World music reissue label Wewantsounds release Akiko Yano’s 1982 solo album ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ outside of Japan for the very first time. Co-produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the record was notable for featuring the talents of JAPAN band members Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and David Sylvian.
Fusing rock, jazz, avant pop and Japanese folk, Akiko Yano was a successful singer/songwriter in her homeland before touring the world as a keyboardist with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA. Her high pitched vocal style inevitably drew comparisons with Kate Bush but in 1981, her husband’s connections led to a new approach.
With Ryuichi Sakamoto having already collaborated with David Sylvian on ‘Taking Islands In Africa’ from JAPAN’s fourth album ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, he and Yano travelled to the UK. With a strong Yen, recording facilities in London proved to be cheaper than in Tokyo and so it was at Air Studios that they teamed up with the Lewisham combo and their producer / engineer Steve Nye following the completion of ‘Tin Drum’.
Translated as “there must be love”, ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ states its case with the bilingual opening title track of the album, giving a platform for the JAPAN rhythm section both instrumentally and vocally, while not deviating from Akiko Yano’s own distinctive style. The glistening textures of Sakamoto emanating from his beloved Prophet 5 also leave no doubt as to who is producing.
Although ‘Kanashikute Yarikirenai’ adopts a West Coast demeanour, particularly when complimented by JAPAN live guitarist David Rhodes’ solo, it is all offset by Sakamoto’s haunting synth tones. Continuing on a similar highway, ‘What’s Got In Your Eyes’ has more that driving Californian feel to it and translates smoothly thanks to English lyrics provided partly by YMO collaborator Peter Barakan.
‘Oishii Seikatsu’ and ‘Michi De Battari’ come as appealing interludes, the former shaped by a marimba figure and the latter with traditionally Japanese textures although all approximated using electronics.
The best track on ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ is the vibrant and funky ‘Onnatachiyo Otokotachiyo’; it sees Steve Jansen demonstrating why highly regarded session drummers like Gavin Harrison regard him as a key influence in the art of percussive painting without overplaying. Stabs of synthetic brass from Sakamoto, Yano’s own piano work and Mick Karn’s trademark fretless slides combine to make this a superb highlight.
The speedy ‘Aisuru Hito Yo’ is more four-to-the-floor despite the tribal congas from Motoya Hamaguchi, containing the spacey overtures that these days gets referred to as Citypop and laced with the jazzy cosmic surfin’ of early YMO. But this is hardly surprising as the drums are helmed by Yukihiro Takahashi plus there is also much to enjoy with Sakamoto’s technopop work here ranging from blips and rings to pulses and sirens to sweeps and growls.
Written entirely in English by Yano, ‘Sleep On My Baby’ is a slice of quirky fusion pop with the distinctive backing vocals of Mick Karn.
But while Karn was perhaps less fluid trhough much of ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ than he had been with his bass work as part of JAPAN on account Sakamoto directing the exact notes that were required, he provides a bit more of his fretless signature sound here if a bit more sedately and less up front.
The guitar driven ‘Another Wedding Song’ is more of a funk soul art piece rather than a conventional song but Haruomi Hosono joins the party on bass guitar with Takahashi for a YMO reunion on the jazzy pop of ‘Donnatokimo Donnatokimo Donnatokimo’ which evokes the magical sunsets of the Ryukyu Islands with its rootsy Japanese variation on steel guitar from Hiroki Komazawa.
The gorgeous piano lullaby ‘Good Night’, written by the unconnected classical musician Yuji Takahashi with words by Yano and Peter Barakan, saw the Japanese songstress duet with David Sylvian and its interplay will delight any fans of the JAPAN frontman or Sakamoto’s film soundtracks. A fittingly perfect if very short closer, it was subsequently used on a domestic Seiko watches TV commercial.
A number of JAPAN and YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA enthusiasts are likely to be hearing ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ for the first time as this sixth Akiko Yano solo album was only released in Japan and they will undoubtedly enjoy a number of the tracks due to their instrumental and vocal connections. While Akiko Yano’s music didn’t export in large numbers, she gained a cult following in Europe and her music broke down barriers.
Today female Japanese singers are able to perform to packed theatres in London while the synthwave fraternity has adopted within its wider family, the Citypop that was pioneered by YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA when she was part of their live presentation.
Always prolific and often releasing an album per year, as recently as 2018, she worked with American synth duo REED & CAROLINE on ‘When We’re In Space’ for her collaborations collection ‘Let’s Go Together’ while she has released three more long players since. It may have taken nearly 40 years but the vast catalogue of Akiko Yano is now able to be more widely appreciated.
At the age of 19, Hideki Matsutake was taken on as an apprentice by Japanese synth maestro Tomita, thus beginning his relationship with the huge modular synthesizers of Dr Robert Moog.
This formative experience with Tomita proved a vital stepping stone, leading to a musical collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto and the creation of his own music unit LOGIC SYSTEM.
The link-up saw Matsutake eventually integrated into the iconic YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA as an ‘unofficial’ fourth member both in the studio and live with Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, working on the self-titled debut, ‘Solid State Survivor’, ‘×∞Multiplies’, ‘BGM’ and ‘Technodelic’.
In parallel, LOGIC SYSTEM released the acclaimed albums ‘Logic, ‘Venus’ and ‘Orient Express’ while also giving technical assistance to artists such as Masami Tsuchiya from IPPU DO and SANDII & THE SUNSETZ, both of whom were involved in the final concert tour of JAPAN as live guitarist and support band respectively.
With a new LOGIC SYSTEM album ‘Technasma’ being released in September 2020, here is an interview with a pioneering electronic musician who rarely speaks to the English-language music press.
In the interview, Hideki-san discusses in fascinating detail his electronic music journey from the challenges of importing the first Moog modulars into Japan through to the creation of his new LOGIC SYSTEM work using a mixture of both vintage and current synthesizer equipment.
Why was Wendy Carlos’ ‘Switched on Bach’ album so important for you in becoming interested in synthesizers?
Not sure if it was important as such, but it was certainly the first time I heard the sound of synthesizer on a record. I didn’t even know what the word “synthesizer” meant. I was intrigued by the jacket when I saw ‘Switched On Bach’ in a record shop.
It had a picture of a person dressed as Bach and behind him, or I should say ‘her’ or ‘them’, was this machine with lots of knobs. Next year, I began working for (Isao) Tomita-sensei and soon discovered that he was planning to import that curious-looking machine – synthesizer – in six months. I cannot tell you how excited I was!
What do you think convinced Tomita to take you on as an assistant when you were still quite young and inexperienced?
My father was a professional sax player. He was managed by an agency called Horipro. Tomita-sensei’s brother was also working at the same agency. Tomita-sensei was about to set up his own agency around that time and his brother was going to help him. They were looking for assistants and I got introduced through my father. It was one of those happy accidents.
Legend has it that Tomita had a REALLY difficult time importing his Moog IIIp into Japan, can you explain a bit about this process and how hard it was convincing customs at the airport to release it once it had arrived in the country?
First of all, it was the time when the exchange rate was fixed – 360 yen to one US dollar, which is more than 3 times the value of today (one US dollar is about 110 yen today). Plus, instead of 10% consumption tax we have today, we had excise tax for luxury items which was very, very high. To make matters more complicated, there were no trade companies that dealt with expensive items like this in those days.
Photo by Kohei Matsuda
Tomita-sensei could have gone to the US, bought the Moog IIIp and brought it back himself. But that meant he would have had to fill in millions of documents for the custom.
