Michael Jackson's signature song was primarily written by a Cleethorpes-born songwriter, Rod Temperton, who had graced the charts with the home-grown disco combo Heatwave.
In the late Seventies, Quincy Jones was working on Off The Wall. Heatwave's 1977 "Boogie Nights" had caught his ear and he invited Temperton to submit material. Temperton came up with "Rock With You" and the title track, both of which made the Top Ten and helped position Jackson as an Eighties superstar.
Jones turned to Temperton again three years later, as he and Jackson plotted the follow-up to Off The Wall. Knowing Jackson loved the movies, Temperton thought of something theatrical. He began with bass patterns and drums, working slowly around a chord structure. "I wanted it to build and build – a bit like stretching an elastic band throughout the tune to heighten suspense," he told writer Gordon Masson. Temperton gave it the working title "Starlight". Later, in Los Angeles, he hit on a title: "It was a really crap word to sing: 'Thriller'. It sounded terrible." But when Jackson sang it into a studio mic it sounded spot-on. Two hours later Temperton had written the lyrics. It was close to midnight.
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