Photo by Charlie Gillett/Redferns via Getty Images

The Guide to Getting Into Yellow Magic Orchestra

Sampled by J Dilla, covered by Michael Jackson, and a key influence on Detroit techno, the genre-defying Tokyo trio shaped the formative years of electronic music.

by Rob Arcand; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Dec 19 2017, 8:04pm

Photo by Charlie Gillett/Redferns via Getty Images

Since their formation as a proper band in 1978, Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Yukihiro Takahashi have transversed style and genre to create some of the boldest, strangest pop music in history. They made everything from gritty synth-funk and video game music to the sort of lush, New Romantic art-pop that earned Sakamoto an appearance (and scoring gig) in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence alongside David Bowie, demonstrating a groundbreaking eclecticism that made them influential across all sorts of different strains of computer music.

Sampled by J Dilla, covered by Michael Jackson, and cited by Juan Atkins and Derrick May as a key influence on what would later become Detroit techno, the Tokyo trio played an unquestionably important role in the formative years of electronic music, both in the underground and in its many momentary ascents into the mainstream. Yet all too often, it feels like they’ve been passed by with changing trends; unlike the stadium tours and museum retrospectives of German synth pioneers Kraftwerk, the act hasn’t seen the same explosive popularity in the West, in part because of the continuing prolificacy of each member’s solo career and the rarity of their extended catalog before the internet era.

Across eight studio albums and countless solo endeavours, YMO refined a sound indebted to American jazz roots, yet blended countless influences into a mix of far-reaching styles. Formed in 1978 in the interest of both poking fun and paying homage to the sort of tonedeaf “exotica” of lounge musicians Martin Denny and Les Baxter, the trio sought to interpolate this petri dish of ahistorical kitsch into something more inspired by technology as a vehicle for cultural exchange. In the same way that Kraftwerk’s obsession with the automobile shed light on the profound humanity of the man and machine as one, YMO understood the exciting possibilities—and crippling horrors—that new technological advances could introduce to society. In the wake of the brutal devastation of their native Japan at the hands the atomic bomb, technology became a tool for progress and reconstruction, a medium by which the nation was able to find booming economic growth in the years to come.

Light, joyous, yet forever committed to conceptual rigor, YMO built entire aesthetic universes from album to album that mirrored a rapidly changing creative landscape. From the cybernetic communism of 1981’s Technodelic to the boyish facade of 1983’s Naughty Boys and to hyper-kitsch comedy of Service (which includes numerous skits by the Super Eccentric Theatre satirizing popular television), the band’s unwavering commitment to aesthetics can still be felt through an entire generation of acts throughout the world. With MTV-ready music videos and highly-stylized Devo-esque performances, YMO split the difference between the cheeky poptimism of early post-punk and the sort of welling, larger-than-life quality of the biggest American popstars, in part paving the way for the sort of J-Pop that would continue to dominate Japan almost fifty years later.

After a brief hiatus to further pursue their solo careers, the trio began to experiment with new electronic sounds and on Technodon, their impromptu 1993 reunion album, they wove stomping techno and acid house elements into the latest iteration of their sound. Meanwhile, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s solo career continued to flourish as an actor and film composer, a trend that would continue with the release of his sixteenth studio album async earlier this year. With remixes from Arca, Yves Tumor, and Oneohtrix Point Never, it feels like a new generation of musicians is just beginning to recognize Sakamoto’s talent, both as a solo act and in his close to three decades with YMO.

Impossible to pin down in simple comparison, Yellow Magic Orchestra has achieved a unique place in both Japanese culture and throughout the world. But where’s the best place to start when getting into a band with such a dense and far-reaching catalog? The only way to understand YMO is to first and foremost brace yourself for sugary kitsch. Whether it’s the racing techno of the band’s final record or something closer to the chorus-drenched pop of Depeche Mode or The Human League, YMO has something for everyone.

So you want to get into: Exotica Yellow Magic Orchestra?

