[midlife 150] #132: yellow magic orchestra “behind the mask”

April 25, 2010

#132 Behind The Mask by Yellow Magic Orchestra (taken from Solid State Survivor, 1979)

YMO are possibly second only to Kraftwerk in their impact on the early development of electronic pop, with all the onward influence (the formation of house and techno) that entails. It’s a shame, therefore, that their biggest international hit was performed for them by a middle-aged rocker (albeit one you can put into the ‘legendary’ category) during a mid-1980s career sag.

Co-written by core YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto and British lyricist Chris Mosdell, Behind The Mask began life as a stripped back, poetic depiction of the death of human feeling, reinforced by its robotic vocoder-filtered vocal.

While it had little chart impact outside of Japan, the 1979 version did (so the internet says) reach the ears of Quincy Jones, then working on Off The Wall with Michael Jackson. Jones and Jackson worked on their own version of song with Jackson adding lyrics, turning it into a story of betrayal by a lover. This version was picked up by Off The Wall session keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and released as a (low-charting) single in 1984. It’s not known whether Jackson ever recorded a version of his own.

By 1986 Phillinganes had moved on to become a member of Eric Clapton‘s group, and introduced the song to the rocker. Clapton covered Phillinganes’ cover for  his album August, creating a worldwide hit single and live staple.

Things were already looking bad for the original’s integrity when the final twist (of the knife) came the following year from none other than original co-writer Sakamoto. He covered the cover of the cover with American singer-songwriter Bernard Fowler on vocals. Whether this act of attempted ‘chansonicide’ was accidental or a desperate act of mercy I’d prefer not to think about.

But somehow the 1979 recording remains unblemished by the sins visited on it (and indeed Phillinganes’ version does grow on you), its bleak demeanour unaffected by its adventures abroad. “All is blank, all is blind, dead inside the inner mind”, and for that we should be grateful.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

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