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The amazing history of Yellow Magic Orchestra: Unpacking Japan's most influential electronic music band

Japan’s pioneering electronic music band got its start in 1978. Here’s what happened next…

  • 18 April 2022

There is something in the water in Japan that gives the people who live there a special kind of creative superpower. The power to take original ideas and blend them, mould them, and shape them into novel concepts that are uniquely Japanese. It comes from a fearlessness in the face of a changing world and a willingness to experiment with emerging technologies. There’s also a healthy dollop of playful humour mixed in for good measure. Those are some of the ingredients we believe were a part of the development of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band that was, at its peak, described as being as big as the Beatles in Japan. The band has endured since the late 1970s and is an amazing story of the way Japanese creativity can sweep across the world, a phenomenon that seems to repeat itself as we experience this steady wave of global anime consumption.

Yellow Magic Orchestra are made of a trio of musical geniuses that were established musicians before they ever sat down together in a recording studio. In 1978, Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi got together for what was originally a one-off recording session for a project. The resulting album led not only to an explosion of local success but international recognition that saw the trio touring the world and developing storied careers as a group and individually. The incredible trajectory of popularity left in its wake eight studio albums, countless legendary live shows, a film, and several musical genres that hardly existed (if at all) before Yellow Magic Orchestra put their heads together and tried every combination of bleeps and bloops they could until they found that perfect Yellow Magic Orchestra sound. They have influenced several electronic genres such as synthpop, electro and techno, which is before you even mention their influence on old school hip hop. “Hip hop? Hip how?” you ask? Well, come with me and I’ll show you while I take you on a tour of The Amazing History of the Yellow Magic Orchestra.

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1. Before Yellow Magic Orchestra

Before we dig into the first album from Yellow Magic Orchestra, there’s something you have to understand about the members of the band if you wish to have any chance at understanding how they became so successful; each member of the band was well-established in their musical careers before the magical randomness of the universe brought them together.

Haruomi Hosono is credited with being the ultimate orchestrator of the band’s formation. Prior to Yellow Magic Orchestra, however, Hosono had been in a band called Happy End from 1969 to 1972, which was also an important band for the music industry in Japan. Specifically, the debut album from Happy End marked a turning point in Japanese rock that came to be known as the “Japanese-language Rock Controversy”, a series of debates about what language rock music should use in Japan. Prior to this time, most or all of the rock music played in Japan was in English, as it wasn’t considered sustainable to do so in Japanese. The success of Happy End’s album proved Japanese-language rock was sustainable.

Yellow Magic Orchestra drummer Yukihiro Takahashi was a member of the Sadistic Mika Band through most of the 70s, which played in England as well as Japan. The name was a parody of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 'Plastic Ono Band', which serves as a kind of ironic foreshadowing of the way in which Takahashi’s next band would be compared to the Beatles in popularity.

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Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto studied musical composition at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and was already a very accomplished composer and musician prior to Yellow Magic Orchestra. In one interview with the Guardian in 2008, Takahashi related that he and Hosono would call Sakamoto “professor”, as he brought his experience and training in musical theory to up the ante of the group’s compositions. Sakamoto experimented a great deal with the electronic equipment available at the university, getting a first look at some of the technology that would become a staple of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s sound.

Eventually, what brought these three was Hosono’s vision of an exotica-flavoured album featuring electronic songs produced using electronic equipment. The band was named Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band as a satire of Japan's obsession with black magic at the time, and the album, Paraiso, would become the first unofficial work of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, released in 1979. The first official album recorded under the Yellow Magic Orchestra name would be a self-titled album released later that year, that would truly propel the band down a strange and unexpected journey.

2. Yellow Magic Orchestra

The first official release of the newly formed Yellow Magic Orchestra was the 10-track studio album Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was released in 1978 in Japan. This album was groundbreaking in a way, as it took full advantage of the limited technology available at the time to create a joyful electronic soundscape that ran in stark contrast to the work of other bands experimenting in the field at the time, such as the German band Kraftwerk. While Kraftwerk developed soundscapes that evoked dystopian, robot realities, Yellow Magic Orchestra took a more happy-go-lucky approach to their electronic creations. The album paved the way for the likes of electro, hip hop and techno.

The concept involved a bit of a tongue-in-cheek parodying of exoticization and Orientalism in the West. The group wanted to take that image of the East that Western artists were portraying of their homeland and remake it from a Japanese perspective. That’s how it came to be that one of the singles on the album is a cover of 'Firecracker' by Martin Denny. The warped reimagining of Denny’s (warped in of itself) vision of the East was a huge success within Japan, and played a part in the band’s international exposure.

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3. Being noticed and going international

Tokyo’s Pit Inn in the Shinjuku district is considered by many to be Japan’s “most important jazz club.” An institution established in 1966, the Pit Inn had seen many of Japan’s finest musicians play its stage. As with many places of repute, a few other establishments tried to copy the style of the late-night entertainment venue. One even copied the name, a bar in Roppongi called the Roppongi Pit Inn, which opened in 1978 and closed in 2002. It was there, after the release of their debut album, that Yellow Magic Orchestra were “discovered” by some American executives for A&M Records on other business in Japan. An international deal with A&M gave the group what was long-sought: foreign audiences. They could finally bring their own version of technopop to the world and set right the way the East could be represented musically. 'Firecracker' would go on to become a huge hit in the US, and the bandmates realised that what they had was something special. They decided it might be worth focusing on the group for a time.

