YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA & FRIENDS The Influence of Japanese Technopop

Also featuring JAPAN, IPPU DO, SANDII & THE SUNSETZ and SUSAN

One of first Japanese bands to have a Top 20 hit single in the UK was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA in 1980 with the instrumental Firecracker, often referred to as Computer Game (Theme From The Invader). A cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny, it launched the synthesizer trio onto the world stage. Comprising of their leader HARUOMI HOSONO, drummer/vocalist YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI and a young keyboardist named RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, the track was also a sizeable hit in America.

Formed in 1978 as a one-off studio project by Hosono, it was Sakamoto who was particularly an admirer of German electronic pioneers KRAFTWERK and introduced their music to the rest of the group. KRAFTWERK’s Teutonic outlook, along with acts such as TANGERINE DREAM, NEU! and LA DÜSSELDORF had helped restore a sense of Germanic artistic identity in reaction to the Americanisation of European post-war culture. The trio were feeling this was happening too in Japan so wanted to make something very original using electronics. As Sakamoto remarked, this involved using the “very Japanese” approach of merging many different styles like a “Bento box” in a reliable forward thinking fashion. The debut self titled album which featured tracks such as La Femme Chinoise and Yellow Magic (Tong Poo) was noted for its use of the then brand new computerised Roland MC8 Micro-Composer to control the synthesizers. The result was a clean, exotic pop sound that was unusual, even in the synthesizer heartland of Europe.

Yellow+Magic+Orchestra+ymo050With their use of modern technology, the likes of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA and acts such as SOUTHERN ALL STARS became standard bearers for what eventually became known in Japan as Technopop. It was to provide the roots of what eventually became J-Pop. Meanwhile, the British popularity of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA (or YMO as they came to be known) arose as a result of its burgeoning synthpop movement which had embraced the availability of affordable synthesizers from Japanese manufacturers such as Korg, Roland and Yamaha.

Acts such as THE HUMAN LEAGUE, ULTRAVOX, OMD, DEPECHE MODE and VISAGE all utilised this equipment while the parallel Technopop movement was occurring in Japan. In fact, VISAGE’s drummer Rusty Egan in his dual role as DJ at the legendary Blitz Club in London, which later spawned pop acts like SPANDAU BALLET and CULTURE CLUB, had become aware of this and imported YMO albums to play to a hip and fashion conscientious audience which often consisted of aspiring musicians. Interestingly, the compliment was repaid many years later when Silent Hill film composer Akira Yamaoka admitted the soundtracks of his films and games were heavily influenced by the music of VISAGE!

swordAnother fashion conscious band whose music was played regularly at The Blitz Club by Rusty Egan were JAPAN. They were a Lewisham quintet led by the enigmatic DAVID SYLVIAN. Sylvian was described by JAPAN’s manager Simon Napier-Bell as “a cross between Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot” and was once voted ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Man’. It was a pretty one sided contest though as the idea was dreamt up by Napier-Bell and JAPAN’s publicist Connie Filapello! But before that in 1978, JAPAN had, unusually for a new British band, achieved major success in Japan itself with the single The Unconventional and its parent album Adolescent Sex. Playing to packed houses of screaming teenage girls at big venues such as Tokyo’s Bukodan, back in Britain they could barely fill pubs and were famously pelted with missiles while supporting US rock band BLUE OYSTER CULT at Hammersmith Odeon. Indeed, so unpopular were JAPAN outside The Land Of The Rising Sun at the time that when they did a record store signing session in New York, nobody turned up! This incident was later sent up in a scene for the spoof rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap…a copy of JAPAN’s album Quiet Life is in view behind Messrs St Hubbins, Tufnel and Smalls as if to make the point!

up-3japanJAPAN never had an easy ride even when they achieved more widespread success. UK critics were quick to accuse the band of cynically choosing their name purely to crack the Japanese market. But as DAVID SYLVIAN pointed out to Smash Hits in 1981: “I can’t imagine a Japanese band called ENGLAND doing very well over here!”. JAPAN’s success in Japan led to the band’s exposure to South East Asian culture and its fascination with modern technology. This began to have an affect on their music. Whereas they had originally been aggressively American sounding funk rock while aping the straggly image of NEW YORK DOLLS, they started to adopt the mannered textures of ROXY MUSIC and melodic prowess of YMO. Their look also changed with stylish suits and heavy make-up very much in evidence for an effeminate demeanour similar to the New Romantics who were frequenting The Blitz Club. The first fruition of this combination was the excellent GIORGIO MORODER produced Life In Tokyo in 1979.

