Hello there. this is Nik from the infamous occasional music blog Critter Jams. I’m sure you’ve heard of it! What? No? Well then. I was wondering if you were looking for some guest ICAs, cuz I love the idea. I see no one’s covered Yellow Magic Orchestra yet!
Are Yellow Magic Orchestra the greatest supergroup of all time? I guess it depends how you define “supergroup” and what makes one great, but I personally have difficulty thinking of another group where the members had such massive careers inside and out. I can think of great supergroups that didn’t have much else going on (ELP fit here, as good as The Nice and early King Crimson were), or supergroups that were loaded with talent but wound up rather lousy (Asia). And then you’ve got the ones that were successful, but didn’t last beyond an album or two – Derek and the Dominoes, U.K., uh…Oysterhead. You know the ones. YMO, on the other hand, they got it all. If you get hooked, welcome to your new obsession. The main issue I have with the label of YMO as the “Japanese Kraftwerk” is that Kraftwerk have gotten by on their facelessness – you don’t ever think of those guys outside of the group. How often do you see a solo album by a member of Kraftwerk? Pretty much never, that’s when – Karl Bartos thus far leads the pack with 2. Meanwhile, Yukihiro Takahashi has released 26 solo albums from 1978 to now, and he’s actually the group’s least productive member (this, of course, does not count the half-dozen bands he’s been in since then).
Doing an ICA of YMO would be fun, but it’s kind of a useless exercise. Because let’s face it, you can’t do an honest compilation of the band that didn’t include “Firecracker”, “La Femme Chinoise”, “Behind the Mask”, “Technopolis”, “Cue”, “Pure Jam”, and “Kimi Ni Mune Kyun”…which gives you room for what, three more? Too many key tracks to make it interesting, and too many changes in style to make something cohesive. So I thought I’d mix things up and come up with an Imaginary YMO-related Compilation, comprising of tracks recorded while YMO was active, but were not released under that name. An alternate history of Yellow Magic Orchestra, if you will.
One rule – all the tracks below were recorded between 1978 and 1983, the years in which YMO was active. Not only because this ensures they have the YMO sound, but also because there’s no way I could do it otherwise. Just too much good stuff to consider, and even still, it would be easy to make a second, third, even fourth volume, especially if you branch into the many, many records that these guys got production/songwriting/performer credits on.
Anyway, I decided to stick the more pop-oriented stuff on the first side, then move to more experimental material as it goes on. Here we go….again
Yukihiro Takahashi – It’s Gonna Work Out (What, Me Worry?, 1982) (4:00)
Though Sakamoto wound up becoming YMO’s most internationally known member, for a while Takahashi was the band’s breakout star. His knack for pop music always kept the band grounded, and it’s no surprise that his concurrent solo work sounds closest to the band’s style. What, Me Worry?, recorded during YMO’s year off in ’82, seems like a grab for international stardom, with English lyrics written by Peter Barakan (who also wrote for YMO), and guest appearances by Bill Nelson and Zaine Griff. It’s a solid album, but it doesn’t get better than “It’s Gonna Work Out”, a brisk and immediately catchy technopop tune that’s very nearly derailed by Barakan/Takahashi’s remarkably straightforward and conversational lyrics (Opening lines: “I don’t want anything to do with anything that isn’t going to make the world a better place to live in, you know what I mean? There just isn’t enough time for that.”)
Haruomi Hosono – L.D.K. (Philharmony, 1982)
Hosono is one of my very favorite musicians, and it’s mostly because of stuff like this – even when he tries to do a more or less straight-forward technopop song, it still winds up sounding surreal and strange. “L.D.K.” is a fun little tune about starving yourself, featuring some real “did I just hear that?” lyrics like “my love is a tearjerker/like moldy junk food”. HH’s synth game was far ahead of the pack back then – check out the crazy instrumental bits after the chorus.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Venezia (Left Handed Dream, 1981)
Similar to Takahashi, Sakamoto also attempted an international breakout album, a year earlier in fact. Left Handed Dream features contributions from Adrian Belew and Robin Scott, along with the other members of YMO of course. While a good half of the album is experimental and strange (unlike most of RS’s early 80’s work, which is all experimental and strange), the poppier tunes really do stand out, particularly this one, which is one of those songs that can burrow itself in your head for years. You rarely get to hear Sakamoto sing but he handles the vocals quite nicely on this one.
Yukihiro Takahashi – Drip Dry Eyes (Neuromantic, 1981)
This song features the best opening line I can think of at the moment: “Feels like I’ve been through a washing machine”. These sorts of classy ballads are where YT really makes his bread; maybe he’s not the greatest singer in the world but he’s got his Bryan Ferry imitation down pat. This is most likely Takahashi’s most covered song, and still a regular part of his live set.
