Yukihiro Takahashi, pioneer of electronic pop music, dies at 70

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Yukihiro Takahashi, pioneer of electronic pop music, dies at 70
A drummer and singer, he was best known as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of Japan’s most successful bands and a major influence on hip-hop, techno and New Wave.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Yukihiro Takahashi, a drummer and vocalist whose wide artistic range and gleeful embrace of music technology made him a leading figure in Japan’s pop scene for nearly 50 years, most prominently with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of his country’s most successful musical acts, died on Jan. 11 in Karuizawa, Japan. He was 70.

The cause was aspiration pneumonia, a complication of a brain tumor, his management company said in a statement.

Takahashi and Yellow Magic Orchestra, which he founded in 1978 with musicians Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono, were often ranked alongside the German electronic group Kraftwerk as pioneers in electronic music and significant influences on emergent genres like hip-hop, New Wave and techno.

Yellow Magic Orchestra was among the first bands to employ in live shows devices like the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer and the Moog II-C synthesizer, which they used to complement Hosono’s funky guitar and Takahashi’s tight, driving drums.

Unlike their German counterparts, who leaned into the avant-garde nature of electronic sound and referred to themselves as automatons, Yellow Magic Orchestra found ways to bend it toward pop music, blending in elements of Motown, disco and synth-pop.

In a 1980 appearance on the television show “Soul Train,” the band performed a souped-up version of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” after which a bemused Don Cornelius, the show’s host, interviewed Takahashi. Kraftwerk, it might go without saying, never appeared on “Soul Train.”

Takahashi “was remarkably skilled at taking what were obviously artificial, technologically mediated sounds and using them to build songs that sound fully and organically human,” Michael K. Bourdaghs, a professor of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Chicago, said in a phone interview.

The band and its tech-inflected sound arrived at just the right time. Japan had long since remade itself as a postwar economic engine, but by the late 1970s it was becoming something else: a global emblem of techno-utopianism and futuristic cool. Sony released the Walkman in 1979, just as Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake were taking over Paris fashion runways with their playful, visionary designs.

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s eponymous debut album, released in 1978, sold more than 250,000 copies; its 1980 sophomore release, “Solid State Survivor,” sold some one million. Six of the band’s seven studio albums reached the top five in the Japanese pop charts, and all of them provided fodder for covers and samples far beyond Japan.

Afrika Bambaataa, 2 Live Crew, J Dilla and De La Soul were among the many acts who borrowed liberally from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s archive. Michael Jackson remade its song “Behind the Mask,” though his version was not released until 2010, after his death.

The band’s music also inspired composers of early video game soundtracks who were looking for electronic sounds that could remain compelling even after hours of play. Yellow Magic Orchestra titled the first track on its debut album “Computer Game ‘Theme from The Circus,’” and Takahashi later wrote music for several games.

He and his bandmates were already established musicians when they formed Yellow Magic Orchestra, and they continued to release solo projects during the group’s six-year run. Takahashi released some 20 albums during his career, not counting numerous remastered reissues and live recordings.

Neither he nor the band ever sat still artistically. His first group, the Sadistic Mika Band, brought glam and prog rock to Japan in the early 1970s and was among the first Japanese acts to achieve success outside the country — it toured Britain with Roxy Music and played on the BBC.

Takahashi’s 1978 solo album, “Saravah!,” produced by Sakamoto, drew on bossa nova and reggae influences, while the album “Yellow Magic Orchestra” later that year tweaked Orientalist stereotypes, most notably in a cheeky cover of Martin Denny’s tiki-inspired “Firecracker.”

Both before and after Yellow Magic Orchestra, Takahashi was a frequent and eager collaborator, forming bands on the fly and bringing in friends to play on individual tracks. He often worked with the British guitarist and singer Bill Nelson, as well as Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music.

Takahashi wrote much of the music played by Yellow Magic Orchestra; he also played drums and sang lead vocals, though many of their songs were instrumentals.

His voice was rich and louche, strikingly similar to that of Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, especially on early hits like “Drip Dry Eyes” (1984). He sported a pencil mustache and, in later years, a fedora and thick-rimmed eyeglasses. Like Ferry, he came across as effortlessly cool and ever-so-slightly world-weary, a hipster who believed in better days to come.

“We had hope for the future, unlike now,” Takahashi said in a 2009 interview, seated between Sakamoto and Hosono. “We used to say we will make music that’ll be a bridge to the future.”

Yukihiro Takahashi was born on June 6, 1952, in Tokyo. He began his music career early, playing drums with college bands while still in junior high school and starting as a session musician at 16.

He is survived by his wife, Kiyomi Takahashi; his brother, Nobuyuki Takahashi, a music producer; and his sister, Mie Ito.

He studied design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, but did not graduate. During the 1970s, he developed his own clothing line, Bricks; he often designed the outfits worn by Yellow Magic Orchestra, including a striking trio of bright red Mao suits.

Yellow Magic Orchestra broke up in 1984, its members citing musical differences. All three went on to successful solo careers — Sakamoto won an Academy Award for his soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987) — but they remained close, and occasionally reunited. They released an album in 1993, “Technodon,” and appeared at a 2012 benefit concert to oppose nuclear power.

“We followed a rock band path, so we stopped” playing as Yellow Magic Orchestra, Takahashi said in 2009. “But on second thought,” he added, nodding toward his bandmates on either side of him, “I couldn’t think of anybody I respect more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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