Details are Everything: How Starlight Became Thriller

When I heard that songwriter Rod Temperton had died at the end of September I was reminded of "The Invisible Man", a documentary made by BBC Radio 2 in 2007. In this Templeton revealed that when he wrote his most important hit ever -- Michael Jackson's Thriller -- that producer Quincy Jones and Jackson himself were unhappy with the title.

In the original demo recording the song was called Starlight and the hook was "Give me some Starlight, starlight sun". Apart from that the song was already remarkably close to the final version with the distinctive bass line played on two synthesizers.

But Michael Jackson wanted a title that would appeal more to young people so producer Quincy Jones sent Temperton away to rework it and he wrote two to three hundred titles before coming up with Midnight Man. But then the next day he woke up and just said one word. "Thriller". He could see it at the top of the Billboard charts. He could see it on merchandising.


Nobody who has ever worked on any sort of creative project will be at all surprised by this. All great works, whether they are songs, books, movies, plays or just a simple speech are never perfect on the first draft. They may be good, they may be promising but it's usually true that the first draft of anything is just the starting point.But what is interesting about Starlight is that when the song was already well developed Temperton, Jones, Jackson and others were all still struggling to make it even better, one tiny detail at a time.

One critical quality of someone who is good at their art or craft is that they never consider the first draft the final work. I've surprised people by handing in a speech numbered "draft 27". You might not always need that many revisions but the secret of creating quality is to keep working on rough versions, polishing them and searching for that title, twist, hook or whatever that makes a difference. After listening to the early Starlight demo recording don't think anyone would disagree that Temperton greatly improved the title and the hook, changing:


Give me some starlight, starlight sun

to:

Cause this is thriller, thriller night 

And every time I complete a draft of anything I look back at it, wondering which changes might make it dramatically better, because the job isn't done when you have the first draft -- that's where the real work starts for most people -- and it's not even done after the umpteenth draft, because you can still make a small but significant change. That's when the magic happens.
 


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Andrew Hennigan is a lecturer, speaker coach and writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. If you need help with crafting and rehearsing a speech, or you need someone to guide you in a writing project give him a ping on speaker@andrewhennigan.com or 0046 730 894 475.


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