The past few years have been a boom time for Japanese reissues, as labels dredge up everything from ambient obscurities to glossy disco-pop for the benefit of listeners who missed them first time around. For Yukihiro Takahashi, it’s all a bit confusing.
“Do you understand that?” the 66-year-old musician and style guru asks, pondering the current appetite for vintage Japanese sounds. “I don’t get it. It was all just copies of music from overseas, wasn’t it?”
It’s a surprising comment coming from someone who helped establish Japan’s international reputation for musical creativity, first as part of Sadistic Mika Band and then with techno-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra.
This weekend marks 40 years since YMO released its eponymous debut album on Nov. 25, 1978, ushering computer music into the mainstream and forever altering the sound of pop. The group — consisting of Takahashi, Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto, plus unofficial fourth member Hideki Matsutake — was one of the most innovative acts ever to emerge from Japan, and certainly the only one to enjoy such widespread success.
In 1980, they were the country’s biggest-selling band. But, as Takahashi recalls, even their record label, Alfa Records, hadn’t known what to make of them at first.
“When we made the first album, nobody at the label understood what we were trying to do,” he says. “There was a management meeting where they were kind of like, ‘If you make this, it’s going to put us in a difficult position.'”
He remembers that it took the enthusiasm of American record executive Tommy LiPuma, whose A&M/Horizon Records label would release YMO’s debut overseas, to convince Alfa to sign off on it.
The stakes were rather lower when Takahashi cut his solo debut earlier in the year, giving it the title “Saravah!” Conceived during the months before YMO became his full-time gig, it’s a very different record, influenced by French New Wave soundtracks, Burt Bacharach and Boz Scaggs. On a cover of the Yves Montand staple “C’est si bon,” it even dabbles in what could only be described as reggae-chanson.
“There was an insert in the first edition of the album, saying that my next project would be something completely different,” he says. “That’s the spirit it was made in. If you look at it in the context of the Japanese music scene at the time, it was a weird record.”
On Saturday, audiences at Tokyo International Forum can hear him perform the album live for the first time. (There are no plans for a YMO reunion, though the three original members reconvened for a performance of “Absolute Ego Dance” when Hosono played in London in June.)
Takahashi has also given “Saravah!” the full reissue treatment, not only remixing and remastering it, but also re-recording the vocals. Like George Lucas tinkering with the original “Star Wars” movies, the project has allowed him to scratch an itch he’s had for the past 40 years — though unlike with “Star Wars,” the new version is definitely an improvement.
“The weakness of the vocals had always bugged me,” he says. “It was the first time I’d had to sing, and I still hadn’t found my own style.”
In a stroke of good fortune, he discovered that the original tapes for the album had been preserved in good condition, enabling him to record fresh vocals and then remix the entire record. Yoshinori Sunahara, his bandmate from electronic supergroup Metafive, handled the remastering for the reissue, now titled “Saravah Saravah!”
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how naturally Takahashi slips into the music he wrote 40 years ago. When I ask if he feels his voice complements the material better now, he completes the sentence before I’ve finished.
“It’s a good fit with these songs,” he says. “It’s a funny album. I was probably over-stretching myself, but I like it now. I wasn’t so keen on it at the time!”
Takahashi’s future YMO bandmates both played on “Saravah!” with Sakamoto also co-producing and contributing orchestral arrangements. Like many albums from the era, the credits read like a who’s-who of Japanese pop, including appearances by Tatsuro Yamashita, Minako Yoshida and Sadistic Mika Band’s Kazuhiko Kato.
This was the musical milieu from which YMO emerged in 1978. The group was Hosono’s brainchild, expanding on the electronic exotica he’d crafted on his solo albums “Cochin Moon” and “Paraiso.” Takahashi and Sakamoto were brought in to play on the latter — the first time the trio had worked in the studio together — and then recruited to form a full-time band.
Hosono was the group’s biggest star at this point: a prolific solo artist, session musician, producer, and veteran of influential folk-rock quartet Happy End. However, Takahashi was no neophyte himself.
As the drummer for Sadistic Mika Band, he had toured the U.K. with Roxy Music in 1975 and recorded an album with Pink Floyd producer Chris Thomas. The group was the first Japanese rock act to make serious inroads in an overseas market — not that its label back home did anything to capitalize on the success.
“We were getting more newspaper coverage than Roxy Music over there, but when we came back to Japan nobody was talking about it,” Takahashi says.
His first taste of touring overseas also left him with an impression — reinforced when YMO embarked on world tours in 1979 and 1980 — that people in the West were still a bit clueless about Japan.
“When (YMO) did interviews, we were constantly getting asked the same questions,” he says, laughing. “It was always things like, ‘Does your music have a Zen influence?’ or ‘Are you influenced by traditional Japanese instruments?’
“This was 1980, so everyone still had a lot of misconceptions about what kind of place Tokyo was,” he says. “YMO went global at the same time as the Walkman, so there was this image of technological progress, but it would get framed in a negative way — like, people would think that was why everyone in Tokyo walked around wearing face masks.”
YMO learned to play on the perceptions that overseas audiences had of Japan, making the most of what Takahashi calls “bizarre misunderstandings.” He was responsible for designing the group’s costumes, which playfully subverted well-known Asian motifs. The members appeared in garb reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard on the cover of 1979 album “Solid State Survivor,” while their outfits for their 1980 world tour were based on Japanese high-school uniforms.
As they toured more, they became increasingly mindful of local sensibilities. When playing in Germany and France, for instance, they omitted the part of their routine for “1000 Knives” where all of the members raised one arm in an extended salute — not a good look in that part of the world.
“We had to be careful that people didn’t take things completely the wrong way,” says Takahashi. “If something we were doing half in jest was taken seriously, it could get out of hand. But people gradually recognized the humor in what we were doing, too.”
Forty years on, he admits that he gets a little nostalgic thinking about the era, though there are some things he definitely doesn’t miss.
“I didn’t imagine I wouldn’t be able to walk around town any more,” he says, recalling the height of YMO’s fame. “It felt like we’d get mobbed every time we went out. … We probably had it worse than Southern All Stars!”
“Saravah Saravah!” is in stores now. Yukihiro Takahashi plays the Tokyo International Forum in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 24. For more information, visit www.room66plus.com.