I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Video games, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and a dream

by Anthony Galli
Sept. 10, 2016

1979 was a terrible year. Face the facts, it’s true.

Former Nazi Kurt Waldheim was the United Nations Secretary General, US President Jimmy Carter was having a terrible go of it, with all of the hostage and energy crisis turmoil, and Margaret Thatcher became England’s first female Prime Minister.

Oh, and rock was dead.

Punk rock, 1977’s thorny crown of glory died in 1979 with Sid Vicious but, like a beautiful butterfly, metamorphosed into the clean and tidy “New Wave” from its ugly cocoon shell of safety pins and spit. Consider The Cars, The Police, and the Boomtown Rats. Perhaps The B-52’s.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these bands, but they couldn’t be considered “Punk Rock” in the same way that The Ramones, The Clash, and Sex Pistols were. There was much less danger in the new batch of skinny tie new wave dance bands that were spawned from the original playgrounds of punk.

Where it would not have been inconceivable to expect a physical assault by, say, Dee Dee Ramone or Joe Strummer, what was Ric Ocasek or Fred Schneider going to do you? Cool you to death? Dance you to death?

And dinosaur rock, or classic rock, or whatever it was called back then, was heaving beneath the weight of its bloated history. Former auto-destruct powerhouse The Who released its most least Who-like album, the ersatz adult-contemporary Who Are You, and former heavy metal thunder gods Led Zeppelin produced an almost poppish finale with In Through the Out Door. Although each of these albums proved to be enormous commercial successes, and each went multi-platinum, they also expressed the confusion and unwilling retreat of rock’s old guard.

The Eagles also released the dismal The Long Run in 1979 and broke up soon after, paving the way for fellow laboratory experiment Steely Dan to do the same after releasing Gaucho the following year. Thank God that period of our long, national nightmare had ended.

Mainly, what the demise of the dinosaurs suggested was that bands didn’t have to spend two years in the studio with their coke dealer to make an exorbitantly expensive album just because they could.

One thing that became noticeable, though, especially with Who Are You and In Through the Out Door, was a reliance on new keyboard technology, something made apparent with many of the New Wave bands coming to prominence at the time, but also with the rise of so-called Synthpop bands beginning to percolate under the mainstream in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.

Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army, and many other bands that took a decidedly non-rock and somewhat isolationist electronic perspective on their work began appearing with frequency on the radio, on movie soundtracks, and in the underground bunkers of the damned.

All of a sudden, with the advent of affordable keyboard and synthesizer technology, it became possible for individuals to make music by themselves in the privacy of their living rooms without needing a massive record company budget. Although Synthpop became characterized in the 1980’s by its odes to existential alienation, and was dominated in the 1970’s by the Germanic sensibilities of originators like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, Tokyo’s Yellow Magic Orchestra projected a decidedly different demeanor into the Synthpop mix.

Beginning with their 1978 debut album, and continuing on through their solo work, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Yukihiro Takahashi set out to prove that beats and samples and random sounds could produce joyful, melodic pop mini-masterpieces at a time when the nascent electronic dance music scene reacted rebelliously against rock music’s insistence on tribal identity and order.

Just as John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Limited defied the established rock and roll formula of recognizable melody, linear lyrics, and a static group identity, Yellow Magic Orchestra resisted the notion that experimental electronic performance art should be reserved for an elitist core of fellow artists or critics. Their music was incredibly radical for the time, since experimental Synthpop had not yet proven itself as a commercially viable product in the pop music marketplace. Nevertheless, Yellow Magic Orchestra produced rhythmic tracks designed for the dance floor with memorable melodies that also could be enjoyed on the radio.

The band’s commercial sensibilities can be attributed to each of its members’ musical experience before the band’s formation. All of its members had performed solo or with other bands for some time before gathering together as Yellow Magic Orchestra. These weren’t just some disaffected neophytes with no musical knowledge wantonly bashing away on musical instruments in a display of DIY ideology.

Although the musicians always acknowledged Germany’s Kraftwerk as an influence, their first album also paid tribute to the 1950’s exotica of Martin Denny, as well as the musical possibilities of first generation video games.

Yellow Magic Orchestra were not only pioneers of chiptune, a method of musical performance utilizing the actual sounds employed by sound chips in computers and video games, but also of many other electronic and sampling techniques through the programming of, then new, equipment such as the Roland MC-8 and the Roland TR-808. The band did not just coax strange, otherworldly sounds out of this new technology, but fully incorporated them into the rhythms of actual compositions.

And they looked like they were having fun, something that wasn’t apparent from the more gothic strains of Synthpop germinating across the globe at the time. For example, they introduced themselves, on their cover of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up”, as “…The Number One dance party in Tokyo!” Occasionally, they would perform in uniforms that suggested they were from Communist China, and they also included comedy skits between musical numbers on their albums.

For a short period of time, YMO could have been considered the Japanese Beatles.

Although Yellow Magic Orchestra officially disbanded in 1984, they have reformed throughout the years for political causes, such as recent “No Nukes” benefits in Japan, or to simply celebrate the wonders of their longevity and Kirin Beer.

Keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto has remained exceedingly productive artistically since the band’s original break. Alongside his solo work, or collaborations with musicians such as David Sylvain, Sakamoto has developed a career scoring films, such as The Sheltering Sky, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and Little Buddha, among many others. In 1987 he won an Academy Award for his work with David Byrne on the film The Last Emperor.

Bass player Haruomi Hosono has started his own record label, Daisyworld, and has maintained an impressively experimental career since 1984.

Drummer Yukihiro Takahashi has also released a large number of solo albums, as well as collaborations with ex-Be Bop Deluxe leader Bill Nelson. In his spare time, Takahashi has built up a filmography as an actor, and is just an all-around dashing dude.

Yellow Magic Orchestra have had their songs covered by Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton, and have been sampled by Jennifer Lopez, Afrika Bambaataa, and De La Soul, among numerous others. They arrived at a time when electronic dance music was in its infant stages, but YMO’s sheer innovation and musical dexterity has proven that one person’s video game can be another person’s dream.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.