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Music / Yellow Magic Orchestra

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Yellow Magic Orchestra is a hugely influential early Techno band that has been called the Japanese equivalent of Kraftwerk, while their influence inside their home country has been likened to The Beatles. They helped pioneer synthpop, modern J-pop, techno, and house music. The band was one of the first to use Sampling, with their 1981 album Technodelic being primarily composed of samples.

Core members Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Ryuichi Sakamoto had worked together off and on throughout the 1970s, and each had worked with early electronic instruments. However, it was Sakamoto's introduction to Kraftwerk, as well as a desire to make music that didn't ape Western musicians, that pushed them to create their own band. Shortly after Hosono's 1978 exotica-tinged album Paraiso (credited to Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band, which featured Sakamoto and Takahashi contributing,) they decided to use the name Yellow Magic Orchestra, parodying the faddish fascination with black magic in Japan at the time. Their debut album was intended to parody Western stereotypes of Asia (and its offensive fascination with "orientalism" going on at that time) while also exploring Asianness and the use of synthesizers.


Intended mostly as a joke, the album was a surprise hit, prompting the band to go on tour. One of these live performances was seen by an American A&M Records executive, and by the end of 1978 they had an international record deal, prompting the three to shift from solo careers and session work to a popstar lifestyle as YMO.note 

Over the next few years, YMO was the most popular band in Japan, and was regularly charting in America and Europe, with sold-out tours in all three areas. For 1979's Solid State Survivor, the band brought in Chris Mosdell to write English lyrics, producing the song "Behind the Mask", which would later become a hit for Michael Jackson and Eric Claptonnote . Both it and the follow-up, ×∞Multiplies, were on the Oricon charts at the same time for seven weeks, a record that still stands. The band's music became a major influence on early Techno and Hip Hop pioneers, with Sakamoto's solo piece (and YMO live staple) "Riot in Lagos" seen as one of the first songs to have a "techno" beat. After sampling "Firecracker" for his song "Death Mix," Afrika Bambaataa jokingly claimed YMO "invented Hip Hop." Their later albums shot straight to the top of the Oricon charts, and their 1983 single "Kimi ni, mune kyun." was the highest charting technopop song in Japanese history at #2 — a record the song held until technopop idol group Perfume released "love the world" in 2008.


After making the concert film Propaganda, YMO "spread out" in 1984: although they shifted back to solo careers, the members would frequently perform with each other. They briefly reunited to record Technodon under the name of Not YMO (or "YMO" with an X through it) in the early 90s (as Alfa Records still owned the name Yellow Magic Orchestra at the time), and occasionally performed live as Human Audio Sponge. They officially reunited in 2007 as HASYMO, first for a Kirin beer commercial and single "RYDEEN 79/07," and then live at the Live Earth, Kyoto event on July 7, 2007. The band officially reverted to the name YMO in 2009 and released the single The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages that same year. No new recordings have been planned, though the band members have continued their touring schedules, up until Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014.

Studio Discography:

  • Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978)
  • Solid State Survivor (1979)
  • ×∞Multiples /増殖note  (1980)
  • BGM (1981)
  • Technodelic (1981)
  • Naughty Boys (1983)
  • Service (1983)
  • Technodon (1993)
  • "RYDEEN 79/07" (single, 2007)
  • "The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages" (single, 2009)

This band provides examples of:

