The Backstory: How a "Thriller" reject became a three time hit

Michael Jackson was known in the music industry as a perfectionist of sorts, and consequently at the time of his sad passing back in 2009, he had the trove of unreleased songs he had worked on during his career, and especially songs he recorded in the process of creating the classic albums (Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad) he made with producer Quincy Jones. But the early 80s song “Behind The Mask” took one of the most unusual routes to becoming a hit three times over.

The bouncy number was created as a mostly instrumental song by the pioneering Japanese techno pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra’s as part of their album, Solid State Survivor, after achieving some attention when it appeared in a 1978 Seiko watch commercial. The track was recorded to sound cold and impersonal, as a musical critique of the developing technological society.

Michael Jackson was known in the music industry as a perfectionist of sorts, and consequently at the time of his sad passing back in 2009, he had the trove of unreleased songs he had worked on during his career, and especially songs he recorded in the process of creating the classic albums (Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad) he made with producer Quincy Jones. But the early 80s song “Behind The Mask” took one of the most unusual routes to becoming a hit three times over.

The bouncy number was created as a mostly instrumental song by the pioneering Japanese techno pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra’s as part of their album, Solid State Survivor, after achieving some attention when it appeared in a 1978 Seiko watch commercial. The track was recorded to sound cold and impersonal, as a musical critique of the developing technological society.

Quincy Jones found the song during his search for content for Jackson’s colossal album Thriller. Jackson loved the music and added lyrics – changing the meaning of the song into a critique of a former lover – and recorded it. However, a dispute with Yellow Magic Orchestra over royalties nixed the song’s inclusion on Thriller (hmmm, do you think YMO would like to have that one back?).

Jackson’s Thriller keyboardist and later music director Greg Philinganes still was taken by song, and MJ gave his okay and even helped Philinganes to record a cover of “Behind The Mask” for Philinganes’ excellent 1985 solo album Pulse. “Behind The Mask,” with the trumpeted Jackson connection, was the signature single of the album, and climbed to the top 5 on the dance charts, Philinganes’ biggest solo hit.

Philinganes was popular music’s Kevin Bacon during the 80s, and was seemingly everywhere, including a part of the studio crew on legendary rock and blues man Eric Clapton’s 1986 disc August. He convinced Clapton to record the song, which not only made it onto the album, but became a hit single for Clapton in Europe and a concert staple for him for several years.

After that, “Behind the Mask” seemingly disappeared for three decades, until Jackson’s 2009 passing. Fans may recall that Sony Music hurriedly put together a posthumous album, Michael, consisting of previously unreleased songs from Jackson’s imperial period. A remixed version of “Behind the Mask,” adding a sax solo and crowd noises to give it a “live” recording feel, became an important addition to that album, and was even released as the disc’s third single. The song charted in various countries around the world, and was even the subject of a rather odd music video (see below).

In all of its incarnations, “Behind The Mask” sounded like it was built for Michael Jackson, and would have been a solid addition to Thriller. But its unusual path provided us opportunities to hear other artists give it shine before coming back full circle to where it belonged all along, in the hands of the Master, sadly after his death.

By Chris Rizik

 

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