He tried to find an easy and inexpensive solution. He even contacted a trading firm in Hong Kong to no avail. Finally, he found a Japanese company called Aska Trading which agreed to import the Moog IIIp. In fact, I also purchased my Moog IIIc through them.
Anyhow, I believe, apart from some universities, Tomita-sensei was the first person to import this kind of electronic instrument to Japan privately. Custom officers couldn’t tell what this machine was. Tomita-sensei told them it was a musical instrument, but they didn’t believe him! What made things more complicated was these knobs on the Moog – this is a true story – these knobs are exactly the same as the knobs used on the strategic bombers when they drop bombs! I swear it’s true! *laughs*
I guess that made those custom officers even more suspicious and consequently, his brand new Moog was detained at Haneda International Airport for over a week, maybe ten days. Tomita-sensei got so p*ssed off. He told them “Look, it’s a musical instrument. Why would it come with a piano-like keyboard, otherwise?”. They were still not convinced. Tomita-sensei contacted Dr Moog and asked him to send some photos of Moog IIIp with musicians actually playing it! Dr Moog sent him photos with the likes of Stevie Wonder playing Moog in the studio. Finally, that did the trick!
How did Tomita and yourself go about learning to use the Moog IIIp?
Photo by Kohei Matsuda
We both had to learn pretty much by ourselves. That said, there was this section called the Electronic Music Room at NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. EMR created legendary sounds such as the electronic bells used for the opening ceremony at Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. There was an engineer with a degree in electronics there called Professor Shiotani. He was a good friend of Tomita-sensei. So I think he learnt the basics of electronic music from him.
If you could name the most important thing that you learned from working with Tomita, what would it be?
One thing Tomita-sensei told me was, in order to create sounds on synthesizer, one needs to have a clear blueprint and palette of sounds in one’s head. Arrangements are like painting. The thing about synthesizer is it is, by nature, neutral. There’s no high or low or bright or dark when you begin creating sounds. You have to design everything. It took me a while to appreciate what he told me. It makes perfect sense now. Other than that, I had to learn pretty much everything by myself.
You got hold of your own Moog IIIc in 1972, the system was insanely expensive at the time (30 million-40 million yen?), what was the situation with the luxury tax that was placed on certain items back then?
Good God, no! It wasn’t like 30 million-40 million yen! The Moog IIIc cost about 6-7000 US dollars at the time. I added some extras so it was closer to the expensive end of the scale.
So, that worked out to be about 2.5 million yen. But the luxury tax was about 200%!!! So, after commission and shipping fee, it ended up approximately 10 million yen.
How did your Moog IIIc modular system come to be named ‘Tansu’?
When you look at my Moog IIIc, on every corner of the wooden cabinets, you will find metal corner protectors attached. I was touring a lot back in the days. And every time we placed Moog IIIc back in the flight case, it got hit and gradually the corners got alarmingly damaged.
One day, I attached these metal corner protectors which are typically used on a traditional Japanese cabinet or “Tansu”. It must have been around 1983 or 84, I took it to the recording studio.
Someone, a session musician, asked me why I attached these protectors. I said to him to protect it. He then told me it made it look like a Tansu! *laughs*
I thought that was a cool name. I had always thought the name Moog IIIc is a bit of a mouthful to us Japanese. That’s why I began calling it ‘Tansu’.
You first came together with Ryuichi Sakamoto on ‘Thousand Knives’ in 1978, how did you work together to produce such an ambitious sound that would shape much of YMO’s early sound?
Sakamoto had a clear concept from the beginning which was to combine Asian melodies with complex Jazzy chords with lots of tension notes. Many people cover ‘Thousand Knives’ but most of them simplify chords. The original was harmonically much more complex. I believe he already had this idea when he was still a student at the Tokyo Art University. The musical complexity of ‘Thousand Knives’ led to his nickname “Kyoju (professor)”.
He wanted to produce an album with the sound of synthesizer and asked someone “who has a Moog III in Japan?”. The person told him he knew only two, Isao Tomita and Hideki Matsutake. That’s how I got to work on this album with him.
How did you discover the Roland MC8 MicroComposer and at the time, did you think a machine like this could totally change the way music would be made in the future?
I was astonished when I first heard about it! I’m not really an accomplished keyboard player so I felt I had no choice but to get it regardless of its price tag. I was still surprised when I did find out how much it cost!
But I bought it anyway, it cost 1.2 million yen! Yet, you could only programme up to 4,000 notes. I said 4,000 notes but they mean more like parameters. And each note required 3 parameters. So, in practical terms, you could only programme up to 1333 notes which really didn’t last long. It only had 2MB memory. I decided to add 8MB of extra memory and that cost another 200,000 yen! In other words, in order to have 8,000 plus notes at my disposal, I needed to cough up 1.4 million yen! *laughs*
But seriously, yes, I was convinced it would totally change the way music would be made in the future. Firstly, it was capable of playing parts human musicians couldn’t physically play. Secondly, you only have to programme to make the whole instrumentation play staccato or do the rit. It really made you feel like a conductor!
Did you need a good mathematical brain to use the Roland MC8 MicroComposer? What amount of time would it take to program a track like ‘Behind The Mask’ for example?
I don’t think you need a good mathematical brain as such. Maybe some rudimentary arithmetic helps – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You need to be able to work these out quickly. Plus, touch-typing skills are vital. Remember, you need to enter three parameters to programme a single note so you’ve got to be quick yet accurate. I practiced a lot.
The programming of ‘Behind The Mask’ did not take that long. What I did with the ‘arpeggio’ part was that I first programmed the part in 8th note and recorded it. And then overdubbed the same notes but delayed them by 8th note. Obviously it is quicker to programme 8th notes than 16th notes. Plus the song has no break which made the programming less complicated.
You enter one erroneous parameter and you screw up the rest of the part so you have to be very accurate. You do need to have an understanding of music in a mathematical way. It got a lot easier when the MC4 came out.
Today, you can just click to get your work from a hard drive but the Roland MC8 MicroComposer used a cassette dump; did this cause anxiety in the studio and live?
I had a stress-related stomach ache everyday! That’s why I can drink like a fish today! *laughs*
Seriously, I honestly prayed and prayed. You just could not predict what would go wrong. Luckily, the MC8 only stopped twice during the live performance. When that happens, everyone in the band knew there was nothing I or anyone could do, so the rest of the musicians went ahead and played without the sequenced parts.
There’s a live double album by YMO consisting of live recordings in Europe on one disc and the same performance in the US on the other disc. If you listen to ‘Behind The Mask’, you can hear the sequenced part on the European recording, but it’s absent on the American version. What happened was this: when I pressed ‘play’, something went wrong with the tempo setting and played the entire part in about five seconds! It made this fantastic abstract noise and the audience went wild! They thought it was way cool.
Anyhow, seeing there was no way I could restore the data on the fly, I sent Akiko Yano, who was playing keyboards during that tour, the sign saying there’s nothing I can do. She went ahead and began playing the opening keyboard riff. I never told any music journalists this story before. The noise was edited out on the final record but I would love to listen to it! Wouldn’t you?
What did you think when you were with YMO performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and you saw people dancing so happily… or maybe you didn’t as you had your back to the audience because you were operating your Moog IIIc?
I suppose the American audiences were fascinated by the combination of electronic disco beat with the oriental melodies, ‘Tong Poo’, for instance. On top of that, Kazumi Watanabe played electric guitar solos. People probably couldn’t figure out whether it was Fusion – I don’t think the term ‘Techno’ was coined at that time – or what. I think that je ne sais quoi aspect excited people.
