Written by: Josh Price
When discussing the birth of electronic pop music, many people like to mention Kraftwerk but very few seem to mention their Japanese contemporaries Yellow Magic Orchestra. Of course, Kraftwerk first started toying with the idea of synthesized pop in 1974 with ‘Autobahn’, whereas YMO didn’t even form for another four years. But whereas Kraftwerk’s brand of synthpop was cold, minimalist and mechanic, YMO were coming from somewhere else entirely. Their music was intricately layered, drew from influences of all kinds (traditional and contemporary) and was, dare I say it, quite fun for the most part!
Yellow Magic Orchestra first came to be in 1978, and all three members already had respectable musical backgrounds at that point. Haruomi Hosono, bassist, producer and mastermind of the project, originally played bass in 60’s psych-rock band Apryl Fool, which eventually morphed into the legendary 70’s supergroup Happy End. When that band broke up in 1973, Hosono went on to release multiple solo albums (in a folksy/tropical/funk vein) and to work as a session musician/songwriter for many popular contemporary artists.
Drummer Yukihiro Takahashi originally played for a prog-rock band called the Sadistic Mika Band. They were signed to Harvest Records in the UK and promoted rather heavily over there. When some core members left the group, they rebranded themselves as the Sadistics and started making jazz fusion. Takahashi had also made a name for himself as a pop songwriter and session drummer by the time he joined YMO.
Head keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he had studied both electronic and world music. Upon graduation in 1973, he lived a bit of a double life in which he experimented with avant-garde/minimalist music (his first album in 1975 was a free improvisation collaboration with percussionist Toshiyuki Tsuchitori) and also produced/wrote contemporary pop music, especially city pop. When he joined YMO, he was a very in-demand session keyboardist.
The interesting thing about YMO is that they were not initially a “band” per se. Their first album, released in 1978, was intended to be a one-off studio project where they messed around with faux-Oriental exotica and merged it with disco beats and state-of-the-art synthesizers. The album was popular enough that they played a couple shows throughout Japan. During one of these shows, they were noticed by a promoter who offered them a worldwide promotion deal. It was at that point that YMO became a real band, and they went on to record and tour extensively until their breakup in 1983.
With their second album, Solid State Survivor (1979), the band started putting more of an emphasis on snappy mostly instrumental synthpop tunes, which is what finally got them to break through in Japan. The album became the best selling album of 1980 over there, and spawned what would become known as the ‘technopop craze’. Not only did many aspiring Japanese synth/new wave bands come up in their wake, but the YMO guys themselves started writing and producing pop music for other contemporary pop acts, bringing their unique synthpop sound with them. The band even embarked on a successful world tour in 1980.
By 1981, their music started becoming increasingly more abstract. They released two albums that year. The first, ‘BGM’, was the very first(!) album to feature the Roland TR-808 drum machine and featured ambient soundscapes along with fantastic pop tunes. The second, ‘Technodelic’ was one of the earliest instances of a pop album being made almost entirely of pre-recorded samples, predating even the Art of Noise. Due to their immense popularity, these albums still sold well and even received very positive reviews (rightfully so), but were greeted with confusion and reservation from fans who were expecting more catchy synth numbers a la their earlier work.
After a brief hiatus in 1982 (during which Sakamoto wrote his first soundtrack for the film ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’, which he also starred in), YMO returned in 1983 with ‘Naughty Boys’, a complete departure from their previous albums. Basically, it was a straight-up J-pop album with upfront lead vocals and everything. But it wasn’t just J-pop. It was gorgeous, wonderfully layered and extremely well-written J-pop. The public seemed to agree, because the single ‘Kimi ni Mune Kyun’ (which translates very roughly to ‘My Heart Beats For You’) was one of the best-selling singles of 1983, and returned YMO to ultra-superstar status. The band then put out one more somewhat hodgepodge album (‘Service’), played at the Budokan and the finally called it quits that same year.
All three members continued to have fruitful solo careers following the demise of YMO. Sakamoto continued to produce pop music, but also became an extremely well-respected film composer. He won an Oscar AND a Grammy in 1988 and 1989 (respectively) for his work on the movie ‘The Last Emperor’, and was even nominated at this year’s Grammys for ‘The Revenant’! Sometime in the 2000’s, he retired from pop music and started focusing primarily on abstract electronic music, as well as avant-garde symphonic music and modern classical piano pieces.
Takahashi continued to make pop music in a similar vein to ‘Naughty Boys’ and became a prolific producer. Sometime in the 90’s, he shifted from mainstream pop to slightly more obtuse glitch pop, and is now in the band Metafive with Cornelius, Towa Tei, Yoshinori Sunahara and others.
Hosono made a big name for himself as a producer. He worked with huge national pop stars like Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori, collaborated with people like James Brown and even wrote the title theme for Hayao Miyazaki’s proto-Ghibli movie ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’. His solo music became increasingly eccentric over the years, but these days it seems he’s returned to his roots and primarily plays folksy exotica music.
YMO actually reformed in 1993, going on a tour and even recording a new album titled ‘Technodon’. It was an interesting house-inspired little affair, but it didn’t sell spectacularly well and proved to be a curiosity only to longtime YMO fans.
So, I like YMO a lot, as you might be able to tell. In fact I’d say they’re probably my favorite band. So if you’re here because you’re curious about this band and want to learn about their history and where to start with them, then you’ve come to the right place, bucko. Or if you’re already a fan and just want to see some nerd yammering on about them, you’ve also come to the right place.
So enjoy the reviews broseph.