We found this great article about Yellow Magic Orchestra at Sabukaru.online. Please note that the following article is written by Martee in 2016 and all (c) are with Sabukaru.online and the author. The original article can be found here.

It’s 1976 and your name is Haruomi Hosono. You begin working on your new album called Paraiso and it is set to be released two years later on April 25th, 1978. But at the moment you need help in creating this album.

So, you decide to hire two additional musicians to help create this project. Their names are Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. Together these three would start the journey in creating the pioneering Japanese Electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra [or YMO for short]. Before we get into who/what YMO is, we first have to understand who these three individuals are before working together on Hosono’s work, Paraiso. Ryuichi Sakomoto, nicknamed “Professor”, started his musical career in 1970 while attending the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music where he studied music compositions such as classical music, developed his expertise in piano playing, and started an interest in experimental music [more specifically in dealing with electronic equipment, such as synths]. He would eventually work with percussionist Toshiyuki Tsuchitori to create his first studio album, a collaborative project titled Disappointment – Hateruma. The drummer and fashion designer Yukihiro Takahashi, often called “Mr. YT” by fans, formed a band in 1972 called the Sadistic Mika Band. From 1972-1975 the group would drop three albums. Out of the three, Black Ship would be their most successful album which was produced by Chris Tomas who had done work with the Beatles [The White Album and Abbey Road], Pink Floyd [Dark Side of the Moon and The Division Bell], and later with the Sex Pistols [Never Mind the Bollocks], Elton John [Eight of his albums], and many other great artists. The group would disband in 1975, and form a new band based off of the previous one named The Sadistics.

This group would drop two more albums before petering out in 1979. Haruomi Hosono, referred to as “Ontai” by members, is the bass player and leader of the group, and came up out of the three as the most established member. In 1969, he was part of the Japanese Psychedelic-Rock Group Apryl Fool who would drop their first and only self-titled album. This group would eventually disband and Hosono would eventually help form the noteworthy Folk-Rock group Happy End. From 1969 to 1972 they would release three albums before eventually disbanding as well. They would be noted as not only one of the most influential artists in Japanese music, but the first ever Japanese rock group to sing in Japanese tongue during the time. Hosono would continue on his musical journey by releasing solo work, with his first solo album released in 1973, titled Hosono House.

From this point on Hosono would venture into the style of Exotica, a genre which grabs its sounds from regions such as Hawaii, Africa, Polynesia, the Caribbean, and many others. Also during this time he would focus on experimenting with Electronic sounds as music technology is being developed. Sakamoto would be hired by Hosono to play in his live band in 1976, and the following year later would hire both Takahashi and Sakomoto to finally work on his album Paraiso. This ends up being the official start of these three great minds working together.

1978 would become a huge year. The three would work together again on both Hosono’s album Pacific and Yukihiro’s debut album Saravah!. Later on Hosono would help out on Sakamoto’s debut album titled Thousand Knives. And in doing so, Sakamoto would then return the favor and work on Hosono’s album Cochin Moon

In the same year of 1978, they would eventually get together to form the Yellow Magic Orchestra and create their debut self-titled album.

We will delve a little deep into the making of this album. Here is a list of the gear used on the album to give you an idea of what they were working with:

  • Moog IIIC Mono Synth
  • Moog Minimoog Model D Monosynth
  • Moog Polymoog Analog Synthesizer
  • KORG PS-3100 Polyphonic Synthesizer
  • KORG VC-10 Analog Vocoder
  • Pollard Syndrum Electronic Drum Kit
  • ARP ODYSSEY Analog Synthesizer
  • Oberheim Eight Voice Synthesizer
  • Fender Rhodes Electric Piano
  • Fender Jazz Bass
  • Roland MicroComposer MC-8*

The only acoustic instruments used were a drum set, Steinway piano and marimba.

