Records Revisited – Yellow Magic Orchestra – BGM (1981)

21.03.2021
Cues for the future: on their fourth album, »BGM«, the synth wizards of Yellow Magic Orchestra drafted background music for generations to come.

Wavering sounds like wind chimes briefly settle down before making room for clicking programmed beats, followed by a prancing synth bass line: the first bars of »Ballet«, the opener of the album »BGM« by Yellow Magic Orchestra, give the impression of a guest irresolutely lingering at the doorstep before entering.

The three Japanese gentlemen of YMO – their band name thus abbreviated on the album cover –, had started their mutual career initially, perhaps without steady aim, with a playful take on clichés presented on their self-titled debut album from 1979, resulting in electronic music whose often lavishly ornamental tunes were deliberately meant to seem ‘Asian’. The unexpected success of their approach led to more records. Songs like »Behind the Mask« or their cover version of the Beatles classic »Day Tripper«, both from their second album »Solid State Survivor« (1979), became veritable electropop hits and were decisive in shaping the very genre.

Anyone who, back then, might have expected »BGM«, the fourth album by the trio of Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, to feature yet another helping of electronic music in ironic or silly garb, was probably in for a slightly puzzling surprise. Above all, since the record, upon first listen, has something scatty about it, with catchy synth-pop songs alongside proto-electro-sketches through free-form ambient excursions.

»BGM«, short for »background music«, still has quite a bit of electropop to offer, but it is increasingly shifting its shape, fragmenting. Some of it is even pointing to genres that would make their appearance no earlier than the nineties. For example, one might consider „Camouflage“ an early forerunner of the electro style fashioned by Drexciya, whereas other pieces such as »Happy End« which moves through sonic sceneries of metallic sheen are like harbingers of techno mutations of the IDM type.

»BGM« also marks a break of sorts in the history of music since the album is considered to be first production featuring a Roland TR-808 drum machine.

With production duties handled by Hosono, the album came into being during a phase when the band members were said to be on difficult terms with one another due to internal tensions. But perhaps this disparate character, this testing oneself alongside each other helped opening up new artificial worlds. A bit of self-questioning on behalf of Sakamoto formed part of the agenda as well: In »Music Plans«, the second song, the chorus goes: »Making music / What’s the plan? / Breaking music«. Creative destruction, one might say.

«BGM« also marks a break of sorts in the history of music since the album is considered to be first production featuring a Roland TR-808 drum machine. One may perhaps not yet be able to detect blueprints of house music in the songs, however, at that time they offered an early opportunity to get attuned to the sound signature, nowadays promoted to a standard in electronics, of the presumably most famous electric drum substitute ever.

Even in those moments that may at first sight not count among the highlights of »BGM«, for example, the (involuntary?) hip hop parody »Rap Phenomena« by Haruomi Hosono, the use of drum machines in particular turns out to be refreshingly unorthodox, a stiff kind of syncopation as an imitation of breaks, thereby creating its own bulky groove. An early case of refusal of four-on-the-floor.

And then of course there are the big hits, most of all the synth pop tune »Cue« written by Takahashi and Hosono, with its straightforward beat, distinctive bass and yet another programmatic text penned for the band by author Peter Barakan to go along with the breezy melody: «The sound of music / The crying of the air«.

»BMG« does not make it easy for listeners in that the musicians did not care too much about ‘listenability’ in the sense of a homogenised algorithm-based playlist holding few surprises. Deviations from the standard formula need to be taken into account when listening. The seeming jaggedness notwithstanding, »BMG« offers a highly coherent dramaturgy, beginning with the introspective new wave-ish »Ballet«, up to »Loom«, the concluding ambient piece taking off with slow glissandi before unfolding into a sonic mobile in space. In 40 years, none of this has collected any dust at all.

Yellow Magic Orchestra
BGM Black Vinyl Edition
Music On Vinyl • 1981 • from 28.99€