Yellow Magic Orchestra

By Bryan Lufkin | 06.16.12 8:30 AM

Yellow Magic Orchestra

From Duran Duran to Van Halen to Whitney Houston, ’80s acts used the latest electronics to give pop music a futuristic sheen that still coats today’s Gaga- and Pitbull-dominated charts. Most Western listeners consider Germany’s Kraftwerk or Ohio’s Devo to be the originators of synthetic pop, but the true godfathers of electro are Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Back in the late ’70s, YMO combined tools like the Roland TR-808 programmable drum machine (it was the first band to use it) and the Polymoog synthesizer to fashion a uniquely Japanese sound.

While Teutonic peer Kraftwerk was rigid and robotic, YMO was capricious and quirky, deploying samples from arcade games like Space Invaders and Circus in their debut single, “Firecracker,” which sold 400,000 copies in the United States alone.

YMO songs were even covered in ’80s Sega games, which helped pave the way for chiptune and electro acts like Crystal Castles. Meanwhile, DJ Afrika Bambaataa borrowed from YMO as hip hop was blooming.

The band’s Beatles-level clout in Japan led other Nipponese acts like Ippu-Do and P-Model to go heavy on the synth, shaping what would become modern-day J-pop. The sound YMO pioneered is often the common link across genres, from dance (Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) to indie (Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”) to pop (LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”).

YMO deserves royalties for each synth-heavy hit — Justin Bieber and Kanye West owe them a lot of yen.