JOSHO’S COLUMN: YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA- S/T

Review by: Josh Price

ymo_yelloymagicorchestra

If I’m not mistaken, it would appear early pressings of this album were marketed as ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra’ by Haruomi Hosono. Whether this was the case or not, it’s a pretty good indicator of how YMO functioned at the time. Not many people realize this but Hosono was very much the mastermind of the project. He came up with the concept, formed the band and produced the whole thing.

Hosono had actually been experimenting with the ‘Yellow Magic’ concept for a little while before this album was recorded. Back in 1975, he recorded a song with his band Tin Pan Alley titled ‘Yellow Magic Carnival’, and in early 1978 he released ‘Paraiso’, a solo album credited to Harry Hosono & the Yellow Magic Band (which wasn’t a precursor to YMO; there was no concrete backing band for the album and Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi only appear on a couple tracks).

So what was the ‘Yellow Magic’ concept anyway? You might have heard of a little music genre called exotica. If you haven’t, I’ll bring you up to speed. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, there was a trend of Western, primarily American composers making albums that were intended to emulate the music of foreign countries, especially tropical and Asian ones. In reality, it was pretty much loungey easy listening music mixed with slightly caricatured interpretations of world music, but it was very popular with older American folk back then. The whole concept fascinated Hosono, and he experimented with it quite a bit, melding it with the folk and funk styles he’d already been playing, and then with electronic music once YMO came around.

And as for the band name, ‘yellow magic’ was a play on black magic, which was very popular at the time in Japan. And why orchestra? I believe it had something to do with Hosono’s belief that you could make music as intricately layered as an orchestra with just a couple synthesizers.

Remember what I said about Hosono being the prime mover of the band (at least back then)? Well, if you needed any more proof of that, the entire first side of this album was composed or (in the case of the one cover on the album) arranged by him. It opens with a short introductory track, ‘Computer Game (Theme from The Circus)’, where the band attempt to emulate various arcade soundtracks of the time with just their synthesizers. And it sounds so close to the real thing that for the longest time I thought they were just sampled! It’s worth noting that Hosono also had a huge interest in early video game soundtracks, and would elaborate on the concept with his 1984 solo album ‘Video Game Music’.

Halfway through the track, a funky drumbeat courtesy of Takahashi comes in, cutting through all the arcadey noises and eventually seguing into the first proper track on the album, ‘Firecracker’. So, remember we were just talking about exotica? Well, this track is a cover of a song by one of the leading exotica composers, Martin Denny. As you might imagine, the original track from 1959 was Denny’s attempt to write a song inspired by traditional Oriental music, specifically Chinese folk music but with hints of Japanese folk music as well. So for a group of actual Japanese musicians to put their own spin on it and make it their own again is hilarious and brilliant. And yes, they knew exactly what they were doing.

But man do they make it their own. By taking a quaint little exotica tune, raising the tempo and adding a funk beat, classical piano flourishes (courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto) and an irresistible bassline, they wind up creating a pop classic. It’s immensely enjoyable even if you don’t know about the concept behind the cover.

After the firecracker explosion that caps off that track, we head straight into ‘Simoon’. One thing that immediately struck me about this song when I first heard it was that the first half sounded like it could’ve been ripped right out of the soundtrack for a quirky N64/GameCube game. Animal Crossing, maybe? It’s sort of a synthesized lounge song that sounds like it could be playing in some intergalactic bar. It’s a wonderful tune, and I love the key change where a synth part that sounds like pitch-shifted radio frequencies starts echoing the main synth lead. However, I do have some qualms with the song. During the second half, guest vocalist Shunichi Hashimoto starts duetting a melody with a vocoded voice (Hosono? Hashimoto himself?), and personally his crooning is a bit much for me. I would have preferred if they would have just stuck with the vocoded vocals for that part, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Other than that, great song with sublime melodies all around.

Next we have “Cosmic Surfin'”, which is, as you might expect, something of a synthesized surf song. It’s another really good song, but this version is probably my least favorite. I far prefer all the live versions they did, where they ditched the loopy rhumba groove and replaced it with a straightforward uptempo surf beat. You can find a particularly good live version on their album ‘Public Pressure’. It’s much more propulsive and the melodies really get a chance to shine. There’s also a really good studio version on ‘Pacific’, a collaboration album between Haruomi Hosono, Tatsuro Yamashita and Shigeru Suzuki released earlier in 1978. Despite that, the only musicians featured on that track are Hosono and the other two YMO guys, Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. On there, they also go for a more straightforward 4/4 beat, but it’s a bit more midtempo than future live versions. Not only is it a good listen, but it’s pretty interesting in the context of YMO’s history as well, being one of the earliest tracks out there to feature just those three guys.