When the MC8 was replaced by the MC4, did you help Roland with the development? What improvements happened to make it easier to use?
No. I had nothing to do with the development of the MC4. I’ve had some degree of partnerships with many musical instruments manufacturers. I exercise what I call omnidirectional diplomacy with these manufacturers. I treat them equally. I do not wish to endorse any of them or their products. I treat them and help them equally and prefer not to be tied to one company. I just don’t like having to belong to one organisation. That’s why I’m not interested in any endorsement… unless they pay me half a billion yen a year! *laughs*
Jokes aside, I guess where it boils down to is that I want to be free. That said, I have helped some manufacturers develop certain products, but they were not the MC4 or MC8. However, the engineer from Roland did ask me about MC8 – what the problem was, why it was difficult to use, what improvements I would suggest and so on. They addressed and rectified the issues I suggested with the MC4.
One of the later YMO albums you worked on was ‘BGM’ which also has the first recorded use of the Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer. At the same time, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer had arrived as well. Were you surprised when this analogue 808 machine became such a legendary technology?
The mere fact that TR808s are now really expensive in the second-hand market speaks volumes about the machine.
In the first place, electronic instruments going up in price as an old second-hand item was simply unheard of! I can understand why guitars or violins go up in value, but the components of electronic devices inevitably deteriorate with time which means they don’t sound like they actually did in 1980. In that sense, it is perhaps more sensible to just sample the sounds of these vintage electronic gear.
That being said, there is no question about the TR 808 being a masterpiece. It is also one of the last of great analogue drum machines. the TR909 was also a great drum machine but the sounds were partly sampled and not entirely analogue. I’ve used the TR808 a lot on LOGIC SYSTEM’s new album ‘Technasma’. You need to listen to it to find out where and how I used it!
So, was I surprised? Well, it’s more of a sense of elation rather than surprise. I am really pleased to see the new generation of musicians appreciating the true value of this great vintage machine.
How did your music for ‘The Infinite Space Octave’ become ‘Loom’ on ‘BGM’?
‘The Infinite Space Octave’ was originally produced for a TV commercial but never materialised. I tried really hard to produce it on the Moog IIIc but soon I realised I needed more gear to create the infinite space octave. One thing I did discover was that human ears mostly hear around 2,000Hz and not much else.
The infinite space octave begins in the extremely low frequency and ends in the extremely high frequency, both of which are not audible to a human ear. If you generate this drone-like rising sound one after another and you get this effect that resembles MC Escher’s drawings – a note or notes that keep rising forever. That’s the trick behind ‘The Infinite Space Octave’.
Anyhow, I was working on it at the Sony studio in Roppongi. One day, someone from Sony dropped by and heard what I was doing and thought it was really interesting. That’s how I ended up making the record ‘The Infinite Space Octave’. It took about a week to record. And during the recording, Haruomi Hosono came to the studio to see what the devil I was up to. That was when he was about to form YMO. ‘BGM’ came out a few years later, but Hosono must have remembered that recording. He asked me to reproduce the same sound for ‘Loom’.
‘BGM’ was made on a 3M 32 track digital recorder but Hosono-san did not like the sharp sound quality produced, what is your opinion about early digital recording methods?
I have no strong opinion on it. I still think the analogue sound is superior. Digital audio sounds like somebody has put make-up on the original sound to me. But I feel, ultimately, it’s a question of preference.
Of course, the sound of the digital recorder was so clean and I thought it was fine at the time. I just don’t think that was the sound texture Hosono was after for that particular album. During the mastering of my new album ‘Technasma’, I felt some tracks needed the analogue touch. So, we applied an Abbey Road VST to emulate the analogue recording. They sound superb.
When we used the 3M digital recorder, I wasn’t sure whether I preferred it or not. Today, I can confidently say I like the analogue sound for its greater range and natural tape compression.
You were involved in the first five YMO albums, which are your favourite tracks where you made a key contribution and why?
That’s a difficult question… ‘Firecracker’ is a memorable track only because it was a technically difficult recording. As far as the recording goes, the ‘Technodelic’ and ‘BGM’ albums mean a lot to me and somehow I contributed more to those albums.
In fact, my favourite track would have to be ‘Cue’. I think it represents the aesthetics of YMO. Love the bassline on that track – simple yet complex. The vocal track is very cool, too. Totally original.
You were often called “the fourth member of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA”, did you feel very much part of the family in the studio and on tour?
The thing was they were the artists. I was the techie guy. I was merely a support member, certainly not one of the main members. Still, they are all good friends of mine, even to this day.
Most Western electronic music fans know you best for your unit LOGIC SYSTEM which debuted with two very contrasting albums in 1981. Did you have a specific plan for the project?
Kind of. Prior to the actual production of the second album ‘Venus’, my music publisher, Fuji Pacific, found out how well my first album ‘Logic’ was doing in Europe. They said to me “Look, you should put out the follow-up album as soon as possible! Have you any ideas for the next album?” – I said to them, well I would like to make a less “technoie” record.
After that, I think it was the producer from Fuji Pacific, who told me the concept of my next album should be “Human vs Machine” which I thought was cool. They also told me I could hand pick any musicians I wanted to work with. I said “Seriously? Are you sure?”*laughs*
I thought of the American musicians I worked with on Akiko Yano’s ‘To Ki Me Ki’ which was recorded in New York in 1978. Also, I’d always wanted to work with Michael Boddicker – he was already a famous programmer and his name was on almost all the records I liked at that time. I wanted live musicians to play instruments and I would take care of all the programming parts.
Save for some chords which I played on keyboard, the first album was entirely programmed. I wanted something different, a bit of rock, a bit of contemporary music. Roger Powell, for instance, comes from a classical background. He is an amazing pianist. Roger’s synth solos on ‘Venus’ were absolutely awesome. So, to answer your question, no, I didn’t have a specific plan as such. I just wanted to try something different.
I wanted each LOGIC SYSTEM’s album to tell a story. Different stories. I thought making a mere sequel to the first album would result in a commercial and artistic failure. That’s why even those jackets look very different. I still love the album jacket of ‘Venus’ – the girl releasing some mysterious beam from her mouth! *laughs*
‘Domino Dance’ is probably the best known LOGIC SYSTEM track, how was this piece written?
How was it written? That’s actually quite a bizarre track, when you think about it. The bass line, for example. Perhaps it sounded original because it was so bizarre. The track was written by Ryo Kawakami. He is better known as an arranger. When he and I began working on the first album, we wanted to try something different. We wanted to create a melodic and relaxing album with a good sense of humour.
Actually, Kenji Omura played guitar on that track. But we treated it so much it doesn’t sound like guitar at all! The synth sound in the intro was inspired by the arcade game ‘Pac Man’. Also, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of dominoes falling at the end.
‘Venus’ was a very different sounding album to ‘Logic’, were you at all worried about how well it would be received?
I wasn’t thinking about that all that much, to be honest. All I was thinking was the concept as I told you before, “Human vs Machine” – get virtuosos to play fantastic phrases and I would attempt to out-perform them by programming phrases no human can physically play. When I think about it, it was an amazing album.
Vinnie Colaiuta who played drums, played with bands like WEATHER REPORT. Whilst Nathan East is now one of the most famous bassists in Japan, if not the world. I didn’t know who Nathan was at the time, but he was such a nice guy. He would come up with a new bass line and then ask me “what do you think, Matsutake?”
