Japanese Song of the Day – “Behind the Mask” by Yellow Magic Orchestra

Yellow Magic Orchestra were a group of extremely talented musicians who pioneered Japanese electronic music in the late 70’s. Their influences obviously included Electronic music acts like German group Kraftwerk, but there was a good deal of independent experimentation by the members of the group, who were tired of Japanese music shamelessly imitating Western styles up to this point.

One member of the group is Ryuichi Sakamoto, who would later win an Academy Award for his score of the film “The Last Emperor,” and whose best-known individual track is “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” the theme song for the film of the same name.

Another member is Haruomi “Harry” Hosono, formerly of early 70’s folk group Happy End. Their song, “kaze wo atsumete,” is featured on the soundtrack for the film “Lost In Translation.”

The last official member is Yukihiro Takahashi, also the drummer for the Sadistic Mika Band.

The song I’m featuring here is “Behind the Mask,” and I’m sharing it because westerners have heard it several times in a different form. Join me on a journey, will you?

Here’s the original 1978 version by YMO, from their Solid State Survivor album (which is a fantastic album, by the way).

Quincy Jones heard this track in 1980 and thought its groove and synth lines would work fabulously on this new album he was working on with his friend & longtime collaborator, Michael Jackson. MJ wrote some lyrics to lay on top of it, and they went about producing the backing track for inclusion on the “Thriller” album. It didn’t make the final cut, however MJ keyboardist Greg Phillinganes (who I know best as having recorded “Countdown To Love” on the Streets of Fire movie soundtrack… I know, I love the cheese) recorded his own vocals for the song, and released a cover of it on his next album.

Here’s his version:

Greg took the song to his friend, guitarist and rock legend Eric Clapton, who eventually recorded a less synth-based rock version of it and included it on his “August” album in 1986:

Michael Jackson’s management ultimately released a version of it on his postumous album “Michael” in 2010. It includes vocals recorded during the “Thriller” sessions, but the instrumentation has been remixed and remade to sound a bit more modern.

So there ya go! Just to keep this post YMO-related, here’s the very awesomely cheesy video for their also-legendary track “RYDEEN,” also from the Solid State Survivor album.

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