Music

Yellow Magic Orchestra go big and go home

On the 40th anniversary of YMO's debut album, a look back at how they took 'Japan' to America and become local heroes

by Irma Nunez

Contributing writer

Yellow Magic Orchestra made its 1980 debut on the legendary American dance show “Soul Train” performing a cover of “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, two years after the November 1978 release of the trio’s eponymous first album

Dressed in logoed button-downs with red armbands, conjuring images of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, the three members performed a curiously fresh update of the early funk hit that featured a vocoder, synths and exaggeratedly accented lyrics spoofing Asian stereotypes in the West: “We are YMO! From Tokyo, Japan! We don’t sightsee, we dance. You understand?”

Planted in the studio audience of hip, mostly African-American, youth was the group’s manager, Yoichi Ito, in boxy glasses and a business suit. With cameras dangling from his neck, he held aloft a paddle that read “Wow.” Though he was meant to stand still, a prop for the joke in the song’s increasingly desperate refrain (“Japanese gentlemen, stand up, please!”), he got caught up in the dancers, who grooved and cheered him on. The whole thing was joyous.

Host Don Cornelius was uncharacteristically stumped by the performance, but it was to that point the group’s surest marker of success on its own terms. The dream — as envisioned by Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi — was to use the latest technology to create Japanese music that not only crossed international borders but blurred them. One year after the American release of their debut, YMO was suddenly piloting the “hippest trip in America.”

Musical mosaic: Yellow Magic Orchestra
Musical mosaic: Yellow Magic Orchestra’s visual impact was as memorable as the trio’s many hit albums. | ORIGINAL PHOTO © MASAYOSHI SUKITA

American popular music flooded Japan in the wake of World War II. Rock’s domination from the 1950s on inspired a slew of local imitators, many remapping their roots to Americana. By 1975, Ebony magazine had declared a soul explosion in “the Oriental land,” and disco was booming even before the Japanese release of “Saturday Night Fever” in 1978. Hosono, YMO’s leader, had entered the decade with a mop of hair and music cred as bassist for the respective psychedelic and folk-rock bands Apryl Fool and Happy End. By the late 1970s, he was among those frequenting the clubs and dancing the latest moves.

But the crossover of pop culture was mostly one way — West to East — and YMO was like no musical guest on “Soul Train” before (the group was, in fact, the first and last from Japan). When the performance was over, Cornelius barely stifled a laugh: “In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what’s going on, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

While the alchemy of this triumph remains a curiosity, Kunihiko “Kuni” Murai, president of YMO’s label, Alfa Records, never doubted his heavy investment in the group. A hit songwriter and music publisher, he’d launched Alfa in 1977, modeling it on American labels like A&M Records that were run not by corporate executives but artists and music aficionados.

Murai aimed to provide Japanese artists a solid foothold in the global music business. For this he built a state-of-the-art studio, hiring the same architect behind A&M’s and Motown’s modern Los Angeles studios to design the now legendary Studio A at Alfa’s Shibaura area headquarters. Perhaps more importantly, he signed a reciprocal distribution deal with A&M. The first artist he anticipated for crossover success? Hosono.

Murai had been following Hosono’s career for years, using him as a session musician and eventually contracting him as a producer to work around an existing record deal. When Hosono proposed a new project with composer and arranger Sakamoto and drummer Takahashi, Murai gave him full rein.

“I loved Hosono’s music and I still (do), 100 percent — his taste in music and the integrity of his work. So I didn’t need to worry about anything,” Murai says. “I just told him to do whatever he wants to do.”

The three artists came from very different musical backgrounds. Classically trained, Sakamoto had been working as a studio musician and arranger for much of the 1970s. Takahashi, also a seasoned professional, was just exiting the Sadistic Mika Band, a rock outfit with a level of overseas acclaim. Hosono’s broad influences and output spanned boogie-woogie to experiments with synths and sequencers. Highly prolific, he’d released several records in the year of YMO’s birth, including “Cochin Moon,” an experiment with electronics and computer-manipulated field recordings from a trip to India with artist Tadanori Yokoo, and “Paraiso” — an imaginarium of travel from Tokyo to the tropics. Sakamoto and Takahashi were among contributors.

As a trio, YMO took cues from Isao Tomita’s Moog-plus-Mellotron interpretations of Debussy, the electro-pop of Germany’s Kraftwerk, and the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s experiments with computerized backing tracks on songs like Donna Summer’s global hit “I Feel Love.” According to Peter Barakan, the veteran broadcaster and music maven who joined YMO’s management team in late 1980, Murai may have given Hosono carte blanche on the project “because nobody in Japan at that time could have produced them.”

With sound programmer and modular synth operator Hideki Matsutake — an assistant to Tomita, who brought his own expensive, hulking equipment — the group spent months in Studio A, surrounded by a mass of snaking chords, analyzing sounds and building a library of samples to work with.

Barakan underscores how costly this method could be.

“When I worked with them, they were using the studio at Alfa Records,” he says. “They were not writing songs ahead of time. They would go into the studio and start working on a drum sample — and that could take several days — and then build from the ground up. The fact they were eating up studio time with no controls at all was almost unbelievable.”

In a 2014 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Hosono described the finished album “Yellow Magic Orchestra” as genreless, perhaps sounding like “toy music” or the stuff of one-hit wonders. But the group was excited. YMO had conceived a vision of the future grounded in computers and expressed through dance.

Despite the obscure technology that made it possible, many of the album’s components were indeed familiar to audiences: from the “piko piko” samples of arcade games Circus and Space Invaders to the “ooh-ah, ooh-ah” refrain of “Tong Poo,” an echo of the dancefloor chant that had taken over the discotheques and was being memorialized on records like Foxy’s “Get Off.”

Intrigued by this new brand of pop, A&M commissioned a “U.S.-friendly” remix by Grammy Award-winning engineer Al Schmitt, an “old pal” of Murai’s whose clients included Henry Mancini, Steely Dan and George Benson. With new cover art of an “electric hair geisha” imagined by an American designer, the record was released stateside in May 1979.

Within a year, Billboard’s R&B Singles chart would rank “Computer Game/Firecracker” — a cover of an “Oriental” flavor number by the godfather of exotica, Martin Denny — at No. 18. The track would go on to be sampled by artists from Afrika Bambaataa (an early champion of YMO in the hip-hop community) to Jennifer Lopez to RP Boo, Chicago’s father of footwork.

The follow-up, “Solid State Survivor,” solidified stardom for YMO, who closed 1980 and a second world tour with a sold-out show at the Budokan. “That was like their victory lap,” says Barakan. “They’d come back from their foreign tour and were conquering heroes.”