Yellow Magic Orchestra on Kraftwerk and How to Write a Melody During a Cultural Revolution

Have you heard Yellow Magic Orchestra? Might be the best pop group ever.

Now, if you're the kind of reader who's suspicious of such shameless hyperbole (and huzzah for you if you are), then consider these crunchy, fact-like nuggets: In 1978, when YMO released its self-titled debut, there was nary a thing called synthpop. Five years later, after the group split, the Tokyo band's bleeps and blips were firmly embedded in global pop music, where they've remained ever since. In that half-decade, YMO's sound matured at a pace rivaled only by the Beatles in the mid-'60s. Its zany exotica-disco spoofs quickly evolved into a sensuous musique concrète perfected on the last two albums of its classic period, 1983's Naughty Boys and Service. For YMO's members — Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi — it was quite a ride. The tenor of those times was vividly illustrated by this 2008 exchange in the Guardian:

“We were very big,” sighs Sakamoto, “that's why I hated it. We were always followed by paparazzi.”

“Yes, and teenage girls,” says Hosono. “They would literally chase us down the street and rip our clothes to shreds.”

“I quite enjoyed that,” says Takahashi.

Sakamoto, YMO's vocalist and keyboardist, spoke with us by telephone where the band were rehearsing for the tour that brings it to the Warfield this Monday, June 27.

In the United States, you're primarily known for being one of the first electronic pop groups. Is that how you see YMO?

[Laughs] I think that's a fact. It's something we're proud of. We were heavily influenced by Kraftwerk. Actually, I introduced Kraftwerk to the other members of YMO and they immediately became huge fans. But instead of imitating Kraftwerk, obviously, we wanted to invent something original — technopop from Japan. Kraftwerk was very German. We wanted to create something very Japanese.

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