In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: Yellow Magic Orchestra
Album: Yellow Magic Orchestra
Label: Alfa (JP) / A&M (US)
Yellow Magic Orchestra – arrangements, electronics
Haruomi Hosono – bass guitar, synth bass, synthesizers, production, mixing engineer (credited as "Harry Hosono" for latter two)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – synthesizers, piano, electric piano, percussion, orchestration
Yukihiro Takahashi – vocals, drums, electronic drums, marimba, percussion
Hideki Matsutake – Microcomposer programming
Chris Mosdell – lyrics
Shun'ichi "Tyrone" Hashimoto – vocoded vocals on "Simoon"
Masayoshi Takanaka – electric guitar on "Cosmic Surfin'" and "La femme chinoise"
Tomoko Nunoi (uncredited on earliest issues) – French narration (credited as "Sexy Voice") on "La femme chinoise"
Kunihiko Murai – executive producer
Norio Yoshizawa & Atsushi Saito – recording engineers
Shunsuke Miyasumi – recording coordinator
Masako Hikasa & Akira Ikuta – management
Aijiro Wakita – design, art director
Kazuo Hakamada – illustrations
US version alternative staff
Minako Yoshida – vocals on "Yellow Magic (Tong Poo)"
Tommy LiPuma – supervisor
Al Schmitt – mixing engineer
Mike Reese – mastering engineer
Roland Young – art director
Amy Nagasawa & Chuck Beeson – design
Lou Beach – front cover art
Masayoshi Sukita – back cover art
Until the age of 20, I hadn't been interested in using synthesisers in my own music creation. I enjoyed listening to music that used synthesisers, but I had no desire to use them in my own music. Upon reflection, this was simply due to not understanding them.
In my youth, I'd been told by many a grumpy, old musician that synthesisers and drum machines were invented to save money in production and put hardworking musicians out of business. Of course, this is utter nonsense, however as a kid, I accepted what I'd been told. I'd always therefore harboured a snobbery towards synthesisers and it wasn't until university, when I learned how synthesisers actually worked and what they were capable of, that I started to view them positively, with the creative potential they yielded.
My learning about synthesisers and understanding the ethos and philosophy of their near limitless tonal and harmonic potential coincided with my discovery of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones (and my subsequent shedding of all musical preconceptions). All bets were off and I was truly on the road to exploring sound and music in a way that felt right to me (as opposed to doing things they way other, older people said they should be done). I no longer had any preconceptions or hang-ups about instrumentation or style.
However, whilst I understood the science, I struggled to really grasp using synthesisers in a musical way. I found them to be fun to tinker with, but I was never able to utilise them with much expression.
In my mid twenties I met my partner, who is Japanese. One day whilst chatting about music, the conversation went the way of synthesisers and she casually said "You know Yellow Magic Orchestra, right?". I had no idea what she was talking about. She showed me some YouTube videos. What I heard was dizzying! This was it! This was music made with synthesisers that (unlike modern EDM or house) spoke to my musical tastes that walked a line between jazz and experimental rock music with shades of disco, funk and more. And it was made almost entirely with synthesisers!
I fell head over heals in love with this band and set about amassing their entire discography, digesting it and finding endless inspiration in their pioneering use of synthesisers. In 1978, the music industry was still figuring out how to best utilise these electronic instruments, and while the technology was still extremely crude by modern standards, these three men were crafting soundscapes and electronic orchestration that was richer and more diverse (and arguably more sophisticated) than a lot of electronic music made today.
Beyond musical inspiration, discovering YMO convinced me that if they could create their music in the late 1970s, then I, in the 21st Century, with all my computer software had no reason not to undertake a similar venture, and thus OSC was born. I.e: without the Yellow Magic Orchestra, there'd be no Opus Science Collective; without YMO, there's be no OSC.
It's hard to know where to begin. This album combines rock, pop, funk, western-classical, Orientalism, and more, with additional shades of disco and jazz in places, all woven together with an experimental and diverse tonal palette created using synthesis that, in its day, was wildly pioneering (and which still sounds fresh in 2022).
One of the most significant impacts this album had on me however, was that of utilising two or three distinctly different synthesiser tones in a piece of music to interact in a call-and-response manner (like a vocal duet, but on synths). At the time of discovering this album, I was composing songs, but had no way of realising them, as I'm no singer! Upon hearing this album, I realised that it was possible to make something akin to an experimental, electronic, rock/pop album without the need for any vocalists whatsoever. It emboldened me and gave me the confidence to compose in new ways, utilising melodic lead synthesisers in place of vocals, in ways I'd never thought of doing before.
It also focused my approach to sound design as a whole, encouraging me to devote more time to shaping the characteristics of the synthesiser tones I was using. YMO have a way of making synthesisers really speak with expression and character, and so I strived to do the same.
This album was originally a one-off, experimental project by three significant figures in Japanese pop music. Haruomi Hosono, established and acclaimed songwriter and producer, and two up and coming virtuoso stars Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. Whilst each of them was on their own career paths and enjoying commercial and critical success with their solo work, the success of this album resulted in YMO becoming their primary focus for the next six years or so as they released numerous studio albums and toured the world several times. To this day, they remain close friends and periodically get together for one-off projects and live performances.
Since discovering YMO, I have also researched and collected albums from each members' solo works, further broadening and enriching my musical listening and sources of influence. It's fair to say that this trio are an absolute powerhouse of music and all-round cultural icons in Japan.
I was discussing YMO and this album recently with a good friend of mine who is very knowledgeable about various walks of music. On the topic of YMO, he said "they're like The Beatles of electronic music", and he has a point! The Beatles were a watershed moment in the history of pop/rock in that everything after them is directly, or indirectly influenced by their innovations.
He went on to explain that, considering Yellow Magic Orchestra was made in 1978, before the advent of MIDI and computer sequencers which become commonplace in the 1980s, this album is as significant to electronic music as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was to pop/rock. I'm inclined to agree, and hopefully, if you give it a listen, you'll also understand why this album is so significant.