Jerry Hey, again, is a highly regarded trumpet player. He played on many J-Pop records. He played on some of Tetsuya Komuro’s tracks. I may have been the first Japanese musician to work with him. What was amazing about Jerry was that he would play both riffs or pre-written phrases and solos in one take. This is inconceivable in Japan. You would record on two separate tracks. Yet, his performance was always impeccable. Truly impressive. So, all these amazing musicians’ performances inspired me to work harder and come up with better programming and arrangement.
Don Grusin was also cool. He brought his synth, I think it was an Oberheim OB8, to the studio by himself with no assistant. I offered to help him but he said it was okay. Given his stature, I thought it was amazing. Although he was very popular already, he remained humble. I learnt a lot from these musicians.
There was the Toshiba LMD-649, an early sampler which YMO used on ‘Technodelic’, did you use it on ‘Venus’?
We used the Linn LM-1. I don’t recall using Toshiba LMD-649 on ‘Venus’. If my memory serves right, it came out around the time we finished recording that album. So, we couldn’t have used the Toshiba sampler on ‘Venus’.
In many respects ‘Venus’ is a very influential album; in 1981 that mix of electronics and live musicians was ahead of its time. Listening back, one can hear the sound of acts such as DAFT PUNK (‘Take A Chance’) and AIR (‘I Love You’). Looking back, what are your feelings about the album now?
In many respects, ‘Venus’ was the most unusual album I have ever released as LOGIC SYSTEM. The jacket design, for a kick-off. Looking back, I think I wanted to try experimental stuff in many music genres. Since it was recorded in LA, I had a limited studio time. We mixed the album there.
It was the first and the only time I had my record mixed overseas! Record labels don’t have that kind of budget these days. If I said to them “I want my album recorded and mixed overseas” today, I’d be shown the door! *laughs*
Anyhow, it was a great experience. I’ve got a lot of fantastic memories from that session. I worked extremely hard on computer programming, possibly the hardest in my entire career. I spent a lot of time working on it. I think the highlight of the whole recording was when I worked with Roger Powell.
It was so much fun. Roger has an extensive knowledge on synthesizer, possibly more knowledgeable than I. I really wanted him to create drum sounds on synths which he did, and I was so impressed. I learnt a lot from him. Michael Boddicker brought a massive stack of synths with his gigantic truck. The studio looked like a music store. But he ended up using just 2 or 3 of them! *laughs*
To me, that somewhat symbolized the LA music scene. Michael was also a super nice guy. I miss them both. I would love to meet Roger and Michael again. I met Don Grusin again in 2016. He was at the Musical Instruments Fair Japan 2016. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, but he remembered me. It was a lovely reunion.
In comparison with your work between 1978-1981, much of the UK electronic music scene was very simple and ’monophonic’ sounding. How closely did you watch British synthesizer acts and did you have any favourite bands at the time?
I liked THE HUMAN LEAGUE. I bought a lot of British electronic records. I wanted to listen to the latest records as soon as possible.
So I used to buy them from the import shop which was expensive! I also listened to the likes of NEW MUSIK which was recommended by Yukihiro Takahashi. Whenever Yukihiro or Ryuichi told me such and such albums had really cool synth sounds, I would go and get those records. But they weren’t just British, lots of European acts as well.
LOGIC SYSTEM supported TANGERINE DREAM in Hong Kong in 2017, are you a fan of this legendary band and how was this experience?
I’m a huge fan of TANGERINE DREAM. I’ve got all their albums. None of the original members are there anymore, as you know. They now have a Japanese member called Hoshiko Yamane. They were supposed to come to Japan to play in July or August this year. Hoshiko-san sent me the invite through Facebook messenger. But, of course, it was cancelled.
TANGERINE DREAM played Moog and EMS live back in the days. I would have loved to see them then. They also did the music for the film ‘Sorcerer’ in 1977. I loved the soundtrack of that film. I used to listen to it repeatedly.
‘Orient Express’ saw you explore European music traditions, how were you inspired by this train journey? Did you ride on it or was it your imagination?
I had the title ‘Orient Express’ first. I’ve never taken the Orient Express. The only express train I’ve ever taken in Europe was a TGV, but it’s not quite the Orient Express is it? Anyhow, I’ve always loved trains and train journeys. I read the biography of Georges Nagelmackers who was the founder of the Orient Express. He talks about how difficult the business was. War affected his international railway business a great deal. Railways connect countries and thereby bring peace, ideally, at least.
This is a true story – Georges Nagelmackers’s ultimate dream was to extend the Orient Express as far as Tokyo! I often imagine that, had he succeeded, perhaps the war could have been avoided. So, after reading his biography, I wanted to express these ideas through music.
There are also so many beautiful places in Europe. I thought it would be great to create tracks inspired by these places. I explained the concept to several composers and asked them to write tunes. That’s how that album was made. The most memorable tune would have to be the last track, ‘Georges Nagelmackers’ written by Masaaki Ohmura. I still find it deeply moving.
On the ‘Orient Express’ album, you did a cover version of ‘Simoon’ from YMO’s first album, why did you choose this?
For some reason, that tune always reminded me of the desert. Istanbul, the final destination of the Orient Express, is in Turkey which is kind of close to Arabian Desert. So, I thought “yeah, why not?” – I also thought the melody fitted the mood of the album. Plus, I wanted a female singer to sing on this album. I got Harumi Ozora, who is sadly no longer with us, to sing this tune.
There is a new LOGIC SYSTEM album ‘Technasma’ being released at the end of August, what can listeners expect from it?
Actually, the original concept of this album was to make the sequel to the first LOGIC SYSTEM album. So, inevitably, it is sequenced sound-based. It consists of 50% analogue synths and 50% digital synths. It’s very different from ‘Venus’, for example.
That said, there are some human elements, too. I played trumpet and Mioko Yamaguchi played piano. Mioko was the main collaborator. The thing about her is that she is first and foremost a songwriter. This was her first experience to compose for an instrumental album.
I told her what I wanted and gave her some advice on composing instrumental pieces. We began working on it from November last year. The Covid-19 scare began around February. We both felt it was some kind of invasion from outer space. Virus is invisible and so is music.
We decided to fight the corona virus with our music. I feel the sequence programme reflects the sense of apprehension in the air. It sounds as though the genuine, honest sound of analogue synths is fighting the sampled sounds, the invaders. The tension between those sounds, analogue vs digital, if you like, became the key concept of this album.
The title ‘Technasma’ is intriguing, it’s a little-known word, but has an interesting meaning. Can you explain the background behind the choice of this title?
It’s a Greek word meaning ‘trick’. Synthesizers are full of these tricks. That doesn’t mean to cheat people or anything. It’s more like musical magic, as in Yellow ‘Magic’ Orchestra. I wanted a title that represented that magic.
My manager and I were talking about the word ‘trick’. We didn’t use the word ‘trick’ so we were looking up the word ‘trick’ in various languages. When we found this word ‘technasma’, we knew that was it! Also, it sounds like a compound word of ‘technique’ and ‘inazuma’ which means ‘lightning’ in Japanese.
‘Technasma’ has a fantastic equipment list associated with it, from your Moog IIIc through to the lowly Stylophone. If you could pick a piece of gear that helped define the sound of the album, what would it be?
It would have to be the Sequential Pro 3. In my opinion, it is the greatest analogue synth in recent years. It is a truly marvellous piece of equipment.
One of the highlights on ‘Technasma’ is a rework of ‘Closing’ from Philip Glass’ iconic minimalist album ‘Glassworks’. What made you choose this piece to cover, was a kind of homage to Tomita-sensei by reworking a classical piece in a more electronic way?
