YMO: The Rise of Techno Grasshoppers

WRITER
Yasso Ando

Photo by Charlie Gillett/Redferns via Getty Images

In Japan, Aesop’s ancient Greek fables are quite popular—everyone knows at least a few stories, and could tell you how they go. Among them, The Ant and The Grasshopper, is especially well known. With winter fast approaching, “hard workers” and “dreamers” find themselves at opposite ends of a fateful situation. The disciplined Ants worked all year collecting food and preparing for the cold, while the Grasshopper was engrossed in song and dance at banquets—ignoring the ticking clock.

Winter arrives and the Grasshopper, realizing that he may not survive, visits the Ants in hopes of salvation but is denied—this is the Grasshopper’s own (lack of) doing, and there is no room for empathy.

In that sentiment, actors and musicians of the entertainment world are like Grasshoppers. Their lives are glorious while popularity holds, and once this popularity wanes, they are easily forgotten. Returning to the commoners’ realm isn’t an easy task for the once-glorious, and some of them find themselves alone in their struggle to survive.

The Ant and the Grasshopper (Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books)

With very few exceptions, most entertainers fade like the sad Grasshopper. If dwindling popularity didn’t end their careers, it’s other factors like drugs, illness, unlawful conduct or even affiliation with gangs—there is always some kind of trouble lurking, ready to ambush them. One false move and the social infatuation for them could sour, making them a target for blame and contempt instead. Ultimately, they are evicted from their warm refuge into the icy night.

Even The Beatles, MBE-winners from the glorious kingdom, has experienced a derogatory lash out from Japan’s conservatives—letting such a band play at Japan’s most prestigious concert hall. In a snapshot, they seem like superstars surrounded by fanatics, but in reality, still had opposition undermining them everywhere they went. There is no handout of warm blankets for dreamy Grasshoppers.

The Beatles descending from the aircraft at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, dressed in matching JAL coats. (1966)

In 1978, a brand new group emerged into the Japanese pop music scene. They called themselves the Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Even though Japan was enjoying a large economic boom at this time, the artist life was still hard: ambitiously gambling to make it big overnight, while risking a chilling fate like Aesop’s Grasshopper. But YMO was different: they showed up as cultural icons, progressive and snobby, all three members from Tokyo, and with the already well-established reputation of Haruomi Hosono to boot.

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s first album Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978) (Left: Japan cover, Right: US Cover)

Their music was mainly instrumentals comprised of multi-layered synthesizers, and even the rare appearance of human vocals were tinged with effects. Their presentation surpassed nationality: a calculated ploy for these mysterious “yellow men” to excel on the international stage. Their top song, Technopolis from their second album, shook up the world creating a techno music boom. The notion that Japan was leading this revolutionary intent to birth a whole new genre—a brand new style of electronic music—enthralled and captured the hearts of Japanese fans. This was an undertaking of a bigger and more universal project that no one had ever seen before in their country.

6th Album Naughty Boys (1983) (From left: Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi)

Ryuichi Sakamoto, the composer of Technopolis, requires little introduction these days as he has become the top musician representing Japan, maintaining a successful career even after the breakup of YMO. He is an academic elite who studied composition at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, the highest classical music degree in Japan, and is also well adept in philosophy and modern ideology. Someone like him breaking into the pop music scene, within of itself, is a cultural incident worth noting. In the band, Sakamoto teams up with Hiroyuki Takahashi, a drummer and singer—also a graduate from one of Tokyo’s renowned art colleges—to manifest the sublime concepts and challenges brought on by leader, Hosono. All of their songs, created during their time together between ‘78 to ‘84, are from the vinyl era, and their first and only album release on CD was in ’93, during their reunion time.

2nd album Solid State Survivor (1979)

Winter never fell on these evolved Grasshoppers, rather, they were adored by the upper class. During the height of the punk rock era, the music trio raised the techno flag high, was deemed trailblazers from ‘technological giant’ Japan, and managed to construct their “yellow kingdom,” without ever knowing the harsh cold. YMO is said to have had the greatest influence on today’s Japanese hip hop, heavy metal, and musical genres beyond.

Appealing to their widespread fans from around the world, all of YMO’s albums are available in both CD and vinyl formats. This year’s 40th anniversary compilation album, Neue Tanz, is also available on vinyl: a double LP. The album contains 16 songs from the past, curated by Towa Tei, the self-proclaimed disciple of Sakamoto, and remastered by Yoshinori Sunahara of Denki Groove—both of them techno music leaders from the ‘90s following YMO.

Y.M.O. Neue Tanz (a set of two 12” LP, 2018) SONY MUSIC

Looking back, YMO’s music emerged from technology’s leading nation, Japan, and they were presenting a sound that was characterized as inorganic and mechanical—as if individualism was forcefully suppressed. Similar displays are found in their second album cover with them wearing “Mao suits of the future,” (by design of Takahashi) or their unified haircuts mimicking strict school regulations. They demonstrated a lack of political claim and was ignoring everyday humanity such as customs and rituals—they were acting out oppressed people under totalitarian rule. As their statement, they aligned themselves with this sociological perspective of erasing the past to create something new—to flatten our class, race, and nationality: what makes us unique. Unlike their Western counterparts that were proclaiming the glory of individuality at the time, YMO was emotionless and surrounded themselves with cold machines—as if they were a totally new breed of humans (Grasshoppers) in their techno spaceship—lifting off to go find a new world that didn’t agonize over such petty differences.

Fast-forward 40 years, the new compilation, Neue Tanz, is being praised as the genre’s return to origin. The band’s spirit that manifested the “intellectual playground for adults” lives on. The artistic bar they had raised, in their short period together, also remains untouched. As the godfathers of techno music, they had mapped out the protocol—they showed the world how music could be made with a single synthesizer. This great influence led to the emergence of countless commercial musicians chasing the same dream. No one, however, has been able to come close—let alone take it to the next level.

NEUE TANZ(Vinyl)Unboxing

Translation by Mika Anami

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