Each member of YMO was a distinguished musician before the founding of the group. A well-known voice in the Tokyo music community throughout the ‘70s, Haruomi Hosono played in a number of jazz and rock groups like Tin Pan Alley, a collective of songwriters who wrote hits for pop and folk singers throughout Japan. The earliest Hosono records of the time have a warm, full-studio feeling that sounds more indebted to the sleazy yacht-rock of Steely Dan or the Doobie Brothers than anything that would later come from YMO. With a similar commitment to jazz technicality, early tracks like "Shimendoka” and “Worry Beads” gradually introduce early synths and drum machines in ways that pay partial tribute to traditional Japanese folk music, while remaining firmly committed to the many numerous traditions of Western jazz.

Alongside Takahashi and Sakamoto (who played drums and keyboards as session musicians on Hosono’s numerous early LPs), Hosono would continue to venture further and further into mid-century American kitsch with the release of the band’s breakout self-titled debut as Yellow Magic Orchestra. “Firecracker,” a single from Hosono’s early days later rerecorded for their debut, finds the band blending Japanese traditionalism with the same sort of parallel fourths, fifths, and octaves that Hollywood had used to convey “orientalism” in shorthand for decades. Drawing the outrageous affect of LA lounge musicians like Martin Denny and Les Baxter, the band found something charming in this comical cultural pastiche; and with synth patches strikingly similar to traditional Japanese instruments, tracks like “Mad Pierrot” and “La Femme Chinoise” helped turn this exchange of sounds into a soaring, synth-slathered frenzy.

Though these outright “exotica” influences would fade further into the background as the band embraced more electronics, their presence would continue to shine through in certain moments, like on Technodelic’s “Seoul Music” or Solid State Survivor’s “Rydeen.” Maybe a bit less palatable than the sort of stomping dance-pop to come with later releases, these jazz-inflicted roots reveal a trio of expert musicians keenly aware of their history, able to deploy intricate compositional ideas in ways that still come out sounding lush.

Playlist: “Exotic Dance (Yellow Magic Orchestra) - Haruomi Hosono” / “Firecracker” / “Mad Pierrot” / “Rydeen” / “Seoul Music” / “Rap Phenomena”

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So you want to get into: New Romantic, Art-Pop Yellow Magic Orchestra?

As the band progressed into headier, synthier dance-pop, the world was changing around them. Where their 1978 debut had roots in American lounge and “exotica,” 1979’s Solid State Survivor offered something more Kraftwerk-inspired, with early vocoder and drum machine arrangements. A triumphant standout, “Behind the Mask” was later re-recorded by Michael Jackson for Thriller, but was cut before ever actually making it onto the album due to a copyright dispute with the band. The track was later included on the 2010 posthumous album Michael, with new club-ready lyrics written by Jackson himself.

Jackson recognized a good melody when he heard it; as the band went on to explore newer technologies like the ARP Odyssey and Roland TR-808 in the 80s, a certain strand of their work came surprisingly close to sounding like the melody-driven, radio-friendly polish of popular post-disco and New Wave records. On 1981’s BGM, the band built an entire universe from the sort of sawtooth synths that would influence acts like The Human League and Eurythmics, while lush ballads like “Expected Way” (from 1983’s Naughty Boys) indulged in the syrupy-sweet strings of London’s biggest New Romantics. Alongside Bowie-inspired bands like Japan, Boy George, and Ultravox, YMO found something distinctly wholesome and heartfelt in the early ‘80s; Naughty Boys in particular offered the trio at their warmest, with bright strings and the sort of sharp gated-reverb snare that was suddenly somehow everywhere by the end of the decade.

Hardly limited to a single album, this art-pop influence would permeate into a number of the band’s other tracks of the era. On songs like “Pure Jam” and “Neue Tanz” (from 1981’s Technodelic), YMO embrace the sort of metallic drum machine pangs of Phil Collins, while “The Madmen” (from 1983’s Service) feels like it could’ve been written for David Byrne. It’s in these brighter moments that the band fully reveals their true colors as pop stars first and foremost.

Playlist: “Cue” / “Music Plans” / “Expected Way” / “Opened My Eyes” / “The Madmen” / “You’ve Got To Help Yourself” / “Neue Tanz” / “Day Tripper” (Beatles Cover)

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So you want to get into: Computer Game Yellow Magic Orchestra?

