Technodelic: a strange techno-psychedelic trip through Japanese and Western culture in the early 1980s

Yellow Magic Orchestra, Technodelic, Japan, Alfa, ALR-28030 vinyl LP (1981)

Fans of legendary electronic synthpop band Yellow Magic Orchestra will have been sucker-punched to hear that Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto both died within three months of each other in early 2023. Takahashi died in January at the age of 70 years after suffering ill health since 2020 when he had a brain tumour removed. At this time of writing Sakamoto had just passed away in late March at the age of 71 years following his own battles with cancer. Although both musicians along with sole surviving member Harry Hosono all had varied careers in the music industry, and Takahashi and Sakamoto dabbled briefly in acting as well, all three are probably still best known for the work they did together in YMO, paving the way for other artists in the use of sampling, drum machines, computers and digital recording technologies in composing and performing original compositions. Forming in 1978 after working together on one another’s solo projects and those of other musicians, YMO originally was meant to be a one-off project but after the success of the trio’s self-titled debut album and the singles from that record, the three members decided to continue as a band. After seven studio albums and two live albums over five or six years, during which the members gradually grew apart due to solo projects and emerging musical differences, YMO effectively ended as a group though Hosono, Sakamoto and Takahashi would continue to assist on one another’s projects. They briefly reunited in the early 1990s as a studio band, and in subsequent decades played concerts either together as YMO or as collaborators.

Of the seven studio albums YMO made from 1978 to 1983, the one I know best – it’s actually the only YMO album I had in my music collection in the 1980s – is “Technodelic” which, as far as I can tell, was never as commercially successful as earlier recordings like “Solid State Survivor” but is rated by many fans (if informally perhaps) as the band’s best work. I know some of the earlier YMO music from the late 1970s but much of it tends to be either too disco or too kitsch for my taste. In YMO’s early days, the musicians satirised European stereotypes about Asian and Japanese culture in songs that turned the stereotypes back onto Western audiences. By the 1980s, YMO had moved away from Eastern / Western blends of popular music and into a more avantgarde and experimental style using computer technology and sampling. At the same time the musicians continued to criticise aspects of contemporary culture, both Western and Japanese, within the format of apparently ingenuous pop songs with often absurdist lyrics. This is a very prominent feature of “Technodelic” where an unusual incident – the protagonist mistaking a pot of stale jam for bread – leads into a very strange techno-psychedelic drug trip through the politics and culture issues prominent in Japan and the West at the time.

Heavily dependent on the use of samples and loops, courtesy of a custom-built LMD-649 digital sampler which also had sampling drum machine capabilities, the music is not as lush or busy as YMO’s earlier 1970s work but has a sparse, even wintry minimalist style. Even the quietest, most delicate sounds and samples can be heard very clearly, and Harry Hosono’s bass guitar playing is very prominent in parts. Takahashi’s singing tends towards the solemn and rather unsettling in tone and style, and the lyrics range from the dystopian (in tracks like “Stairs” and “Taiso”) to surreal (“Pure Jam” and “Key”) and the political (“Seoul Music” and “Taiso” again); the album also features much use of spoken word lyrics through two-way radio which in itself adds an urban industrial edge to the music. All tracks on the album are good but, unexpectedly perhaps, those tracks that feature vocals are actually better than the purely instrumental tracks. “Pure Jam” may be the most fun, “Neue Tanz” the most intriguing in its sampling and experimentation, and “Gradated Gray” the most blissfully beautiful in its sinuous noise lines and the most hypnotic in its rhythms and beats. “Taiso” (“gymnastics” or “callisthenics” in Japanese) takes on perhaps sinister overtones in satirising the fitness craze that swept Japan and the West in the early 1980s, when one considers the role of mass gymnastics in former fascist societies of the mid-20th century.

Even after the passing of 40+ years, “Technodelic” still sounds sharp and fresh, and much of the sampling done on the album still sounds like nothing else on the planet. The songs are tight and though they are not particularly long, they pack a punch with their rhythms and the dynamics between the tones within their layers of sound and melody. The variety of strange, often futuristic soundscapes in individual songs lasting four to five minutes (on average), and their power to make a such a deep impression – I can remember a lot of the tunes even though it’s been decades since I heard the album until recently – can be astonishing.

Of course, after the YMO men went their separate ways in the mid-1980s, they continued to carve out solid careers in music – Sakamoto in particular found a niche in scoring music for films – but “Technodelic” stands as a landmark album in electronic music experimentation within the framework of pop songs.

RIP Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto.