Thirty years ago, Kraftwerk had many imitators but few, true competitors. That is, until the Yellow Magic Orchestra's second album was released in September 1979. Musically as well as visually matching the German electronic pop pioneers output at the time, Solid State Survivor made the many similarities between the two bands explicit.
Both originated in cultures recovering from devastating defeat in the Second World War, and the ravages of reactionary authoritarianism, militarism, racism, and fascism prior to its outbreak. Both bands were founded by members of the first postwar generation, reared during the ensuing Cold War, coming of age during the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.
Exposed to the (predominantly American) rock preferred by the occupational forces of their respective countries, members of both bands began their careers in rock bands. (Kraftwerk in fact begun as a progressive rock band.) However, both bands were also keen to emphasise their own particular cultural distinctiveness, striving to reconnect with what had been lost through aggression, war, and occupation rather than simply emulating a foreign stance.
Both achieved that by harking to classical music, aided by academically educated members - in YMO's case, keyboardist Ryūichi Sakamoto held a masters degree in compostion, specialising in ethnic and electronic music. Far from groups of musically inclined childhood friends, they were musical manifestations of an idea, realised by seasoned musicians (the average age of both bands' members being 29 at the time).
Subverting clichéd stereotypes and toying with misconceptions, both were probably the first pop bands from their respective nations to gain international notoriety (if not popularity), and to impact and influence popular music worldwide during the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1980, YMO became the first Japanese band to appear on Soul Train (the only Japanese artists to appear on the show until Toshi Kubota in 2004), and maintained a loyal following among the hip and fly denizens of America's clubland.
The main difference between the two bands lay in the Germans' adherence to electronic purity, while YMO casually integrated conventional - even classical - instrumentation. From a technical point of view, the Japanese band achieved sonic superiority over their counterparts, creating a more dynamic soundscape, by managing to seamlessly combine acoustic drums, amplified bass and guitar with electronic instruments.
Though to Kraftwerk's credit, YMO wasn't an entirely homegrown project: while utilising practically the same American synthesisers (particularly the wonderfully unpredictable and unstable Sequential Circuits Prophet-5), the Japanese musicians undoubtedly benefited from the proximity of companies like Korg in their hometown Tōkyō, Roland in Ōsaka, and Yamaha in Hamamatsu, driving innovation in musical instrumentation.
The main instrument utilised on Solid State Survivor was the modular Moog 3C, operated by YMO's informal member Hideki Matsutake (a former apprentice of pioneering electronic music composer Isao Tomita), who went on to form the techno pop duo Logic System. Matsutake's considerable talent was augmented by the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer, the world's first digital, microprocessor-driven music sequencer, introduced in 1977.
Based on a 1971 TTL prototype designed by Canadian composer Ralph Dyck, the MC-8 was intended to complement Roland's own modular sythesisers, but provided - as YMO demonstrated - tight multitrack sequencing, bass and rhythm track programming for almost any source. Also, YMO was intentionally convened, rather than inevitably distilled (like Kraftwerk) from a group of guys jamming together over the course of several years and albums.
Having dabbled in psychedelic rock with Apryl Fool, and folk rock with Happy End, bassist Haruomi Hosono was looking for a way to combine his interest in exotica with electronic music in order to garner greater commercial success. Having already released an exotica album, Paraiso, in 1978 under the moniker Haruomi Hosono & The Yellow Magic Band (allegedly a reference on Captain Beefheart's Magic Band), he propositioned two of the musicians who had contributed to it, keyboardist Ryūichi Sakamoto and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi.
The three had been crossing paths for some time: Takahashi, former drummer of The Sadistic Mika Band (known as The Sadistics following the departure of vocalist Mika Fukui and guitarist Kazuhiko Katō), had employed both Hosono and Sakamoto for his 1977 solo debut Saravah!; Sakamoto had relied on Hosono, Takahashi, and future YMO programmer Matsutake to realise his 1978 debut Thousand Knives of.
