Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


On YMO and Aging Gracefully

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the July 13th, 2012

We were watching the live upstream feed of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s closing set at the No Nuke music festival outside of Tokyo last Sunday when my wife noted how well the members of the band have aged. It’s true. All three not only look terrific, they’ve also consistently been making excellent music the past few years. Would we could all be so vital when we reach our sixties.

Thanks to his work in film music and acting (cf. The Last Emperor), Sakomoto Ryuichi is the best-known member outside Japan. With his strong commitment to environmental and anti-nuclear activism, he remains one of the great moral authorities in the world of Japanese popular culture (I’ve been thinking about “moral authority” in pop music a good deal these days). He also continues to write and record challenging yet beautiful music, moving effortlessly between the worlds of pop, classical, and even Brazilian music. Here he is performing his composition “Thousand Knives” live in Europe from his world tour in support of his 2010 CD, Playing the Piano. On the tour, which we were caught here in Chicago, he played two pianos: one with his hands, the other by way computer programming and sampler.

Like Sakamoto, Hosono Haruomi continues to float between genres. The hero of chapter four in my recent book, he last year released HoSoNoVa, a delightful CD–and his first album with Hosono singing all the tracks in 38 years! It includes about half original numbers and half covers–including Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Desert Blues,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” and Leiber/Stroller’s “Love Me.” As that list suggests, Hosono continues to explore the possibilities of hybrid crossings of musical styles. Backing musicians include some of Hosono’s old cronies (Suzuki Shigeru from Happy End, Hayashi Tatsuo from Tin Pan Alley, Van Dyke Parks) and some new faces as well (Yoko Ono, Cocco, Nakamura Mari). Very nice.

When I first encountered YMO back in the 1980s, I thought the band consisted of Sakamoto Ryuichi and two other guys. Then, as I discovered Happy End and Hosono’s solo work, I revised that view: YMO, I decided, consisted of Sakamoto, Hosono, and some other guy whose name I could never remember. Then, about seven years ago, I finally discovered Takahashi Yukihiro. The turning point was the Sadistic Mika Band reunion: I hadn’t connected the dots until then and realized that Takahashi came out of that legendary band. When I saw them in concert in 2006, I was struck by the intelligence and beauty (not an easy combination to pull off) of Takahashi’s compositions. Since then, I’ve been a fan of his terrific new outfit, pupa. I also very much like Last Train to Exit Town, the new CD he put out last year with Suzuki Keiichi (late of the Moonriders) under the name “Beatniks.” As I’ve written here before, what really strikes me about Takahashi’s recent music is his ability to combine electronically generated sounds and acoustic instruments into a lush, organic sound. Maybe YMO was really Takahashi and two other guys all along?

I hope these three guys keep on making music for decades to come. I mean, look how good they looked and sounded last weekend. Hosono sure plays a mean bottle:

3 Responses to 'On YMO and Aging Gracefully'

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  1. bourdaghs said,

    on July 13th, 2012 at 9:37 am

    I should have mentioned in the post that Hosono’s “HoSoNoVa” CD also includes a tribute to Misora Hibari’s “Apple Oiwake” (Ringo oiwake, 1952), an original number titled “Banana Oiwake.”

  2. Paul Roquet said,

    on July 19th, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Fully agreed on YMO aging well! I happened to be at the HoSoNoVa concert last year at Hibiya Kokaido. Hosono came out with an umbrella like an old Kabuki actor – very graceful indeed.

    Maybe this is connected with “moral authority” in some way, but I’ve been curious recently about the position these three (particularly Sakamoto and Hosono) hold as gatekeepers/’old masters’ of sorts in choosing which younger musicians get picked up, not just through their label activities but also through their copious blurbs – I remember Ametsub’s breakthrough album selling with a big sticker on the cover saying something like “I like this – Ryuichi Sakamoto.” I guess that’s all it takes!

  3. bourdaghs said,

    on July 19th, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Thanks for the comment, Paul. Wish I could have seen the Hosono show! I think you’re quite right that the guys in YMO do have considerable sway as taste-makers. In addition to the case you mention, I’m thinking about the way they curate the annual World Happiness festival, giving their seal of approval to up-and-coming musicians. I’m also curious what segments of the market they are able to sway: does their influence extend only to people old enough to remember YMO as a going concern (a generation that still actually pays for music), or are they able to motivate even younger fans?