did ours. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” sat on top in Oz for six weeks: six weeks of backlit big hair and over-literal bright-eyed kids on Countdown; six weeks of lyrics that seemed meaningful when puffed up with musical bombast but fell flatter than a flathead on the floor of a flat-bottomed boat on closer inspection. But what bombast! Has a number one ever felt more over-the-top than this? And shouldn’t that be the aim of every glory-obsessed hitmaker?

It was clearly Jim Steinman’s aim. First he masterminded Meat Loaf, another performer Aussies took to their hearts (Bat Out of Hell sold a gazillion copies there, like everywhere), and when Meat Loaf over-the-topped his vocal chords one time too many Steinman released Bad for Good, the Meat Loaf album you have when you aren’t having meat loaf. One of my high school art teachers was obsessed with that, and played it all the time in class; I’ve since seen it described as a notorious turkey, although really only the vocalist had changed (“Meat Loaf’s off, love—it’s turkey tonight”). And this, too, could have been a Meat Loaf track, or a Steinman solo track, though I doubt it would have been as endearing without Tyler’s rasp—as if she were ruining her vocal chords in the act of recording, that’s how devoted she was to wringing totally the last drop out of this eclipsed heart.

“Total Eclipse” holds a special place for me in this Popular journey, because it’s the first actual single I helped push to number one back in the day. My three dollars went towards that first week or two of Australian chart dominance, and is no doubt helping keep Steinman (if not Tyler) in the gaudy rock-star luxury that such a hit demands. No one involved in “Total Eclipse” could possibly go on to a quiet retirement of carefully managed investment portfolios: Steinman and Tyler today must either be living it large in coastal mansions or living in poverty after burning through all their cash, there can be no in-between. And I’m not about to look them up to prove myself wrong.

Naturally, I was part of the backlash, and palmed this single off on my brother too, so I couldn’t even tell you what the b-side was. But 26 years later I can still remember the whole thing without checking YouTube, and now know that there a lot worse ways to reach number one than this: a lot of sillier, weedier, less infectious and less impassioned ways. I hope you kept your millions, Jim and Bonnie, because you earned them. 9, before I lose my resolve and listen to it again and award it 6.

Later: It’s weird, though; out of thousands of CDs and records and MP3s, I own nothing with Steinman’s name attached, and the only one I ever did was this single, which I gave away within months of buying it. It seems really strange that I feel so well-disposed towards a song that bears no relation to 99.9% of my adult musical tastes. The only reason can be that it so thoroughly sums up the feeling of being fifteen for me, which is totally contingent on the time and place that I happened to be fifteen. But that’s been the fascination of Popular to me as a reader all this time: seeing Tom and the rest retracing their own personal journeys through these songs, and trying to figure out how these subjective impressions and memories relate to their actual quality, if any.

I still think this is one of the best examples of pull-out-all-the-stops, set-the-controls-for-the-heart-of-the-Sun bombast in chart history. And it probably has left a bigger impression on my tastes than I’d acknowledged, because I’ve spent most of the last decade as a huge fan of Muse.

(Notice how well I’ve resisted the opportunity to wax lyrical on Tyler’s 1987 appearance on a Mike Oldfield single, apart from this sentence.)

22 May 2009 · Music

Turns out I was wrong: I did keep my copy of “Total Eclipse” after all. Or perhaps I reclaimed it from my brother at some later date.

Added by Rory on 24 June 2009.

A relief to have written this before his death complicated everything. (The TV news seemed to keep up the “Michael Jackson Dead” banners for three days. BREAKING NEWS: JACKSON STILL DEAD.)

Added by Rory on 30 June 2009.