The Germans gave us movable type, the microphone, X-rays, and Aspirin. The Japanese gave us instant noodles, Aikido, karaoke, and a ping pong table you can wear on your face. The Germans gave us Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Georg Büchner. The Japanese gave us Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, and Osamu Tezuka. The Germans gave us Wiener Schnitzel. The Japanese gave us sushi. But if you ever really needed to make a case for the differences between German and Japanese culture, you could simply compare Kraftwerk to the Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Formed by keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, and bassist Haruomi Hosono in Tokyo in 1978, Yellow Magic Orchestra had originally been intended as a side project to record an album of electronic music inspired by Martin Denny’s exotica (a cover of his “Firecracker” opens the album). But the first album sparked a technopop craze in Japan, and by 1980, the group had an extensive touring schedule, two top ten records in Japan, and a profile in the American Rolling Stone. Truly, Yellow Magic Orchestra sounds a bit like a novelty record (so much that, when proposed for inclusion on this countdown, one of the staff members inside The Factual Opinion’s war room replied, “What is this, a joke?”), but the band’s effect on techno and electronic music cannot be understated.
Yellow Magic Orchestra took Kraftwerk’s blueprint for synthesizer driven dance music and exploded it. Where Kraftwerk were rigid and precise, Yellow Magic Orchestra were loose and sloppy. Where Kraftwerk had a seriousness of purpose, Yellow Magic Orchestra were playful and whimsical. Where Kraftwerk had an unwavering thematic unity, Yellow Magic Orchestra were all over the place. Where Kraftwerk sang in German about dancing automatons, Yellow Magic Orchestra sang in English and French about Suzy soothing away all your blues. Where Kraftwerk picked one sound per song and hammered it for eight minutes, Yellow Magic Orchestra took plenty of left turns. Where Kraftwerk were fun in a German, “I’m mocking you and myself on another level that you’ll never understand” kind of way, Yellow Magic Orchestra were fun in an overt, lifting-the-outhouse-up-with-a-crane-while-some-poor-guy is taking a shit kind of way.
Cultural generalization aside, Yellow Magic Orchestra is packed with jaw-dropping moments. The album begins with a recording of music from the video game “Circus” (in which you play a clown teetering on a seesaw), that Yellow Magic Orchestra accelerates into a mess of electronic garble that leads into their cover of “Firecracker.” “Firecracker” is a mish-mash of styles—Denny’s Latin flavored exotica, strongly European synthesizers, and traditional Japanese music—that contains an album’s worth of ideas in and of itself. It’s easy to see how the band could have simply intended to record the one song and throw everything they had at it. “Simoon” provides an even wonkier take on technopop, sounding a little like a tune that would come prerecorded when you buy a keyboard, until they begin to flip the melody with errant electronic noises. “Cosmic Surfin’” features electric guitar, carving a direct path to Cybotron’s early Chicago House music. “Tong Poo” recalls more video game music, while “La Femme Chinoise” is the album’s most fully rounded song, featuring Takahashi and Tomoko Nunoi (credited as “Sexy Voice”) telling the story of a Japanese escort.
When Kraftwerk appeared earlier in the countdown, we mentioned how they always seemed poised to take their place in history, like making music was their version of posing for a statue in a monument. Though they worked largely with the same palate, Yellow Magic Orchestra were the complete antithesis to Kraftwerk—whimsical and ephemeral. Where Kraftwerk conducted one grand experiment, Yellow Magic Orchestra conducted a thousand tiny ones. Without them, the last three decades of electronic music would have been a lot less fun.
-Martin Brown, 2009