J-Pop Sunday – Yellow Magic Orchestra

I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this week. I underestimated how varied the music styles of Yellow Magic Orchestra are or how influential the band is. They were mentioned on BBC Radio 2’s PopMaster quiz for goodness sake! You would have thought that would have set off an alarm bell or two. Something along the lines of “Kaito! What are you doing? You won’t be able to give these guys the literary justice they deserve! This is the kind of band that The Guardian writes about, not you! Just write about someone like Gackt or something!” But no, I got cocky and thought I could fob them off with some silly line like “They’re like a super happy Japanese Kraftwerk” and for that, I apologise to the band, and to you, the reads. Never the less; I’m contractually obliged to write something that will embarrass both YMO and myself. So, let’s get started.

Form a queue, ladies.

Quick Guide
Act Name: Yellow Magic Orchestra
Line-up: Haruomi Hosono (細野 晴臣) – Bass, Keyboard & Vocals
Yukihiro Takahashi (高橋 幸宏) – Drums & Lead Vocals
Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一) – Keyboard & Vocals
Years Active: 1978 – Present.
Genre: Electronica, Experimental, Synthpop, New Wave.
Notable Tracks: “Firecracker” (1978), “Tong Poo” (1978), “Behind the Mask” (1979) “Rydeen” (1980), “Tighten Up” (1980) – Oh, hell, most of their stuff’s pretty good! There’s also “Tokyo Town Pages” (2008)

Before we get to the band’s history, I’m going try and give an idea of how big these guys are. A list of musicians that either have Yellow Magic Orchestra as a creative influence or has sampled or covered one of YMO’s songs might demonstrate my point: Greg Phillinganes, Senor Coconut, The Human League, Gary Newman, POLYSICS, Japan, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran, Afrika Bambaataa, Depeche Mode and Michael Jackson would all feature. That’s right; the King of Pop sang an English vocal cover of YMO’s 1979 hit “Behind the Mask”.

YMO performing “Behind the Mask” live in 2010.

The trio met in the 70’s. Each had been experimenting with electronic instruments and sounds. In the mid 70’s keyboardist Sakamoto discovered Kraftwerk and introduced the Germans to his colleagues. They were impressed, but wished to avoid Kraftwerk’s stern Germanic style and sound. Contrary to their contemporaries in Japan at the time – who were becoming increasingly focused on emulating Western acts – the three wanted to create something with a more Japanese feel: Fusing many different styles of music like the mix of foods in a bento box. The three also wished to avoid the heavier, somewhat dystopian sounds that were common in electronic of the time. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s self-titled first album – originally a one-off side project for bassist Hosono, with Takahashi and Sakamoto involved as hired session musicians – was released in 1978 and sold 250,000 copies in Japan alone. The album later saw a slightly edited mix release in the US and UK. After the success of their first album, the three decided to stick together and keep performing as “Yellow Magic Orchestra”.

A live performance of “Firecracker”. The song was Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1st single and featured on their 1978 “Yellow Magic Orchestra” album.

I could turn this week’s piece into a long winded article about how Yellow Magic Orchestra are keystones in the histories of electronic, pop and even hip-hop music in general, but, I’m there are better people to hear that from, rather than me. We’re here to discover new music and as such I think it’d best that we let the music do the talking. I’ll leave you all with a few more choice tracks from Yellow Magic Orchestra and I encourage anyone who has enjoyed what they’ve heard today to explore YMO a little more. It’s worth it.

“Rydeen” (1980) is a personal favourite of mine; partially because of the trippy 80’s graphics in the video. (Strobe effect warning, people!)

“Tighten Up” is a cover of a song originally performed by 60s/70s American R&B group Archie Bell & The Drells, but with a YMO style twist.

Finally, we’ll close on a fantastic ambient track. In this video we see the band performing “Tokyo Town Pages” in Gijon, Spain.

Until next time!

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