Gabriel Szatan celebrates the trailblazing trio on the 40th anniversary of their breakout LP.
"Absolute Ego Dance"'s marriage of rock & roll vim, arcade bleeps and the then-unmined potential of synth pop is a shining example of why Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) generate such adoration. Its parent album, Solid State Survivor, which came out on September 25th, 1979, made the trio international stars, only eighteen months after forming. "ファム·ファタール～妖婦" ("Femme Fatale") was the first YMO song in all but name, appearing as the Yellow Magic Band on Hosono's 1978 LP, Paraiso. Seven months and a small tweak later, their eponymous debut was released. The group lasted for just over five years, but recorded seven studio albums in that time, leaving a permanent mark on a wide panorama of popular and niche musical subcultures. Their skill at feeding state-of-the-art technology into world-beating tunes led to a high strike rate matched only by Kraftwerk.
It's important to get Kraftwerk out of the way early. It's not as if the comparison dogged YMO. Being placed in the top-tier bracket of electronic innovators alongside the robotic Germans is a flattering fit. Nor was there any beef—both the band and Hosono have integrated a cover of "Radioactivity" into live performances since the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. But the differences underscore the scarcity of last year's impromptu reunion, and YMO's appeal.
Kraftwerk, so long considered unknowable, have been exporting their brand of techno-pop more or less non-stop for the past 15 years, variously taking their workstation roadshow across South America in support of Radiohead, to the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House, and even to a Cocoon party in Ibiza last week. Their component members are depersonalised and to an extent interchangeable, as is the nature of the concept. By contrast, Hosono, Sakamoto and Takahashi operated in a traditional band mode. They were a set of distinct individuals, logging fantastic solo records of jazz fusion, folk, proto-electro, classical and abstract glitch before, during and after the main project was a wrap.
Never was Yellow Magic Orchestra's synergy of fizzing energy, memorable songwriting and capacity for breaking new ground stronger than on Solid State Survivor. Going into the making of their sophomore LP, key factors gave them the edge. One was access to Alfa Records' main studio, the first in Japan to have a 24-channel mixing desk as well as top-of-the-line effects units. Home-manufactured synthesisers lagged behind American models at the time, leading to an expensive array of kit being stocked in the band's arsenal, including the ARP Odyssey, Oberheim Eight Voice plus several Moogs and Korgs. The trio were flanked by the British lyricist Chris Mosdell, who translated their themes of digital anonymity and caffeinated exhaustion for international audiences. There was also the programming whiz Hideki Matsutake, a student of pioneering synthesiser composer Isao Tomita. With Matsuake's nous at wrangling the best from the models they had at their disposal, and Akiko Yano to help bring this to life on stage, YMO were on their way.
Solid State Survivor's opener, "Technopolis," is a near-perfect calling card for what YMO are all about. Within seconds, we are introduced to Sakamoto's vocoder vocals from the Roland VP-300, a clarion call of digital trumpets, funky bass strings twanging, an earworm melody and the kind of momentum to suggest a high-velocity Shinkansen, rather than a chugging Trans-Europa Express. The group crammed a lot of sounds in, and listening back, the mixdown doesn't allow quite enough space for all elements to shine. Moments where breathing room occurs, such as the middle eight on "Rydeen," which features a riotous syndrum break before raspier synths crash in, are amongst the best. Both these tracks call to mind the imaginary theme for a TV show about crime fighters surfing the information superhighway on hoverboards—or, perhaps, the intro sequence on the news spoof The Day Today.
"Castalia" slows the pace, telegraphing the instrumentals littered across Bowie's mid-'70s Berlin Trilogy. This wandering-in-fog vibe was later capitalised on by Ultravox (literally, in the case of the iconic "Vienna" video), who were YMO fans. The second half of Solid State Survivor is darker, briefly, before becoming brighter again. On "Behind The Mask," a peppy groove disguises prophecies of "growing old, passions cold." The track nearly ended up on Michael Jackson's 1984 opus Thriller with less bleak lyrics, but was held back due to a dispute with YMO over royalties. This could have provided a windfall for the band, but the song took a circuitous route to prominence instead, befitting of YMO's way of tackling fame side-on: a member of Jackson's band passed it onto Eric Clapton, who re-recorded it with Phil Collins and made it a staple of his catalogue. Sakamoto then re-recorded that, before the Jackson version finally surfaced on a posthumous compilation.