Meanwhile, YMO were about to sell two million copies of their next album Solid State Survivor and become the most popular band in Japan as the new art form of electronic pop started spreading across the world. Following the success of JAPAN’s third album Quiet Life, their new sophisticated muzak started to gain the respect of the serious Japanese music press who had previously turned its nose up at their teeny bop audience. As a result, RYUICHI SAKAMOTO was sent by one magazine to interview DAVID SYLVIAN during the recording of JAPAN’s fourth album Gentlemen Take Polaroids at London’s Air studios in 1980. The meeting resulted in a magnificent musical collaboration entitled Taking Islands In Africa which ended up closing the long player. This was to be the start of a union that would help bring Japanese influences into contemporary music internationally. And things were already starting to change. GARY NUMAN used the Japanese phrase for “I leave you” as the chorus of his minor hit This Wreckage while DAVID BOWIE’s It’s No Game opened with a monologue from Michi Hirota.

For JAPAN’s fifth and final album in 1981, the band took the influences of the Far East even further with the pentatonic flavoured Tin Drum. This was to give the band its biggest UK success although ironically, many of its spacious tones were created by keyboard player RICHARD BARBIERI using American synthesizers such as the Sequential Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX! YMO meanwhile embraced more European influences like KRAFTWERK and BRIAN ENO but scared their UK label Epic who thought their long player Technodelic was too doomy and refused to release it in the UK!! Despite this, British artists such as BILL NELSON and M’s Robin Scott started heading eastwards to work with the members of YMO on their various solo projects as the trio started to fragment in the wake of their phenomenal worldwide success. However, YMO finished on a high with their 1983 album Naughty Boys which spawned the single Kimi Ni Mune Kyun, a slice of pop perfection which has since been covered by a variety of Japanese artists and even THE HUMAN LEAGUE! A version of it was more recently used as the ending theme for the Anime Maria Holic.

ippu-do-band-shotWith doors opened by the success of YMO and JAPAN, other Japanese Technopop acts prepared to make an assault on Britain in 1982. The first of these was IPPU DO. Led by the androgynous MASAMI TSUCHIYA whose eccentric wailing guitar style coupled with German electronic influences caught the attention of DAVID SYLVIAN, he was invited join JAPAN for their final tour and was even allowed to play his solo track Rice Music during the main set. IPPU DO’s best known single Time Of The Season was a brilliant ethnic take on the old ZOMBIES hit with mad warbling vocals and frantic percussion that produced one of the most original cover versions ever.

SandiiAndTheSunsetz_v1-210x300Another act getting a leg up from DAVID SYLVIAN were SANDII & THE SUNSETZ who were the support act on JAPAN’s final tour. Fronted by the beautifully voluptuous SANDII, she had already provided guest vocals on the YMO track Absolute Ego Dance. With Head Sunset Makoto Kubota providing additional vocals, the music from their first British album Immigrants was dreamily percussive with chunky guitar and slinky synth seasoning. In addition to the anthemic single Dreams Of Immigrants and the neo-tribal Open Sesame, one of their best numbers was Living On The Front Line. Featuring lyrics and harmonies from DAVID SYLVIAN, SANDII’s KATE BUSH-like vocals melted into the ultimate marriage of West and East. It was wonderfully cultured and coutured, almost like a Japanese BLONDIE.

Franco-Japanese beauty SUSAN was a protégée of YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI and the highly syncopated rhythmical number I Only Come Out At Night was produced and written by him with lyrical assistance from regular YMO collaborator Peter Barakan. Gloriously detuned and pentatonic, this was a fine example of how new technology was allowing the smarter than average drummer to challenge their perceived role in pop. Before YMO, Takahashi was the drummer for Japanese prog rockers THE SADISTIC SUSANMIKA BAND who were signed to PINK FLOYD’s label Harvest. He released a number of solo albums which featured Western musicians including JAPAN’s bassist MICK KARN and drummer STEVE JANSEN along with ICEHOUSE’s Iva Davies. Becoming great friends, STEVE JANSEN and YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI released a joint single Stay Close in 1986 with Jansen doing a very able impression of his older brother DAVID SYLVIAN while Takahashi provided his usual ‘will he make it-won’t he?’ mannered BRYAN FERRY-ish vocals. This track was lovingly crafted and remains a true lost classic.

