Your Cover’s Blown: Yellow Magic Orchestra – “Tighten Up” (1980)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 4, 2010
Archie Bell & the Drells’ 1968 classic “Tighten Up” was always one of the more idiosyncratic US #1 hits. A funky soul number based on a percolating bass line and choppy two-note guitar rifff, the song simply featured Bell commanding his pledges through various musical directions (most of them tightening-up-related) for three-plus minutes of entirely verse-less and chorus-less bliss-out groove. With only a sporadic horn break coming to interrupt the song’s mellow, its hypnotic rhythms had far more in common structurally with the disco and house records of future decades than it did with any of its 60s soul peers (although it’s possible that all soul outfits in Houston sounded like this–I doubt I could name you a single other soul outfit to ever hail from H-Town, unless we’re counting Lil’ Flip). The song’s backstory is just as weird, with Bell being drafted into the Army just as the song was taking off, and getting shot int he leg in the process (thus, as Wikipedia somewhat wryfully points out, making the “we dance just as good as we walk” line “a little ironic”).
Perhaps this would explain the logic behind it being selected for covering by easily one of the most idiosyncratic acts of the rock era, Yellow Magic Orchestra. A Japanese synth-pop outfit with an ear for soul and an appreciation for American pop culture, YMO are probably best (if at all) known by US audiences for their minor new wave-era hits “Computer Games” and “Cosmic Surfing,” a couple gleefully technophilic numbers with a quirky sense of humor and a quirkier sense of funk. (This is, no doubt, exactly what Devo sounds like to non-English speakers, though I like YMO’s sound a good deal more). Keyboardist Ryu Sakamoto would later become well known in his own right as a film scorer, even winning an Oscar in 1987 for The Last Emperor (although to be fair, just about everyone involved with that movie went home with an Oscar for one reason or another–I’m pretty sure even the on-set catering service had to clear some room on their mantle), and today, the band is seen as pioneers of the genre, though what “the genre” refers to is likely up for debate.
I suppose that all things considered, YMO’s version of “Tighten Up” could be viewed as a relatively faithful rendering. The group keeps the bass and the guitar line basically in tact, although the drumming is far more of a rigid disco beat than the loose shuffle of the Drells’ original. Even the lyrics, while wildly contrasting in style with the original (Yukihiro Takahashi’s delivery seems purposefully shrill and piercing), still at least follow along the structure of Bell’s instructional motif, even name-checking the Drells themselves in the song’s intro. Musically, the only additional adornments are gentle synth-0organs, and some relatively understated squelchy keyboards. The horn interruption is still there (although it is approximated by the synths rather than played organically), as are the handclaps and the drum breaks. Really, taking into account what cultural and musical mavericks YMO were (and witnessing what they did to The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” under similar circumstances), it could have been a whole lot nuttier.
That said, the thing is still basically totally nuts. If anything, playing the song so close to the vest makes the entire experience more perverse, as it allows memories of the original to linger fresh, even as it turns the song’s general intentions inside out. The easygoing, almost floating groove of the Drells’ version is replaced with a decidedly nervy and manic (although not necessarily any less funky) energy, and Takahashi’s crazed instructional exhortations (occasionally delivered in what must be intentionally cartoony Engrish) make Bell’s traffic-directing sound practically catatonic by comparison. And more distance is put between original and cover with each thoroughly erroneous pleading of “JAPANESE GENTLEMAN, STAND UP PUH-LEAZE!!!!” (intoned both in Takahashi’s traditional gutteral wailing, and in a far more disconcerting echo-y bellow from an unclear source). If there’s reasoning behind it, I’m not sure I want to know about it–I can’t really imagine a more appropriately inappropriate recurring phrase to give the song it’s necessary punctuation.
Little of this would suggest that the band would necessarily be a good fit for that standardized bedrock of American R&B TV programming, Soul Train. Nonetheless, the programmers evidently saw them as a good fit for the show, and invited the whole crew over to play “Tighten Up” on set, in what probably rivals Public Image Ltd.’s infamous appearance on American Bandstand as the most sheerly unlikely underground-meets-mainstream moment of the New Wave era. host Don Cornelius is visibly uncomfortable at many aspects of the performance–perhaps due to his devotion to the Drells’ original, or perhaps because he’s little used to eccentric Japanese new wave acts that don’t really speak English appearing on the program. (Although I do think it’s somewhat outrageous that he disdains the idea of having heard of Kraftwerk–do you really think you’re that much better than Afrika Bambaataa, Mr. Conrelius?) I do have to give Cornelius points for not even attempting to gloss over the sheer ridiculousness of YMO appearing on the program as most spineless US TV variety program hosts would likely do, instead introducing their performance after the fact with the explanation “In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what’s going on…I haven’t the slightest idea.” Fair enough.
Amazingly, this isn’t even the most remarkable existing live performance of YMO’s “Tighten Up.” Those honors would have to go to the existing footage of the band playing the song at the legendary Japanese venue of Budokhan in front of an adoring crowd. Rather than even mime a lip synch to the song, the entire group insteaed just gets up to the front of the stage and performs an awkward sort of synchronized shuffle to the song’s rhythm (“We dance, you understand?”), a sight which must truly be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, the clip goes into fast-forward play for its final minute–although that’s not without its charms either, and was possibly intentional the entire time, who knows.
Japanese gentleman stand up please, indeed.