(April 12, 2020).  How many folks of a certain age remember “Computer Game,” the quirky, but funky, instrumental jam that R&B radio programmers were all over in the late winter and early spring of 1980?  

And how many of you remember Yellow Magic Orchestra, the trio of very talented musicians out of Tokyo who created the song and, as a result, became the first Japanese band – and the second Japanese act overall, after solo singer Kyu Sakamoto – to reach the American R&B charts?

Well, this year “Computer Game” celebrates its 40th anniversary of making American chart history.

Yellow Magic Orchestra (l to r): Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Yukihiro Takahashi (circa: early 1980s)

To commemorate the milestone, DJROBBLOG takes a look back at the improbable soul chart success and legacy of YMO’s instrumental classic, along with a look at what the three talented musicians have been up to in the past 40 years (including one member who had a dubious connection to the late Michael Jackson and the Thriller album; more on that in a moment).  

Yellow Magic Orchestra makes history:

During the third week of January 1980, with disco in a tailspin in America and most popular artists of any genre in the U.S. hailing from more western cultures, the Japanese trio of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Harauomi Hosono debuted on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart at a very modest No. 83 (out of 100 positions) with “Computer Game,” an electro-funk dance song heavy on synthesizers and possessing a drum beat so funky it rivaled that of any song on the charts.

The 12” single of YMO’s 1980 soul chart hit, “Computer Game.”

“Computer Game” began a steady chart climb until it reached the top 20 in March, peaking at No. 18.  It would remain in the top 20 well into April and on the entire chart until it exited in May after 17 weeks on the list. 

To put the out-of-left-field soul success of “Computer Game” into perspective, here’s a sample list of the other songs that made their R&B chart debuts the same week as YMO’s hit: “And The Beat Goes On” by the Whispers, “Theme From The Black Hole” by Parliament, and “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” by Vaughan Mason & Crew.  The songs topping the chart that week were a couple of Quincy Jones-produced classics: Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” at No. 1, and Rufus & Chaka’s “Do You Love What You Feel?” at No. 2.

Newbies: YMO’s “Computer Game” was among several big R&B chart débuts the week of Jan. 19, 1980.

In other words, there were some pretty big R&B heavyweights sharing airspace with an unknown group of three men out of Tokyo who’d never charted in the U.S. and who only months earlier had signed their first American record distribution contract with A&M Records (on its Horizon label).

The historic rise of YMO was ironic in that the group broke on black radio stations before they got play on pop ones.  Notably, “Computer Games” didn’t enter Billboard’s pop chart – the Hot 100  – until two weeks after its soul chart début.  And it never rose any higher than No. 60 on the pop list…considerably lower than its No. 18 showing on the soul chart. 

While YMO was the first Japanese band to pull off this feat, the first Japanese act overall to reach the soul chart was in June 1963 when solo star Kyu Sakamoto (no relation to YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto) graced what was then a 30-position chart for four weeks with his smash hit “Sukiyaki.”  Like “Computer Games,” “Sukiyaki” also peaked at No. 18 soul, but did much better on the pop chart – making it all the way to No. 1.

Fast Trivia fact: Exactly one year after “Computer Game” exited Billboard’s soul chart, the R&B duo A Taste of Honey topped the chart with an Americanized remake of “Sukiyaki,” which went to No. 1 soul on May 9, 1981 (and reached No. 3 on the pop chart that June), but I digress.

In the nearly 17 years between the original “Sukiyaki” and “Computer Games,” only one other Japanese act had reached any American chart. That was in the summer of 1979 when the popular female duo known as Pink Lady made the pop chart with “Kiss In The Dark,” a disco song that peaked at No. 37 on the Hot 100 but failed to make the soul list.

YMO’s appearance on Soul Train in 1980:

YMO performs “Computer Game” on Soul Train in 1980.

Western music exchange with the Far East was a one-way street in 1979/80:

With disco all the rage in America during 1978 and through the first half of 1979, several disco songs by American and Western European artists had also gained popularity in Japan, the world’s second-biggest music market at the time.  Yet while several Japanese artists like YMO (itself drawing inspiration from the German electronic dance group Kraftwerk) had embraced synth-driven, beat-heavy techno music in the late 1970s, their success in western markets was non-existent.  This was largely due to the differences in musical styles, a strong language barrier, and the high costs of promoting and marketing an artist in foreign western markets with no guarantee of return on investment.

In a Japanese music industry special feature for Billboard magazine on May  26, 1979, YMO was one of several Japanese acts – Pink Lady among them – who were touted as seeking to make inroads in America.  But unlike Pink Lady, a duo that had become an international pop phenomenon with several million-selling singles in their native country and a soon-to-be hit in America, the arguably more talented YMO was struggling to find wider acceptance.

The group’s leader, Harauomi Hosono, stated at the time that “a magic must be drawn from music” and he described his group as “one which considers a groovy rhythm, an original melody and a metallic concept as important factors.”

Junichi Goto, head of promotion at Alfa Records – the band’s label in their native Japan – said in the same Billboard article that “musically, a complete Japanese sound will not work.  An intermingling of elements that will be received well overseas along with some sort of Japanese fascination is necessary.  Yellow Magic Orchestra is a group that is more than meeting those demands.”

What made the 1980 American soul chart success of “Computer Game” even more astonishing then was that it had been recorded and released in Japan and other countries nearly two years earlier.  In 1978, the tune appeared on YMO’s self-titled début album under the name “Firecracker.”  It was actually a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny.