In 1984, Hosono released Video Game Music. Part of an ongoing collaboration with the video game designers at Namco, the LP is one of the earliest album-length releases to be taken seriously from the emerging genre of music built for the 8- and 16-bit format. Earlier compositions had seen limited single and EP releases, and most were written off as a novelty for eccentric computer hobbyist and wide-eyed, coin-clutching children. Hosono treated electronic composition as a legitimate art form that, thanks to his success with YMO, helped pave the way for a whole new generation of early 8- and 16-bit composers in the video game world.

At the same time, a certain strand of YMO music had really always been influenced by early video games. The opener of their self-titled debut, “Computer Game (Theme From the Circus)” starts with a surge of jittery electronics, setting the tone for an entire album of intricate melodies including samples from Space Invader, Circus and Gun Fight. With complex chords and a close attention to the affective qualities of melody, songs like “Rydeen” and “Yellow Magic” would be frequently cited as inspiration for early soundtracks from Nintendo, and with Michael Jackson now proven to be secretly involved with the soundtrack for Sonic 3, it doesn’t seem completely out of the question to think there was a little YMO in there as well.

Playlist: “Computer Game (Theme From the Circus)” / “Rydeen” / “Yellow Magic (Tong Poo)” / “Solid State Survivor” / “Ongaku” / “Technopolis”

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So you want to get into Synth-Funk Yellow Magic Orchestra?

In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa would make history with a little-known sample from Kraftwerk. One year later, he would turn YMO’s “Firecracker” into a gritty boombox masterpiece on “Death Mix Pt. 2,” a B-Side from his Death Mix live album. Though now a bit of a footnote in the genre’s history, YMO would become a regular fixture in early DJ setups, sampled by everyone from Mos Def and De La Soul to J Dilla, 2 Live Crew, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Lopez. Beyond the fact that their 8-bit sounds became a go-to place to grab early video game sounds on vinyl, YMO’s alien synth grooves had an undeniable funk influence that would find a perfect match in the steady shuffle of early hip-hop. On tracks like “Cosmic Surfin’” and “Rap Phenomena,” the band embrace the funkiest elements of dance-pop to create tight-knit, synth-funk euphoria over a decade before G-funk would ever become a recognized subgenre in the States.

Playlist: “Cosmic Surfin’” / “Firecracker” / “Yellow Magic” / “Chinese Whispers” / “Pure Jam” / “Rap Phenomena” / “Citizens of Science” / “Behind the Mask”

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So you want to get into: Acid House Yellow Magic Orchestra?

“Techno is the sound of George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.” Often attributed to Derrick May of the Belleville Three, the quote fails to account for the wealth of other influences present on the trio’s early Cybotron demos, which also take a huge influence from YMO. In Simon Reynolds’ thorough history of rave, May adds that Bootsy Collins, Giorgio Moroder, and YMO also had a huge impact on the formative years of Cybotron, an act that would help define the techno and establish Detroit as an electronic music powerhouse. “We used to sit back and philosophize on what these people thought about when they made their music, and how they felt the next phase of the music would go,” he says in one interview. “We’d sit back with the lights off and listen to records by Bootsy and Yellow Magic Orchestra. We never just took it as entertainment, we took it as a serious philosophy.”

Thankfully this influence wasn’t just one-sided and by the ‘90s, YMO were tapping into techno and acid house themselves on their landmark “reunion” album Technodon. Packed with stomping kick and squelched 303 bass, tracks like “High-Tech Hippies” and “Nanga Def?” pull back on the synthy melodies to reveal club-ready tracks as strong as most veterans in the genre. On the album’s second half, the trio embraces a more mellow, ambient-house feel that’s more akin to popular European dance acts like 808 State, Orbital or The Orb. Though only a one-off release in the style, the interplay between the band’s established synth-pop formula and their aim to continually expand their palette with new sounds proves that they still had their mind set on innovation, even as their focus would shift onto each of their respective solo endeavours.

Playlist: “Nanga Def?” / “Dolphinicity” / “High-Tech Hippies” / “Chance” / “U. T” / “Key” / “Nostalgia” / “Floating Away”

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