Song of the Neuromancer: Remembering Yukihiro Takahashi
Saluting the synth-pop pioneer who slipped away too soon
Yukihiro Takahashi was so far ahead of the game he would have had to stand still for years for everybody else to catch up.
The Japanese singer, songwriter, drummer, and synth player sped way out past the rest of the pack multiple times in his long career, constantly pushing into fresh territory. The mind reels at how many more ideas he might have explored if he hadn’t left us on January 11 of this year.
In the U.S., he’s probably most famous for his history-making run with Yellow Magic Orchestra, but he was already changing the game long before that. In the mid ‘70s he made three albums as the drummer for Sadistic Mika Band, who played an idiosyncratic mix of glam rock, prog, funky jazz-rock, and more, and were the first Japanese rock band to become known in the West, even appearing live on England’s legendary Old Grey Whistle Test.
VIDEO: Sadistic Mika Band on The Old Grey Whistle Test
By the time that band had run its course, Takahashi was already onto something new and even more groundbreaking. In 1978 he co-founded electronic trio Yellow Magic Orchestra along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono. Only Kraftwerk was a bigger and earlier influence on the synth-pop generation that would arise to dominate pop culture in the ‘80s. But from the beginning, YMO went in directions Kraftwerk never even considered, incorporating R&B, video game music, lounge, disco, and the tonalities and melodies of their homeland. Along the way they became the first (and perhaps only) Japanese band ever to appear on Soul Train.
Nearly every electronic-oriented act of the ‘80s owes a debt to YMO, but the trio had an especially huge impact on the British band Japan. Not only was the latter’s sound heavily informed by YMO, but Sakamoto and Takahashi played live with the band and would be involved with the members’ post-Japan projects for years to come.
VIDEO: Yellow Magic Orchestra “Cue”
By the time YMO released the final album of their initial run in 1983, the band had grown from synth-pop seedlings to a lush, verdant garden, helping to lay the groundwork for multiple strands of electronic pop and dance music to come. Meanwhile, the exhaustingly prolific Takahashi had already been pursuing a solo career throughout Yellow Magic Orchestra’s entire existence.
On his own, Takahashi demonstrated his multifaceted muse right off the bat, combining string arrangements and electronics to position himself as a surprisingly successful jazz/pop crooner on his 1978 solo debut, Saravah. His ‘80s albums took more of a synth-pop slant, bearing a more personalized, emotive touch than the YMO material. It was here that his stylish, suave vocal presence served him better than ever. Takahashi’s ‘80s output often featured contributions from Sakamoto and Hosono, as well as an intercontinental cast of creative partners, including the likes of Bill Nelson and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera on 1981 high-water mark Neuromantic.
VIDEO: Yukihiro Takahashi “Something In The Air”
Seemingly never busy enough, the tireless Takashi also produced and played on a slew of records by others from the late ‘70s on, mostly Japanese artists such as Sheena & The Rokkets, Susan and Sandii & The Sunsetz, to name just a few. That’s not even mentioning his many side projects, including Tokyo Joe, a duo album with fusion guitar star Kazumi Watanabe; The Beatniks, a synth-pop pairing with Keiichi Suzuki of Moon Riders; and occasional adventures with former Japan drummer Steve Jansen.
Takahashi’s 21st century collaborations included outings with his old YMO buddies, like Sketch Show with Hosono; and HASYMO, featuring the full trio; as well as Metafive, including Cornelius, Deee-Lite co-founder Towa Tei, and others. Somehow, Takahashi also found time for sporadic YMO reunions in the ‘90s and 2000s. Oh, and did we mention that somewhere amid his decades of whirlwind activity he acted in and crafted music for several Japanese films?
Takahashi maintained a rapid flow of solo releases through the ‘90s, tapering off a bit after the turn of the millennium. He appeared onstage for the final time in 2018, backing Hosono at London’s Barbican, where a surprise Sakamoto pop-up momentarily made for the last YMO reunion. In 2020, Takahashi was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and on the aforementioned fateful day in January of 2023 he died of complications at the age of 70.
Most musical heroes are celebrated for being as gifted at a single skill within a single style as Takahashi was at so many. Singer, songwriter, film composer, drummer, electronic musician, producer, solo artist, band member, accompanist, new waver, synth popper, jazzy crooner, funkmeister, prog rocker—Yukihiro Takahashi was all these and more.
Given additional time, who knows how much else he might have been? It’s hard not to wonder, but it’s best to choose gratitude over greed and be thankful for what he gave us.
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