Eric Clapton. Michael Jackson. Phil Collins. It sounds like some '80s rock and roll fever dream, but somehow, these three legends did end up on the same song...sort of.
"Behind the Mask," a sort-of funky U.K. Top 20 hit from Clapton's 1986 album August, took a strange seen-year journey from Japan to Slowhand. The song was first heard in the East on Solid State Survivor, the second album by Japanese rock group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Keyboardist Ryuchi Sakamoto wrote the propulsive track and sang some spooky lines by poet Chris Mosdell, inspired by what he called "a very impersonal, socially controlled society, a future technological era."
Producer Quincy Jones became a fan of the track, and played it for Michael Jackson, who liked it so much he wrote extra verses for the song and planned to include it on Thriller - but when the three writers couldn't agree on how to split the royalties, Michael kept the tape in his vault. He did, however, pass it on to friend and collaborator Greg Phillinganes, a keyboardist with whom he'd been recording and touring since the '70s. In 1984, Phillinganes recorded his own version of Jackson's tune for a solo album, Pulse, and had a Top 5 dance hit with it in America.
In 1986, Phillinganes found himself a part of the sessions for August, Clapton's 10th solo album, alongside Collins (who was also producing). With the album taking a more R&B direction than the guitarist's previous work, Phillinganes thought "Behind the Mask" would be a good fit for the record. When it was released as a single the following year, it reached No. 15 in England - but the future King of Pop was not credited as a writer, making his involvement something of an open secret.
Almost 25 years later, the secret was finally out: on Michael, a 2010 album of outtakes released a year after Jackson's death, the original "Behind the Mask" track was remixed and included. Fans counted it among the album's highlights, but it was well-established that there was something special about the song.