Yellow Magic Orchestra’s legacy feels secure today. The pioneering techno-pop trio is discussed with an air of reverence. English-language sites have published guides to getting into YMO, while recent years have seen a scramble by labels to re-issue any records Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono or Yukihiro Takahashi put out during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Artists all over the world cite them as an influence, and in Japan, they remain vital. Sakamoto appears in insurance ads, for goodness sakes.
None of this celebration, though, was ever a safe bet, until Solid State Survivor arrived 40 years ago today. That album propelled YMO into national (and eventually international) stardom. It became the year’s best-selling full length in Japan and helped the trio fill biggie-sized venues moving forward. Eric Clapton has done his own interpretation of the song “Behind The Mask,” while Michael Jackson wanted to include his take on the same number for Thriller before YMO closed that door due to a royalty dispute. This album inspired a haircut.
Solid State Survivor marks the moment YMO became a pop presence, all through what is probably the strangest album to end a year as a Japanese top seller. Songs such as “Rydeen” and “Behind The Mask” are immediate earworms but stick around in totally unconventional ways. The prior is a space-age gallop featuring no singing and ample amounts of synthesizer, to the point, it feels like a lively tech demo on the verge of malfunction. The latter coats the singing in a thick layer of Vocoder, lending it a robot melancholy that remains every bit as affecting four decades on. Beyond those two hits, the group filled out Solid State Survivor with airy ambient passages, jittery new wave and a Beatles cover close to malfunctioning completely.
None of this would have been possible at the start of the 1970s. Electronic music remained niche, and synthesizers were nearly room-sized. Japanese synth maestro Isao Tomita spent a prolonged period of time convincing customs agents that the instrument he bought from the Moog company in Buffalo, New York wasn’t actually some diabolical device. The eventual members of YMO spent their time playing in bands or serving as session musicians for others in the “new music” community blooming up in Tokyo. Electronic music was rare, and not seen as something that would ever be a mainstream concern.
Then synthesizers and rhythm boxes and all kinds of other electronic music tools became smaller and more affordable for the average customer to buy. This was a period where Japan was building its reputation for consumer electronics, and that included for cutting-edge instruments. YMO was the first brand to recognize this new paradigm in electronic music creation in Japan, and Solid State Survivor is the work that showed it could be a sales force in the market while also being critically adored. It legitimized the style for many in Japan and showed it was more than a novelty.
The members of YMO — Hosono in particular — spent the ‘70s fascinated by the way Japan and Asia were portrayed musically by Western musicians. As Michael Bourdaghs writes in Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, the techno-pop project initially started as a way for them to ironically explore the sounds of “exotica,” a musical trend from 1950s America built around orientalist ideas of the “Far East.” YMO’s titular debut album leaned into this concept, complete with a cover of an exotica staple. It received praise from many but wasn’t a sales force by any stretch.
Solid State Survivor features elements of this exoticization along with a relatively dour view of technology and the impact it will have on the human race moving forward (the title track goes full dystopian). Yet it also spends less time crafting a master’s thesis and more time showing how electronic instruments could create songs every bit as catchy as the stuff that had come before it. Instrumental numbers like “Rydeen” and “Absolute Ego Dance” move at a swift pace and feature Technicolor melodies that distract from all the weird little details adding a bit of unease to the music. “Behind The Mask” is a meditation on being a human, but it’s also an earworm showing how Vocoder singing can still be so aching while maintaining a pop core that caught the attention of some of Earth’s biggest stars.
Earlier in the 1970s, electronic artists created whole albums attempting to show how synthesizers deserved to be in the popular music conversation. Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach reimagined the composer’s songs for the new technology, while the previously mentioned Tomita started out transforming pop songs and classical pieces into electronic landscapes. In a bit of a twist, Solid State Survivor’s one cover — of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” — owes more to the nervy energy of new wave acts such as Devo. Rather, the breakthrough here is YMO showing how electronic instruments are capable of something charming through their own original songs.
The album’s influence looms large. It helped to shape Detroit techno and New York hip-hop among other places, not to mention serving as a sonic treasure chest of samples for many artists across genres. In Japan, YMO made the idea of “techno-pop” cool, ushering in a rush of sound-a-like acts (plus a rash of job opportunities for the members of YMO to try to bring their synth-centric magic to other pop stars), and set the stage for other dance music heavyweights operating in the pop sphere, like Tetsuya Komuro and Yasutaka Nakata (who has stated in interviews that the group proved to be a major inspiration for him).
Solid State Survivor showed that electronic music could hang around at the highest levels of the pop music industry, even if it sounded like nothing else. For many, it legitimized electronic music and helped introduce many to a whole new palette of sounds. This is YMO’s apex, and its legacy comes through clearly today.