This track was arranged by Akio Dobashi, an ex-keyboardist from a J-Pop band called REBECCA. His original arrangement was fabulous, quite dancey.
I just changed a few things and made it sound more classical. I’ve always loved Philip Glass and his polyrhythmic minimal music and wanted to cover one day. So, what made me choose this piece to cover? Well, because I happen to love that tune *laughs*
As for the homage to Tomita-sense, actually no. That was not in my mind at all.
‘Revive’ is a beautifully melodic hybrid of Jean-Michel-Jarre style synth pads, piano and techno drums. What exactly were you trying to ‘revive’ with this piece?
I think music requires two themes. In the case of ‘Revive’, it begins with a simple melody on piano. It’s so simple anyone can play it. But it doesn’t go anywhere to resolve. It resolves in the middle part where the strings kick in. So, a composition needs two things; the main theme or the statement and the resolution. That is the element of LOGIC SYSTEM’s music. I suppose I’m trying to ‘revive’ this traditional format.
Another thing about that track is the sound of piano. If you listen to piano carefully on your headphones, you will notice there are many layers. You can hear some distorted sounds in the distance, for instance. That’s the trick or, if you like, the ‘technasma’ *laughs*
A number of tracks on ‘Technasma’ like ‘Crisis’ are composed by Mioko Yamaguchi. How did you work together with the arrangements as on ‘Mondrian’s Square’, where there are whistling and swirling synth lines that one could imagine being sung?
Those sounds are my idea. In fact, that’s my homage to Tomita-sensei. I almost imitated what he had done. The whistling sound represents our desire to be happy, yearning for joy amidst the invasion by you-know-what.
I’ve never revealed this before – there’s a little noise during the break towards the end of the track. That ‘noise’ is actually someone’s snore! I honestly believe snoring represents peace. You cannot afford to snore unless there’s peace. In the battlefield, you’ll be killed as soon as you start snoring. You breathe because you are alive or even revive. The album is full of ‘tricks’ like that.
It has taken many years, but Japanese music now has a much higher profile in the UK, why do you think genres such as Vocaloid have had a surge in popularity over here now?
I think there’s a lot of craft put into Japanese music production, meticulous attention to detail. It’s never simple. Maybe people in the UK are beginning to appreciate that. Japanese songs usually take the traditional four-part oriental poetry structure – introduction, development, twist and conclusion. So, even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can still appreciate the sense of story there. Our sense of melodic aesthetics are slightly different from the UK. The closest European music would be Italian Canzone. But it’s not the same.
As the Covid-19 situation has put live music in so much doubt at the moment, are there any plans for you to do any more LOGIC SYSTEM live concerts and if not, what is the future for this unit?
I would love to play live, of course! There’s absolutely nothing like live music. Electronic music, especially the lower frequency, needs to be experienced live.
That said, I’m also interested in performing a live streaming session. Synthesizers are ideal for that, I think. I am hoping to organize an online music event. Hope you can come see me there!
LOGIC SYSTEM ‘Technasma’ uses the following equipment:
Moog IIIc, MiniMoog Voyager, Moog Mother 32, Moog GrandMother, Moog DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother), Emu Vintage Keys, Emu Orbit, Emu Planet Phatt, Emu Carnaval, Emu Morpheus, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Sequential Pro 3, ARP Odyssey, Clavia Nord Lead, Arturia V Collection 7, SpectraSonics Omnisphere, Yamaha Montage, Yamaha FS1R, Yamaha MU2000, Roland Fantom, Roland Jupiter-Xm, Roland TR808, Roland TR8, Roland VP770, Roland SC-88 Pro, Dubreq Stylophone
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Hideki Matsutake
Special thanks to Toshihiro Arai for his valued assistance and co-ordination
Born in Auckland to Danish parents, Zaine Griff possesses a musical CV that is impressive, reading like a Who’s Who of popular music.
First a bassist and vocalist with Kiwi rock band THE HUMAN INSTINCT, he left in 1975 and moved to London where he had stints in BABY FACE and SCREEMER before going on to study mime under Lindsay Kemp alongside Kate Bush. As a result, he joined Kemp’s production of a play written by Jean Genet called ‘Flowers’.
In 1979, Zaine Griff launched his solo career with future film music composer Hans Zimmer and ULTRAVOX drummer Warren Cann among the members of his backing band for an appearance at the Reading Festival.
With his Aladdin Sane-inspired persona, he was soon signed by Automatic Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros who brought in Tony Visconti to produce his debut solo album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’. It spawned the 1980 single ‘Tonight’ but it peaked at No54 in the UK Singles Chart, partly due to an already recorded appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ not being shown due to a Musicians Union strike.
It was during these recording sessions for ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ that David Bowie walked in to visit Visconti and was slightly taken aback by the resemblance between himself and Griff. Despite this, Bowie invited Griff be part of the band to record three new versions of his songs for an upcoming appearance on the 1979 Kenny Everett New Year Show.
One of them was ‘Space Oddity’ which later surfaced as the flipside to ‘Alabama Song’ while another was ‘Panic In Detroit’ that later appeared as a bonus track on the Ryko CD reissue of the ’Scary Monsters’ album; the re-recording of ‘Rebel Rebel’ has yet to see the light of day.
The second Zaine Griff album ‘Figvres’ was released in 1982 and saw Hans Zimmer stepping up to the producer role.
Around this time, Griff held an art exhibition of his drawings in London’s Ebury Galley, to which his friend and contemporary artist Mark Wardel also contributed.
Meanwhile in 1983, Griff collaborated on six songs for Hans Zimmer and Warren Cann’s ambitious HELDEN album ‘Spies’ which despite the independently released duet with Linda Allan titled ‘Holding On’ being issued as a single in advance, remains officially unreleased. After recording with Midge Ure and Gary Numan, Griff returned to New Zealand in 1984.
In 2011, Zaine Griff made a comeback with his third album ‘Child Who Wants The Moon’ and returned to the live stage. While he has continued releasing albums and touring regularly, his music was being discovered by a cool young audience, thanks to American rockers MGMT covering ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ during their concerts in 2018.
Then recently, there came the surprise announcement that Zaine Griff was to join Rusty Egan and ‘Fade To Grey’ co-writer Chris Payne to perform the songs of VISAGE in an audio-visual presentation at W-Festival in Belgium and the Human Traffic Live & The Pioneers of Electronica showcase in London this Summer.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of VISAGE, founder members Midge Ure and Rusty Egan had deliberated for months as to who could take on guitar and lead vocals in a four man line-up with a nod to their original inspiration KRAFTWERK, eschewing the format of a lead singer fronting a band. With Ure committed to his own ‘1980’ tour performing VISAGE and ULTRAVOX songs, the role was offered to Zaine Griff.
While Steve Strange was undoubtedly the flamboyant face of VISAGE and played a vital role in the collective’s international visual profile, the many layers of backing vocals on the recordings were by Midge Ure and Rusty Egan, providing a crucial musicality to support Strange’s more monotone lead voice.
Meanwhile, a fair number of tracks like ‘The Dancer’, ‘Moon Over Moscow’, ‘Whispers’ and the dance mix of ‘Frequency 7’ were instrumentals.
So as an associate of the New Romantic movement with connections to many key figures of the period, Zaine Griff is just the man for the job. He kindly spoke from his home in New Zealand to talk about his music career and the upcoming VISAGE 1980 x 2020 shows.
Your debut solo album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ was produced by Tony Visconti, how did that come about?
