Yellow Magic Orchestra: The Little-Known Influence on French House Music
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
An artist cannot thank their own influences enough - they serve the purpose of unveiling & clarifying to the artist their own taste + sensibilities.
As original as the best songwriting-rich French touch acts (like Daft Punk & Justice) are, they undoubtedly stand on the shoulders of giants. There’s one behemoth in the history of electronic music that seems to have had a specially great influence on the French house greats - a behemoth that’s been little-acknowledged in the French touch scene, until now!
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Yellow Magic Orchestra is a Japanese electronic pop trio that formed in the late 70s - they’re credited with being an incredible influence on electronic music as a whole, contributing to & helping develop a myriad of electronic styles including synth-pop, house and techno throughout the group’s career.
Each of YMO’s three members - Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, & Yukihiro Takahashi - were well-respected session musicians in their own right before coming together to form the band, and all three have contributed incredibly strong songs to the group’s discography.
Hideki Matsutake - widely referred to as the unofficial ‘fourth member’ of Yellow Magic Orchestra - was the main force behind the synthesizer work & music programming found on the group’s early material.
A lifetime of information on YMO and its members can be readily found elsewhere. Let’s upturn the stone that's been long overdue.
YMO’s Influence on the French
It’s not hard to hear how Yellow Magic Orchestra seems to be an enormously great influence on the French - both groups create four-on-on-the-floor synthpop with a remarkably similar sense of musical style and (highly-refined) production. Comparing tracks off of YMO's initial two records - their self-titled & Solid State Survivor - to songs off of records like Daft Punk's Discovery & Justice's Cross highlights this. Listen to songs like YMO's Rydeen (linked previously) & Behind The Mask (0:33):
And compare them to something like Daft Punk's Superheroes (3:21):
And Justice's Newjack (2:25):
Despite this stark stylistic similarity, YMO’s influence is essentially unstated by the French artists themselves.
However, a wealth of definite clues can be unveiled through Gaspard Auge - half of the prominent French electro duo Justice.
First - Gaspard, under the title Gaspirator, played a little-known ‘space disco’-themed mix in 2014 for NTS Radio. The mix opens with the song Unit by the group Logic System.
Logic System is the musical project founded by Hideki Matsutake, YMO’s previously-mentioned synth programmer.
On his reason for forming Logic System, Matsutake states “Above all I had a strong will to create my own music. I did not have any intention to create music different from YMO. Rather I wanted to create music that have been based on my experiences and learnings with them.” Logic System is rarely a group that a person stumbles upon without knowing about YMO first.
Second - another clue is revealed through Matsutake: he was greatly inspired by the late Isao Tomita - a titan of a synth pioneer in his own right - who taught Matsutake the very basics of synthesizer programming.
Matsutake delved into Tomita’s influence on YMO’s sound in an interview that the two gave together: “In the studio YMO used to spend time analyzing how Tomita created the sounds. (Ryuichi) Sakamoto had all of Tomita's records, and he would bring a record to the studio and say, ‘Today, let's listen to this and study.’ YMO's sound is definitely rooted in Tomita's music.”
Lo and behold, the official artist page for an old solo project of Gaspard’s lists Tomita as one of his musical influences.
Third - Justice have touched upon their three methods of sampling before, one of which is more accurately known as ‘interpolation’: “The second category contains songs we have been listening to all year or all our lives, and which we don’t actually sample. Instead, we ‘mentally sample’ them by adding bits that sound similar, and while we are sometimes aware of doing this, at other times we only realise it months or years later.”
It’s thought that YMO’s Technopolis (0:42) was interpolated into Justice’s Horsepower (2:11).
And sure enough, a short interview with Gaspard confirms that he was listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra around the time that Justice was creating their record Audio, Video, Disco - with this seemingly being the only known acknowledgement of YMO by the French!
“It’s the Japanese group from Sakamoto. They’re kind of Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk, and the guys also do everything themselves, with lots of synths and drum machines. They also have this epic, romantic component that really appeals to us.”
