Review by: Josh Price


Following the modest success of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s eponymous debut, they went on a small national tour. It was intended to be the end of the Yellow Magic Orchestra project, but then something happened. They were noticed. Noticed by a promoter who had a tasty deal for them. Specifically, worldwide promotion. Naturally, they gobbled that deal right up and decided to become an actual band.

Their first album was remixed and re-released in the US in 1979, and ‘Firecracker’ became a pretty moderate hit over there (it was marketed over there as ‘Computer Games’, which was probably a flub on the distributors’ part). During their 1980 world tour, they even stopped by to play the song on Soul Train! You can find the clip of them performing it plus an interview with a bemused Don Cornelius on YouTube if you’re interested.

Anyway, this album wasn’t released at the time in the West, at least in this format (more on that in a future review), but this was the album that made YMO superstars in Japan.

While their self-titled debut was a juicy concoction of exotica, jazz fusion, disco and synthpop, their sophomore album places an emphasis on upbeat, catchy new wavey synth tunes. Since they were now an actual band, and not a Hosono-led side-project, the recording and writing process for this album was much more democratic, with songwriting duties being equally split between the three.

Ryuichi Sakamoto starts things off with the song ‘Technopolis’. It’s almost entirely instrumental, but you’re also greeted with vocoded vocals courtesy of Sakamoto himself. His vocals consist entirely of him either saying “Tokyo” or spelling out “Technopolis”, but sometimes that’s all ya really need, y’know? It’s a great song and a fantastic opener. That chorus melody just can’t be beat. However, if you listen to their first album and this album back to back, you will notice the difference in production. Whereas their first album sounds very crisp, clear and upfront, you’ll notice that on ‘Technopolis’ that the separate parts aren’t as well-balanced in the mix, and there’s like a weird kinda slapback delay on those synth parts. Additionally, whenever Sakamoto spells out “Technopolis”, each letter gets more and more out-of-sync with the rest of the tune. I don’t think was intentional because in every other version I’ve heard them do, Sakamoto spells out the word perfectly on-sync. Also, what’s up with the drum track taking slightly longer than all the other tracks to fade out? You almost think it’s gonna segue into another track, but then it doesn’t. Still sounds kinda cool, so maybe it was intentional.

That concludes my ‘Technopolis’ nitpicking. Fantastic song otherwise.

Next up we have a song from Hosono called ‘Absolute Ego Dance’. It’s —

Hang on, speaking of absolute ego, fellow Tomymostalas reviewer Jonathan Moss has something to say about this album! Over to Moss!

“This album is really good.”

Hey, Josh again! Thank you for that, Mossy. You took the words right out of my mouth.

So, anyway, ‘Absolute Ego Dance’ has an eccentric, almost exotic-sounding little verse melody that’s countered by a glorious major-key chorus melody. It’s not as hard-hitting as the other big hitters on this album, but like ‘Mad Pierrot’ on the previous album, the more you listen to it the more addictive it becomes. It’s catchy, it’s loopy and so Hosono. Which gets me thinking, there should be a sitcom called That’s So Hosono. Or at least a television movie called that.

The third track on the album was not only the biggest hit on the album, but is also probably the most recognizable YMO track (in Japan anyway). Written by Yukihiro Takahashi, ‘Rydeen’ represents everything great about YMO at this stage of their career. Every melody the song offers is well-written and feels like a hook in its own right, the beat is invigorating and never lets up, and just when you think the song can’t get any better, you get that little laser battle interlude followed by the final triumphant echoes of that final melody. It’s as exciting as it is beautiful. Only nitpick I can come up with is that when they repeat the main melody at 1:45 instead of going back into the bridge, it seems a bit overkill. But hell, a melody like that is worth repeating. I would know, I’ve listened to the song perhaps a hundred times and it’s never gotten old.

We close out side one with another Sakamoto number, ‘Castalia’, which is about as far-removed from the previous three tracks as you could imagine. It’s downtempo, ponderous and lacks a clear hook. But it’s nice! In a way, it’s almost a foreshadowing of what YMO and especially Sakamoto would be doing later in their careers. Those melodies are strangely beautiful and the track is probably the best-sounding production-wise on the album. So, y’know, you probably won’t be listening to it much on its own, but coming in between two of YMO’s hardest-hitting songs, it makes for a nice breather of sorts.

And yes, the opening track on side 2, ‘Behind the Mask’ hits hard, bro. You have that verse with that loopy chord progression and spacey melody and then you have that chorus with Sakamoto’s vocoded vocals and Hosono’s throbbing bass. The melodies are, as you might expect, fantastic. You know who’d agree with me? Quincy Jones. He liked the song so much when he visited Japan in the early 80’s, that he tried to obtain permission for Michael Jackson to sing it on ‘Thriller’. They made a demo for it and everything, and Sakamoto was quite interested in the prospect, but YMO’s management eventually declined for whatever reason. It’s a shame, Sakamoto and co. surely would have made a mean buck, and it would have been cool to know that the best-selling album of all time had a YMO tune on it. But oh well. In a long convoluted series of events, Eric Clapton ended up covering the tune on one of his albums, and it was produced by none other than Phil Collins. It’s probably the best Eric Clapton song.

A lot of people like to shit on YMO’s cover of ‘Day Tripper’, but I love it. I just love the idea of taking this sacred cow of a tune, and completely stretching it until it’s unrecognizable. Quirky vocals, herky-jerky stop-start rhythms, jazzy chord changes and a weird-ass guitar solo. I love it. In fact, I secretly love it more than the original version. Shhhh, this is just between you and me, faithful reader. Don’t tell anyone or we’ll be sure to ban you from this blog! Maybe.

‘Insomnia’ is sort of another breather track that appears before the final track. Written by Hosono, it has a bit of a daunting minor-key melody and foggy atmosphere that perfectly evokes the feeling of insomnia. It’s also the longest track on the album, and honestly you can tell. It feels a tiny bit repetitive, but that said, I love all the different parts. That main melody, the part with those doomy descending synths, Hosono’s vocoded part, it’s all good stuff! I think the fact that I still think the weakest track on the album is fantastic just speaks to how much I love this album.

And then you have the grand finale, the title track, written by Takahashi. It’s one of my favorite YMO songs. Why? To put it simply, it has it all. A breakneck tempo, quirky chord progressions, triumphant synth melodies, and a vocal part from Takahashi that’s just the epitome of cool. His vocals sound great, considering he was a bit of a shaky vocalist at that point in time. And I dunno, the urgent guitar, those creepy distorted samples, the production. Really, I don’t think there’s anything I dislike on this track!

All of these songs add up to make what would end up being not only a huge hit in Japan, but also the best-selling album of 1980 over there, aided by the success of the singles ‘Rydeen’ and ‘Technopolis’. It even started off what was to become known as the ‘technopop craze’ in Japan. Many young bands started up synth bands, existing bands traded in guitars for synths and mainstream pop music became increasingly influenced by electronic pop. Some of it was even produced and written by the YMO guys themselves!

This is one of my favorite albums ever (you can tell because I had to resort to nitpicks for criticism). While the production is a bit weaker than their previous album, the songs are arguably stronger overall. You just can’t beat some of these tracks. If you like catchy electronic music at all, you can’t pass this album by. Listen to it right now. Sell all your Aerosmith records to listen to this if you must. It’ll be worth it!

– Absolute Ego Dance
– Rydeen
– Behind the Mask
– Day Tripper
– Solid State Survivor


Review by: Josh Price


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!

– Firecracker
– Simoon
– Tong Poo
– Mad Pierrot


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.