Tony Visconti was brought in to produce my debut album ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ by my record company MD Nick Mobbs at Automatic Records which was part of Warner Bros. When Tony heard my demos, he wanted to work with me.
It was during the recording of the ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ album that you were introduced to David Bowie and he had a proposal?
I was introduced to David Bowie by Tony at Good Earth studios. David had just returned from recording the Berlin trilogy and was wanting Tony to produce some tracks for a TV show. He had heard what I was doing and asked me if we could back him.
How did you run into Hans Zimmer and his batcave of synths?
Colin Thurston introduced me to Hans Zimmer when Colin brought Hans into Utopia studios to play keyboards on some demos I was recording there.
Everything from that session onwards, Hans played on. As Hans said to me only last year: “I was your keyboard player”.
In fact, he was much more than that. All the live work, studio work, Hans was with me, as I was with him during his HELDEN project.
You were frequenting The Blitz Club, what appealed to you about its atmosphere and how did you find the characters you met there?
I met Steve Strange at Legends night club. My manager Campbell Palmer owned Legends. I met so many amazing artists at Legends, we would dance and hangout till day break, often we would go to The Blitz Club or The Embassy. Everyone seemed to know each other and were supportive of each other. This is how I met Rusty Egan and Midge Ure, Boy George, Marilyn and so on.
Did it take much to persuade Rusty Egan to appear in your ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ video for the single?
I wanted at the time for Rusty to drum for me and Gary Tibbs to play bass. Well, they performed in the video of ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ and then they both were doing other projects. I tried!!
How do you feel about the American indie rock band MGMT covering ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ on their 2018 live tour?
Fantastic! I would love to meet them one day. It’s so cool when a younger generation plays your music in respect of the song and the composition. I was thrilled to say the least, I have followed them ever since.
Hans Zimmer had moved up to the producer role on ‘Figvres’ and it was to prove inspiring for his later soundtrack career?
I had to convince Nick Mobbs of Automatic Records to allow Hans Zimmer to produce my second album ‘Figvres’. So much so that Nick allowed Hans to co-produce and Nick would allow us to complete the album based on the first two weeks of recording. He loved what he heard and gave us his blessing to finish.
Up until then, Hans had only produced a single for THE DAMNED. ‘Figvres’ was his first album production. And indeed he is entitled to a full production credit for everything he put into ‘Figvres’ and of course Steve Rance, Hans’ engineer… what a team!
You had a good friendship with Warren Cann from ULTRAVOX who played on the ‘Figvres’ album too?
I heard ULTRAVOX on the John Peel show. I went out and brought ‘Systems Of Romance’ only because of the drummer. I had to meet this guy and work with him. I wanted Warren so much, I called Island Records, got his number, went to his flat and convinced him to play at the Reading Festival with me, and that’s how Hans and Warren met in rehearsal for Reading Festival.
The song ‘Flowers’ was dedicated to the late Lindsay Kemp and had Kate Bush singing backing vocals, what was it like working with her?
Working with Kate Bush was beautiful. She and I had studied under Lindsay Kemp, so it was easy for her to understand the ‘Flowers’ song and the emotion of the composition.
‘Flowers’ the show was a massive inspiration. Nothing comes near ‘Flowers’. So powerful, so dramatic and a huge inspiration to us both.
Hans Zimmer and Warren Cann formed HELDEN and you sang on the single ‘Holding On’, but the album on which you sang another five songs has never had an official release, do you consider it to be a lost classic?
I spent a whole year, most days and nights with Hans and Warren on the HELDEN project mainly at Snake Ranch Studios. I did a radio promotional tour with Hans. By then he was swept off his feet by film directors. Alas Hollywood.
What was the idea behind you recording a cover of ULTRAVOX’s ‘Passionate Reply’ with Midge Ure?
Chris O’Donnell suggested I do some recording with Midge. He played me ‘Passionate Reply’ on an acoustic, I had not heard it before and I just loved it. We recorded in his Chiswick studio. We recorded enough material for an album and the masters were stored at Rock City Studios with Gary Numan’s mum.
I loved working with Midge. I had known Midge from when he was in SLIK. The band I was playing with at the time were the support to SLIK. I knew then just how good he was.
Looking back, we were so naive to it all. ULTRAVOX was managed by Chris O’Donnell and Chris Morrison, they were my production management company and production company to VISAGE. See how close knit we all were? And of course they managed THIN LIZZY.
There was that TV appearance performing ‘Passionate Reply’ on ‘The Freddie Starr Show’? What can you remember about that?
I was told I was to go to Manchester and do this show. All I wanted to do was not do it. Hated the whole tacky production. Still I stood up there alone and did it.
You recorded ‘This Strange Obsession’ with Yukihiro Takahashi and Ronny, that’s quite an international combination?
I had worked with Ronny on one of my songs ‘It’s A Sin’ with Hans producing her and Yukihiro approached me to write for him. I asked Ronny to join us. That was amazing working with Yukihiro. The translation barrier was understood with music.
Although you never recorded together, there’s a photo of you with Steve Strange and Mick Karn, what was the occasion?
That photo of Mick, Steve and I was at my art exhibition at the Ebury Gallery Victoria.
Gary Numan invited you to duet with him on ‘The Secret’ from ‘Berserker’, it has a good chemistry, how did you find working in the studio with him?
Gary Numan called me asked me to work on ‘Berserker’ just out of the blue. He was great to work with, I remember him doing takes faster than what I was used to; if he liked that take, that was it. Midge was like that as well. They knew what they wanted.
You returned with your third album ‘Child Who Wants The Moon’ in 2011, what was behind what appeared to be a lengthy hiatus?
It was a lengthy hiatus because I was burnt out, exhausted, not well, I had to go. I was not in a great space. I decided to try and get well again and stop wanting the moon… you know wanting the impossible.
You’ve released the albums ‘The Visitor’ and ‘Mood Swings’ since then and have returned to performing live again. Was that aspect something you’d missed over the years?
My problem is I cannot stop composing. I recorded ‘The Visitor’ and ‘Mood Swings’ purely for composition fulfilment. In the liner notes of ‘Mood Swings’, you can see the album is dedicated to Steve Strange.
How did the upcoming VISAGE 1980 x 2021 gigs with Rusty Egan and Chris Payne come about?
I had a call from Rusty late last year. He had spoken to Midge and Chris Payne, and asked if I would be interested in the VISAGE 1980 x 2021 shows. I find this an honour and a privilege. This project is about the music of VISAGE, not the front man or side man, it is about the music VISAGE produced and created.
These VISAGE shows from my perspective are a celebration of 40 years since the VISAGE debut was released. For me, it will also be a 40 years celebration of my debut album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’. It is also a celebration to Steve’s life, Rusty, Midge, Chris and everyone involved in the making of VISAGE and all their incredible fans and followers.
Which are your own favourite VISAGE songs?
Songs like ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ are classic compositions of that time. Again, I love the energy they put in the studio, I don’t believe they ever performed live. I have spoken to Chris but I haven’t seen him since I sang on Gary Numan’s ‘Berserker’ album… I can’t wait to work with Chris and Rusty again.
What are your plans after these VISAGE 1980 x 2021 dates?
I will be doing some live shows later this year in London.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Zaine Griff
Zaine Griff, Rusty Egan, Chris Payne and Dave Brooks perform the music of VISAGE 1980 x 2021 at W-Festival in Belgium on Saturday 28th August 2021 – tickets are available from https://w-festival.com/en/
Capturing the mood of a busy metropolis during the rush hour, the self-explanatory ‘Music For City & Nature’ is the latest work by SHOOK, the musical vehicle of Dutch composer Jasper Wijnands.
