Monday, January 6, 2014

Michael Jackson Reimagines Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Behind The Mask"

Michael Jackson’s inspired reinterpretation of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s synthpop hit “Behind the Mask” is an underappreciated gem in the pop/soul superstar’s fabled oeuvre. It ranks among his best work, and that’s no hype. The haunting melody of the main synth part has an eerie beauty, and the track boasts an infectious beat and a terrific bass line. These elements nicely showcase MJ’s exquisite vocals. And the track is topped off by a smooth, jazzy sax solo as well as some soulful background vocals from R&B/pop singer Shanice near the end of the song. There is something quite special about this track. It has that unique, indefinable magic found in MJ’s best recordings.

This song is featured on MJ’s posthumous album Michael (2010), which is a compilation of previously unreleased tracks. The original version of the song was recorded by influential electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra, and it is a truly superb piece of synthpop. It was written by YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto, who’s a pianist, singer, composer, producer and actor. The instrumental version of the song was featured in a Seiko quartz wristwatch commercial in 1978. Sakamoto asked British poet and lyricist Chris Mosdell to write some lyrics for the song, and that version was included on YMO’s 1979 album Solid State Survivor. Sakamoto sang the lyrics through a vocoder—a speech analyzer/synthesizer that analyzes human speech and transforms it into electronically transmitted information and recreates it.

Quincy Jones heard the song during the Thriller sessions in the early ‘80s and brought it to MJ’s attention as a potential track for the album. The young pop star liked the song, and with YMO’s permission, he wrote some additional lyrics and added an extra melody line. MJ’s lyrics addressed how his girlfriend hides her true feelings behind a deceptive façade, making him unsure of where he really stands in their relationship. This theme was much different from Mosdell’s concept of an “impersonal, socially controlled society in a future technological era,” with the mask representing that “unemotional, immobile state.”

MJ recorded his new arrangement of the song, and it turned out so well that it was slated for inclusion on Thriller. However, the song never made it to the album due to disagreements over equal royalty sharing between MJ, Sakamoto and Mosdell.

It’s a shame that the song didn't make it on the album. Had it been released as a single during the Thriller era, it no doubt would have been a top-ten hit and recognized as one of his classic tracks.  The song was released on February 21, 2011 as the third single from the album Michael. Producer John McClain added a few overdubs to the original tape, including Shanice's vocals, a newly recorded sax solo by Mike Phillips and crowd noise from the 1992 Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour television special. Several notable music publications praised the song, including Rolling Stone and NME. However, it didn’t see much chart action. It only made the charts in two countries and failed to crack the top 20 in either. It climbed to #24 on Belgium’s Utratop 50 singles (Walloon) and peaked at #71 on the Japan Hot 100 singles chart.

In addition to MJ, another music legend recorded a version of “Behind the Mask.” Guitar god Eric Clapton covered the song and included it on his album August, which was released in 1986. Clapton used MJ’s new arrangement and additional lyrics for his rendition. The three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer did a stellar job covering the song, and it peaked at #15 on the UK singles chart in early 1987.

But Clapton wasn’t the first artist to release a cover of “Behind the Mask.” Keyboard master Greg Phillinganes covered the song for his 1984 album Pulse. He released the song as a single in 1985. His version also used MJ’s new arrangement, and it's a solid cover. It charted at #77 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart in the U.S. and peaked at #4 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play songs chart. Phillinganes enjoyed a productive 30-year professional relationship with MJ and played on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous. He was also the musical director for MJ’s Bad and Dangerous world tours. And he’s currently the musical director for Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. And he played on MJ’s recording of “Behind the Mask.”

When he was a member of Clapton’s backing band, Phillinganes introduced the song to the legendary guitarist and suggested he cover it for the August album. Phillinganes played on Clapton’s cover of the song as well as sang background vocals. 

Additionally, Sakamoto re-recorded the song in 1987, this time using MJ’s revisions. American singer/songwriter and producer Bernard Fowler sang lead vocals on the track. So the song had come full circle.

Other artists who have covered the song include Human League and Senor Coconut.

I embedded a great fan-made MJ tribute video that accompanies his version of “Behind the Mask.” The video includes fans from around the world bustin’ MJ moves while rockin’ their idol’s trademark single white sequined glove and black fedora. The video is really well put together and actually quite touching.

Behind the Mask at Amazon

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