Few musical acts can convincingly claim they influenced the birth of several genres and sounds that transformed from local to global phenomena. Fewer still can straddle the line between relentlessly innovating and experimenting with new sounds and technologies while maintaining pop sensibilities that allow them to sell out stadiums. The Beatles, Kraftwerk and The Velvet Underground all fit this mold, but you may not have heard of the Tokyo-based band Yellow Magic Orchestra, who may be the most influential of them all.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hasono were all prolific, skilled session musicians in the Tokyo music scene when they met and formed the group in the late 1970s. Each member of the group was heavily interested in the series of new synthesizers and drum machines introduced by companies like Moog and ARP. Together, they formed a coherent union of their individual experimentation.
The band’s early albums, including the self-titled debut and the 1979 album Solid State Survivor, are early examples of synthpop, featuring an intriguing mix of earnestness and kitsch, taking a Japanese perspective on Western Orientalism to fruitful effect. Even more interesting than the musical/hardware innovations that the group pioneered were their philosophical musings, especially on Solid State Survivor. While the explosion of new technology in music brought about excitement, it also introduced a new set of fears. Tokyo was quickly becoming one of the most “futuristic” cities in the world, and while the growth of companies like Sony during the time helped boost the country’s economy to unseen heights, there was always the feeling that the new technologies could lead to an alienating dystopia.
This potential technology-fueled dystopia would be explored for decades to come, from musicians like Burial as well as influential anti-capitalist writers including the late Mark Fisher. However, one of the earliest tangible results of YMO’s influence in this aspect was the development of a new genre in the suburbs of Detroit, a city in which new technology and automation destroyed nearly half its citizens livelihoods. Techno, as it was later dubbed, distilled these anxieties into a type of music known for its cold precision, devoid of swing and soul, yet still human. Derrick May, one of the genre’s creators, mentions YMO alongside Kraftwerk and England’s Ultravox as the key influences on its early sounds, before it would go on to become one of electronic music’s biggest successes.
In stark contrast to the dark sterility of techno, YMO also influenced the type of “hyperpop” embraced by idols in Japan and Korea in the 1980s and well beyond. Outside of Japan, tracks like “Firecracker” from the self-titled were sampled by artists ranging from 2 Live Crew to Mariah Carey as well as artists in the Bronx during the early days of hip-hop. “Behind the Mask,” on Solid State Survivor, was covered by Eric Clapton in 1987 and earlier by Michael Jackson during the Thriller sessions when famed producer Quincy Jones introduced it to him. While Jackson’s cover, which incorporated his own set of lyrics, did not make the final cut for Thriller due to copyright issues, it was eventually released in 2011 in the posthumous album Michael.
Each Sakamoto, Takahashi and Hasono have enjoyed fruitful solo careers during and after their time together as YMO. Sakamoto in particular garnered the most recognition outside of Japan when he appeared in and wrote the score for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), appearing alongside David Bowie. Hasono played a role in the development and spread of genres like city pop and shibuya-kei, and helped legitimize the art of film and video game soundtracks, writing music for films by prolific Japanese directors like Hayao Miyazaki. A common theme throughout all of their solo careers and their time together as YMO is the constant pursuit of new sounds and styles, and it is incredible that even today, many now-familiar elements of modern pop and electronic music can be traced back to them.
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