SHOOK said: “In this album I tried to document my emotional and mental state at this point in my career. It is inspired by the conflict between the energetic and busy city life and the calm, warmth and peace that nature gives. It isn’t a city ‘versus’ nature album though, it is about daily life existing in a gray area in between. I try to find a balance by connecting both sides.”
Now if there was a more apt instrumental embodying the commuting way of life, then the subtle funk of ‘City’ would be it. Opening ‘Music For City & Nature’, the joy of heading home is a countered by the frustration of travel and delay. It’s a light and shade piece that sets the mood.
In a duet with SHOOK’s regular collaborator Juliet Klaar, the charming ‘Mind Up’ adds modern treated vocals over a jazzy electropop vibe, his own voice recalling a less wayward Yukihiro Takahashi as flickering synthesized pulses capture the tension of adolescent angst and how best to move forward.
Meanwhile, ‘Fighting’ is pure YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, with robotic voices and bright pentatonic overtones pointing towards the iconic trio’s first two albums. Playing with a similar template, ‘Rush Hour’ captures a typical South East Asian sunset where things start to get dark at 7.00pm even at the height of summer.
‘Morning Shine’ borrows from Ryuichi Sakamoto and ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ in particular but it is delightful, as is the bright and breezy ‘Sun Symphony’ which is a number that celebrates an appreciation for the simple things in life.
Written and sweetly sung solo by Juliet Klaar, ‘Lullaby’ is a pretty tune that does what it says it will, but ‘A Million Trees’ with its marimba motif goes a bit more esoteric in the vein of Steve Reich, outstaying its welcome by three minutes. Things get back on track with ‘I Miss You Today’ which incorporates a live sounding rhythmic feel alongside some filmic piano runs.
Closing with the rather sparse understated soundscape of ‘Shape Of Water’, SHOOK heads for the creature comforts of home under the watch of the late Japanese ambient trailblazer Hiroshi Yoshimura for a fitting journey’s end.
‘Music for City & Nature’ has a delicate timeless quality in its search for balance and peace of mind.
It might be too sedate and organic for some, but does its job well of capturing the start and end of a journey in its literal sense.
YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA formed in 1978 as an intended one-off project for producer and bass player Haruomi Hosono.
After Hosono hired two session musicians drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto to record that debut self-titled album, the rest was history…
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the formation of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, ten bodies of work originally released by Alfa Records between 1978-1983 are being reissued by Sony Music Direct in high resolution formats remastered by Bob Ladick as part of #YMO40.
Hosono was already a music veteran having been involved in the recording of several early electronic rock records in Japan while Takahashi was in THE SADISTIC MIKA BAND, a progressive rock outfit who were signed to PINK FLOYD’s label Harvest. The classically trained Sakamoto had experimented with electronic music at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Hosono’s concept for YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA had been an instrumental disco band who could appeal internationally. But when Sakamoto introduced the music of KRAFTWERK to his bandmates, the die was cast for what was to become the YMO sound.
Acts like KRAFTWERK had helped restore a sense of German identity in reaction to the Americanisation of European post-war culture. The trio felt this was also needed in Japan so they endeavoured to make something very indigenous and original while using electronics. As Sakamoto remarked, this involved using the “very Japanese” approach of merging many different styles like a Bento box in a reliable, forward thinking fashion.
The technology used on YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s 1978 self-titled debut album included the Moog III-C, Korg PS-3100, Polymoog, ARP Odyssey, Oberheim Eight Voice, Minimoog, Korg VC-10 Vocoder and Roland MC-8 Micro Composer. With the latter programmed by fourth member Hideki Matsutake aka LOGIC SYSTEM to control the synthesizers, the result was a crisp exotic pop sound that was unusual and ahead of its time, even in the electronic music heartland of Europe.
As a result YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA became standard bearers for what eventually became known in Japan as Technopop. This was best exemplified by the anthemic Sakamoto penned ‘Tong Poo’ which despite its disco bassline, was inspired by Chinese music from its controversial Cultural Revolution. It was a sign of things to come as Sakamoto would later revisit the theme as a composer for the film ‘The Last Emperor’ which netted him an Oscar for its soundtrack.
Also from the debut album, ‘Simoon’ sung by Shunichi Hashimoto imagined a retro-futurist jazz club in the 22nd Century as did the appropriately titled ‘Cosmic Surfin’, both showing off YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s musical diversity. Meanwhile, the influence of ‘Popcorn’ and French acts such as SPACE could be felt on the mildly off-the-wall ‘Mad Pierrot’.
But the debut album’s key track was to become a surprise UK Top 20 hit single in 1980 while also gaining traction in America where the band made a memorable appearance on the prestigious music show ‘Soul Train’. Titled ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’, the main section of the track was actually ‘Firecracker’, a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny.
Although the original could be seen as an early form of cultural appropriation using every pentatonic cliché in the book, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA took it back and gave the tune authenticity, with their electronic treatment acting as a symbol of the Far East’s advancement in the worthy cause of affordable technology.
The international popularity of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA coincided with the burgeoning electronic pop movement in the UK which had embraced affordable synthesizers from Japanese manufacturers such as Roland, Korg, Kawai and Yamaha.
VISAGE’s drummer Rusty Egan in his dual role as DJ at The Blitz Club in London had been spinning YMO tunes just as acts like GARY NUMAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, ULTRAVOX, OMD, SOFT CELL and DEPECHE MODE were beginning to gain traction within the mainstream. The music made a big impact on Egan:
“I liked the album and played it along with TELEX and SPARKS. The sound was an influence on VISAGE. We’d recorded ‘The Dancer’ which was more NEU! and ‘In The Year 2525’ which was more KRAFTWERK, so by the time we recorded ‘Moon Over Moscow’, that was to include Russia, Japan, Germany and France in our sound. I got tickets to the gigs and they came to thank me as they had heard from the record label that I was the guy loving the album and playing them. The drummer was also using the same drum pads as me!”
Released in Autumn 1979, the excellent second album ‘Solid State Survivor’ included the glorious Technopop of ‘Rydeen’ and its middle eight syndrum fest, while ‘Castalia’ displayed a moodier side to YELLO MAGIC ORCHESTRA. The rousing syncopated Cossack romp of ‘Absolute Ego Dance’, featuring Sandii O’Neale of SANDII & THE SUNSETZ who Hosono later produced, was another highlight on what can now be seen as possibly YMO’s best album.
However, the track which crossed over and became a worldwide phenomenon began life as music for a Seiko Quartz watch commercial. ‘Behind The Mask’ had initially put together by Sakamoto and Takahashi but had a catchy vocodered chorus written by Tokyo based British composer Chris Mosdell added; the extended recording ended up on ‘Solid State Survivor’.
Another highlight from ‘Solid State Survivor’ was the mighty ‘Technopolis’, easily a musical equal to ‘Rydeen’. However, a cover of THE BEATLES ‘Day Tripper’ was ill-advised; voiced by Takahashi, his style in the vein of a Bryan Ferry after too much sake often polarised listeners. And as artistically YMO moved away from solely instrumental compositions, his vocal presence would become more frequent.
The title of YMO’s third full length long player ‘BGM’ stood for “Background Music” although only ‘Happy End’ and ‘Loom’ fitted into this category; it was an odd mix and ‘BGM’ effectively became a Hosono / Takahashi effort as Sakamoto was largely absent from the sessions.
