Watch Classic Performances by Yellow Magic Orchestra, the Japanese Band That Became One of the Most Innovative Electronic Music Acts of All Time

Music changes when tech­nol­o­gy changes. Few musi­cians have demon­strat­ed as keen an aware­ness of that fact as Haruo­mi Hosono, Yuk­i­hi­ro Taka­hashi, and Ryuichi Sakamo­to, who togeth­er as Yel­low Mag­ic Orches­tra (YMO) burst onto the scene mak­ing sounds that most lis­ten­ers of the late nine­teen-sev­en­ties had nev­er heard before — nev­er heard in a musi­cal con­text, at least. They’d nev­er seen a band employ a com­put­er pro­gram­mer, nor bring onstage a device like Roland’s MC‑8 Micro­com­pos­er, an ear­ly musi­cal sequencer designed strict­ly for stu­dio use. That YMO did­n’t hes­i­tate to make these uncon­ven­tion­al choic­es, and many oth­ers besides, won them years as the most pop­u­lar band in their native Japan.

It would be unimag­in­able for YMO to have emerged in any oth­er place or time. “Japan had long since remade itself as a post­war eco­nom­ic engine, but by the late 1970s it was becom­ing some­thing else: a glob­al emblem of tech­no-utopi­anism and futur­is­tic cool,” writes the New York Times’ Clay Risen. “Sony released the Walk­man in 1979, just as Ken­zo Taka­da and Issey Miyake were tak­ing over Paris fash­ion run­ways with their play­ful, vision­ary designs.”

Japan had become eco­nom­i­cal­ly, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly, and cul­tur­al­ly for­mi­da­ble on a glob­al scale, and YMO were placed to become its ide­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives: they had the askew hip­ness and the cut­ting-edge sounds, but it was their sense of humor, evi­dent in the play­ful­ness of their music, that took the rest of the world by sur­prise.

You’ll find no bet­ter intro­duc­tion to YMO’s work than the hour-long YMO con­cert at the Nip­pon Budokan at the top of the post. It took place in 1983, not long before Hosono, Taka­hashi, and Sakamo­to packed the band up and returned to their already well-estab­lished solo careers. As a unit they’d achieved glob­al star­dom, play­ing for­eign venues like Los Ange­les’ Greek The­atre in 1979 and, unbe­liev­ably, going on Soul Train in 1980. Their ear­ly hit “Behind the Mask” even caught the atten­tion of Michael Jack­son, who record­ed his own ver­sion of the song for Thriller but left it unre­leased until 2010 — by which time YMO had reunit­ed to per­form in Japan, Europe, and Amer­i­ca, play­ing for new gen­er­a­tions of lis­ten­ers who had grown up immersed in their music, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly.

Influ­ences on YMO includ­ed the work of Bri­an Wil­son and Gior­gio Moroder, as well as music from India, Chi­na, the Caribbean, the late-fifties-ear­ly-six­ties “exot­i­ca” fad, and even arcade games. But their own influ­ence has spread out far­ther still, shap­ing not just var­i­ous sub­gen­res of elec­tron­ic music but also cer­tain for­ma­tive works of hip hop. If you lis­ten to YMO’s albums today — near­ly 45 years after their com­mer­cial debut, and just a few weeks after the death of co-founder Taka­hashi — their music still, some­how, sounds thor­ough­ly Japan­ese. Like Isao Tomi­ta (whose assis­tant became their com­put­er pro­gram­mer), YMO under­stood not just that music changes with tech­nol­o­gy, but also that it emerges from a spe­cif­ic cul­ture, and in their discog­ra­phy we hear those prin­ci­ples pushed to their thrilling lim­its.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Infi­nite Esch­er: A High-Tech Trib­ute to M.C. Esch­er, Fea­tur­ing Sean Lennon, Nam June Paik & Ryuichi Sakamo­to (1990)

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

Hear the Great­est Hits of Isao Tomi­ta (RIP), the Father of Japan­ese Elec­tron­ic Music

Pink Lady and Jeff: Japan’s Biggest Pop Musi­cians Star in One of America’s Worst-Reviewed TV Shows (1980)

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music For­ev­er, Is Back! And It’s Now Afford­able & Com­pact

Kraftwerk’s First Con­cert: The Begin­ning of the End­less­ly Influ­en­tial Band (1970)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.