In Memorial of the Japanese Genre-Pioneering Powerhouse
One of the most influential yet obscure bands ever was arguably Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). The electronic supergroup was formed in 1978 by three absolute legends of the Japanese music scene: Haroumi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Although YMO was intended to be just a one-off experiment, the group captured lightning in a bottle in 1978, snowballing into a “Beatles-like” success inside Japan and modest commercial success internationally at the dawn of the 1980s. Their sound combined cutting- edge technology, catchy rhythmic dance beats, and expert musicianship that was incredibly influential on the fledgling genres of synth-pop and hip-hop. During the six years YMO were active, the three members released an insane 26 studio albums alongside touring, acting, and playing as session musicians. But even after YMO, they didn’t slow down at all. Across their careers, the trio released over 165 albums. About half of that staggering figure comes from maestro Sakamoto’s output alone. With the recent passing of both Takahashi and Sakamoto earlier this year, I felt compelled now more than ever to tell more people about their wonderful music that I love so much. No matter what genres you’re into, their influence will be present, and there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Influence and Legacy
YMO were key, but often overlooked, pioneers in both electronic and hip-hop music. Their 1978 self-titled debut album, Yellow Magic Orchestra, was the first to use the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, an early music sequencer subsequently used by all the prominent early electronic artists, including Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, and Tangerine Dream. Perhaps the great, great grandfather of GarageBand, this sequencing technology was so basic back then that when YMO performed live, they had a dedicated programmer who would frantically write out code between songs! In 1981, at the peak of their popularity, YMO envisioned the future of popular music with two cutting-edge albums which provided the foundation of the sound of hip-hop. The album cover of the first, BGM, features the invoice for all the electronic equipment they bought to create the record, which reaches a grand total of 850,000 NZD adjusted for inflation! BGM was the first album ever to use the heartbeat of hip-hop: the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Some of 808’s subsequent users include Kanye, Rihanna, Daft Punk, Marvin Gaye, Talking Heads, Whitney Huston, Genesis, New Order, and countless others. BGM also featured the first ever Japanese rap song, Rap Phenomena, making YMO the first hip-hop group from Asia. Their other 1981 release, Technodelic, was also the first album produced almost entirely out of samples and loops, a technique central to today’s hip-hop, rap, and pop music. Without sampling, many hits by artists such as Tyler, The Creator, and Drake simply wouldn’t exist.
Besides being made with the latest technology, YMO’s songbook is full of upbeat, catchy tunes and futuristic, genre-bending sounds which did not go unnoticed internationally. Their debut single, Firecracker/Computer Game, charted internationally and was an early breakdancing hit. Since then, it has been sampled by Mariah Carey, De La Soul, Jennifer Lopez, and Afrika Bambaataa. Following up on their impactful debut, the trio released 1979’s Solid State Survivor, perhaps YMO’s most well-known record outside Japan. It features an electronic version of The Beatles’ song Day Tripper and lowkey spawned the name for the genre of ‘Techno’, often said to be derived from Technopolis, written by Sakamoto. Another of his tracks on the album, Behind the Mask, which was made for a Seiko watch advert, would go on to be covered by Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, The Human League, and legendary session keyboardist Greg Phillagenes. The album also features my gateway drug to the YMO-verse, Rydeen, which I discovered via a cover by Tee Lopes, the composer of the banger soundtrack of the 2017 video game Sonic Mania. All it takes is one listen to hear YMO’s monumental influence in early video game music of the 1980s and 1990s. They’ve all actually made video game music, too, of course.
“The Humming Head-Honcho”, Haroumi Hosono
The bassist and leader of YMO, Haroumi Hosono, is one of the key figures in the history of modern pop music in and outside Japan, drawing on influences across many genres, including pop, rock, and electronic. He is most definitely a “musician’s musician”. Numerous contemporary popular artists have cited Hosono’s work as a big inspiration, such as Mac DeMarco, who jokingly said that his music career has just been an attempt at “ripping [Hosono] off.” Oh, and when Harry Styles heard “Harry” Hosono’s solo debut album, Hosono House, he instantly fell in love with it and “thought it would be really fun to make an album called Harry’s House.” Need I say more?
“The Drip and Drum King”, Yukihiro Takahashi
The drummer and vocalist of YMO, as well as a seriously sharp-dressed man, Yukihiro Takahashi’s musical career started in the glam rock group Sadistic Mika Band. The band had a brief moment of international success in 1975, which led them to open for Roxy Music. Takahashi’s career has been characterised by his openness to collaborations, such as his supergroup METAFIVE and the English New-Wave band Japan. He is often cited as the glue between Sakamoto and Hosono’s egos during the YMO years. His solo career is criminally underrated compared to his YMO compatriots (and between you and me, he’s the one I have the most LPs of), so by reading this, you are now obliged to listen to at least one of his songs! Try Drip Dry Eyes. (Ha, see what I did there, this section’s title, his fashion sense, no? Nevermind…). Rest in peace.
“The professor of the synthesiser”, Ryuichi Sakamoto
The keyboardist of YMO, Ryuichi Sakamoto, had a Master’s Degree in World Music and went on to win a Grammy, a BAFTA, an Academy Award, Golden Globes and many other awards for his music. He was an avant-garde pop star with model-like looks and was one of my mum’s imaginary boyfriends! Sakamoto’s career was the epitome of prolific: he composed the soundtrack for over 46 films and TV shows and acted in several. He starred alongside (and even kissed) the starman himself, David Bowie, in the 1983 movie, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the main theme of which is Sakamoto’s magnum opus, fyi. The movie was partially filmed just down the road near the old Auckland train station by Spark Arena, so there’s your Kiwi connection. His music has even been used in soundtracks he didn’t compose, such as MAY in the Backyard, which was used in the 2017 gay romance film Call Me By Your Name.
Throughout the 1980 and 1990s, his solo albums were primarily synth-pop with a strong experimental streak, blended with global sounds. However, by the late 1990s, he moved away from pop and focused on more minimalist, classical and ambient pieces. Sakamoto was also an activist, using his influence and star power to raise funds for causes such as the Zero Landmine EP, which raised funds to clear areas in former war zones still littered with landmines. He was also outspoken about ending reliance on nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, hosting a charity concert (where YMO reformed to play!). His music often featured anti-war lyrics, such as one of my favourites of his, Undercooled, which features South Korean rapper MC Sniper. Btw, his latest posthumous single is a collab with BTS’ SUGA.
In 2014, Sakamoto was diagnosed with cancer and spent nine years fighting it while still making music. His 2017 album, Async, and his final album, released earlier this year, 12, are masterpieces. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music was always profoundly emotional and full of intriguing soundscapes. However, as the professor faced his own mortality, this took things to another level. When I first listened to 12 with my eyes shut in the darkness of my room, I was utterly immersed. I’m not afraid to admit his pieces have repeatedly moved me to tears. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music is the most moving I have ever heard. No other music has remotely had that effect on me, and I think that is special. Rest in peace.
You can find a selection of YMO’s work on spotify using the code below: