As a child of the 1970s and '80s who began paying closer attention to the radio during the era when Michael Jackson held absolute dominance of the music world, it felt somewhat surreal hearing initial radio reports Thursday evening that the gloved one had died. After the news was out, a lot of scratchy vinyl copies of Thriller were probably recovered from their resting places for a spin, along with versions in more current formats -- the album has continued to sell ever since its release in 1982, maintaining its position as the best selling disc ever worldwide.
My original copy (well, my mom's) is long gone, worn out when it was still relatively new. Our family listened to it so much at the time that since then I've rarely felt like hearing it again, a situation aided in part by my aversion to the synthesizer-heavy '80s production style, a phobia that has only grown stronger over the years. I've owned several copies of Thriller which have ended up being given away to friends who were more interested in listening to it at the time than I was, so I wasn't sure I would find a copy in the stacks when I made my trip to the past. But MJ was there, still looking as cool as ever with his baby tiger in the gatefold's picture.
Maybe it's partly because I haven't listened to it closely for a long time, but despite the '80s synths and programming, much of the album still sounds fresh going on three decades later. That's a testament to Jackson's charisma as a performer and ear for good songs and hooks. Of course, Thriller is also almost like a greatest hits album all on its own, with seven of the nine tracks making the Top 10 on the singles charts. Looking up the chart information also provided a lesson on the vagaries of memory; I would have guessed that Jackson's duet with Paul McCartney, "The Girl is Mine," was an afterthought as a single, but it actually was the first hit from the album, rather than the seemingly more appropriate statement of purpose "Beat It." I also had no idea that the members of Toto were involved in recording many of the songs.
No matter the details, though. On Thriller and his previous blockbuster collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, Off the Wall, Jackson provided a bridge where discofied soul beats and pop smarts could meet.
Standing somewhere far to the side of that bridge in the shadows of pop culture history is another former star who passed away on June 25 -- Richard Marsh, better known as Sky "Sunlight" Saxon.
After a number of teen idol-ish singles under his given name in the early 1960s went nowhere (admittedly, hearing Saxon's unique voice in that context is jarring), his band The Seeds scored their biggest hit in rock music's best ever year --"Pushin' Too Hard" in 1966. The year before, their debut single "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" had been an early warning of the coming garage punk sound, and was a regional hit in California; it would chart nationally when reissued in 1967. Those early successes would encompass their brief ride as hitmakers, and The Seeds gradually faded into obscurity by the early '70s. Saxon himself remained busy musically through the decade, under a dizzying array of monikers in various post-hippie/cosmic/spiritual modes, before being rediscovered as a garage icon in the mid-'80s.
The Seeds' albums are definitely a mixed bag; interested listeners should probably check out their self-titled debut first, which is largely concise, direct rockers in the "Pushin' Too Hard" vein. The best overview may actually be their fake live album -- titled, in various places on the original LP, Merlin's Music Box, Raw & Alive and just The Seeds. Though they weren't huge hitmakers, the band's label GNP Crescendo has kept some of their albums in print continuously over the years, so both these albums are among the easier garage band discs to track down these days.
Saxon was busy during the 2000s -- including a now-legendarily fuzzy/fussy show at the Park Ponderosa Ballroom in 2001 -- reforming The Seeds for various tours and even working with the Smashing Pumpkins last year. Like Jackson, Saxon had a tour scheduled this summer, and was set to play in Milwaukee in August. Maybe the unlikely duo will play a concert together wherever they are now.