“Video Killed the Radio Star”: No mere mortal can resist the evil of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

By on June 29, 2018

No matter what you think of Michael Jackson today, there is no disputing the fact that back in the ’80s his iconic videos like “Thriller” changed the world of music videos forever, of that we’re certain, and that’s the overall theme presented in Video Killed the Radio Star: Michael Jackson, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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This 30-minute UK TV episode presents short interviews with the directors behind several of Jackson’s music videos, including “Billie Jean,” “Give It To Me,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Man In the Mirror,” as well as discussing the King of Pop’s 14-minute long-format video (and additional promo films) he made for “Thriller,” which, according to this article in the UK’s The Guardian,

“…sealed MTV’s reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station’s treatment of music (though MTV has always denied they existed); revolutionized music video production; spawned the ‘making of’ genre of documentary (‘The Making of Filler,’ as Landis said at the time); helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales, because fans were desperate to see it when they wanted, rather than at the will of TV stations; and, in 2009, became the first music video to be inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.”

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The various talking heads who appear on camera here — Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and video directors Steve Barron, Joe Pytka, Andy Morahan, Wayne Isham, Andy Morahan, and Tim Pope, as well as UK broadcaster Robert Elms — all weigh in about how MTV were initially reluctant to show videos by black artists.

Ultimately, as we all know, MTV accepted all of Jackson’s videos, which then set the bar high for the artists who followed in terms of quality and inventiveness.

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Indeed, everything changed on March 10, 1983, which is when MTV played Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video for the first time.

According to Rob Tannenbaum, who co-authored I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:

“MTV’s playlist was 99 percent white until Michael Jackson forced his way on the air by making the best music videos anyone had ever seen. Compared to Michael, MTV staples like REO Speedwagon and Journey suddenly looked even more boring. And when Michael’s videos created higher ratings for MTV, network executives claimed they’d ‘learned a lesson’ and tentatively embraced the softer side of black pop music, especially Lionel Richie.”

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Tannebaum repeats the frequently-cited story that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull his artists off of MTV if “Billie Jean” wasn’t put into rotation.

“Now they say they played ‘Billie Jean’ because they loved it,” says Yetnikoff in I Want My MTV.

“How plausible is it that they ‘loved it’? Their playlist had no black artists on it. At the time, Michael Jackson was black. So what is this bullshit that they loved it?”

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Read more about Jackson’s videos and the Video Killed The Radio Star series below.

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It was actually Frank DiLeo — then head of the promotions department at Epic Records, the CBS-distributed label Jackson was actually signed to in the ’80s, before he left the company to become Jackson’s manager — who came up with the idea to follow the “Beat It” video with a “scary” video for Thriller‘s title track single.

In early 1983, DiLeo and Jackson invited director John Landis — who’d lensed An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, and Animal House — to Jackson’s house in Encino, where all three men, along with Landis’s producing partner, George Folsey Jr., brainstormed for hours to come up with the video’s concept.

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Landis ended up writing a 14-page outline, with dialogue, and he and Folsey began sorting out the finances.

They estimated that the video would cost between $600,000-$700,000, but it ultimately ended up costing $1.1 million, which was roughly twenty times more than the most expensive video ever made at that point.

Yetnikoff, however, had only wanted to pay $100,000 for the promo video, saying “Who wants a single about monsters?”

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Jackson offered to pay the difference, but Folsey came up with the idea of filming a 45-minute long behind-the-scenes “The Making of ‘Thriller'” promotional short.

To get their hands on this exclusive content, MTV’s co-founder Bob Pittman agreed to pay $250,000 towards the video’s budget.

The Showtime cable TV channel, who were new and looking to launch themselves into the world of premium channel subscriptions with unique content, and the Vestron home video company added in another $300,000 in order to get their hands on the video and “making of” film.

Vestron sold “The Making of ‘Thriller'” separately for $29.95 on VHS/Beta and made $1 million in sales and rentals within a year.

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Video Killed The Radio Star is a short-format documentary TV series which delves into a handful of the classic ’80s and ’90s-era videos and the people who made them, through in-depth and anecdotal interviews with music video directors and sometimes even with appearances by the artists themselves.

By the way, if you’re a fan of the “Thriller” video — and are open-minded and have a sense of humor — you may want to also check out Night Flight contributor Travis Box’s post on “Driller,” the triple-X rated “Thriller” parody that answers the question: “What would Michael Jackson’s werewolf penis look like?”

Watch Video Killed the Radio Star: Michael Jackson on Night Flight Plus, and read our previous blogs about some of the other titles in the Video Killed The Radio Star series, including Blur vs Oasis, Joe Strummer & the Pogues, and Elton John.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.