Haruomi Hosono – Sports Men (Philharmony, 1982)
This may be the most by-the-book pop song Hosono ever did, and it’s a great one. So great that it often crept into YT’s sets, which strikes me as a bit odd, though this always struck me as Hosono imitating Takahashi’s style. You could be fooled – the only real giveaway (besides the singing voice) is the bizarre lyrics (“Don’t put me in skates/ping-pong I’m no great shakes”). Fun fact: this song was later brilliantly covered by Kimonos, a duo featuring Leo Imai, who would soon after co-front METAFIVE with Takahashi. Japan’s music scene is like that sometimes…
Yukihiro Takahashi – Something in the Air (Neuromantic, 1981)
Ever hear a song that you knew was going to be incredible after the first few seconds? That’s this one; another from his technopop crooner phase, and frankly one that probably didn’t need to be on this compilation, but it’s such a classic that I can’t leave it off. Still sounds like it’s from the future – never mind what it would’ve sounded like 36 years ago.
Haruomi Hosono – Asatoya Yunta (Paraiso, 1978)
And now we get to the weird stuff. Those who know Hosono’s career know that he spent most of the 70’s making rather straightforward tropical folk music, which gradually got stranger and stranger. By the time of Paraiso, YMO had been fully assembled (it’s sometimes called the unofficial first YMO album; Sakamoto plays synths all over this thing, and Takahashi appears on drums for one song), though this is still Hosono’s rather left-of-center vision. “Asatoya Yunta” is a cover of a traditional Okinawan folk song, but Hosono’s take makes it sound both like something from a carnival and the strangest thing on the planet; the phrasing and pitching on this tune make it seem as though the vocals are backmasked, though a close listen reveals this isn’t the case. I’m not sure how to describe this one – it puts me in a weird place.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – War Head (B-side, 1980)
Now here’s a fascinating track; it’s technopop and glam rock all at once, with Bowie-like spoken word vocals and an excellent vocodered chorus. Sounds like nothing else Sakamoto ever did, or really anything else period. Amazing that it was never actually on an album – this was the B-side to “Riot in Lagos”, though a decade later it made the sort-of comp album The Arrangement, which was a reimagining of Left Handed Dream (but with English lyrics). One can only imagine what would’ve happened had Sakamoto persued this direction…
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Riot in Lagos (B-2 Unit, 1980)
And now for the A-side. What the heck year was this again? You’d never know it from this track, which all the way back in 1980 seems to predict both IDM and the future of techno, with its off-kilter rhythm and slinking melody. Granted I think all of YMO was ahead of the pack here (check out “Pure Jam”, which feels like its easily a decade ahead of its time), but this track in particular feels like an important missing link. Its parent album, B-2 Unit, is full of stuff like that – a truly experimental, one-of-a-kind effort, though sadly just a brief phase in Sakamoto’s career.
Haruomi Hosono – Shimendoka (Paraiso, 1978)
Another one from Paraiso. This one seems particularly emblematic of what Hosono does – write a nice tune and then corrupt it in some way. Not in an overt, obvious way, but rather do something that makes the whole thing sound off. In this case there’s two things – Hosono’s voice, which as always, just seems wrong for this kind of song, and those plinking synth tones, which sound like someone who doesn’t belong on the recording playing along, unaware. Needless to say, absolutely brilliant.
Akiko Yano – Rose Garden (Tadaima, 1981)
Now it’s time to get into the YMO family a little bit. An ICA could easily be made of this stuff alone, so I figured I’d put a taste on here. Akiko Yano is a jazz pianist who was married to Sakamoto for a long time, who put out a number of absolutely gorgeous records on her own. During YMO’s run she often palled around with the guys, often performing live with them, and one of her songs (“Rocket Factory”) became a YMO live sample. It helped that she can actually sing, whereas the guys in YMO really couldn’t. For a few records YMO functioned as Yano’s backing band, and the influence can really be felt here, with this Sakamoto-produced disc that came right as he was entering his most experimental phase. The whole disc is great, but this tune in particular stands out; another one that feels way ahead of its time, featuring the sort of complex electronic rhythm you just didn’t hear in the early 80’s. Not to mention those vocal effects, which still feel like they’re from another planet.
Logic System – Logic (Logic, 1981)
Logic System is the solo project of Hideki Matsutake, the sequencer wizard who often carried the title of YMO’s “fourth member” (as he appears on nearly all their recordings). Logic is one of those great unheralded electronic albums, veering somewhere between the technopop of YMO and the trippy spacejams of guys like Klaus Schulze. While none of the members of YMO actually appear here, it is of interest to anyone who’s a fan, as you’ll recognize a lot of the same sounds. The title track isn’t exactly emblematic of the album as a whole, but it’s the most catchy and fun thing on it, reminiscent of the goofier stuff on Xoo Multiplies. Seems like the perfect track to cap things off; fascinating but also a bit silly, much like YMO was throughout their entire career.
To me, this is the brilliance of the ICA series, and in particular, the guest postings. Like those, for example, from George (Captain Beefheart) from Strangeways (Tilly and The Wall), from JTFL (Spoon) and from Charity Chic (Dwight Yoakim), this is a posting on a band/singer that I knew nothing at all about other than the name and in this instance that loads of high-profile Western musicians have been fans of YMO for decades.
Many thanks to Nik for such an enthusiatic and brilliantly informative, as well as enjoyable ICA. Cheers.