Sitting With A Stack Of Ryuichi Sakamoto Records

I’ve got a lot of music by Ryuichi Sakamoto sitting on my record shelves. Either solo, guest slots, or as part of  YMO. Since his sad passing, I’ve been wondering how I ended up with such a huge stack. 

There are soundtracks, scores to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, that I sought out primarily because legendary Ibiza-based DJ Jose Padilla played them. Made them synonymous with Cafe del Mar sunsets. 

There are records that Jose’s contempoary, Leo Mas used to warm-up the White Isle nightclub, Amnesia, back in the fabled venue’s hedonistic mid / late `80s, open-air, heyday. Stuff like Shogunade, from the Bill Laswell-produced album, Neo Geo, and the extraordinary Exhibition, found on the flip of Fieldwork*, an ambient / glitch techno epic that floats and flickers like Christian Fennesz well over a decade before a Fennesz recording existed.**

Tracks like The Garden Of Poppies, from 1981’s The Left Handed Dream, are equally, astoundingly, prophetic. This one sounding like Suspiria-era Carl Craig jamming with Steve Hillage’s System 7 – all wonky, smudged funk, and whale song guitar. 

There’s 1989’s Beauty, which boasted a long, long line up of stars, such as Brian Wilson, Nana Vasconcelos, Shankar, Arto Lindsay, Sly Dunbar, and Youssou N`Dour, and featured a super Balearic cover of The Stones’ We Love You, fronted by Robert Wyatt. 

Amore’s also on there, a tune that I heard Mancunian maestro Moonboots spin at Steve Terry and Phil Mison’s marvelous, mythical, Cafe 1001 afternoon sessions. 

Much of Sakamoto-san’s work actually bumps to a very Balearic beat – a sort of mid-tempo go-not-go constructed from tumbling traditionally-timbre-d tones. Machine and marimba movements. Take Tibetan Dance, for example, released in 1984 on Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia / Ongaku Zukan, or the totally tropical Paradise Lost from the same album. 

There are Cosmic Club classics, in 1000 Knives and Plastic Bamboo, a hook-up with Robin “Pop Muzik” Scott, and the Quiet Village pillaged You’re A Friend To Me, but there are two tracks that pack a lot more personal weight. 

Riot In Lagos was one of the first 12s I ever bought. I had to order a copy from Sounds Good, on South Norwood High Street. A teeny tiny shop, without much stock, but you could flick through the release catalogues, put down a deposit, and they’d do their best to bring your record in. The tune was a tip from my mate, Desmond Witter, who sat next to me in whatever the UK equivalent of “homeroom” is. Dez was a super talented dancer, a locally renowned, famous “funk shuffler”, and his older brother Simon was also no slouch. Simon was the first person I knew to get heavily into hip hop, he hung / danced with Newtrament, had Zulu Nation beads, the whole nine yards. 

Dez and I at the start of the day would talk mainly about music – swapping titles of tracks that we`d heard – him at the clubs his brother snuck him into, and me glued to pirate radio. Riot In Lagos was one of his recommendations. Others would be things like Xavier’s Work That Sucker To Death, The Strikers’ Inch By Inch, and Michael Henderson’s “gimme that, gimme that” Wide Receiver. In that company, “Lagos” jumped out. It was just plain weird. It pre-dated Africa Bambattaa’s groundbreaking Planet Rock by a couple of years, so was also well ahead of the approaching electro explosion. 

It actually sounds like one of the YMO’s more electronic albums, such as, say, Technodelic, tastefully torn apart in King Tubby’s echo chamber. How its creation came about is a crazy story that has Ryuichi, who was working at Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang, shipping his gear from Düsseldorf to Dubmaster Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell’s Studio 80, which was still under construction, in Southwark, and the two of them improvising, editing, and dubbing this timeless and pioneering piece of music in just a matter of hours. 

Then there’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, perhaps one of the most perfect cinema scores ever produced. Folks the world over will probably recognize the refrain of the main theme, and very likely have a soft spot for the vocal version, Forbidden Colours. A song that’s very likely to be the most popular piece in Ryuichi’s vast recorded legacy. 

When I was a kid I`d hear that haunting melody and be lost in a daydream world of unrequited woes. A self-indulgent melancholy ache, that I’ve never quite been able to shake. Convinced of my unworthiness, and certain that the objects of my desire didn’t even know I existed. Of course, teenage girls are much, much shrewder than that. I`d spend my weekends cycling, alone, on a loop through Addiscombe, Beckenham, Shirley, and South Croydon. I had no idea where she lived. Only that it was somewhere nicer. Posher. For me, back then, “the love that dare not speak its name”, was any love at all. It was not a time, or place, of declarations of affection, hugs and kisses. 

A bookish boy, and this by itself generated whispers of “He’ll never marry”, and without a doubt caused my old man no end of shame, I became a committed doomed romantic. Worked up by “O” level literature. Shakespeare and Graham Greene. Cribbing a cock-eyed, dated, code of honour from Damon Runyon’s short stories of `30s gangsters and molls, and Sergio Leone’s `70s spaghetti westerns. I resigned myself to the idea that love would never come my way, some unattainable goal, only to be worshiped from afar, but it did, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really lust, I didn’t long to see them naked. There was something beautiful about them, it could be a cute chipped front tooth, or an uncrushable confidence, a quality that I surely lacked, and I just wanted them to like me. Was this love? I don’t suppose so. I guess, not. I never pictured myself settling down, getting engaged, married, and raising children. It was never strong enough to dissuade me from escaping. From 15 to 21 I always seemed to be either drunk or studying. 

Revisiting the music has me remembering wondering what it would be like to be in love, and asking myself did I ever find out? That thing that I watched, wide-eyed, up on the big screen, and picked up from purple prose, you know, soul mates, does it really exist? Listening I’m reminded of not only of being this lonely, imaginary noble hero, locked in my head, but also flashing back through every failed attempt. “Countless”, “fumfty” faces rushing by. “A lifetime away.” A cheesy montage. Blame those movies again. Am I older, wiser, enlightened, in love with everybody, or is love simply something that I’m not capable of. Still an art that remains out of reach? Not something lacking in them, but something lacking in me.

“I thought all I needed was to believe.”

In tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto, who sadly passed on March 28th, I`ll be taking part in a two-hour celebration of his music broadcast tomorrow, April 6th, between 10AM (GMT) and noon, on Neil Thornton’s Culture Trip show, care of Clerkenwell`s Music Box Radio. Neil will be providing an hour of more recent productions, while I’ll run through a few of the treasures listed above. I`ll also be dedicating my own show, The Remedy, to Ryuichi, this weekend.

Reel by Sean Gorham at Innit Digital Media.


**Fieldwork was a 1985 collaboration with Thomas Dolby

** Fennesz and Sakamoto began collaborating in 2004.

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