I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Yellow Magic Orchestra -- BGM

How do I approach talking about an album by Yellow Magic Orchestra? Well, I mean, I have spoken about "Solid State Survivor", YMO's 2nd and most successful album, but sometimes when I come across some of these articles on the Internet lavishing all this praise and all of this technical nitty-gritty about their influence on world music, it can be awfully intimidating. But after musing and brooding, all I can do is just talk about my personal impressions on Messrs. Hosono, Takahashi, Sakamoto and Matsutake. As for the Wikipedia stuff on the album, you can take a look here.

"BGM" is the band's 4th album, released in March 1981. The letters stand for "Background Music", what we would associate as Muzak or elevator music in Canada and the US. Of course, the contents were anything but. The YMO boys always did like their daily dose of irony. I actually only bought the album a few short years ago, but I had first encountered some of the tracks all the way back in 1982 when they were put onto a BEST audio tape of the band which my brother had bought and brought back to me when he came back from his graduation trip to Japan that year. I'd brought back the first self-titled album, also in audio tape format, the year before, so I was rather dying to get that new album.

"Mass" (above) was one of those songs. When I first looked at the title, I wasn't quite sure if the band had named the tune after a religious event or the scientific concept. But after listening to it, it had that eerie-sounding reverence and I could distinctly picture computer-aided design churches being drawn in cyberspace. I could only imagine a YouTube video of the past week's Papal election with this song playing in the background (BGM, indeed). Written and composed by Haruomi Hosono(細野晴臣), there was also another addition to its creation and voice in the form of Peter Barakan, who is a Tokyo DJ and television commentator still very much a presence on the small screen (plus he also helped in the lyrics). Through his English and Russian intonings, "Mass" gains further gravitas.

If I were to analogize here, I would probably say "BGM" is to a psychological suspense movie as "Solid State Survivor" is to a comedy-action thriller. YMO's 2nd album just seems to have that energy rush and brightness in the synths in tracks like "Rydeen" and "Technopolis". Not to say that the tracks in "BGM" are dirge-like, but there is a bit more of a seriousness to the proceedings; the synths seem to rumble on the ground a lot more here.

I actually already did an article on one of the other tracks, "U.T." some months ago, but still decided that it needed to have its place here....via a great remix version! It's minimalist but I enjoy the urgent pace, and I can finally understand what Hosono and the guys are talking about during the bridge. Hosono also pointed out in the J-Wiki article about the album that it was because of the financial success of "Solid State Survivor" that they were able to do the things they had wanted to do for "BGM".

"Rap Phenomena" was probably one of those things. Back in the early 80s, the only two rap songs that I'd ever heard were "Rapture" by Blondie and this one with Hosono doing the way-out vocals involving Maitreya the Saviour and the Unified Field Theory. Lyrically, I think the album tries to go out and explore some of the more esoteric stuff in the universe. The first track, "Ballet", sounds like an extended haiku, while the aforementioned "U.T." speaks of Ultraterrestrial life....albeit tongue-in-cheek.

This video is for "1000 Knives", a Ryuichi Sakamoto(坂本龍一) piece which dates back to the original done in 1978 when Sakamoto had released his first solo album. One of the other notable points about "BGM" is that YMO is the first band to have used "....the Roland T-808 Rhythm Composer, one of the first programmable drum machines..."(according to the Wiki article), and apparently it's been a good luck charm for a majority of the hits for any Western or Japanese band during the 1980s. For this song, the hand claps are one of the cool effects. And it was obvious through this track and the others that Yukihiro Takahashi(高橋幸宏) just LOVED putting the Composer through its paces. When I first heard "1000 Knives" on the tape though, I wasn't quite sure what to make of sounded even more alien than the usual YMO song, especially with that rock synth in the middle.

Here is a 2011 concert performance of "1000 Knives" by YMO. The boys may be older but they are no less cooler. The version here seems to have taken on a fusion feel.

And as a comparison, here is the original "Thousand Knives" by Sakamoto in 1978 from "The Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto". I've only listened to a portion of this video so far but the original seems to have more of that "Asian Exotica" feel and jauntiness to it.

My final video here is for "Camouflage" which I picked out because to me it symbolizes the direction that YMO was starting to head into generally: a more avant-garde and pure techno area without the pop that infused the earlier hits such as "Firecracker" and "Cosmic Surfin'". There is a cooler and more industrial feeling to this one.

"BGM" made it to No. 2 on the Oricon weeklies while it finished the year in the 28th position and sold 275,000 copies. Perhaps it didn't quite hit the heights that "Solid State Survivor" did, but it's no less significant in terms of techno or music in general.

These were the tracks:

1. Ballet
2. Music Plans
3. Rap Phenomena
4. Happy End
5. 1000 Knives
6. Cue
7. U.T.
8. Camouflage
9. Mass
10. Loom


  1. I love this rehearsal version of 1000 Knives, recorded in Studio Rockwell, Hakone, 3rd Oct 1979. Kazumi Watanabe in guitar. He was edited out from world tour recordings due to record label disputes. Bootleg quality.

  2. Just heard it myself, jari. I think it would take a pretty hard effort to screw up "1000 Knives"'s so well done. This rehearsal version reminds me of the concert version posted up there. Both of them start out like an early 80s R&B tune....really quite cool. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if Sakamoto had met Chas Jankel (keyboardist for Ian Dury & The Blockheads) during that time. I have Jankel's first album and a lot of his stuff reminds me of Sakamoto's pieces.

    1. It's possible. Sakamoto -> Jankel -> Quincy Jones -> Michael Jackson -> Sakamoto. Or was it other way around? X-) Reincarnations of Behind The Mask would be quite a topic.

  3. Would you like to give "Behind The Mask" a shot, if you have the time? Please feel free to do so.

    I was actually writing the article above while listening to the album at the same time. And as I was doing so, I was kinda wondering if YMO were being influenced by some of the New Wave acts in Europe at the time such as Visage and Gary Numan. Then I read the Wikipedia article and found out it was the other way around!

  4. There is a nice BBC documentary Synth Britannia in YouTube; OMD, Human League, Depeche Mode, Numan, even PSB in the end. It never touched YMO, but it made me think that YMO had technology the bands in Britain had never heard of. Practically the best they had was Minimoog. After that became synth kits thanks to an article in electronics magazine, and it was all do-it-yourself. Of course that DIY was exactly what Kraftwerk was doing all along.


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