Hosono's original idea had been to convene as a band and record a one-off album exorcising the American exoticism pioneered by composers like Martin Denny (whose Firecracker YMO recorded), which conjured forth starry skies on imaginary atolls in cloudless climes, staffed by servile and - naturally - nubile natives, hoping to expose exotica's condescending silliness in the process. But the international success of YMO's self-titled 1978 debut convinced the musicians involved that their combined effort was worth pursuing seriously.
Stuck with a name which, as Sakamoto later recalled, represented Hosono's idea of yellow as a perfect compromise between black and white - an average, neutral, middle ground type of magic - the band altered their formula. Instead of supercharging exotica with avant-garde grooves, YMO began earnestly infusing their music with traditional elements, the exoticism confined to hitherto unheard sounds.
Solid State Survivor opens with four mainly instrumental pieces, seemingly mixed to facilitate dancefloor beatmatching. First up is Sakamoto's disco stomper Technopolis, an ebullient paean not only to the transformation of Tōkyō, but the rest of Japan as well. An ancient, traditional society turning into a powerhouse of modernity: from portable consumer electronics (Sony had just launched the Walkman), practical and economical vehicles, to the New Music of which YMO were a vanguard, Japan was rushing toward a propitious future.
Yet, in a society reckoning its past in millennia, the new needn't cancel the old out. As if to illustrate this continuous process of fusion, Hosono's Absolute Ego Dance blends electronic grooves with traditional Okinawan chanting - delivered by the prolific Japanese-American vocalist and hula dancer Sandra O'Neale. The first of many collaborations, YMO would later greatly contribute to her arguably most successful pop project, Sandii & the Sunsetz.
Then, there's Takahashi's Rydeen (either a mistransliteration of "raiden", meaning "lightning", or an intentional play on "riding"), its exuberant staccatos transforming mounted samurai from feudal relics to urban warriors riding a new wave of solid state gadgetry (presumably having traded horseback for Suzuki Rascals). Being their most renown recording, it's the closest thing to a YMO signature tune - so well established in the Japanese pop canon, Kirin used a specially re-recorded version of it to hawk lager as recently as 2007.
The first side closes with Sakamoto's Castalia, continuing the somewhat mythological slant ("Raiden" is occasionally the transliteration given Raijin, the deity of thunder and lightning in Japanese mythology). An impeccable example of Sakamoto's ability to compose poignant, wistful pieces without turning utterly soppy, it's a slightly moody foreshadowing of his forays into film, where his scores for Nagisa Ōshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which Sakamoto appeared alongside Takeshi Kitano and David Bowie), and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor in particular would reap praise and awards.
The second side opens with Sakamoto's Behind the Mask, YMO's commercially most successful recording, and a further example of how the Japanese band differed from Kraftwerk, despite both bands penchant for ostinati. While the Germans' sought minimal clarity for maximal expression, YMO created intricate layers and sophisticated arrangements - yet seemed unable equal the Germans' spit-clear vocoding.
Only the lyric sheet discloses what Sakamoto's attempting to communicate, his voice obscured by the device as if he indeed were hiding behind a technological mask. Considering that drummer Takahashi was the band's principal vocalist, and that his voice isn't similarly obscured on the album's other three vocal tracks, Sakamoto's ambiguous use of the vocoder may have been intentional.
Behind the Mask intrigued Quincy Jones enough to suggest Michael Jackson record a version of it, but it was session keyboardist Gregory Phillinganes who first released a version with additional lyrics (and uncredited backing vocal) by Jackson in 1984. Which led Eric Clapton - whom Phillinganes toured with - to record it for his 1986 August album. Clapton's version, produced by Phil Collins, became the reactionary blues man's sole British top 20 hit of the 1980s, reaching #15 in February 1987.
No strangers to reinterpretation, YMO next take on The Beatles' Day Tripper. Practically prescient in its spastic glitchyness, their version may simply be one source of inspiration for much of the 1990s alternative dance music and - by extension - much of the noughties mainstream pop music. It was allegedly inspired by Devo's deconstruction of The Rolling Stones (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, though similarity of ideas doesn't immediately imply plagiarism. Particularly as The Beatles' impact on popular music wasn't felt any less keenly in Japan, and - in YMO's case - by Hosono and Takahashi in particular.