  • Bilingual Bonus: Their song titles are printed in both Japanese and English, such as "東風" (Tong Poo; "East wind".) Several song titles gain more context from their Japanese names: particularly, "Loom" becomes "来たるべきもの" (Kitaru beki mono; "What should come"); and "Seoul Music" becomes "京城音楽" (Keijou ongaku) which means the same thing, but refers to Keijou, the Japanese name for Seoul when the Japanese occupied it.
  • Chiptune: Trope Makers in their self-titled debut album. The first side featured the two-part piece "Computer Game", in which the band recreated classic arcade game sounds with their own synthesizers. The effect is indistinguishable from the real thing.
  • Comically Missing the Point: "Pure Jam" from Technodelic is about a man who is appalled by the "shapelessly square" "ugliest piece of bread [he's] ever eaten" that's "wrapped in a foil like substance". It's actually a small packet of jam, which he's told insistently by various people over the course of the song.
  • Cover Version: Almost to the point of Pop-Cultural Osmosis in the case of "Firecracker" (Martin Denny) and "Pocketful of Rainbows" (Elvis Presley). There's also "Tighten Up"note  (Archie Bell & The Drells) and "Day Tripper" (The Beatles).
  • Cut-and-Paste Translation: Happened several times with international releases of their material.
    • The band's Self-Titled Album from 1978 omits the Miniscule Rocking track "Acrobat" from the end of the tracklist on US copies and features a considerably different mix oriented more for the American market.
    • Since their album Solid State Survivor was not originally released in the US, the US version of ×∞Multiplies dispensed with the Japanese-language comedy routine tracks and padded the record out with songs from Solid State Survivor. The European version went further, by adding additional songs from their debut album.
    • While the tracklists for BGM, Technodelic, and Naughty Boys remained untouched in international releases, European copies of Service returned to the practice of altering tracklists by cutting out the Japanese-language "S.E.T." comedy routine tracks, shortening the album down to just over half of its original length.
  • Dual-Meaning Chorus: "Is it me/Is it you/Behind this mask/I ask"
  • Dragon Lady: The title character of "La Femme Chinoise", who is called "the mistress of the Orient".
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The band's first album was intended as a parody of Western Orientalism (e.g. "Firecracker", "La Femme Chinoise"). This aspect got all but disregarded on future albums.
  • Fake Radio Show Album: ×∞Multiples.
  • Genre-Busting: The band made their own style of Synthpop, J-Pop, Chiptune, New Wave and lots more.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language:
  • In the Style of...: "Nice Age" is an audible pastiche of David Bowie, specifically the synth-driven and experimental art rock of his then-recent "Berlin Trilogy."
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Their first US tour was advertised as "See Japanese people play all those synthesizers they're building." Ironically, any synth anorak worth his salt can tell that the bulk of the synths they used back then were made in the US.
  • Japanese Tourist: Referenced in their cover of "Tighten Up."
    • Also on the cover of the "UC YMO" compilation, where the three are shown sightseeing in cartoon form.
  • Lighter and Softer: "Naughty Boys" is this relative to the previous album, the minimalist and downbeat "Technodelic".
  • Long-Runners: All three members of YMO have performed almost continuously for almost 40 years, though not always with each other...
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Rap Phenomena" is a pretty badass techno-rap song about... unified field theory.
    • "Taiso" is Japanese for "calisthenics", which are broadcast daily in Japan. The English lyrics refer to them earnestly, but the Japanese lyrics that are also sung refer to dislocation of limbs and convulsions as a result of all the stretching.
    • "Behind The Mask" is an upbeat, spacey tune with lyrics about emotional isolation and depersonalization.
    There is nothing in your eyes
    That marks where you cried
    All is blank, all is blind
    Dead inside, the inner mind
    • "Kimi Ni Mune Kyun", on the face of it an upbeat love song, is actually about starting an affair with someone.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: One of the members described their music and its mix of influences as the equivalent of a Bento box.
  • New Sound Album: Pretty much every one once The '80s hit:
    • Multiples (becoming Genre Roulette, with an increased use of live vocals)
    • BGM (solidification of their style and an absence of covers)
    • Technodelic (introduction of samplers and more minimal arrangements)
    • Naughty Boys (a leap into radio-friendly pop)