Part of the album's sequencing is down to the way writing was divided. Hosono is solely credited with one song ("Absolute Ego Dance"), Takahashi another ("Rydeen"), Sakamoto a pair ("Technopolis," "Castalia") and the remainder are a mix-up. At just a shade over half an hour, it allowed audiences to latch onto favourites while getting acquainted with others that required more time to bed in. To this day, some still detest the kitsch cover of The Beatles' "Day Tripper," noting the limp vocals that sound like Bryan Ferry after a heavy night on the sake. Others love its herky-jerky rhythm and tang of sacred-cow slaughter. At any rate, this variety paid off: Solid State Survivor was Japan's highest-selling album in 1980, shifting over two million copies worldwide. By the end of that year, YMO were headlining Tokyo's 15,000-capacity Nippon Budokan.
The follow-ups to Solid State Survivor were less universal, even if the innovation didn't stop. On 1981's BGM, an update of an older Sakamoto cut ("1000 Knives") added drums from a brand-new machine called the Roland TR-808—the first record in history to do so. Songs like "Cue" and "Chaos Panic" feel like direct influences on the country-road-travellin' new wave of mid-'80s Talking Heads. The confected pop product aesthetic of 1983's Naughty Boys was a forebear to J-Pop, well before the term was coined.
By then, the three 30-somethings who made up YMO had grander designs than playing dress-up. They went their separate ways, referring to it as "散開": spreading out, not breaking up. Takahashi laid down two dozen albums by the end of the century. Hosono played a vital role in Japan's burgeoning ambient-adjacent scene, as well as releasing the very first commercially available album of video game music. Sakamoto picked up Grammy, Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for his score work on The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which he starred alongside David Bowie. In the 21st century, he has applied his avant-garde tendencies to astringent collaborations with Fennesz, Alva Noto and Taylor Deupree, and improving restaurant playlists as the mood takes. When it was announced two years ago that Sakamoto's throat cancer was in remission, the collective breath of relief amongst film buffs and crate diggers was palpable.
As rich as their respective discographies are, their tendrils extended furthest when they fused together like a new wave superhero trio. In 1980, a breakthrough in America ended up having an outsized impact on their legacy. Whilst touring in support of Solid State Survivor, YMO scored a hit on the Billboard Charts with a new single, "Firecracker." At this point in time, synthesiser-based music was still an underground concern, looked on by the mainstream with scepticism and contempt. Domestic synth outfits of the day had yet to break loose from the post-punk and no-wave scenes, carrying a grisly vibe and bunker mentality born of Cold War paranoia. Risk-taskers like Devo and Suicide were rinsed in the press. Before the ritzy glamour of acts like The Human League and Duran Duran, British imports sounded like Cabaret Voltaire and Gary Numan, steely and dour. When the glamorous ones washed up on American shores, Simon Reynolds notes in his book Rip It Up And Start Again, they were called "art fags."
Rather than fade to grey, YMO exploded in technicolour. Their performance on Soul Train in 1980 remains a joy, even if the situation baffled both the band and host Don Cornelius. "They were breakdancing and bodypopping," Takahashi told The Guardian in 2008. "We'd never seen anything like it." In Detroit, impressionable young listeners like Juan Atkins, Mike Banks and Derrick May had their ears cupped to the sound of The Electrifying Mojo's radio show on WGPR, who playlisted YMO and Kraftwerk alongside homegrown musicians like George Clinton, Prince and The B-52s. Compare the processed vocals on "Technopolis" to the L-E-T-T-E-R by letter trick on Model 500's "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)," or hear samples from it running through Robert Hood's landmark Minimal Nation, and the lineage is clear. Afrika Bambaataa even credited YMO as one of the building blocks of hip-hop.
It's important to remember the context of this era. Throughout the 1970s, Western impressions of Asia were limited, if not outright reductive. Wars were fought across the South-East of the continent, and America's rapprochement with China was in its infancy. As the tension between the USA and Soviet Union persisted, Japan's post-war miracle was seen as the next threat to economic hegemony. Even while carrying the weight of being the biggest musical export from the region, YMO toyed with these misconceptions. On Solid State Survivor's cover and during the supporting shows, they dressed like an imagined yet inaccurate vision of Oriental imperial guards. "Firecracker" was a tongue-in-cheek rendition of the exotica musician Martin Denny's 1959 interpretation of what Japanese music might sound like, while their very name is a mixture of black and white magic, as well as a reclamation of "yellow" as a pejorative. Their positive impact ricocheted socially, as well as culturally. By the time Yellow Magic Orchestra opted to "散開" in 1984, the world they walked out of looked strikingly different to that which they walked into.