Photo by Kaoru Ijima

Yukihiro Takahashi, the drummer and lead vocalist of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA has sadly passed away at the age of 70. 

In 2020, Takahashi had a brain tumour removed and undergone a course of treatment following surgery but he eventually succumbed to his illness.

Born in Tokyo, Takahashi first came to prominence as the drummer of THE SADISTIC MIKA BAND, a prog fusion outfit who were signed to PINK FLOYD’s Harvest label and appeared on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1975.

He released his first solo album, the lounge-flavoured ‘Saravah!’ in 1978 which featured a cover of ‘Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)’. But that same year, he was invited by producer Haruomi Hosono to form a primarily instrumental disco band with Ryuichi Sakamoto which could have the potential to succeed internationally; that band was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA. While Hosono was schooled in jazz and funk, the classically trained Sakamoto bought in the influence of KRAFTWERK while Takahashi was something of an Anglophile with a love of ROXY MUSIC having toured with them as part of THE SADISTIC MIKA BAND. The end result was a very Japanese approach of merging many different styles like a Bento box in a reliable, forward thinking fashion.

Released in 1978, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s wonderful self-titled debut album captured a crisp exotic electronic pop sound. Its key track was ‘Firecracker’, a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny which became a surprise UK Top 20 hit single in 1980 while also gaining traction in America where the band made a memorable appearance on the prestigious music show ‘Soul Train’. The rest of the album featured original material including the Takahashi-composed ‘La Femme Chinose’.

Released in 1979, the excellent second album ‘Solid State Survivor’ featured Takahashi’s masterpiece ‘Rydeen’ and saw him feature more prominently as a vocalist as YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA moved away from solely instrumental compositions. While the next two albums ‘BGM’ and ‘Technodelic’ were darker and more experimental, Takahashi maintained a successful solo career in his homeland where his Ferry-ish vocal delivery naturally took centre stage.

His solo albums ‘Neuromantic’, ‘What, Me Worry?’, ‘Time & Place’ and ‘Wild & Moody’ featured notable British musicians such as Steve Jansen, Bill Nelson, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera, David Palmer and Tony Mansfield as well as Antiopdeans Zaine Griff and Iva Davies. Takahashi also got into production, notably working with the Franco-Japanese beauty Susan on the highly syncopated rhythmical number ‘I Only Come Out At Night’ which he also co-wrote.

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA went on to be the one of the most popular bands in South East Asia; their fifth full-length album ‘Naughty Boys’ in 1983 delivered their most commercial release to date, exemplified by the joyous lead single ‘Kimi Ni Mune Kyun’; the song was later the closing theme to the Anime series ‘Maria Holic’ sung by the cast while it was also reworked with new English lyrics and vocals by Phil Oakey for a YMO versus THE HUMAN LEAGUE EP. Takahashi was later to work on the soundtrack of another Anime series ‘Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water’.

With each member continuing their already established parallel solo careers, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA went into hiatus in 1984. Teaming up with kindred spirit Steve Jansen who shared a similar sense of humour, the pair released a superb one-off joint single ‘Stay Close’ in 1986. With Jansen doing a very able impression of his older brother David Sylvian and Takahashi providing his usual mannered vocals, it remains a true lost classic as possibly the best song that JAPAN and YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA never recorded.

A short YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA reunion took place in 1993 for the ‘Technodon’ album although the band had to be known as YMO  for legal reasons as their original record label Alfa Records owned the name. With Takahashi always one for an easy listening cover, it finished with a Japanese language interpretation of ‘Pocketful Of Rainbows’ made famous by Elvis Presley. While he continued with his prolific solo career and other business interests including fashion and publishing, there was no further group activity until 2007 when Hosono, Sakamoto and Takahashi reunited for a Kirin Lager advertising campaign.

Takahashi continued working with Hosono in SKETCH SHOW but when Sakamoto was invited to join, for recording purposes they combined names and became HASYMO. But in 2009, the trio finally performed again as YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA at the World Happiness festival in Japan. His final solo record of original material ‘Life Anew’ came in 2013 and featured James Iha of SMASHING PUMPKINS as a collaborator.

Last Autumn, two boxed sets ‘T.E.N.T Years Vinyl Box’ and ‘It’s Gonna Work Out ~ Live 82-84 ~’ were released while there was a special tribute show featuring Akiko Yano and Steve Jansen to celebrate his 50 years in music held at Tokyo’s NHK Hall, although the guest of honour was too ill to attend.

With his impeccably tight timing and a frenetic but controlled style of drumming with notable tone variation, Yukihiro Takahashi influenced the likes of David Palmer and Steve Jansen who in turn influenced top session players such as Gavin Harrison. A pioneer of electronic percussion and one of the first to use the Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer while also able to play guitar and keyboards, he challenged the perceived role of a drummer in pop music. And without YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, there would be no Citypop…

Text by Chi Ming Lai
14th January 2023