Burns Night 2023: Robert Burns poem Tam O' Shanter inspired Michael Jackson's Thriller, according to friend

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There are rumours that Robert Burns’ poetry inspired Michael Jackson’s hit song ‘Thriller’ – but is there any truth to the stories?

Every year, around Burns Night, an urban legend re-surfaces, claiming that the ‘King of Pop’s’ best-known song was inspired by one of the bard’s poems. While this seems ridiculous, it’s not entirely fictitious.

American producer and television personality, David Gest, who was close friends with Jackson, confirmed that the star was a big fan of Robert Burns. He did indeed claim that the 1983 music video for ‘Thriller’ was inspired by Burns’ gothic poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. In the video, Jackson dances with a horde of zombies, which may be influenced by the poets line: ‘Warlocks and witches in a dance’.

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According to Gest, his pop-star friend also recorded a musical theatre album inspired by the work of the Scottish Bard.

According to David Gest, Robert Burns' poetry inspired Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.According to David Gest, Robert Burns' poetry inspired Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.
According to David Gest, Robert Burns' poetry inspired Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.

In an interview with BBC Alba, Gest said: “Both being fanatics, I said to Michael, ‘Let’s do a play about Burns’s life’, and he said he would help with the music. Michael believed in the project so much. He said, ‘I’ll give you the studio in Los Angeles and I’ll pay for all the music’.

“We took about eight or ten of Burns’s poems and we put them to contemporary music, things like A Red Red Rose and Ae Fond Kiss and Tam o’ Shanter. When you listen to Thriller, you hear a little bit of Tam o’Shanter in there.”

In the early 1990s, Jackson and Gest worked together on the musical, based on the life and works of the Ayrshire poet. The pair planned for the show to be directed by Gene Kelly and produced by actor Anthony Perkins, but both died before the musical was staged. A production of the show, originally titled Red Red Rose, was put on in 1996, with Scottish-American actor John Barrowman starring as Robert Burns. However, it received poor reviews and was shelved by Gest.

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Since the collaborator's deaths, the show has been revised and re-written. The new show, ‘Burns’, debuted at the Edinburgh Playhouse on Friday, written by Scottish composer Tish Tindall and starring an all-female cast apart from the Bard himself.