Record Review: Yellow Magic Orchestra – Firecracker/Technopolis

A+M Records | UK | 12" | 1979 | AMSP 7502

A+M Records | UK | 12″ | 1979 | AMSP 7502

Yellow Magic Orchestra: Firecracker/Technopolis UK 12″ [1979]

  1. Computer Game [Theme From Invaders]
  2. Firecracker
  3. Technopolis

ymo - computergameUS12AI was a freshman in high school when I first heard Yellow Magic Orchestra back in 1979. They had a huge hit with what was called “Computer Game” in America but there was a lot of confusion surrounding the track and its domestic marketing. While the main song on this single A-side was an electro cover of Martin Denny’s “Firecracker” by Yellow Magic Orchestra, it is preceded by a brief composition that sounds like 1st gen video game sounds as played on YMO’s synths for about a minute before the sounds segue into “Firecracker.” The intro is “Computer Game [Theme From Invaders]” but somehow that got conflated into the two segued tracks going by that name in America. I recall seeing the early 12″ single depicted here selling in the store I frequented in my primordial record store days.

YMO - USLPAWhat was interesting about hearing the track on the radio was that it only got airplay on WOKB-AM [“Tiger Radio”] the so-called urban station that catered to the local African American audience out of nearby hamlet Winter Garden. The sight of the US cover of the album at left was fairly common among students of color in my classes. We got to listen to the radio in art classes and on some days WOKB got the nod and I heard what was otherwise ignored on the top-40 stations unless they managed to “cross-over.”

This was absolutely my first experience to the concept of Afrofuturism [which did not exist as a word until 1993] but would not be my last as I was exposed to Funkadelic soon afterward. [Parliament I had already heard via their top 40 success with “Tear The Roof Off The Sucker” being an elementary school favorite]. The notion of African Americans also enjoying electronic synthesizer music [as much as Caucasian nerds like myself did] was fairly novel to me at the time and a cultural eye-opener. Of course by the time I was a senior, I would see this scenario play out again when Kraftwerk released their groundbreaking album [their last groundbreaking album – sigh] “Computerworld.” Electro tunes like these would be heard on early [monophonic] boom boxes of the time.

monobox

martin denny - quietvillageUSLPAAstoundingly enough, I did not own this record until 2013, when I found the staggering yellow vinyl UK 12″ in its silk-screened PVC sleeve at a local emporium. “Firecracker” as played by YMO sticks fairly closely to the template first released in 1959 by the father of exotica, Martin Denny. Of course, that YMO would re-appropriate the oriental kitsch twenty years later was rather post-modern of them! It also put them ahead of the Lounge/Exotica revival by at least a good 22 years! I have to say that in 1979, Martin Denny was a forgotten man.  After 1993, that was no longer the case, and he died a dozen years later revered as a highly creative composer who synthesized new genres that were no longer considered a late 50s joke.

YMO were certainly finding the funk in simulated ethnic music with their analog synths sounding so gloriously warm, that its difficult to realize that many derided this music as cold and unfeeling at the time. Every melody here was synthetic, save for the luxuriant piano glissandos that Ryuichi Sakamoto embellished the grooves with. Yukihiro Takahashi’s drums [and presumably xylophones] were the only other non-synthetic component.

“Technopolis” opened with a vocoded voice intoning “Tokyo” and it sounded for all the world like the same vocoder used by Kraftwerk on their “Man-Machine” album on “The Robots,” but we all know that was custom built. Still, the similarity of tone and effect was astonishing. This song featured the rhythm section being the “live” component with Haroumi Hosono’s bass being very funky indeed. This track almost had a jazzfunk feel, but for the deliberately corny sounding topline melodies that were at odds with the high gloss of the track. In any case the musicianship here was of a high caliber. YMO may have been perceived as the “Japanese Kraftwerk,” and that more than anything may be the reason why they are shamefully light in Ye Olde Record Cell, but in reality their chops wipe the floor with their Düsseldorf brethren, though we know that chops are far from everything. I will need to make it a program to buy much more YMO than the scant amount I can put my finger on currently.

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14 Responses to Record Review: Yellow Magic Orchestra – Firecracker/Technopolis

  1. Gavin says:

    “Technopolis” has remained a favourite of mine since I used to DJ it regularly in my sets at Heaven,London,back in the 90s.
    Hearing it super-loud amongst a throng of bizarrely-dressed freaks and queens was always a thrill.
    I have always assumed the vocodered voice at the beginning and later in the song says “Tokyo”,with that city being the ultimate technopolis of the song name…maybe its just me!
    I am supremely jealous of your yellow vinyl copy Monk!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – I think you’ve called it. At one point the vocoder does spell “t-e-c-h-n-o-p-o-l-I-s” but I could not understand what it was saying in the intro and assumed [incorrectly] that it was “techno” but listening with phones reveals your correct call.

      I am supremely jealous of the decades of enviable musical opportunities afforded to you in the UK. Wanna swap?!

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  2. Echorich says:

    One of the oddest things in the history of television, and a true crossover event was YMO in full band mode “performing” Firecracker and YMO Tighten Up on SOUL TRAIN in 1980. It was one of those moments you just don’t forget if you saw it.
    One other thing I have to add on Firecracker – I feel as though it was the blueprint for the post Controversy Prince sound of 1999. Probably a controversial statement to make, but there is a musical kinship….

