With my tastes in music saturated with synthesisers, Eric Clapton rarely makes my playlist, but I always make an exception for “Behind the Mask,” released in 1987. It is a rare Clapton song where the main drive is the synth chords and powerful drums, his own guitar playing used for extra flourish here, but the production is tight, and the call-and-response chorus, with the backing singers seemingly the ones in charge, is immensely effective.
I had never questioned where “Behind the Mask” came from, letting it stand by itself, but having stumbled across its origin, I am not only far more informed, I have a new favourite version of it too.
Two weeks ago, the YouTube algorithm suggested I listen to “Rydeen,” by the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, itself sounding like a splinter group of the Electric Light Orchestra. I was already listening to music from a different Japanese group, the jazz fusion band Casiopea –in particular the tracks “Space Road,” “Midnight Rendezvous” and “Swallow,” all from their 1979 debut album, practically inspiring computer game music for the following decade – but “Rydeen” came up after its use in a different video I had watched. Yellow Magic Orchestra were influenced by Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, but their use of synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines as a mainstream pop group at this still-early stage predated the development of synth pop and techno music in the 1980s.
Their eponymous first album, from 1978, sold well in the United States, but their second, 1979’s “Solid State Survivor,” on which “Rydeen” is found, sold two million copies worldwide. In Japan, “YMO” were as popular as when Beatlemania hit the US in the 1960s, even though they initially started as a joke band satirising Western ideas of “exotic,” “Oriental” Japanese music – a sarcastic cover of Martin Denny’s “Firecracker” ironically became a major hit in its own right, reaching number 60 in the US Billboard singles chart, and number 17 in the UK chart, before sampled by everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and 808 State to De La Soul and Jennifer Lopez (for the song “I’m Real”).
Naturally, I ordered a copy of “Solid State Survivor,” and have been obsessed with “Technopolis” and “Absolute Ego Dance,” but noticed it also had a track titled “Behind the Mask.” It could be a different song – Fleetwood Mac released a song and album named “Behind the Mask” in 1990 – but when I heard it begin, it sounded like a simpler, electronic version, with only one side of the chorus sung, using a vocoder. Like the version of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” on the album, until I realised the dates didn’t match up.
The basic structure and melody of “Behind the Mask” was written in 1978 by YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto for a TV commercial, advertising Seiko watches. (I was unable to find the original ad for myself, as searching “1978 Japan Seiko watch commercial” only brings up a separate ad starring Kate Bush, the watches intercut with her dancing and singing of “Them Heavy People”.) This was developed into a full song after YMO was formed, with the British lyricist Chris Mosdell adding verses inspired by Japanese Noh masks, and by the W.B. Yeats poem “The Mask”. Mosdell has talked about the lyrics representing a society that is very impersonal and controlled, with the immobile mask presenting a cold, unemotional state, but Japanese Noh theatre itself relies on codified gesture and expression, the traditional masks presenting different moods depending on how they are tilted.
(I must mention at this point that the Ryuichi Sakamoto I mentioned above is the same one that, as an actor, appeared alongside David Bowie and Tom Conti in the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” in addition to writing its score – he also wrote the music for “The Revenant” and “The Last Emperor,” for which he won an Academy Award.)
The YMO version of “Behind the Mask” was released as a single in the UK in 1980, and was included on the US and European version of “×∞Multiplies,” released there as the second YMO album instead of “Solid State Survivor.” Record producer Quincy Jones heard it, and shared it with the singer whose next album he was producing. In an alternate world, “Behind the Mask” would have been a song on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the biggest-selling album of all time, and one of the most culturally-significant albums ever made, but a failure to agree over royalties, prompted by the extra lyrics and melody written by Jackson meant it was not included.
The Jackson lyrics turn what was a meditation on emotion – “Is it me, is it you / Behind this mask, I ask / Is it me, is it you / Who wears another face” – into a storyline about someone spurned by a duplicitous lover, hiding behind a mask, with lines like, “sit behind the mask where you control your world,” and “camouflage the truth, indulge your fantasy.” The second verse of Mosdell’s lyrics are adapted into a chorus that makes clear how the meaning has been changed:
Mosdell version: “There is nothing in your eyes / That marks where you cried / All is blank, all is blind / Dead inside, the inner mind”
Jackson version: “There is nothing in your eyes, that's the way you cry, girl / All is grand, all is bright, you're just studying my mind”
It is clear that the disagreement over the Jackson version was purely contractual: Ryuichi Sakamoto released his own version in 1987, with Jackson’s lyrics sung by Bernard Fowler, in an arrangement ironically rockier sounding than Eric Clapton’s version. Jackson had recorded his lyrics, remaining unreleased until 2010’s posthumous album “Michael,” where a new arrangement of the music, mixing in YMO’s original version, was overlaid with the original 1982 track.
The nearest we have to what the original Jackson version could have sounded like is found on the 1984 album “Pulse” by Greg Phillinganes, a musician that has performed with Stevie Wonder, Laura Brannigan, Bruno Mars, George Benson, Kenny Loggins, and Michael Jackson and The Jacksons, working with them on every album from 1978 onwards, the highlight of which was creating every keyboard part on the song “Thriller,” from the opening chords, the base lines, and the pipe organ accompanying Vincent Price. Phillinganes affects a couple of Jackson’s signature sounds, but his playing skills is reflected in what is still an entirely electronic score, singing against a vocoder in the chorus.
Greg Phillinganes also plays keyboards on Eric Clapton’s version of “Behind the Mask,” having introduced the song to him, although you can hear more “real” sounds – the vocoder has been replaced with backing singers, one of which is the song’s producer Phil Collins, whose tight drumming is essentially replicating a programmed machine. As mentioned, this version remains led by synthesisers, whereas the Ryuichi Sakamoto / Bernard Fowler version relegates them to playing background chords behind a fuzzy guitar lead. Sakamoto would make a further version with Yellow Magic Orchestra, again using Jackson’s lyrics, this time sung by a UK electro-pop group, and released on a 1993 EP titled “YMO Versus The Human League”. This time around, it sounds like a standard UK dance song from 1993, and even though YMO were involved, there is nothing in the recording to distinguish it from a Human League song of the time, especially when you compare it to their later hit “Tell Me When”.
Of the seven versions of “Behind the Mask” I have now heard, picking a favourite involves splitting it two ways: the original Yellow Magic Orchestra version from “Solid State Survivor,” is the best of all, and Greg Phillinganes’ version is the best that uses Michael Jackson’s additional lyrics, because it is closer musically to the YMO original. Even better, Yellow Magic Orchestra has emerged as a favourite band with me, although their version of Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up,” retitled “Tighten Up (Japanese Gentlemen Stand Up Please!)” is a bit of an acquired taste.