Saturday, April 8, 2023


The Japanese supergroup Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), formed by Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, remains the biggest musical discovery I have made while writing here, quickly becoming a favourite band of mine once I discovered how of one of their songs, “Behind the Mask”, became a hit for Eric Clapton, by way of Michael Jackson [link].


With the passing of Takahashi on 11th January, and of Sakamoto on 28th March, I am continuing to learn that YMO is only the collective pinnacle for three accomplished musicians with long and varied careers, with each of their discographies their own rabbit hole waiting for me to dive in, and supporting the conclusion I have already made about YMO: they are as important to the history of electronic pop music as Kraftwerk, and that history cannot be properly understood without them.


YMO was Hosono’s initial idea of an instrumental disco band that could reach beyond Japan. Both Takahashi and Sakamoto worked with Hosono previously, and Takahashi already had some success in the UK as drummer for the Sadistic Mika Band, which had supported Roxy Music on tour, and had the ignominy of performing on TV under a banner reading “The Old Gley Whistle Test”. The self-titled album that released in 1978 was intended to be a one-off project, aiming to explore ideas of Asian-ness and Orientalism through both original compositions and interpretations of American easy-listening tunes, but a reworking of Martin Denny’s exotica tune “Firecracker” reached number 17 in the UK singles chart and number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100, later being sampled from Afrika Bambaataa and De La Soul to Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez. Suddenly, YMO became a proper band.


The follow-up album, 1979’s “Solid State Survivor”, contains “Behind the Mask” along with “Technopolis”, often credited with initiating the techno genre, and “Rydeen”, pushing their equipment to emulate animal sounds, but Western audiences initially found highlights from this album mixed into 1980’s “X∞Multiplies”, appearing alongside ska instrumentals and new wave songs in the space originally taken by comedy sketches. This culminated not only in a comedy cover of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up”, but in YMO’s performance of it on the US TV institution “Soul Train”. This all changes again with 1981’s “BGM”, short for “background music”, with a rockier edge, but also a more crystallised sound, with final track “Loom” featuring a simulation of dripping water as if in a cave, and a single glissando that lasts for a full two minutes.


YMO was a band that encompassed everything, not unlike the “city pop” genre that built in Japan from the ate 1970s, characterised as urban music for urbanites that took influences from funk, soul, jazz, Latin and middle-of-the-road pop. The recording of their performances also encompassed a great shift from analogue to digital recording; from buzzing subtractive synthesisers to glassy FM synths; the introduction of new equipment from the likes of Roland and Yamaha, YMO being the first band to use Roland’s famous TR-808 drum machine both recorded and live; and from performing live in smaller venues to huge stadiums – “After Service”, their last live album before breaking up in 1983, sounds like it was recorded in front of an audience of teenage girls, but their popularity in Japan was akin to The Beatles at the time. The band reformed for a further album in 1992, and for many further live performances, each sounding different from the last both through musical ability and changing technology.


If listening to YMO for the first time, start with “Firecracker” or “Behind the Mask”, and don’t stop. 

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