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  3. critterjams says:

    I’ve always resented YMO being called the “Japanese Kraftwerk” just because it’s so reductive (Solid State Survivor is the only record of theirs that sounds like Kraftwerk to me), not to mention it implies that they were living in the shadow of another band. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Kraftwerk, but in my opinion YMO were the superior group. Each one of their albums is very different from the last and they were all very forward looking – while Computer World laid out the blueprint for the next decade of dance music, Technodelic (YMO’s 1981 album) has stuff on it that sounds almost exactly like the electronic music of 1991 (“Pure Jam” for example). They even wound up with one of the greatest “accidental” pop albums of all time – Naughty Boys was essentially a pisstake but it wound up a major success.

    What really amazes me about YMO is their longevity and breadth. All three of these guys have had massive solo careers which continue to this day. While Kraftwerk (as you say) were pretty much cooked by ’81, for Sakamoto, Takahashi, and Hosono, YMO was just one more project, and each of them went their own way once the group dissolved. Most recently, Sakamoto scored The Revenant, and Takahashi formed another new band made up entirely of famous Japanese techno musicans that were influenced by YMO in a big way. I’ve added a Youtube link below – nearly four decades after the single you mention and still very much alive.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Critterjams – You make a great point that strikes me as powerful in retrospect. In 1980 I was all about Kraftwerk. They were pioneers who changed my way of thinking at a critical age. Little did I know that it was almost over for them as a creative force at that time. YMO were seen by me as also rans at the time. I liked YMO but did not consider them crucial. The scant work that Kraftwerk have managed to release during the years of 1986-2016 is minor, and tarnishes their legacy in retrospect. What it does not do is diminish their status to me as pioneers. They still tower in that regard. Meanwhile, YMO were not the first modern electronic pop band, but they brought much greater musicianship to the table and their body of work is both prodigious and artistically interesting. From ’86 onward I have accumulated a rather large collection of Ryuichi Sakamoto solo material. I have a Takahashi album that I bought in 1982 [“Neuromantic”] and would like to have much more where that came from. And the three YMO releases in my Record Cell are crying out for some company. Not to mention some Hosono solo material! In 2016 time and money is better invested in the YMO family tree than in completing any Kraftwerk collection. It’s probably a stronger body of work that avoids the pitfalls that Kraftwerk fell into; probably as a result of their insularity. One can hardly level that charge at the members of YMO who excel at collaboration. It’s probably a key to their artistic vigor. It was wrong of me to cop a dismissive attitude towards YMO in 1979 but since I was a raw green 16 year old, barely formed, I plead mea culpa! Why don’t I have more YMO now? Largely a factor of money. Their vast body of work has usually been strictly at Japanese import costs, which have traditionally been sky high. You don’t run into this stuff in the used bins!

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      • Echorich says:

        Here is a reason that I miss the large box record stores of the late 80s/90s – and one of the only reasons…Tower Records Downtown in NYC used to have a tucked away import and import discount section that was just brimming with gems. I have 4 Takahashi releases, 4 YMO releases, a Honsono release, not to mention Sandii and the Sunsetz and Akiko Yano. I could spend a good two hours checking out EVERY release in that import section at Tower.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – Aaah! The glory that was Tower Records! Proof that big box stores don’t necessarily have to suck. I treasure every hour spent in the two Tower Records I managed to visit in Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Each store always had bins deep with desirable merch, often at great prices, and usually well curated by the staff. The depth of their imports were second to none. Sigh.

          So you have a Sandii And The Sunsetz CD? I’ve been hankering for some after listening to the amazing cuts on “Terpischore [Silly Not To]” several years back… to no avail! That stuff is costly now!

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          • Echorich says:

            Alas, all that I just mentioned including dear Sandii is on vinyl. Until the early 90’s I was still buying vinyl over CD at about a 60/40 split.

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          • JT says:

            Monk, I invested in a couple of Sandii LPs when I was a hard core Sylvian completist. He appeared as a guest vocalist on some of her work after she opened for Japan on a tour or two. Email me, and I’ll see about sending some stuff your way.

            But while were all salivating about rare Japanese techno that we covet, there is an Ippu-Do boxed set that I have had my eye on for more than a decade. I’ve never seen it for under $500, except for when I spied one copy in person when I was in Tokyo. That was about $400.

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              JT – I only have the “Normal” album and Masami Tsuchiya’s “Rice Music” on the large 12″ discs. I see that the CD box you speak of has sold last on Discogs for the sum of $150 last September, but the two currently on sale scale the $700 wall. Ouch.

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    • Echorich says:

      I agree here, NOT the Japanese Kraftwerk – although in more than one interview they have responded to this statement politely and with respect – they were much, much, more musically and they were always had a looser/broader musical brief.

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    • JT says:

      Critterjams, I always took the comparison between Kraftwerk and YMO to simply be one of instrumentation, not of musical style or skill. We all acknowledge that Kraftwerk were the first important all-synth pop band (stress the word important), and so when YMO launched with a similar all/mostly electronic format, comparisons were inevitable. Certainly these bands sound radically different to avid listeners such as ourselves. But consider how they sounded to the ears of someone in 1978: YMO were brand new but Kraftwerk had released a few classic records, and there were almost no other synth pop bands on the planet. At that time, the comparison was quite valid.

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