I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yellow Magic Orchestra -- Behind The Mask

I don’t wanna talk about it (Let’s talk about it).

Actually, Yellow Magic Orchestra is a silly name, admitted Ryuichi Sakamoto to Daily Telegraph in 2011. But he liked it. “It’s half way between black magic and white magic, and we’re Asian musicians, so yellow is about right, no? And we liked the idea of an orchestra with only three people. I was the composer and the brains. They called me the professor.” 

For a professor it was difficult to suddenly meet screaming teenage girls wherever they played. It didn't help that in the beginning of 1980's artists were required to wear make-up and Sakamoto was supposed to sing his own songs. “It was very hard to adjust,” sighed Sakamoto, “because I never wanted to be centre stage. I love to be anonymous.”

Anonymous, or better… behind the mask?

Behind The Mask, the probably most famous composition by Ryuichi Sakamoto, was in repertoire already during the first YMO live recording at Yubin Chokin Kaikan in October 18, 1978. The ticking sound of the song fitted perfectly to Seiko quartz watch commercial that made it known before it was officially recorded.

When we look closer, the song is almost ridiculously simple, as pop classics often are. However, the chords Sakamoto used [F-Db-Eb-Cm] were not common at all and gave the tune an ambiguous character. It’s an ambient composition with many sides and many possibilities. During the next decades all the possibilities were mapped by various artists.

Haruomi Hosono (細野 晴臣) raises his hands up. “We didn’t recognise at all that it was to become a classic! We considered it a failed production.” The recording for album “Solid State Survivor” took five days. In his book Hideki Matsutake revealed that the recording was made in the following order: 1. Base, 2. Arpeggio, 3. Kick (MOOG III-C), 4. Snare and hi-hat (Yukihiro Takahashi 高橋 幸宏), 5. Melody, 6. Vocoder (Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本 龍一).

English lyrics to the song were written by Chris Mosdell. Sakamoto already had the melody line when he asked poet and lyricist Mosdell to write lyrics. He based it on the imagery of a Japanese traditional Noh mask, combined with a Yeats poem The Mask. On Mosdell homepage is stated "Having recently seen Yeats’ Noh play At Hawk’s Well in Tokyo, Chris sat down and wrote lyrics based on a premise that was similar to that of the poem. But he gave the wearer of the mask an inert nature, in keeping with his image of a depersonalized society in a technological time."

I like the above 1980 Nippon Budokan version most, because of Akiko Yano’s cute little crouches. Unfortunately we can’t see much of them, because video director couldn’t resist brand new editing technology, and he using it a lot. Something against radio junk, I suppose. Stylish shirts, though.

The next chapter was the most surprising one. Michael Jackson used his magic touch and wrote additional lyrics to the beginning of song. The reason was simple: his producer, famed Quincy Jones, loved the track. During Jones' trip to Japan he was introduced to the song by Kuni Murai, the president of Alfa Records. "Jones thought it was a perfect vehicle for the new album of Michael Jackson that he was producing, so he took it back to Los Angeles and presented it to Michael", Mosdell remembers. Jones and Jackson turned the techno piece into a funky R&B disco hit.

Behind The Mask was supposed to be released in Michael Jackson’s album Thriller in 1982. As you recall, Thriller still is the most sold music album in the history. However, Michael Jackson’s Behind The Mask never progressed further from demo version.

We will never know what really happened,  The known “facts” have some discrepancies. One theory says Michael Jackson requested 50% of credits, copyright and royalties for his massive input of 10 extra lines. YMO refused. Another story claims that the track was already completed (questionable) and YMO wanted to review it, but Michael refused. On the other hand there is indeed a thematical and conceptual dissonance between Behind The Mask and the rest of the songs of Thriller. It is easy to see why Behind The Mask was shelved.

Actually, making Thriller was a mess. "After editing the final cut I took Michael home, and he went to sleep on the couch," said Jones to Rolling Stone magazine. "Three hours later we went back to the studio and listened to the acetate. Biggest piece of shit in life! We were horrified. So we took two days off, then spent the next eight days remixing. One song a day. We put those babies in the pocket." During these circumstances there was no time to pay any attention to the over 100 candidate songs. They were too busy trying to salvage the damn album.