One of the devices that we would like to highlight would have to be the Roland MicroComposer MC-8. This crucial device would be the heart in managing the sounds for this album and the others that would quickly follow after. To keep it short, the MC-8 was the world’s first ten key input digital sequencer. It took quantified note information and inputs and punched them in via a calculator type keypad. It made sequencing multiple elements of each song very precisely and rapidly, something impossible to do manually without its help. Hideki Matsutake, often called the fourth member of the group, would take on the role of helping manage, program and play these devices, especially the MC-8. Hosono had the idea of implementing the MC-8 during his time working on the first single from the first album, ‘Firecracker.’ The developer of Roland would actually be surprised by the way YMO used the MC-8 on stage later in their career as the machine was designed specifically for recording studios, where it’s usually stationary. 

‘Firecracker’ is the second track of their first album, a cover of Martin Denny’s. They decided to cover it differently by utilizing the new technology they had been learning. If you listen to the track there is a solo performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto that showcases his musical prowess for the piano. The album throughout has multitudes of different elements that really heavily focus on the motif of the new digital/sound.

For example, to showcase the love that the group had for Arcade video games at the time, they took audio from Gun Fight, Circus, and Space Invaders as main elements for the first track and called it ‘Computer Game ‘Theme from the Circus’. As the song progresses you will slowly hear the sound of the drum beat in the background slowly turn into the sound of real fireworks, which is the lead up right into the track ‘Firework.’ The sound of the fireworks itself starts off robotic and digitized as the clarity slowly turns into actual ‘real’ explosions. 

This album would be the start of a revolution of new Electronic music. A fan favorite and staple would have to be Tong Poo, the funky and energetic track that moves forward with a variety of synths, piano solos, poppy bass, sultry vocals, precise drumming and meticulous mixing. The music of YMO would be noticed later in the US by A&M Records and would soon begin to sell their records worldwide in 1979.

Their second album, Solid State Survivor [also released in 1979] implemented the influence of  genres Post Punk and New Wave which were also happening during the same time. This album further expands on their musical abilities by pushing the bounds of the electronic sounds established in their previous album. Digitized vocals, more complex synth progressions and sequences, wider soundscapes, elements drenched in effects, and ‘the seeds of future video game music’ are some words to describe the soul of this album. Rydeen, a fan favorite, is a jam-packed track that transports you into the digital world for 4 minutes and 26 seconds with it’s multi-layered sequencing and unexpected ‘galloping’ that occurs a minute in, to later switch into high pitched flutes to finish off the song.

YMO would continue the tradition of creating a rendition of a cover song for their album by recreating the song Day Tripper by the Beatles. This version takes on a different angle on the English vocals, introduces digital pitch changes, distortion, and even has a flamboyant ‘wide-panned’ guitar solo with stutters. The group would end up selling over one million copies in Japan after its release, and would eventually end up going on their first world tour. 

YMO would end up touring with a total of 5 or 6 people [including themselves] to execute the live performances correctly. The following year in 1980, they would again go on a second world tour. Between both tours, one notable world performance would take place on the American Music and Dance TV show, Soul Train.

Legends such as Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and many others would perform previously before this broadcast. This in itself would be a pivotal moment not just for YMO but for Japan as a whole: The first Japanese band to perform on Soul Train. After returning from their second world tour, they would come back home and hold a four consecutive day live performance at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan. They became the buzz in all of Japan.  (more text below the set of images)

Here is a quote from host Don Cornelius while interviewing Yellow Magic Orchestra during the Soul Train performance: ‘In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what’s going on… I haven’t the slightest idea.’ Yukihiro later on in the interview would quote Soul, Disco, New Wave and Punk as his favourite American genres. He continues on in the interview replying that their sound is hard to compare to any other artists during that time, but he ends up choosing Kraftwerk as an answer.

In the performance that took place in December 1980, YMO performed for Budokan again but this time driving the new legendary TR-808 Drum Machine from Roland. You may be familiar with this device, but for the folks who don’t know, the Roland TR-808 Machine would be an instrument/drum sequencer that would play a vital role in Hip-hop production still to this day which would eventually break out into other genres. So you could really say that YMO influenced Hip-Hop by being one of the first bands to implement it into their sound. You are able to hear the beginning exposure of this instrument being applied in their 1981 album BGM.

