This is hardly what I expected. I’m thousands of miles from home, sitting in a modern concert hall called the Aichi Kinro Kaikan, watching the Yellow Magic Orchestra – by all accounts one of the most popular groups in Japan and currently the holder of two of the country’s Top 10 albums (Public Pressure, which reached Number One in early April, and Solid State Survivor, due to be released in the U.S. in early July). Having heard about the frenzied receptions Japanese audiences have given such bands as Cheap Trick, I figured that the crowd here in Nagoya, a seaport that boasts a population of about 2 million, would go gaga – especially since this is the opening night of YMO’s nationwide tour. I was wrong.
Instead, the 200 or so cleancut teenagers are sitting stock-still in their seats, almost like mummies, quietly watching the band and clapping politely at the end of each song. But it’s not like the crowd isn’t enjoying the group; it’s more like they’re not allowed to show that they’re having a good time. Finally, at the conclusion of the concert, when the members of YMO walk to the front of the stage to take their bows, this pent-up enthusiasm breaks loose and about 100 fans rush the stage. Then, just as suddenly, they beat a hasty retreat to their seats – as if they’ve realized they stepped out of line.
After the show, a representative of YMO’s Japanese record company, Alfa, tells me that, in fact, there are laws requiring that everybody stay seated during concerts; they have been in effect since a girl was trampled to death at a show by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow a couple of years ago. But, the Alfa rep adds, the members of YMO would like to see their crowds be a little more responsive. “YMO wants to get their audiences higher,” she says. “They are not quite satisfied with the ‘good kids’ kind of attitude. They liked the way the audiences were in the States and in England.”
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America and Britain are two places YMO hopes to build up enthusiastic followings – something no other Japanese band has been able to do – and right now it appears they may be on the verge of accomplishing that goal. “Computer Game,” a single from the band’s first LP (Yellow Magic Orchestra, released in the U.S. by A&M in October 1979), has lately become a standard at New Wave discos, and has jumped onto the pop, disco and soul charts, propelling the year-old album into the Top 100 as well. And Solid State Survivor should arrive just in time to take advantage of YMO’s newfound following.
Yellow Magic Orchestra was formed a little more than two years ago by three well-known and respected Japanese studio musicians: bassist-keyboard player-producer Haruomi “Harry” Hosono, drummer Yukihiro Takahashi (a member of the now-defunct Sadistic Mica Band) and classically trained keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto.
“For three or four years I had been thinking that we needed something really powerful, something really new in the music scene,” Hosono explains. It’s the day after the Nagoya show, and we are in Tokyo, seated around a conference table in the offices of Alfa Records. “We needed something that would be a bridge to the next pop form and that could be really powerful anywhere – in Japan, in the United States, in England, in Europe.”
Hosono and the other band members, who range in age from mid-twenties to early thirties, are smoking a steady string of cigarettes and drinking coffee while an interpreter translates questions and answers. “I also wanted something that would be original to come from Japan,” Hosono continues. “All the other musicians are following and listening to the music of the West and trying to do what they are doing.”
(Though it’s true enough that most Japanese bands are imitative of American and British groups, it is a popular misconception that Western groups, particularly such gimmick-ridden hard-rock outfits as Cheap Trick and Kiss, dominate the music scene in Japan. In fact, a look at a recent Japanese chart shows only six non-domestic albums in the Top 20, and those are by MOR-leaning artists: Abba, Herb Alpert, Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Bobby Caldwell and J.D. Souther. Likewise, a visitor to Tokyo will find that local record stores seem to give the biggest push to Japanese groups. Those stores, by the way, are virtual gold mines for record collectors; they’re filled with vintage R&B, soul and jazz albums that are either out of print or were never available in America.)
Hosono soon found that Takahashi and Sakamoto were thinking along similar lines, and thus was born the Yellow Magic Orchestra and the style of music that the band calls “technopop.” Basically, technopop is very similar to the synthesizer-dominated work of such artists as Gary Numan and Kraftwerk, with bits of disco, jazz, classical and traditional Japanese music thrown in.
The bulk of YMO’s songs are instrumental, and when there are vocals, they are sung – or droned – in English.
Predictably, the members of YMO cite Brian Eno and Giorgio Moroder as “fellow travelers.” They also pride themselves on their musical sophistication and seem to have little use for hard-core punk bands.
But if YMO’s technopop does not represent any dramatic new musical development, it is still distinct, according to Hosono, because it comes from Tokyo – the city he refers to as the “technopolis.” “There are problems in all big cities,” he says. “But in Tokyo there’s also a strong magnetic power, and you just can’t release your problems. You are always suppressed by this magnetic power, and it’s always a burden on your shoulders.”
From there, we touch on a variety of subjects, including the band’s sense of humor (reflected in such song titles as “Cosmic Surfin'” and “Bridge over Troubled Music”), their stage show (which incorporates videotapes and requires the use of three extra musicians), technology (“If we put it in a very Oriental way,” Hosono says, “it’s none of these, not positive and not negative”) and YMO’s goals (“They would be embarrassed to put them into words,” the interpreter says. “It wouldn’t be too modest”).
Finally, we return to the subject of the preceding night’s crowd. After the musicians talk among themselves for a minute or two, the interpreter offers this observation: “They realize that maybe it is because of the quality of the music. People may have preconceptions that they’ll have to behave. Japanese people once thought that they should listen to all concerts with their hands held up, clapping. And that’s not exactly what YMO wants from its audience. But good behavior and quietness isn’t what they want either.”