Michael Jackson’s Behind The Mask remained unreleased till his death. The unreleased tapes were dug out from Sony’s vault and published in 2010 as a posthumous album “Michael”. Instruments were added to demo and thus the world heard for the first time the Michael Jackson version. Please note that this is definetely not the Jones/Jackson version, if it ever was finished in the first place. It's more a "Bad" Jackson with dry sounds.

So, after the Thriller sessions, there existed an unused song with Michael Jackson lyrics waiting for somebody to pick it up. That one happened to be Greg Phillinganes, a keyboard player and a trusted session musician. Rumours have said up to this day that it was Michael Jackson himself who was singing backing vocals on Phillinganes’ version. Arrangement is pure Michael Jackson: a sharp dance hit that was seen rising on European charts in summer 1985. Greg Phillinganes’ version must be the closest idea to how MJ’s Behind The Mask had sounded like, if it ever was to be included on Thriller.

It is very suitable that this video shows the Japanese issue of Phillinganes’ album. Does it really say “Super Premium Black” on cover?

The story doesn’t end here. A chap called Eric Clapton was recruiting musicians to assist him during his “August” album session and the following world tour in 1986. Here comes to the picture a keyboard player from Los Angeles called Greg Phillinganes, who happened to play one of his recorded tracks and Clapton became interested. Clapton was recovering from his addictions and wanted to announce in his album that he is back and open to modern sounds.

The following clip features a real All-Star Band. Jools Holland (keys), Mark King (bass), Phil Collins (drums), and Eric Clapton (solo guitar). You can never guess that the song is Behind The Mask. No, I am serious. During all these transformations a Sakamoto techno piece had become a funky R&B hit, and Clapton recreates it once again into something new: a solid and angry rock number with stinging guitar solos.

See how the world goes around.

So, what was left to Sakamoto? He re-recorded Behind The Mask in 1987 with Michael Jackson’s added lyrics. In the next century Sakamoto went acoustic and shaped his old song into a mixture of classical concert music and jazz. His live concerts in Seoul in 2011 were delivered to 288 000 viewers via Ustream. The lucky viewers who weren’t lagging or pulled off line had an opportunity to hear this arrangement for two pianos. It’s a Behind The Mask by Debussy.

The mysterious mask has been wandering from hand to hand amongst musicians for decades and it has appeared in multitude of magical shades, yellow, black and white. We still don’t know who or what is really behind the mask, but perhaps it’s not an important question at all. As Yeats said in his poem "O no, my dear, let all that be; What matter, so there is but fire, In you, in me?"

Heaven must be pleased.


  1. You'll find pretty of amusement if you scroll down to the comments for YMO's various "Behind the Mask" videos on Youtube. It's not often that a song of Japanese origin has this much impact on Western music. Usually it's the other way around. Thank for providing all this awesome trivia.

    I have to confess, Greg Phillinganes's version is absolutely fantastic. The song works really well as a dance number with this arrangement. And in reference to it sounding the closest to what Michael intended it to be... Greg even seems to channel Michael here, especially with the ad-libbing.

  2. Thank you kindly for "Behind the Mask", jari. I figure along with MJ's cachet, this song is probably now the most famous of YMO's repertoire worldwide.

    I remember hearing one version of the song on an old 80s music show called "Solid Gold" and just dropping my jaw since I would never have expected another Japanese song to be performed on an American program (outside of the disco version of "Sukiyaki").

    Musically, I think "Behind the Mask" is a great introduction to YMO and a great first song to start off a YMO concert. That flittering sound at the very beginning followed by the heavy "jan-jan-jan-jan-jan" of the synth are classic! Lyrically, I think the song may have been used to describe Japanese society but it's still relevant today to talk about the anonymity exploited by the current Internet society.

    I'm still partial to the original by YMO, but seeing Clapton on the guitar and Phil Collins pounding away on the drums did get my goosebumps up!


Feel free to provide any comments (pro or con). Just be civil about it.