As a Japanese initialism, “BGM” stands for “background music.” It’s meant to evoke the blissful ’80s ambient work of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, the kind of idyllic music that wafts from hip mass-market clothing stores or loops quietly under television dialogue. So it was with more than a hint of irony that YMO repurposed this term for their flashy, futuristic fourth album. BGM homes in on the “techno” aspect of the groundbreaking trio’s “techno-pop,” channeling each member’s unique personality into a monument of electronic music history, all captured with state-of-the-art recording gear. Four decades on, the album is a foundation for all manner of “synthetic” music that would follow, from synth-pop and IDM to hip-hop and well beyond.
This is the story of YMO’s formation in the late 1970s, in brief: Hosono, already a musical force in Japan after leading the influential rock group Happy End, assembles a crew of session players for his next solo album. This group includes a friend from college named Yukihiro Takahashi, as well as an up-and-coming arranger named Ryuichi Sakamoto. The jazzy exotica masterwork Paraiso, credited to Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band, is released in 1978. That same year, Hosono asks Takahashi and Sakamoto if they want to start a new project together. He proposes the new band as a “stepping stone” to greater heights in each of their solo careers. Takahashi agrees; after some initial hesitation, Sakamoto does, too.
By the end of 1980, with three albums under their belts, YMO were indisputably the most successful pop band in Japan—big enough to tour the world and then come home to pack out the Budokan. But when Hosono spoke to the Los Angeles Times that year, he portended a shift to come: “We don’t see ourselves as a dance band. YMO was planned as an electronics band from the beginning because that was the sound we were all looking for… Something out of the ordinary.”
Though Hosono had stuck to Japanese-language lyrics in Happy End, YMO recorded in English with assistance from a translator. Seeking more control over their next endeavor, Hosono and Takahashi found a new lyrical collaborator on their bandmate’s solo album: The sole vocal track from Sakamoto’s 1980 record B-2 Unit, “Thatness and Thereness,” featured translation help from one Peter Barakan, an Englishman with a job in Japanese broadcasting. Barakan had never worked as a lyricist before, but that didn’t matter much; he was quickly hired by Sakamoto’s management in an admin role, one that covered all matters involving English, including songwriting. His first project: BGM.
The enormous success of the 1979 Japan-only release of Solid State Survivor meant that YMO’s label, Alfa, was willing to shell out big bucks for the follow-up. According to the itemized receipt printed on its back cover, BGM cost ¥51,250,000 to make. Once you convert to U.S. dollars and adjust for inflation, that’s a staggering $730,106.93—and that’s just for the gear. Before a listener slipped the vinyl out of its sleeve, they could look through the music’s discrete components in molecular detail: YMO accounted for every Moog, electronic drum, and effects processor, as if to suggest their own technical virtuosity as the standard against which future generations would compete. (Over three decades later, Aphex Twin would pull the same move on Syro.)
These songs and their sounds are intrinsically tied to the machines used to craft them. Alongside Sakamoto’s debut, BGM was one of the first albums to feature the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The high price tag of the 808 upon its release in 1980 (almost $4,000 in 2021 dollars) made it prohibitively expensive for most, but not for YMO. The glories of its use in the hip-hop and dance music of decades to come—relentless mechanical hi-hats, claps crisp enough to cut through any mix—are on full display on Takahashi’s “Camouflage” and Sakamoto’s searing, mechanical cover of his own “1000 Knives.”
But no amount of expensive gear could alleviate YMO’s interpersonal strain. The working relationship between Hosono and Sakamoto had deteriorated to the point where the two men could barely stand to be in the studio at the same time. Sakamoto was thus absent for much of the BGM sessions, leaving the bulk of the songwriting to Hosono and Takahashi. His contributions to the final tracklist are nonetheless striking. Along with “1000 Knives,” two other songs are credited to Sakamoto: The meta-referential vocoder jam “Music Plans” and a remix of another solo track, “Happy End,” which feels like a progenitor of the ambient techno that would emerge in the following decade from artists like Carl Craig or the Orb. The composer smears out his hyper-melodic, Tchaikovsky-esque chord rotations with resonant signal modulation until the piece is practically unrecognizable, allowing an icy drum loop to pierce the midsection for a just brief moment before it vanishes again.
Sakamoto is rightfully credited for much of YMO’s forward-thinking sound design, but Hosono and Takahashi give the band its earnest heart. The first voice you hear on BGM is Takahashi, singing in English, trembling ever so slightly as he paints the portrait of a melancholic dancer pirouetting through the night on “Ballet.” Where previous YMO hits like “Firecracker” were cheeky subversions of Western exotica artists who traded in Orientalism, BGM immediately presents itself as something new: a more sterile, hyper-modern musical document, an innovation empowered by their burgeoning technopolis. “Dancing with sadness, just for yourself,” Takahashi sings on “Ballet,” masking his vocal with layers of digital filtering. “Lost in the motion, a mime with no end.”