After that, we close out side one with, ‘Computer Game (Theme from The Invader)’, a quick reprisal of the first track on the album. And then it’s on to side two we go.

Whereas the first side of the album is very Hosono-centric, the second side is much more democratic, with all three members contributing a song each, with interludes in between. Accordingly, side two starts off with a Ryuichi Sakamoto tune, ‘Tong Poo’. It might be my favorite YMO tune, but it would be hard for me to pinpoint why. I just know that every melody in the song is either cathartic or groovy, and oftentimes both. I’m sure Sakamoto feels similarly, as it’s one of the few YMO tunes he still regularly plays in his solo sets. I should note that I’ve been focusing on the original Japanese version of this album for this review, but a slightly remixed version was released in 1979 for Western audiences. One of the most notable changes was the addition of guest female vocals during the sparse jam section of ‘Tong Poo’. They complement the music better than you’d expect, and I often sing it to myself when I’m listening to the Japanese version, but they’re a little bit cheesy and I think I prefer the song without them. But anyway, amazing song. It’s difficult for me to articulate why I like it so much but simply put, it’s beautiful. Also, check out Hosono’s bass playing next time you listen to it. That man sure knew how to lay down a groove.

The drum beat at the end of ‘Tong Poo’ segues into Yukihiro Takahashi’s number, ‘La Femme Chinoise’, which is a fascinating blend of Kraftwerk and French pop with Oriental imagery. Takahashi himself sings during the second half of the song, making it the only song on the album with proper lead vocals (the guest vocals on ‘Simoon’ being heavily obscured by the duetting vocoder vocals). His vocals are a bit rough, especially the first couple of lines. He wouldn’t become a very good singer until 1981, when YMO started putting more of an emphasis on vocal parts. However, his earnestness shines through and his vocals are nonetheless pretty charming. As for the main synth melody, it’s very catchy but it was a bit simplistic for me the first couple times I heard it. It’s grown on me since, and I think it’s very well-written.

After that song, we’re greeted with a short interlude titled ‘Bridge Over Troubled Music’, the title of which is obviously a loveably bizarre allusion to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It’s mostly Sakamoto noodling around, playing jazzy stuff on a synth. At one point it starts to sound like the beginning of an actual song, with the Sakamoto’s synth chords locking into a groove with Takahashi’s kick drum, but it quickly fizzles away and then segues into the next track, “Mad Pierrot”, Hosono’s offering for side two.

It’s probably the least immediate song on the album, the melodies being a bit more obscured and idiosyncratic. But once those melodies hook you in, the song goes from being the least assuming track on the album to one of the most addictive. The production is just so dense (in a good way) and immaculately layered for 1978, it’s almost unbelievable, especially compared to what Kraftwerk were doing that same year on ‘The Man Machine’.

On the American version, that’s the last track, but on the Japanese version you’re greeted to one last quick track titled ‘Acrobat’, which is to me the proper ending to the album. It’s sort of the final edition to the ‘Computer Games’ trilogy, bringing the album full circle.

I brought it up a little while ago, but one of the most outstanding elements of this album is the production. Whereas even future YMO albums could sound a little dated or awkward, the production on here is crisp and extremely solid. It’s so good it sounds like it could have been made twenty years later. Hell, it could have been released today and still sound fresh (the thin drum sound aside)! It’s arguably the best-sounding YMO album, with only ‘BGM’ and ‘Technodelic’ being the other strong contenders for the crown. It’s also one of the most solid YMO albums, in my opinion. While all of their albums have great moments, there’s nary a second on here I dislike, and very few moments that I think don’t work very well.

When this album came out, it was intended to be the end of the Yellow Magic Orchestra project, and all the members were to go on doing their thing. However, the album was popular enough that they decided to play a couple shows around Japan, which is when they noticed by a promoter who had a deal for them.

What was the deal, you ask??? Find out in the next episode of ‘The Yellow Magic Orchestra Chronicles’, hosted by me, some guy talking about Japanese synthpop on the internet. Stay tuned!

TRACK PICKS:
– Firecracker
– Simoon
– Tong Poo
– Mad Pierrot

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