Behind The Mask - a song history
Behind the Mask is one of my all time favourite songs. I was inspired to write this blog following the death of Yukihiro Takahashi best known as the drummer for the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). The song was written by Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1978 as an instrumental for a Seiko commercial. It was then re-arranged with YMO bandmates Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi and lyricist Chris Mosdell.
“In the early 1980s, producer Quincy Jones brought the song to the attention of American pop singer Michael Jackson, who rewrote Mosdell’s lyrics and added an accompanying melody. The Jackson version was planned for inclusion on his 1982 album Thriller, but was dropped following legal disputes. Since then, artists including Greg Phillinganes, Eric Clapton, and The Human League have recorded versions based on Jackson’s updated version. Clapton’s single was a top 20 hit in some markets in 1987, and a remixed version of Jackson’s recording was released on his 2010 posthumous album Michael. Jackson’s original 1982 demo was first made available on the second disc of Thriller 40 in November, 2022.”
All the versions
There have been a number of great cover versions released. Here are some videos of some of them so you can get a feel for how the song changes with each artist. The differences aren’t huge but goes to show how great the original was that the musicians wanted to be faithful to that. My favourite version, after the original, is Eric Clapton’s cover.
Yellow Magic Orchestra version
“The first studio rendition of “Behind the Mask” was recorded by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s band Yellow Magic Orchestra, and appeared on their 1979 album Solid State Survivor. The Yellow Magic Orchestra version features music composed by Sakamoto and English lyrics written by poet and lyricist Chris Mosdell, which were sung by Sakamoto using a vocoder. Sakamoto had already composed the primary melody line when he asked Mosdell to write lyrics for the song. Mosdell based his lyrics on the imagery of a Japanese traditional Noh mask, as well as a poem by Irish poet W. B. Yeats called “The Mask”. Mosdell has said of the lyrics that “I was talking about a very impersonal, socially controlled society, a future technological era, and the mask represented that immobile, unemotional state.” Yellow Magic Orchestra made use of synthesizers for the melodies and digital gated reverb for the snare drums.”
Michael Jackson – The Behind The Mask Project (Official Video)
“Michael Jackson recorded a version of “Behind the Mask”, with extra lyrics and an extra melody line, during the recording sessions for his album Thriller after the song was brought to his attention by producer Quincy Jones, but the track did not make the album due to a royalties dispute with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s management. A remixed version with extra overdubbed production by John McClain was eventually released on Jackson’s 2010 posthumous album Michael. McClain’s overdubs over the original 1982 tape include a newly recorded saxophone solo and crowd noise from the 1992 Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour TV special. The singer Shanice provides background vocals on the song. On February 21, 2011, the song was released by Epic Records as the third single from Michael. It was released as a single to radio and as a limited 7″ for Record Store Day, and a music video edited together from fan contributions was released under the title “The Behind the Mask Project”. On November 18, 2022, the original demo of this song was released on the anniversary album, Thriller 40, as “Mike’s Mix (Demo)”.“
BEHIND THE MASK – RYUICHI SAKAMOTO
“Following the breakup of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1983, Ryuichi Sakamoto re-recorded “Behind the Mask” in 1987 with Michael Jackson’s additional lyrics and lead vocals by Bernard Fowler. A similar arrangement had been performed (with Fowler) during Sakamoto’s Media Bahn Live tour the previous year. A CD single with three tracks and a CD maxi single with six tracks entitled “Behind the Mask +3″ were released.”
Greg Phillinganes version
“Michael Jackson’s keyboardist Greg Phillinganes recorded a version of “Behind the Mask” for his 1984 album Pulse. Phillinganes first met Michael and his brothers during the sessions for The Jacksons‘ Destiny album in 1978, and went on to serve as musical director for Michael’s Bad world tour. Phillinganes released his version of the song as a single in 1985, and in the United States it reached number four on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart and number 77 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.“
ERIC CLAPTON – “Behind The Mask” (HD) 1987
“English musician Eric Clapton recorded “Behind the Mask” for his 1986 album August, and his version was released as a single in 1987.
Background and release
Greg Phillinganes, who had previously covered “Behind the Mask” himself, brought the composition to Clapton’s attention. Phillinganes played keyboards and performed background vocals on Clapton’s recording. This version failed to credit Michael Jackson as one of the song’s co-writers, but Chris Mosdell has confirmed that Jackson’s estate does in fact take 50% of the songwriting royalties from the recording. Clapton’s version of “Behind the Mask” was released as a single in January 1987. It peaked at number 15 on the UK Singles Chart on 21 February 1987.“
Check out the band members!
Eric Clapton – guitar, vocals Phil Collins – drums, percussion, backing vocals, production Tom Dowd – associate production Nathan East – bass Paul Gomersall – engineering Peter Hefter – engineering Katie Kissoon – backing vocals Magic Moreno – engineering Tessa Niles – backing vocals Terry O’Neill – photography Greg Phillinganes – keyboards, backing vocals Note: I couldn’t find a video with these players. The video shown here has some different musicians.
Human League – “Behind The Mask” 1993
In 1993 it was covered by The Human League with Yellow Magic Orchestra
That’s my story. Hope you enjoyed the article, and the music.
Leave a comment if you’d like to see more of this kind of blog.
Thanks Jon! So what you’ve uncovered, or that there’s actually several layers of masks ‘behind the mask’…
My vote is for the Eric Clapton version too. 🙂
Wow. So many great versions! I think it’s actually my favourite Eric Clapton song haha (funny, considering it’s not even a Clapton song…)
Fascination with electronics in music opened up the possibilities for exploration into possibilities outside what was previously considered to be music.
JMJ had an orchestral approach, with Zoolook using Fairlights to their fullest.
Other artists used the synthesiser as a gateway to experimentation-Laurie Anderson, Tangerine Dream, Severed Heads, Kraftwerk, Residents, Cabaret Voltaire et al.
YMO always seemed stuck within the confines of synthesisers mimicking or replacing actual real instruments. There is not much to challenge, yet alone offend. Probably why it was such a good choice for a Seiko commercial.