    • Service (a further leap to adult contemporary)
    • Technodon (a shift into then contemporary genres like acid, ambient techno and world music, as they were unable to use samplers.)
    • By the time the 2000's came, their sound shifted more towards glitch pop.
  • Ode to Intoxication: "Radio Junk".
  • Piss-Take Rap: "Rap Phenomena" with mind screwy lyrics.
  • Pop-Star Composer: All three members in their later careers.
  • Putting on the Reich: The band started out taking some aesthetic elements of Maoist China, complete with performing in Mao suits. Takahashi occasionally wore a Mao cap on YMO's foreign tour in 1979. The second cover of Technodelic is also a pretty clear evocation of Maoist imagery (the original cover meanwhile is more thoroughly based in kabuki theater).
    • "Propaganda" is heavy on fascist imagery, including red armbands.
  • Rearrange the Song: Some of the band's songs came from Ryuichi Sakamoto's solo catalogue and were adjusted accordingly. The band has, due to their now-nebulous nature, re-arranged many of their own works as YMO, their YMO works as solo artists, and YMO songs as YMO, mainly for live performances. The "Rydeen 79/07" single — in which the raucous techno song became a lush, ambient piece with off-kilter live drums and a xylophone replacing the synth lead — was the only time they officially did it to themselves on a record.
  • Self-Titled Album: Their debut, self-titled because it was intended as a one-off project. Little did they know how big they'd become...
  • Shout-Out: The song titles on side B of their debut album are titles from Jean-Luc Godard films.
  • Sixth Ranger: Longtime producer and collaborator Hideki Matsutake, who frequently performed as part of the band's live ensemble and is largely credited with "computer programming" on their albums, is usually thought of as the fourth member of YMO.
  • Something Completely Different: The original versions of "Multiples" and "Service" are half comedy, half music album.
  • Special Guest: Technodon has two:
  • Sampling: One of the Trope Codifiers. Some sampling was used on 1980's BGM, but 1981's Technodelic, was nearly entirely created out of samples.
  • Ska: Attempted an electronic version with "Multiples."
  • Spelling Song: "T-E-C-H-N-O-P-O-L-I-S."
  • Step Up to the Microphone: The two English lyricists each get a little bit of attention. Their first, Chris Mosdell, speak-sings a good portion of "Citizens of Science"; their second, Peter Barakan, can be heard on "Pure Jam" (as one of the people interjecting via walkie-talkie).
  • Stylistic Suck: The video for Kimi Ni Mune Kyun consists of the three members of the band doing what can only be described as doing the barest minimum token effort to appear like a boy band via the medium of extremely bored dorky dad dancing.
  • Synth-Pop: Trope Codifier. There is some debate by music critics whether they or Kraftwerk are the Trope Makers.
  • Take That, Us: Virtually every television performance, especially "Propaganda."
    • The "Kimi Ni Mune Kyun" video is also this, making fun of how completely unlike a boy band they are and how unsuited they are to singing (what sounds like) a Silly Love Song.
  • Textless Album Cover: Played with on Technodon. The text "SLIPPING INTO MADNESS IS GOOD FOR THE SAKE OF COMPARISON," is emblazoned on the cover, but on the original CD release it requires a polarized lens to be read, otherwise leaving it an indistinct mass of lines. The European and digital releases, meanwhile, feature the text in an unprocessed, readable form.
  • The Band Minus the Face: Averted. Although the members will frequently play YMO songs at their own concerts, they only advertise as YMO if all three core members are present. Hosono and Takahashi have also performed as a duo under the name Sketch Show; the two were even credited as such, when they appeared on some of Sakamoto's albums.
  • Variant Cover: The original release of Technodelic sported cover art of three Polaroids of the individual band members in Kabuki makeup, all laid against a white background. Reissues swapped out the cover with one featuring a stock photo of a woman in Maoist China against a red background; this cover has become better-known over the years, if only for how much more widely used it was.
  • Visual Pun: The artwork for ×∞Multiples, features hundreds of each member of the band, standing on a baseball field.
  • Vocal Tag Team: All three members sing their own songs, which is fine since the group doesn't exactly have an outstanding lead singer.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Averted, thanks to English lyrics written by regular collaborators Chris Mosdell and Peter Barakan. The words do get pretty abstract and stream-of-consciousness (see "Music Plans" on the BGM album or "Key" on Technodelic), but they rarely degrade into total gibberish.


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