For the technology-minded Japanese (who, after all, do have their own musical logic and traditions), the rock medium most suited to adaptation rather than bland mimicry has been electronic-oriented pop. By their third LP, YMO represented to Japanese kids a heterodoxy almost equivalent to the Sex Pistols and, in Japan at least, many times their commercial success.
None of the three members were musical neophytes at YMO’s outset. While recording his first solo LP, session keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto met drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, who’d not only cut his own album but had been a member of the Sadistic Mika Band (Japan’s well-known art-rock export of the early ’70s who made three LPs for UK Harvest) and its offshoot, the Sadistics. The pair met bassist/producer Haruomi Hosono, a veteran of two historically important Japanese bands, while he was cutting his fourth solo LP. (He’s done more since but, unlike his two bandmates, Hosono’s solo records have never been released in England or America. The 1986 Video Game Music employs the electronic sounds of arcade games.)
Despite the pedigree, YMO’s first LP is merely inane electro-disco, distinguished only by efforts at diddling video-game blips and squonks into songs. Solid State Survivor (their second Japanese LP, issued intact but out of chronological sequence in the UK) is a qualitative leap forward: clever instrumentals and excellent electro-rock tunes with terse, sharp English lyrics by Chris Mosdell. Takahashi’s flat, inflexible vocals are a mixed blessing — no silly histrionics, but an air of cool detachment that’s, at least initially, off-putting.
Xì Multiplies has two more fine tracks in the same vein, but the rest of the original Japanese half-hour 10-inch is given over to mostly unfunny comedy skits (and two humorous tries at Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up”). The US LP of the same name retains only the title and the two good cuts, the rest being the best part of Solid State Survivor. Public Pressure is a live album.
BGM and Technodelic are both mixed bags. On the plus side, they explore new (for YMO) stylistic areas — “Strawberry Fields” gone synth, Germanic bleep strutting, bleak Anglo synth-rap — but little on either is as distinctive or just plain entertaining as Takahashi’s or Sakamoto’s solo work. Hosono’s production (the first six YMO LPs, as well as discs by Sandii and the Sunsetz, Sheena and the Rokkets and others) has clarity but lacks the snap and depth that would make these two records come alive.
Service is a frustrating record; it alternates YMO tracks with cuts just as long as the songs by the comedic (?) theater group S.E.T. As impenetrable as it is to those who don’t speak Japanese, even those who do might be annoyed at the non-musical interruptions. It’s doubly irksome because the songs are excellent. Wisely, Naughty Boys has equally good songs without the comedy. The melodies on both discs are much more accessible and consistently pleasing than any of the previous YMO LPs, with no noticeable shift in songwriting balance. (Beginning with Service, Peter Barakan, who’s written lyrics for Takahashi’s LPs, supplies them to YMO in place of Mosdell. Also, YMO produced these two albums as a group.)
After Service is a double live set, but the name has more to do with the order of its release than its content, drawing on previous records. Sealed is a four-disc boxed set.