With every album previously mentioned up to this point, BGM is the project that YMO sheds its skin and doubles down on their fearlessness. This album might be the deciding factor to see if you are willing to stick with YMO and see their ‘vision’ fully. Either way, this album takes strides by introducing sizzling cymbals, drowned out vocals, expanding ambiences, ethereal moods, wobbling voices, developing harmonies and begins leaning towards the ‘avant-garde.’ 1000 Knives is a great example of showcasing the early inspiration of future video game noises even further in comparison to the previous projects. When listening through the entirety of the track one may find themselves picking up similarities to the synths, especially the ‘gassy’ ones, reminiscent to the soundtrack on levels found in Mario 64, which would come out 15 years later in 1996. Here is an example.

The last track on the album, titled Loom [or Kitaru Beki Mono] is a drastic change in comparison to all their previous tracks by its sparsity. The track is accompanied with drones that seem to rise to a crescendo as the sound of ‘drops’ are played in the background. A sense of unease seems to come over as the track builds up to steady note at the two minute mark. Funny enough one may draw comparison from the intro of this track to the THX Sound Test that you have maybe heard from watching movie intros in the past. The rest of the track finishes by transporting you into space with its ‘cupped filters’ and droning tones played throughout. And again, one finds themselves connecting similarities to the ‘simplicity’ for ambience used in Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack which would not come out until 2001.

Unfortunately like all good things, in 1983, the band eventually decided it was time to part ways. The three members had already been venturing out and creating solo work, working towards different artistic journeys.

The album Naughty Boys and their tour in Japan [including their performance in Budokan] was their “goodbye and farewell” to their fans. In the span of five years they had not just impacted Japan drastically, but the whole world. Here are the names of a few artists who have sampled/covered YMO just to give you an idea how they are still inspiring future generations to this day:

  • De La Soul [Big Brother Beat]
  • Jennifer Lopez [I’m Real]
  • Justice [Horsepower]
  • J Dilla [Go Get Em]
  • Afrika Bambaataa [Death Mix (Part 2)]
  • Department of Eagles [Sailing by Night]
  • Pumpkin [Mauvais Genre]

Regarding each member’s solo career, they all still continued creating music. Yukihiro pursued this by contributing further in creating what would be known today as the genre J-POP. Ryuichi would be a music film composer, working with greats such as David Bowie in ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ and even winning an Academy Award for his work on the ‘Last Emperor.’ Lastly, Haruomi would delve deeper into ambient and electro music.

But don’t stop reading just yet, as this isn’t the end. Ten years later, in 1993, the three would regroup to perform using the same equipment that they had used in the 70s and 80s. This would occur off and on over the next upcoming years. And again, they would come to regroup in 2005. The three would show and maintain massive respect for one another over the years to come. Slowly over time they would slide back into performing the music that they had created as a group in YMO, even hiring younger generations to help perform during their live sessions/performances. They went on tour in Europe in 2008 and in the US in 2011. In 2013, YMO decided to end their regrouping activities, but did not break up as a group. They would continue on to do public talks and television programs, but also appear at each other’s solo concerts as guests. The most recent account is in 2018 when Sakamoto and Takahashi came as guests/performers in Hosono’s London performance. They even gave the fans a pleasure to perform their 1979 single ‘Absolute Ego Dance.’

For more than forty years, YMO has not only created and maintained their space in the music world, but has created generations of new and old fans. To this day people are still discovering YMO, and we hope in some way we have given you a small glimpse to the impact that these three great minds from Japan have created not only for Electronic music, but for music in general in the world.

We will leave you with this: Here are a couple of quotes from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takahashi during an interview from the DVD ‘Postymo’ [2009] during their recollection of their time when they were young and had just started as Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Takahashi: ‘…probably none of us [currently] will want to go back and have a mind like we did. Young bodies would be great, but not the mind. I think I can say whatever I want to say now.’ 

Ryuichi: ‘Well if I met my past self, I’d punch him.’ 

The three would then begin to giggle at that statement.