For its American single release in 1979, A&M Records combined “Firecracker” with the song that immediately preceded it on the album – itself a sort of prelude featuring various sound effects from popular arcade games (specifically the games Circus and Space Invaders by the Japanese company Namco) and a series of firecracker blasts near the end.  It was this prelude that originally bore the title “Computer Game.”  

To capitalize on the growing arcade and home video game craze at the time, and to possibly avoid confusion with another huge R&B hit in America in late 1979 called “Firecracker” (by the band Mass Production), Horizon/A&M Records gave the two combined tracks the name “Computer Game” and the rest, as they say, was history.

YMO’s original medley of “Computer Game” and “Firecracker.”

The legacy of “Computer Game” goes far beyond its historic chart accomplishment.  The song was way ahead of its time with its blending of international music styles, including melodies from Southeast Asia as well as rhythms from Central and South America, and its use of computerized sound effects, particularly the bleeps from video games.

The song’s beat would be influential in the fledgling hip-hop scene, becoming the foundation or influence for songs by pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa (“Death Mix”) and Mantronix.  It would later be sampled in songs by Teddy Riley (“Wong,” 1986), De La Soul (“Funky Towel,” 1996), and Jennifer Lopez (“I’m Real,” 2001), among many others.

And even though “Computer Game” wasn’t as big a pop chart hit as it was soul during its 1980 run, it is considered a forefather of the synth-pop movement that would dominate popular music later in the 1980s.  

So whatever became of YMO?

The three founding members of Yellow Magic Orchestra are still very much alive and are very active in the music industry today, thank you.

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Hosono, Yukihiro and Sakamoto (circa: 2000’s)

In fact, they’ve had very lucrative careers both individually and collectively in the 40 years since “Computer Game” scaled the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

After their first album, Yellow Magic Orchestra, which contained “Computer Game”/“Firecracker,” the group released six more studio albums before breaking up in 1984 (while they were still immensely popular in Japan).  They’ve often reunited and even recorded a new album in 1993 (Technodon), which was released under the modified name YMO (not Yellow Magic Orchestra) due to their previous label’s ownership of the original name.

The group has played various festivals and benefit concerts into the 2000s, including the Kyoto Live Earth event in 2007 and the World Happiness Festival in Japan in 2009. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music has also continued to soundtrack various anime features and modern-day video games.

Each member had parallel solo careers and they continued to play on each other’s solo albums as well as make guest appearances at various live shows.

L to R: YMO’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, and leader Haruomi Hosono.

Harauomi Hosono, the group’s leader and bassist/keyboardist, recorded dozens of solo albums (mostly released in Japan) and recently toured in the U.S. for the first time as a solo artist (two sold-out shows at NYC’s Gramercy Theatre and a concert at L.A.’s Mayan Theatre, all in 2019).  His most recent album, 2019’s Hochino House, was a reissuing of his solo debut, Hosono House from 1973, with the tracks reversed in sequencing.  Hosono is notably the grandson of Masabumi Hosono, the only Japanese passenger/survivor of the RMS Titanic.

Yukihiro Takahashi, the band’s drummer and vocalist, recorded nearly three dozen solo albums away from YMO, with the most recent, 2018’s Saravah, Saravah!, being a remastered version of his 1978 solo debut album.  The 2018 reworking included contributions from his YMO bandmates Hosono and Sakamoto.  Takahashi has also made his mark as a producer for other musicians and, as an actor, played bit roles in motion pictures.  

It is Yukihiro who gave Don Cornelius the interview in this 1980 Soul Train clip following the band’s performance of a somewhat hilarious version of the Archie Bell & the Drells classic, “Tighten Up.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto had the biggest international success, which resulted from his ventures into acting and soundtrack work.  Most notably, he won an Oscar for scoring The Last Emperor in 1988 (with David Byrne of Talking Heads).  He also composed the opening music for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

The connection to Michael Jackson’s “Behind the Mask” and Thriller:

Sakamoto wrote an instrumental song called “Behind the Mask” for a 1978 Seiko commercial.  His band YMO re-recorded it a year later for their second album, Solid State Survivor.  Quincy Jones discovered the YMO version and brought it to Michael Jackson’s attention in 1982 during the recording sessions for the album Thriller.  Michael added lyrics (and gained a songwriting credit) for his version, but a royalties dispute with YMO’s management resulted in the song not being included on the album. 

Years later, Thriller contributer Greg Phillinganes released the song on his own solo album and it made the top five on Billboard’s Dance/Disco chart.  A reworked version, for MJ’s posthumously released album Michael, finally saw the light of day in 2011.

Watch the below videos of “Behind the Mask” and compare the two:

First YMO’s original:

Now MJ’s cover:

Despite this missed opportunity on the grandest of scales and what could have been a historic connection to the biggest-selling album in world history, the members of YMO continue to build their incredible legacy, which, for most Americans, began with “Computer Game,” a simple, groundbreaking, electronic dance-music classic that paved the way for synth-pop in the ‘80s and made YMO the first Japanese band to make the soul charts in America.

Happy 40th anniversary, YMO and “Computer Game”!



My personal Top 75 chart from April 12, 1980. “Computer Game” (mis-titled above) peaked at No. 2 behind Bros. Johnson’s “Stomp!”

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

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