Two of the biggest albums of all-time came out on this day, three years apart – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in 1979, then Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982. Both were huge. Thriller spent an incredible 37 weeks at #1 in the U.S. where it was the biggest album of both 1983 and ’84. It’s 34X platinum in the States and has moved an estimated 70 million copies worldwide. The Wall can’t match that, but was no slouch, being the top album of 1980 here, selling to 23X platinum and over 30 million copies worldwide. It topped the charts for 15-straight weeks. Mind you, it wasn’t even Pink Floyd’s biggest hit, commercially. Dark Side of the Moon takes that crown. Both November 30 records were released on Columbia Records in North America. Besides that though, they seem to have little in common.
Thriller after all was an incredibly well-played effort to make an album of dance and R&B tunes but make them mainstream enough to crossover into the regular pop and rock market. The Wall was a monolithic double-album, an art rock piece that rang full of one man (Roger Waters) dystopian view of the world. Thriller had pop hit after pop hit, The Wall has only one tune the everyday, casual listener would know by heart. However, if you look deeper, there is one more surprising common element in both. Jeff Porcaro. Known mainly as a member of Toto, Jeff in fact was one of the most impactful musicians of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s…and would have probably continued to be that much longer had he not died sadly at age 38, in 1992. His death has widely been linked to a reaction to toxic pesticides he was spraying around his yard. No wonder no less a rock luminary than Eddie Van Halen called him “one of the best drummers in the world. The Groove Master.”
Porcaro played on a number of tracks from Thriller, including “Human Nature” that his brother Steve (also of Toto) co-wrote for Michael Jackson. His presence on the record may not be surprising. Porcaro was an L.A. man, and much of the record was being done there. Besides, Jackson was the singer and creator of the record, but not known for playing instruments himself, nor did he have a regular band behind him. He and producer Quincy Jones simply set out to find the best musicians around to make his songs come to life. The Wall is a bit more of a puzzler.
Unlike Jackson, Pink Floyd are British…and had a regular, full-time drummer in Nick Mason. They were making The Wall mainly in Europe, largely France. But they did visit California, thinking perhaps they’d involve the Beach Boys in the making of it, something which didn’t happen. However, it was likely during that visit they met Porcaro. Mason is a highly-regarded drummer. However, the song “Mother” is a challenge for drummers, with several time changes and unusual time signatures, like 9/8. Mason simply couldn’t get the hang of the song, and the band didn’t have weeks to wait for him to learn, so reinforcements were brought in to tackle it. Namely, Jeff.
It was a good call. If Hal Blaine was the session drummer of the ’60s out there, the crown had been passed on to Porcaro by the mid-’70s. He’d started his career as a teenager, drumming for Sonny & Cher on tour. He worked on the Seals & Crofts hit “Diamond Girl” in ’73; he became a de facto member of Steely Dan in 1974, working on their Pretzel Logic album…which wen t platinum. He’d work on their next album the following year, another platinum hit. By the bicentennial year, he’d be pounding the skins for platinum-selling hits by Leo Sayer, Jackson Browne and Boz Scaggs. And so it went. He worked on one more big album by Steely Dan (Gaucho) after he’d joined Toto by 1978. And besides Toto, a major hit machine in their own right, he drummed on albums which sold platinum or better annually from ’78 to ’86, then again from ’89-92, including five different 1991 albums!
By the time he passed away he’d been the drummer on over 30 albums that hit platinum status, from artists ranging from Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne to Lionel Richie and Michael Bolton. And let’s not forget Bruce Springsteen (Human Touch) or Eric Clapton (Behind the Sun). Of course, that was only the tip of the iceberg. He also played on well-respected but slightly lower-selling works from artists like Al Stewart, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin. The beat on Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” or Elton John’s “Empty Garden”? By now, you can probably guess who it was.
So when you pull out your copy of The Wall or rock out with “Beat It”, give a moment of thought to the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame guy who helped them become the icons they are.