4. Solid State Survivor & ×∞Multiplies

The band went on to release two more albums between 1979 and 1980; Solid State Survivor (1979) and ×∞Multiplies (1980). Solid State Survivor would become the pinnacle of the band’s success at home in Japan. One of the major singles from the album was 'Behind the Mask', a smash hit internationally as well as at home. Funnily enough, it had been first produced in 1978 for a Seiko quartz wristwatch commercial and would go on to draw the attention of the likes of Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton for covers. Michael Jackson had intended to include the song on his album Thriller with some updated lyrics, however, some management disagreements on the part of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s management prevented that from happening at the time. Jackson’s version did make it to a release eventually after his death on his first posthumous album, Michael. Solid State Survivor sold over two million records worldwide and saw Yellow Magic Orchestra become the biggest band in Japan. Their next album, ×∞Multiplies, garnered 200,000 pre-orders before it was even released, and featured a cover of the song 'Tighten Up', originally by Texas band Archie Bell & the Drells. This is important for later.

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5. Soul Train

Yes, this really happened. Yes, it is as amazing as it appears. Speaking to the Guardian in 2008, band leader Hosono recalls playing on an episode of the hit American live performance TV show Soul Train thusly; "It was the turn of the crazy Japanese guys.”

"They were breakdancing and bodypopping," said Yukihiro Takahashi. "We'd never seen anything like it."

This could have been that at the time in Japan, dancing and carrying on was frowned upon in clubs, and in some cases even illegal. According to an interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 1980, a representative of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Japanese record company told the author that, “there are laws requiring that everybody stay seated during concerts; they have been in effect since a girl was trampled to death at a show by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.”

With that added context, it’s even more delightful to see the smiles on the faces of Yellow Magic Orchestra as they crank out their best lip-sync moves to their rendition of Tighten Up, originally by Texas band Archie Bell & the Drells. Their sense of humour is on full display in the song and the performance is a jolly good time.

6. Yellow Magic Orchestra Propaganda

In 1980, YMO performed a live show at Budokan, the famous Japanese venue played by some of the biggest names in music for decades. The recording of the event would eventually be released as a live album in 1983. The following year, in 1984, an interesting project was released; Yellow Magic Orchestra Propaganda. Yellow Magic Orchestra Propaganda is a musical film directed by Shin Saito, that features scenes from a narrative film spliced with recordings from the Budokan performance. It contains a bunch of fascistic imagery, as the Yellow Magic Orchestra boys play on a large stage with architecture reminiscent of communist China and Soviet Union. The film follows a boy who traverses a strange land in pursuit of his idols, Yellow Magic Orchestra. It’s a fascinating piece that is available unofficially on YouTube for now but is otherwise pretty difficult to find.

7. “Sankai”

"We hated each other," says Hosono, speaking to the Guardian about why the band decided to part ways in 1984. After the theatrical release of their film Propaganda, each member of the band pursued their own projects for a time. Officially, the band never “split up” per se; they used the term sankai in their announcement, which means to “spread out”. The trio weren’t enemies by any means, and would occasionally appear on each other’s recordings over the years. Sakamoto went on to have a rather successful solo career, composing soundtracks for film and even acting. After seven studio albums, it seemed like the band’s incredible run was coming to an end. It was around 10 years before the band reunited for one final studio recording, Technodon, which was credited to not YMO, stylised as Yellow Magic Orchestra. The band would reunite a few more times over the following years with various names, avoiding calling themselves Yellow Magic Orchestra for the time being.

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After a brief reunification in the 1990s as Yellow Magic Orchestra, the trio again went their separate ways. That was until, in the early 2000s, Hosono and Takahashi got together to make a duo called Sketch Show. They performed original songs as well as some of their Yellow Magic Orchestra classics. Sakamoto would occasionally join in on some of their recordings performances, but once again they avoided the Yellow Magic Orchestra name, opting instead to call themselves the Human Audio Sponge (HAS). The band reunited again in 2007 for an advertising campaign for the Japanese beer Kirin Lager, which referenced their seemingly eternal reign on the Japanese musical landscape. This is worth mentioning because it resulted in a reimagining of one of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s classics, 'Rydeen 79/07'. The release got to number one on various Japanese digital download charts and is a pared-down version that has a beautiful melody and reminds you that these men were truly masterful musicians in their own right, not only pioneers of new technology in music. You can see the commercial below, and the re-release of 'Rydeen 79/07' just a bit further.

2009 - present
9. Yellow Magic Orchestra returns

At some point, the boys knew that there was no point dancing around it anymore; they were and always will be the Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 2009, they played again under that title at the World Happiness Festival in Japan in 2009, and again in 2010. They also played the No Nukes festival organised by Sakamoto himself in 2012, which was a two-day weekend festival organised in opposition to nuclear power plants in Japan following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Their contemporaries, Kraftwerk, also played at the event. Finally, as the band Yellow Magic Orchestra was brought in full circle back to their roots, they were playing side by side with those whom many had compared them within the beginning. But these men are not to be pigeonholed into any one genre or comparison; since the beginning, they have been reinvention and reimagining the musical landscape, and will continue to do so as long as they breathe, and drink whatever is in that damn water.

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