In the first of a new series, Letterhole looks classic at albums from around the world. This time, the seminal second album by Japanese electronic pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra goes under the spotlight.
Yellow Magic Orchestra was the brainchild of Haruomi Hosono, who by 1978, was already a major influence on Japanese music. His earlier band, Happy End lent credibility to Japanese-language rock music at a time in which it was considered unsustainable; to this day their second album Kazemachi Roman (1971) is considered a seminal entry in Japan’s musical canon.
By the late seventies Happy End had folded, and Hosono had moved his attentions to exotica, and was beginning to dabble with electronic music. On his 1978 albums Paraiso and Pacific, he was joined by two musicians: session keyboardist and producer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was in the process of releasing his own debut album, the Kraftwerk-inspired Thousand Knives; and Yukihiro Takahashi, who, like Hosono, was already a seasoned musician, having been the drummer in the Sadistic Mika Band. It did not take long for this trio to metamorphose into the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and they released their first album that same year.
The eponymously titled Yellow Magic Orchestra was in many ways ahead of its time. Its opening song, Computer Game features the terse beeps and whirs of an archaic video game, before segueing into Firecracker, a cover-cum-satire of American exotica, subversively played on very modern electronic instruments. La Femme Chinoise and Tong Poo continue this theme, playing on western expectations of the orient. Their sampling of computer sounds and use of various new electronic techniques was considered a major formative moment for synthpop, electro, hip hop, and techno music. The album was an instant hit, and YMO, originally intended as a studio project by Hosono, became a band in its own right. Computer Game/Firecracker even managed to chart in the United States; however, the band’s international profile would never again reach that height.
Solid State Survivor was to become of the most significant electronic albums ever recorded.
It was not until their second album, Solid State Survivor that Yellow Magic Orchestra would reach their Japanese pinnacle. It was to be a seminal work, building on the solid foundations of their debut to become one of the most significant electronic albums ever recorded. Released in 1979, Solid State Survivor sold nearly a million copies in their home country, and topped the album chart for 82 weeks.
Solid State Survivor opens with Technopolis, a roaring electronic tribute to Tokyo that conjures up images of throngs of people moving through neon streets; it’s a continuation of the East meets West theme of their previous offering, taken to new heights and setting a new, even higher standard of production. This fast pace is maintained through Absolute Ego Dance to Rydeen, the album’s highlight. The song is a typically innovative combination of synthesised music with Eastern and Western elements to make for a blistering electronic feast of sound. The band’s influence on video game music can be felt with this song: indeed, Rydeen was sampled on a number of games in the early 1980s, including the delightfully of-its-time Daley Thompson’s Decathlon for the Commodore 64.
Things proceed to quieten with Castalia, an eerie instrumental track. Then follows one of YMO’s more influential songs: Behind the Mask. For this album, the band enlisted the help of Chris Mosdell, an English poet based in Japan. His sci-fi inspired lyrics brought a kind of international legitimacy to Behind the Mask, Sakamoto sings the lyrics to on a vocoder, giving the song, seemingly about lost love a slightly sinister, impersonal feel. The song found international fame from its cover by Eric Clapton (with additional lyrics by Michael Jackson), which was subsequently covered again by Sakamoto himself in the late 80s.
The strangest song on the album is without doubt the almost mechanical cover of the Beatles’ Day Tripper.
The strangest song on the album is without doubt the almost mechanical cover of the Beatles’ Day Tripper. Yukihiro Takahashi’s vocals leave something to be desired, although given that he reportedly still can’t speak English, he can perhaps be forgiven. In the next track, the creepy, dreamlike Insomnia, YMO make the correct decision to revert to the vocoder. Solid State Survivor, the final song, is again sang by Takahashi, but the dystopian lyrics of Mosdell lift it, making it a solid closing statement by the album, although it can’t match the bar set by the blistering opening.
In a way, Yellow Magic Orchestra had captured the zeitgeist of a vibrant, electric Japan that had finally found its place in the world. They had taken musical innovation and made it Japanese, made it represent what was happening their country. Solid State Survivor is at times bizarre, and times sinister, but most of all it is as powerful and exciting as the country from which it came. It resonated with the Japanese people, as reflected in its success. Although it didn’t make an impression in the West – indeed, it was never released in the United States – its influence was felt far and wide, and for a time, YMO were the biggest band in Japan.
While Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi have had successful careers in their home country, Ryuichi Sakamoto has become one of the most well known Japanese musicians, having found a modicum of international fame. In 1983 he acted alongside Tom Conti and David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and in 1988 he won an Academy Award for his work on the score of The Last Emperor; his latest foray into cinema was as the composer for 2015’s The Revenant. The three members of Yellow Magic Orchestra have regularly recorded and performed together since the band broke up, and have revived YMO at various times. The songs of Solid State Survivor remain mainstays on their set lists.
- Absolute Ego Dance
- Behind the Mask
Chris Mosdell, Sakamoto
- Day Tripper
- Solid State Survivor