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Yukihiro Takahashi
Yukihiro Takahashi

Remembering Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi, in his own words

In the wake of his passing earlier this week, we look back on the YMO drummer and synth-pop pioneer’s life and work

Earlier this week, Yukihiro Takahashi – a founding member of the pioneering Japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, who led a vibrant musical career that spanned over 50 years – died in Japan at the age of 70. The news came after his recovery from surgery to remove a brain tumour in 2020 was beset by complications, with news reports in Japan suggesting that he had been battling pneumonia at the start of this year.

“I wanted to combine elements from new and old music from abroad as well as from Japan and create something unique.”  – Yukihiro Takahashi, 2020.

Takahashi became a professional musician while he was still in high school, briefly performing in the folk-rock group Garo before joining Sadistic Mika Band as a drummer in 1973. The glam and prog-rock band, whose name riffed on Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, formed after Folk Crusaders member Kazuhiko Katō witnessed the rise of T. Rex and David Bowie in London. 

After legendary Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren shared a copy of the band’s debut album with Bryan Ferry, the band were invited to support Roxy Music on tour in 1975. The tour, which included a date at London’s Wembley Stadium, was reportedly the first in the UK by a Japanese rock band. They were regularly played on the radio by tastemaker DJ John Peel thereafter, and performed on the popular UK TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test that same year.

“I had become friends with Ryuichi Sakamoto and other musicians around [1978], which felt like destiny.” – Yukihiro Takahashi, 2020.

Following the break-up of Sadistic Mika Band in the late 70s, Takahashi released his first solo album Saravah! in 1978 – a rich, genre-fluid classic that mixed disco, bossa nova and French exotica. The album’s cover image, which pictures a tuxedo-wearing Takahashi leaning against a fountain, was notably shot by Masayoshi Sukita, best known for his collaborations with David Bowie, including the iconic cover image for Heroes. The music was completed with the help of musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono, Takahashi’s new bandmates with the group Yellow Magic Orchestra. 

The unexpected overseas success of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1978 singles “Computer Game” and “Firecracker” (the latter reached the Top 20 in the UK) soon catapulted the trio towards global recognition. The band, whose innovative, intricate and deeply melodic electronic music was often compared to that of Kraftwerk, incorporated synthesisers, samples, drum machines and computers in a manner rarely witnessed before in Japan. They’d later become one of the most globally-successful Japanese bands of all time, inspiring countless emerging genres, including hip-hop, house, techno and video game music.

“We’re doing what we want to do,” Takahashi said of the band’s radical, forward-thinking music in an interview broadcast on The Tube in 1985. “If we started considering our listeners, we’d have to compromise. There’s no point in doing it at all if you have to compromise.”

In Yellow Magic Orchestra, Takahashi was identifiable for his metronomic drumming, idiosyncratic vocals, and eclectic, Mao-inspired fashion sense (all of which would become cornerstones of the band’s collective appeal) across seven initial albums before their disbandment in 1984. He would also pen several of the band’s most popular pieces. Among the most notable was “La femme chinoise”, from the band’s 1978 debut, the proto-techno piece “Pure Jam”, from 1981’s Technodelic, and the effervescent “Rydeen”, from 1979’s Solid State Survivor – considered by many to be the band’s quintessential track.

If Hosono was “the ideas man” and Sakamoto “the professor”, then Takahashi was something else entirely: “I was the populariser, the communicator” he told The Guardian in 2008.

All the while, Takahashi’s continued to release albums like Murdered by the Music (1980) and Neuromantic (1981), as his solo career flourished in the 80s. The latter included melancholy highlight “Drip Dry Eyes”, which, like the wider album, featured both his Yellow Magic Orchestra bandmates and former tourmates Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay, the guitarist and saxophonist of Roxy Music.

Collaborations with artists such as Be-Bop Deluxe bandleader Bill Nelson, Iva Davies of Icehouse, and Steve Jansen of Japan followed, in a solo career that eventually surpassed 20 albums. Takahashi would simultaneously contribute soundtracks for video games (Nintendo’s Ginga no Sannin, 1987) anime shows (Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, 1990) and films (Appleseed: Ex Machina, 2007), while also forming groups such as The Beatniks, pupa, and METAFIVE – the latter of whom released their final album in 2022.

Takahashi also enjoyed a modest career on screen, first appearing as a prison guard in the obscure 1983 sci-fi parody It’s All Right, My Friend, directed by Audition writer Ryû Murakami. He’d also play a gatekeeper in Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 adaption of Haruki Murakami’s international bestseller Norwegian Wood. His most notable film work, though, would come via the films of director Nobuhiko Obayashi – best known for his 1978 psychedelic horror cult classic House

Takahashi appeared in the enchanting The Island Closest to Heaven in 1984, and made a minor appearance in the director’s 1988 horror fantasy The Discarnates. But it was his leading role in 1986 light comedy Poisson d’Avril – a film for which he also composed a whimsical and romantic score – that is perhaps his most prominent. He would reunite with Obayashi in 2019, for what would be both the director and the musician’s final film: the surreal and critically-acclaimed historical fantasy epic Labyrinth of Cinema.

Takahashi’s final public appearance in the UK was in July 2018, when fans at a Haruomi Hosono solo show at the Barbican in London witnessed the reunion of Yellow Magic Orchestra for a single song: “Absolute Ego Dance”. The performance, which opened with a series of bustling Takahashi drum fills, marked the final time the three musicians appeared together in public.

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