Released in early 1981, ‘BGM’ was the first full length recording to feature the now iconic Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. The album was also made using a 3M 32-track digital recorder; but while producing ‘BGM’, Hosono did not like its aural sharpness and preferred to record Takahashi’s rhythm contributions onto a TASCAM analogue tape machine first before copying them to the 3M machine.
With lyrics co-authored by expatriate DJ Peter Barakan, the album’s best song ‘Camouflage’ was a curious beat laden blend of East and West, its rolling 808 tom patterns and creepy pentatonics offering a more sinister demeanour than the brighter sound of their previous material. But overall, ‘BGM’ was disappointing as a gloomy follow-up to ‘Solid State Survivor’ with only ‘1000 Knives’ recalling anything like the vibrant instrumental material on that or the debut album.
‘BGM’ was comparatively experimental but with YMO’s fourth long player ‘Technodelic’ released in late 1981, the trio went further and adopted a particularly sombre tone in the process. Notable for its use of an LMD-649, a hand-made sampler developed by Toshiba-EMI engineer Kenji Murata, it was put to full use on ‘Neue Tanz’ with its staccato samples of Indonesian Kecak chants. Effectively a KRAFTWERK tribute, Haruomi Hosono played bass guitar to add a dark funkiness to offset the inherent robotics.
Meanwhile, ‘Pure Jam’ explored a more precise groove laced with layers of exotic synth sounds and ‘Light In Darkness’ was an atmospheric but punchy instrumental that wouldn’t have gone amiss on the soundtrack to ‘Blade Runner’ if VANGELIS had been into funk.
Despite their technological innovations, neither ‘BGM’ nor ‘Technodelic’ were considered particularly accessible, even in the synth friendly environment of 1981. In fact, ‘Technodelic’ was declined a release by their UK label Epic Records.
As a reaction to the over-seriousness of their previous two albums, the trio lightened up considerably for YMO’s fifth full-length album ‘Naughty Boys’ released in Spring 1983. Delivering their most commercial song based album to date, a sense of fun was highlighted by the massively popular and joyous lead single ‘Kimi Ni Mune Kyun’.
But ‘Opened My Eyes’ could have been any Western synthpop act of the period, which can be seen in all sorts of ways, while ‘Lotus Love’ revealed some unexpected psychedelic overtones and ‘Kai-Koh’ showed that YMO had not lost their ear for exotic electronically generated timbres.
Like the bizarre ‘∞Multiplies’ mini-album from Summer 1980 which included a very odd cover of ‘Tighten Up’ and the surfer ska of its title track, the sixth album ‘Service’ released in late 1983 featured various skits; these were performed by the Japanese comedy combo SUPER ECCENTRIC THEATER (SET). Whether this was meant as an ironic act of cultural subversion, it was a mystery to Western ears as the sketches were all in Japanese!
With ‘Service’ containing just seven songs alongside seven skits, the standout was ‘You’ve Got To Help Yourself’ which tellingly had previously featured as a short instrumental taster on ‘Naughty Boys’, perhaps highlighting the lack of material available for a full album. However, ‘Limbo’ was not a bad effort as an unusual attempt at Japanese electronic soul, complete with Barry White impersonations!
It was obvious that YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA as a project was losing momentum and the trio went into hiatus in 1984. The transition was smooth as each member had already established a parallel solo career.
Hosono was one of the first people to acknowledge the potential of video game music as well as later producing Japanese Idol singers like Narumi Yasuda and Seiko Matsuda. There was even a collaboration with James Brown as part of his FRIENDS OF EARTH collective for a new version of ‘Sex Machine’ in 1986.
Adding acting to his burgeoning music career, Sakamoto worked with David Sylvian, Robin Scott, Thomas Dolby, Iggy Pop, Virginia Astley, Youssou N’Dour, Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson, Roddy Frame, David Bowie and Madonna among many, while the musicians who Takahashi worked with included Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Ronny, Bill Nelson, Zaine Griff, Iva Davies, Tony Mansfield, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay.
While the trio said they were “spreading out” rather than splitting, they continued to play on each other’s solo recordings and made guest appearances at various live shows. A short reunion took place in 1993 for the ‘Technodon’ album where the band had to be known as YMO, as the name YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA was owned by Alfa Records.
As befitting the album title, ‘Technodon’ had a trippy techno flavour with hints of jazz as exemplified by ‘Hi-Tech Hippies, although the album ended with a Japanese language cover of ‘Pocket Full Of Rainbows’, a mellow ballad made famous by ELVIS PRESLEY in ‘GI Blues’.
There was no further activity until 2007 when Hosono, Sakamoto and Takahashi reunited for a light hearted Kirin Lager advertising campaign performing ‘Rydeen’.
Hosono and Takahashi had been working together as SKETCH SHOW and Sakamoto was invited to join in. Inevitably, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA reformed again when they played the 2007 Kyoto Live Earth event, although for recording purposes, they were known as HASYMO.
In Summer 2008, the trio played the Meltdown Festival curated by MASSIVE ATTACK billed as YMO, although only four YMO songs were played while the rest of the set comprised of SKETCH SHOW, HASYMO and solo material. There were live appearances in 2009 and 2010 so it appeared YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA were still a going concern despite the confusion over the various band monikers. However, any thoughts of further YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA appearances were put on hold while Sakamoto recuperated from illness in 2014.
Happily Hosono, Takahashi and Sakamoto all continue with their various individual musical endeavours and are active on social media to varying degrees. #YMO40 now allows for the trio to be re-evaluated and rediscovered as their musical legacy on Western rock and American urban forms has been enormous, especially as a South East Asian band.
With ‘Behind The Mask’, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA touched rock, pop and soul. The late Michael Jackson loved the track so much that he penned additional lyrics to it during the ‘Thriller’ sessions. Unable to release it himself at the time, Jackson gave the reworked track to his musical director Greg Phillinganes who had a surprise 1985 hit with it in the US R’n’B charts. This proxy collaboration was then later covered by Eric Clapton who hit the mainstream with his rockier version in 1987. The remixed MJ demo eventually appeared on the posthumous album ‘Michael’ in 2011.
The YMO version of ‘Firecracker’ made an impact out on the block as it was sampled by Hip-Hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa on ‘Death Mix’ in 1983 and then in 2001, it was used again by Jennifer Lopez on ‘I’m Real’.
In Europe, the German synth band CAMOUFLAGE took their name from that very song. And then there was the influence they had on a certain Lewisham combo called JAPAN! Meanwhile a YMO versus THE HUMAN LEAGUE EP featuring yet another version of ‘Behind The Mask’ and a reworked ‘Kimi Ni Mune Kyun’ with new English lyrics by Phil Oakey was released by Alfa Records in 1993.
And in hindsight with the known creative issues KRAFTWERK were facing, the resemblance of 1986’s ‘Musique Non-Stop’ to ‘Neu Tanz’ is uncanny despite the five year gap between them.
Closer to home ‘Kimi Ni Mune Kyun’ achieved national ubiquity as the closing theme to the popular Anime series ‘Maria Holic’ in a squeaky vocaloid version sung by the cast, while a marching band rendition of ‘Rydeen’ appeared in ‘Hibike! Euphonium’.
Whether people realise it or not, the artistic contribution of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA and its three members has been felt by multiple generations all over the world.
The reissues for #YMO40 are released in standard vinyl LP, double 45RPM collectors vinyl LP, SACD and digital formats by Sony Music Direct from 30th November 2018 – info at http://www.110107.com/s/oto/page/YMO40