“Out of the three, Takahashi was probably the best-versed in Western pop music,” Peter Barakan recounted in an interview years later. As he tells it, Sakamoto desired more clear-cut translations and Hosono knew “pretty much what he wanted” when it came to songwriting, whereas Takahashi was open to a more collaborative dialogue, even asking Barakan for pronunciation notes during recording. “He knew that whatever he wrote, I was going to translate into English anyway—so he would write Japanese lyric ideas in a fairly ‘English’ sort of way, because he was listening to pop music in English as well.”
This all comes together on “Cue,” the album’s most (and possibly only) radio-friendly single. Takahashi’s lead vocals and drums are front and center, propelled forward by robotic, sequenced bass and wiggling synthesizers. YMO often left lyrics until late in the process, opting to spend countless hours tweaking drum rhythms and synth sounds before rushing to finalize the words—so it only makes sense that “Cue,” like “Music Plans,” is another song about playing songs, an idea that coalesced near the end of months of sometimes-tense studio grind. After staying in the background, Hosono finally joins Takahashi in full voice near the end for a final refrain: “I’m sick and tired of the same old chaos/Must be a way to get out of this cul-de-sac.”
“Cue” was the first single from BGM and it eventually became a fan favorite, earning a place on setlists from YMO’s scattered reunion gigs in the 2000s. But neither audiences nor critics regarded this album as highly as their prior work, and it failed to match the success of Solid State Survivor in Japan. Western music critics in particular seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the band, even before the new album arrived in the spring of 1981. When discussing YMO, writers frequently evoked the names of other synth-wielding acts who had preceded them—Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Roxy Music—but few were able to regard the band as anything other than a foreign oddity. Instead of innovators, they saw only a Japanese facsimile of something that had come before, stripping the band of their humanity in the process.
“It wasn’t clear whether the men were playing the machines or vice versa,” declared a writer for the Washington Post after a YMO performance in 1979. A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times compared them favorably to Kraftwerk and then proceeded to deride the band’s “severe presentation.” Some reviews were explicitly racist (“If this band didn’t already exist, some fiendish Japanese technicians would go and invent them,” read the Guardian), while others were simply misguided. As one Chicago Tribune journalist wrote of YMO in late 1980: “Even the most imaginative use of synthesized instrumentation has its limitations… there [are] strong feelings in many quarters that synthesized music is on the verge of running its course.”
With the benefit of hindsight, even BGM’s “dodgy” tracks have aged well. Hosono’s “Rap Phenomena,” with its chanted lyrics and atonal synths, is construed by some as a rare misstep from the otherwise meticulous producer. Cynics write it off as a cringey attempt at trend-chasing from across the Pacific, a bizarre misinterpretation of the developing rap scene in New York City. What they overlook is that from the moment YMO chose their name, they operated with a sense of humor. For their 1980 mini-album X∞Multiplies, they interspersed the tracklist with comedy skits and recorded a new wave cover of Archie Bell & the Drells’ R&B classic “Tighten Up,” which gave us one of the funniest Don Cornelius interviews in Soul Train history. (Differences between the Japanese and U.S. release of the album didn’t help the disconnect; the sketches on X∞Multiplies were replaced by songs from the Japan-only Solid State Survivor.)
While YMO’s first three albums were space-age, synthesized takes on the past, BGM presented a startlingly prescient glimpse into electronic music’s future. Listen to “Rap Phenomena” now and hear subtle echoes of its resonant groove and polyrhythmic vocal sample manipulation everywhere in today’s electronic music. The back half of BGM gestures at entire nascent styles; the skittering drum programming of Aphex Twin (“U.T.,” “Camouflage”), the ominous drama of synthwave (“Mass”). Ambient closer “Loom” might have been the only track to fit the traditional criteria for “BGM,” had it not opened with a patiently ascending, two-minute-long Shepard’s tone. Today, the intro evokes the trademark THX “Deep Note,” though the song predates it. With the help of Hideki Matsutake, the computer whiz who served as YMO’s unofficial “fourth member,” the band deployed some of the most cutting-edge recording technologies available, unearthing their emotive possibilities years before others would do the same.
BGM also hinted at the future of YMO itself. Tensions between Sakamoto and Hosono never fully resolved, leading the band to go their separate ways in 1984 before reuniting decades later. (“We lost our energy and we stopped fighting,” Takahashi explained with a laugh in 2008. Sakamoto remarked: “Well, if I met my past self, I’d punch him.”) In terms of legacy, it’s perhaps the most important album they ever made as a unit. Each member’s subsequent solo work, at one point or another, subsumed the influence of BGM’s palette. It’s there in Takahashi’s heartfelt synth-pop records, Hosono’s ambient work, Sakamoto’s later collaborations with David Sylvian—a splash of drum machine, an unnatural texture. It’s the thrill of a tranquil synthesizer made loud, then aggressive, and then serene again.
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