While neither IPPU DO, SANDII & THE SUNSETZ or SUSAN achieved major success in the UK or Europe, the Technopop movement was the start of an acceptance musically of what Japan the country had to offer other than the Idol ballads of SEIKO MATSUDA and the like, although ironically YMO’s HARUOMI HOSONO later became involved in the production of SEIKO MATSUDA’s music. The success of JAPAN the band and their sympathetic approach to using ethnic sound palettes helped change perceptions and allowed South East Asian influences to be taken seriously in the UK at a time when pentatonic melodies were only being used in a mocking racist manner like on novelty records like the horrible Japanese Boy by ANEKA.

masami_sandii_gal_02Notable musicians were being impressed by what Japanese artists had to offer. In 1985, MASAMI TSUCHIYA played guitar on the album So Red the Rose by ARCADIA, an offshoot project of DURAN DURAN featuring Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes. The legendary Steve Cropper who co-wrote the soul classics Knock On Wood and In The Midnight Hour saw SANDII & THE SUNSETZ in concert and afterwards asked guitarist Keni Inoue to demonstrate his distinctive muted style as showcased on Open Sesame. Meanwhile, SANDII sang on Something Special, a duet with STEPHEN DUFFY who himself had a huge hit with Kiss Me in 1985 but became better known as a writing partner of ROBBIE WILLIAMS in the mid-noughties.

Today, SANDII still continues to make music solo, primarily in the Hawaiian Hula style while MASAMI TSUCHIYA writes for other Japanese artists. In 2008, Tsuchiya formed the rock band VITAMIN Q but the sad suicide of his band mate Kazuhiko Kato put the project on hold. In a difficult period for the guitarist, his good friend JAPAN bassist Mick Karn died in January 2011 following a battle with cancer. Karn had pioneered an innovative style of fretless bass playing which was copied and became ubiquitous throughout the 80s…just listen to songs such as It’s My Life by TALK TALK (later covered by NO DOUBT) or PAUL YOUNG’s cover of Wherever I Lay My Hat. Among the musicians he played for were KATE BUSH, GARY NUMAN, JOAN ARMATRADING and MIDGE URE as well as YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI. He is sadly missed.

YMO’s influence in particular though was being heard far and wide, touching rock, pop and soul. None more so than when MICHAEL JACKSON penned lyrics to the RYUICHI SAKAMOTO penned instrumental Behind The Mask during the Thriller sessions. Unable to be released at the time by Jackson himself, he gave it to his musical director GREG PHILLINGANES to provide a surprise Top 5 hit in the US R’n’B charts in 1985. This proxy collaboration was then later covered by ERIC CLAPTON who hit the mainstream with his version in 1987. The remixed MJ demo eventually appeared on the posthumous album Michael. Meanwhile out on the block, YMO’s recording of Firecracker was sampled by Hip-Hop godfather AFRIKA BAMBAATAA on Death Mix and then later in 2001, it was used again by JENNIFER LOPEZ on I’m Real.

Of all the Technopop figures mentioned though, it was RYUICHI SAKAMOTO who became the best known internationally. Following a joint single with DAVID SYLVIAN at the height of JAPAN’s fame entitled Bamboo Music in 1982, he made his 1983 acting debut alongside DAVID BOWIE in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. He also composed the soundtrack with Sylvian providing lead vocals on a single version of the WWII drama’s haunting theme tune. Retitled Forbidden Colours, the lyrics reflected the taboo love story of the Nagisa Oshima directed film. Those of a much younger disposition will be more familiar with the song’s melody via a dance track called Heart Of Asia by WATERGATE.

Sakamoto later won an Oscar for the soundtrack of The Last Emperor in which he also starred and added films such as Black Rain, The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha to his musical portfolio. He also composed music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Such was his celebrity status during this period, artists such as THOMAS DOLBY (who later patented the polyphonic ringtone engine that is now encased in several billion Nokia mobile phones), DAVID BYRNE and IGGY POP contributed vocals to his various solo albums while Sakamoto himself even featured in MADONNA’s promo video for Rain in 1991. YMO briefly reunited in 2008 to play the Meltdown Festival curated by Bristol trip-hoppers PORTISHEAD while in 2009, RYUICHI SAKAMOTO was awarded the Ordre Des Arts Et Des Letters by France’s Ministry Of Culture for his contributions to music. Today, he continues his success as a composer of contemporary classical music.

J-Pop is now a part of Western popular culture that transcends its ethnic origins. And it is thanks to these Technopop trailblazers that doors were initially opened and the passionate embracement of the mythical Far East began.


Text by Chi Ming Lai
11 August 2011

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