In Memory of Yukihiro Takahashi 1952-2023
I discovered Yellow Magic Orchestra pretty late. I heard about them through a Mac Demarco interview in about 2014. The band sounded intriguing from the description, so I followed up. The first track I found on YouTube was a song called Tong Poo. The opening notes hooked me instantly! The sound felt like it had been missing all my life. Or, more precisely, it felt like a familiar friend I had missed for a lifetime. Futuristic synth textures collided with traces of Bartok, Debussy, and disco to deliver a sound that woke me from some long musical slumber. Ryuichi Sakamoto's dancing melodies spun around my head, punctuated by the counterpoint of Haruomi Hosono's bouncing bassline. At the heart of this song's style and poise was the steady groove of drummer Yukihiro Takahashi.
Yukihiro Takahashi died on January 11th, 2023. I've delayed my original idea for this week's newsletter to celebrate his musical life. As a drummer, Yukihiro was always in the pocket. He always played the rests equally with his notes. The space he created allowed others to shine because they could trust the beat. His style dispensed with the flashiness coveted in so much of the drumming world. In his solo work, his steady and reserved drumming allowed the listener to pay attention to his clever lyrics. Through playful imagery, Takahashi conveyed a deep sense of meaning even in his second language.
An exhaustive list of the YMO Takahashi highlight reel would be beyond the scope of this newsletter and, indeed, a job for a braver soul than me. But I'll be able to pique your curiosity with a few of my favorite moments in his career. Yuki was an incredible drummer and fearless frontman, and he possessed the type of humility we should all aspire to. I hope this post inspires you to dive into his work and the rest of the YMO universe.
In 1980, Yellow Magic Orchestra blew people's minds with their unique blend of soul and futurism. I love this video as a moment of a band having fun with the strange tradition of miming live television performances on Soul Train. Their cover of Tighten Up is second to none, the drums live up to the song's name, and the vocoder vocals make this tune unique and groundbreaking. The interview at the end of this video could not have been more awkward, and Yuki handles it like a champ.
YMO is a band that is known for its side projects almost as much as it is known for its principal releases. On bassist Haruomi Hosono's release, Philharmonic, Yukihiro Takahashi takes a verse on the song Sportsmen. It was common for him to cover the song in his concerts. This video shows the beautiful friendship and sense of humor (maybe?) between the two. I only say "maybe" because I don't know if it's common for Japanese audiences to enjoy hearing repetitions of the final chorus. Judging by the look on Haruomi Hosono's face by the third play-through, I'd say it's a bit. I'll leave you to look up the original, but this version shows how much range these musicians have.
Drip Dry Eyes is one of my favorite songs from the Takahashi solo catalog. This tune really shows off the charm and brilliance of his English songwriting collaborator Chris Mosdell. A little lyric analysis reveals how much is going on in this piece.
First of all, the arrangement of this song leaves a lot of room to breathe. Flourishes from the tremolo guitar and saxophone have plenty of space to bring something interesting to the song. The feel is casual like one is walking down an empty street. Almost desolate and evocative of a landscape within a memory. The music sets the stage for the lyrics with a plucked synth texture evocative of water dripping onto the ground.
The song uses laundry as a metaphor for a tumultuous relationship. A less capable songwriter might have relegated this type of metaphor to a single line. How often have you heard of people being "hung out to dry?" Takahashi and Mosdell explore this metaphor deeply. Opening with a line like, "I feel like I've been through a washing machine," alludes to the volatility of this relationship without using a phrase like "emotional rollercoaster." In the subsequent lines, they communicate being put through the wringer (another laundry metaphor) and being used like a machine. It sets the tone for the song well.
The refrain, "drip-dry eyes," is interesting because it isn't apparent how it comes to mean crocodile tears. Yuki and Mosdell do a good job showing that metaphor in the second verse, but we can figure it out ourselves if we take the line less literally. The equivocation of "drip-dry" and drip/dry is something to consider here. Initially, the construction "drip-dry" works because it is a laundry reference; however, we could also understand this to mean wet/dry, on/off, or hot/cold. We can use the terms "drip" and "dry" to indicate two opposing states the subject duplicitously achieves almost simultaneously. The line delights in its ability to maintain ambiguity but makes the listener feel sure of its meaning. The unorthodox metaphor allows for a playful lightness and enables the listener to take the song seriously or listen casually, depending on the moment.
Murdered by the music is in the tradition of new-wave classics inspired by American comic books. The song evokes tunes like XTC's Science Friction and The Jim Carroll Band's People Who Died. The opening verse has some pretty comedic imagery that also pays grim homage to Brian Jones:
This song is for you if you're into fun new wave bangers that sound good on a mixtape with Video Killed the Radio Star.
Like David Byrne, the idiosyncratic nature of Yukihiro Takahashi's music can lead people to the conclusion that they are sardonic. Sometimes this is true, but there are songs like It's Gonna Work Out that are genuine professions of hope and aspiration. Don't let this song's nonchalant Gary Numan vibe fool you; it is a song with a cause.
What I've shown in this newsletter is scratching at the surface of Takahashi's work. The man was prolific and did more in the 80s than many artists will ever allow themselves to do in their lifetime. From his first album paying tribute to Jazz and French Pop to his supergroup Metafive, Yukihiro Takahashi pushed the envelope and always looked great doing it. Takahashi was fearless----He was a unique voice in music history, and we're lucky to have shared any time with that voice here on this earth.
Addendum: I received feedback from a reader who informed me that Yukihiro Takahashi worked with two songwriters for the songs "Drip Dry Eyes", "Murdered by the Music", and "It's Gonna Work Out". "Murdered By the Music" and "Drip Dry Eyes" feature lyrics from songwriter Chris Mosdell and "It's Gonna Work Out" was written by Peter Barakan. I want to thank Matthew Mathis for informing me of this collaboration. He's got a show on Freeform Portland and did an episode for Ryuichi Sakamoto that you can find at the link below. Thanks Matthew!