The ease with which YMO's version of Day Tripper could fit among contemporary club hits - a particularly unsettling fact for rock purists - highlight not only the musical quality of the original composition, but also the technical capability and skill of the Japanese band. YMO may have been mainly electronic, but the band's members were far from simple button pushers.
The album's theme is most explicitly established by the last two tracks, Hosono's Insomnia and Takahashi's closing title track. Evoking a world parallel to those of the then emerging literary genre later known as Cyberpunk, its protagonists teenage survivors of a new, "solid state": an exhausting round-the-clock world of transistors, integrated circuits, light-emitting diodes, and liquid crystals, vastly different from the mechanical, vacuum tube powered past.
The lyrics of Solid State Survivor were written by Briton Christopher Mosdell, a former microbiologist who'd worked as a script writer for NHK (Japan's national public broadcaster), reporter for Radio Europe, and as news reader for the BBC World Service. Yukihiro Takahashi had adapted some of Mosdell's poems for an album by Rajie he was producing (with help from Sakamoto), leading Mosdell to contribute lyrics to The Sadistics, YMO, and Sheena & The Rokkets - whose guitarist, Makoto Ayukawa, can be heard on Solid...'s title track and its idiosyncratic version of Day Tripper.
The album's sleeve, featuring YMO's principal members, initially made some audiences believe the band was Chinese, with Hosono, Sakamoto, and Takahashi, dressed in red Zhongshan suits (designed by Takahashi), engaged in a game of mahjong with two mannequins - one sporting a red star adorned "Liberation" cap. Though, once again, YMO were dabbling in the kind of cultural deconstruction favoured by Kraftwerk, who on the sleeve of their album of the previous year, Die Mensch-Maschine, were gazing towards Eastern European Constructivism.
Though most Westerners associate it with Mao, the Zhongshan suit originated with the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. A compromise between modern sensibilities and traditional identity, it was based on the gakuran - Japanese school-boys' uniforms - themselves based on Prussian naval uniforms. Mahjong, though invented in China, has likely not been played as vigorously anywhere in the world as it once was in Japan - particularly prior to its re-emergence in China in the early 1980s following the game's supression in the "people's republic" during the Cultural Revolution.
The photo of the gaily garbed "red commissars", enjoying a bit of decadent gambling (complete with Coke) was shot by a close friend of The Sadistic Mika Band, Masayoshi Sukita, whose 1971 photograph of a mannequin inspired David Bowie's famous Ziggy Stardust haircut. (Bowie worked with Sukita throughout the 1970s.) YMO's logotype, designed by Polish-American graphic artist Lou Beach (alias Andrzej Lubicz-Ledóchowski), was carried over from the American edition of their self-titled debut album, and the concept cobbled together by renown art director Heikichi Harata, again, contrasted Kraftwerk's staunch minimalism with YMO's layered, bentō box approach.
Solid State Survivor has sold in excess of a million copies, staying at the top of the Japanese album chart for 82 consecutive weeks (over a year and a half), crowned with a best album award at the 22nd Japan Composers' Association Record Awards in 1980. Its impact can still be discerned among the aging legions of YMO sedai (the "YMO generation"), still sporting "techno pop" haircuts, as well as in J-pop, film, and video game music (as early as 1982, a version of Rydeen appeared in Sega's arcade video game Super Locomotive), in particular with composers Kenji Eno and Hitoshi Sakimoto.
Despite being the only YMO album featuring specifically English titles, without direct Japanese equivalents, Solid... was originally only released in Japan and Britain. A pity as it remains their easiest album to approach for non-Japanese audiences, performed (almost) entirely in English, with no particular cultural obstacles to contend with. A classic Japanese pop album of the late 1970s, practically entirely original, it represents the point at which YMO ceased to a be a wry subversion of faux Orientalism and solidified their position as a pioneering contemporary pop band. That just happened to be based in Tōkyō.