Yellow Magic Orchestra


Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) is a Japanese electronic music band consisting of principal members Haruomi Hosono (bass and keyboards), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums and lead vocals) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards and vocals). The group began under the name ‘Yellow Magic Band’ in 1977, and then renamed itself as ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra’ in 1978.

The band’s former ‘fourth member’ was music programmer Hideki Matsutake. They are regarded as influential innovators of popular electronic music. They helped pioneer synthpop and ambient house, ushered in electronica, anticipated the beats and sounds of electro music, laid the foundations for J-pop, and influenced the house, techno, and hip-hop movements.

Prior to the group’s formation, Sakamoto had been experimenting with electronic music equipment at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which he entered in 1970, including synthesizers such as the Buchla, Moog, and ARP. At around the same time, Hosono had been involved in the recording of several early electronic rock records, including Inoue Yousui’s folk pop rock album ‘Ice World’ (1973) and Osamu Kitajima’s progressive psychadelic rock album ‘Benzaiten’ (1974), both of which utilized synthesizers, electric guitars, electric bass, and in the latter, electronic drums and rhythm machines.

Also around the same time, the band’s future ‘fourth member’ Hideki Matsutake was the assistant for the internationally successful electronic musician Isao Tomita. Much of the methods and techniques developed by both Tomita and Matsutake during the early 1970s would later be employed by Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Other early influences on the band included Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. The former was particularly an influence on Sakamoto, who heard the band in the mid-1970s and later introduced them to his fellow band members in the late 1970s. However, they wanted to avoid imitating Kraftwerk, whose ‘German’ approach Sakamoto viewed as ‘theoretical, very focused, simple and minimal and strong,’ which he contrasted with YMO’s ‘very Japanese’ approach of fusing many different styles of music like a ‘bento box.’ Their alternative template for electronic pop was less minimalistic, made more varying use of synthesizer lines, introduced ‘fun-loving and breezy’ sounds, and placed a strong emphasis on melody.

The band was initially conceived as a one-off studio project by Hosono, the other two members being recruited session musicians—the idea was to produce an album fusing orientalist exotica with modern electronics, as a subversion of Orientalism and exoticization, while exploring similar themes such as Asianness. The album would eventually be called ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra,’ as a satire of Japan’s obsession with black magic at the time.

Following an advertising deal with Fuji Cassette, the group sparked a boom in the popularity of electronic pop music, called ‘Technopop’ in Japan, where they had an impact similar to that of The Beatles and Merseybeat in 1960s Britain. For some time, YMO was the most popular band in Japan. A testament to the influence of YMO on fashion is how many middle-aged Japanese businessmen still have the ‘Techno cut’ haircut, modeled after the group.

Successful solo act Akiko Yano (later married to Sakamoto) joined the band for its live performances in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but did not participate in the studio recordings. On the other hand, the YMO trio contributed to her own albums and became part of her live band, during these same years. Making abundant use of new synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, computers and digital recording technology as it became available, as well as utilizing cyberpunk-ish lyrics sung mostly in English, they extended their popularity and influence beyond Japan.

‘Solid State Survivor,’ released in 1979, was YMO’s pinnacle recording in Japan. It featured English lyrics by Chris Mosdell, whose sci-fi themes often depicted a human condition alienated by dystopic futures, much like the emerging cyberpunk movement in fiction at that time. The album’s major single, and one of the band’s biggest international hits, was ‘Behind the Mask,’ which YMO had first produced in 1978 for a Seiko quartz wristwatch commercial. The song was later revised by Michael Jackson, who added new lyrics in the early 1980s. Jackson’s version was never released until his first posthumous album, Michael, though his additional lyrics were included in later cover versions of the song by Greg Phillinganes, Eric Clapton, and Ryuichi Sakamoto himself in his 1986 solo release ‘Media Bahn Live.’

With the 1980 song ‘Riot in Lagos,’ YMO member Sakamoto pioneered the beats and sounds of electro music. The band was particularly popular with the emerging hip hop community, which appreciated the group’s electronic sounds, and in the Bronx where ‘Firecracker’ was a success and sampled in the famous ‘Death Mix’ (1983) by Afrika Bambaataa.

The band had stopped working as a group by 1984, after the release of their musical motion picture ‘Propaganda,’ the three members returning to their solo careers. The group were careful to avoid saying they had ‘split up,’ preferring to use the Japanese phrase meaning ‘spreading out,’ and in fact the trio continued to play on each other’s recordings and made guest appearances at live shows. Takahashi, in particular, would play YMO material in his concerts and as ‘lead singer.’ Meanwhile, Sakamoto would gain international success for his work as a solo artist, actor, and film composer.

The trio would eventually release a one-off reunion album, ‘Technodon’ in 1993. Instead of traditional vocals, about half of it features field audio recordings and samples of authors and scientists reading their work. During their brief reunion in the early 1990s, they continued to experiment with new styles of electronic music, playing an instrumental role in the techno and acid house movements of the era. The early 2000s saw Hosono & Takahashi reunited in a project called ‘Sketch Show.’ On a number of occasions Ryuichi Sakamoto has joined in on ‘Sketch Show’ performances and recording sessions. He later proposed they rename the group ‘Human Audio Sponge’ when he participates.

Yellow Magic Orchestra were pioneers in their use of synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, computers, and digital recording technology in popular music, in a time when these technologies were still seen as novelties. The band is regarded as being ‘ahead of their time,’ for anticipating the global trend towards drum machines and sampling, for having anticipated the ‘electropop boom’ of the 1980s, their ‘pro-technological viewpoint,’ and their use of video game sounds and bleeps (as in 1978’s ‘Computer Game,’ for example).

YMO’s approach to sampling music was a precursor to the contemporary approach of constructing music by cutting fragments of sounds and looping them using computer technology. Their 1978 hit ‘Computer Game / Firecracker,’ for example, sampled Martin Denny’s 1959 exotica melody ‘Firecracker’ and arcade game sounds from ‘Space Invaders.’

They were also the first band to utilize the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, one of the first and most influential programmable drum machines, as soon as it was released in 1980. While the machine was initially unsuccessful due to its lack of digital sampling that the rival Linn LM-1 offered, the TR-808 featured various unique artificial percussion sounds, including a deep bass kick drum, ‘tinny handclap sounds,’ the ‘ticky snare,’ the ’tishy hi-hats,’ and ‘the spacey cowbell.’ Despite the machine’s initial lack of success, YMO utilized and demonstrated the TR-808 in their music, paving the way for its mainstream popularity several years later, after which it would be used for more hit records than any other drum machine and continue to be widely used through to the present day.

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