Lastly - Gaspard has gone under the ‘Gaspirator’ moniker for a while now as both a professional title & as a public online persona. Justice fans had stumbled upon a Youtube channel affiliated with the same name some time ago that has some fairly interesting videos saved under it: an unusually high amount of fan covers of Justice’s music; obscure videos of Justice playing live & meeting fans; and lots of old space disco, French pop, & synth music. Most notably for our concerns, it also features the following three videos:
What’s especially interesting is how these aren’t the studio tracks of YMO’s greatest hits. Instead they're relatively obscure TV recordings - not the sort of content that a lukewarm fan would seek out. Suffice it to say, whoever’s behind the account that saved these videos seems to be quite passionate about YMO!
All of the French guys are in an insanely tight-knit group & share a similar sense of taste; Gaspard’s passion for YMO would more-likely-than-not be shared by his peers. Simply referencing YMO’s music against the music of the French clearly highlights a fundamental similarity that’s hard to dismiss.
So then why is Yellow Magic Orchestra essentially unmentioned by the French? It could be for any number of reasons. A famous quote comes to mind: “The secret to creativity is to hide your sources.”
Of course, the French are very creative in & of themselves, though I know of no other preceding artist that overlaps in sound with the French as heavily as YMO.
It may be that YMO is such a fundamental influence on them to the point that the French feel protective of YMO’s music. This could be in the same vein of how the French will often - if not always - give red herrings and misinformation when asked about their characteristic music production techniques. Another timeless adage: “Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Or perhaps there’s some other reason. As Justice’s other half Xavier has said before, “God only knows”.
French Influence on YMO (?)
We now know it’s a given that the French are aware of YMO, and apparently, YMO is aware of the French! At least to some extent: the late DJ Mehdi was “handpicked by Ryuichi Sakamoto” to produce a remix for a piece of Sakamoto’s.
This is the only information that I could find of the two spheres interacting, and it seems that neither YMO nor any of its members have ever mentioned anything about the French.
Tracing Back the Sound
This ‘sound’ of YMO’s that the French continued off of must have its roots even farther back in time; Yellow Magic Orchestra didn’t simply manifest out of the aether, after all. I’ve been attempting to trace this sound to uncover just how far it stretches back.
In terms of YMO’s influences, they’ve cited a myriad of styles - from traditional Japanese music to arcade sound effects - as making an impression on them. Virtually none of what they bring up gives us any clues as to what this ‘sound’ in question may be based off of, but a bit of digging brings up some promising leads.
YMO has openly acknowledged Kraftwerk’s heavy influence on them (Sakamoto was even following Kraftwerk in the German group’s pre-technopop days). Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s first fully-electropop record, came out four years before YMO’s first album. Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express would come out one year before YMO’s first album.
Kraftwerk has moments where they delve into this ‘sound’ a bit, like in this instrumental portion in their track Europe Endless (@1:41).
Though it’s only ever moments - not full songs - that embrace said ‘sound’.
Tracing back further, an anecdote regarding Kraftwerk’s influence takes us to an earlier artist: Tom Dissevelt.
“I've read that Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk said his parents took him to the International Expo in Belgium in 1958. He would have been about 12. The Philips company had a pavilion where they were featuring this music. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that he asked his parents for and got this album, and that he still has this vinyl somewhere.”
This song - Syncopation - seems to be a special case: while there is a lot of early electronic music within the sphere of Tom Dissevelt & his friends, none of it seems to be as heavily-melodic & focused-sounding in its musical ideas as Syncopation.
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the discographies of the artists covered throughout this section - or even YMO & their member’s side projects for that matter. If you know of any other instances of this ‘sound’ - new or old - please share them. It would be fantastic to create a web of music that’s all connected by this same style.
I hope that this venture into one of French touch's lesser-mentioned influences proved to be insightful for both French touch fans & YMO fans alike. I admit this article is based on conjecture to a point, though I'm sure readers will find it valuable in the end. Let's cherish the titans that came before us, and learn from their legacy to make the music-of-tomorrow all the more rich.
P.S. Since writing this article, I had a few readers reach out to bring some other YMO-French connections to light: Gaspard Auge air-plays to YMO's Rydeen in Justice's documentary A Cross The Universe. Thanks to Reddit users u/HiJackFB, u/attila0307, & Discord user KiWY#7239 for all bringing this to my attention independently!
2manydjs - perhaps better known as Soulwax - put together their own mix for NTS Radio in homage to YMO and its members. Thanks to Discord user its_e.n#0818 for bringing this to my attention!
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