came to see these girls. They even sang-shouted along. How could you not?
Yes. Those leather-clad, metal-studded, faux-leather-boot-wearing men all descended, some on Harleys, onto Spaceland late last Tuesday night to see, essentially, The Ramones by way of Sanrio: a trio of Japanese women collectively called Shonen Knife, a trio ripped from the pages of manga who sing about going to a sushi bar, and wanting to go there with you, maybe on Friday night. They also, by the by, sing about furry animals, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Homegrown in Osaka in 1981, Shone Knife found an international audience when they opened for Nirvana during that band’s tour through the UK in late 1991. Some context: Margaret Thatcher just left the Prime Minister’s office, leaving an enormous recession for incoming PM John Major. The UK entered the First (or Second, depending on how you count these wars) Gulf War earlier that year, and between a war and a recession – well, this is a story that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Anyway, imagine, then, three tiny girls from Osaka facing a crowd of British urban youths who expected to see, and angrily mosh to, American grundge. Indeed, lead singer Naoko Yamano’s account of first seeing Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic was something just short of pure fright:
Nirvana gave us an offer to join them on their British tour and, at that time, I didn’t know of them. Our management showed me their photograph and they looked very wild so I was scared.
Punk rock – or, as some prefer, rock the way rock was intended – was defined by artists so against something (the Establishment, the Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, etc) that the only means of releasing that anti- sentiment was through loud and louder music. Shonen Knife, with happy songs cloaked in a genre defined by anger, turns that conceit on its head: they are so in favor of eating cookies that they can only release that happiness through hard rock. They have axes to grind too, just happy ones. And so they convinced Kurt Cobain and the rest of the restless urban British kids that songs about Barbies and jelly beans and chocolate bars were worth just as much as their time and moshing energy as songs about teenage rebellion in passive paralysis. This is why when you go to a Shonen Knife concert now, you will run not only into indie hipsters who collect Giant Robots the way others collect tattoos, but also adult versions of the guys who went to those early rock concerts. Yes, it’s still a little creepy, but it’s less so once you realize the history behind all of it.
Shonen Knife has cycled through different band members, and though Naoko Yamano is the lone original member, the Shonen Knife of today sounds remarkably like the Shonen Knife five years ago, which sounded like the Shonen Knife a decade before that, and a decade before that. Ritsuko Taneda (who joined the band in 2008; she plays a hard, thumping bass that she combines with some good old fashioned head banging) and Emi Morimoto (who joined the band just this year; she is a drummer whose small size wields enormous power) were fans of Shonen Knife before becoming two parts of it. Instrumentally, Shonen Knife sounds like The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, and Motorhead; vocally, you’ll hear melodies and stories inspired by The Byrds, Chicago, The Beatles, and 1960s oldies.
Most articles I’ve read about Shonen Knife use the word cute every other sentence to describe them. It’s true – they are downright adorable – but it’s also a terrible disservice to Shonen Knife if you just stop there. You can’t, for example, just say, “Katharine Hepburn was beautiful” without adding, “and a damn good actress” if you want to do her any justice. Similarly, Shonen Knife is cute, but they are also damn good musicians. They’ve had the talent and the sense to be around for nearly 30 years now. That’s longer than Madonna has been around, and, unlike Shonen Knife, Madonna can speak perfect English, sometimes so perfect that there’s an Oxford accent sprinkled here and there. I’d bet Shonen Knife can drink us (Madonna included) all under the table and, while we’re passed out and drooling on our bar napkins, Naoko would write a song about us called “Drunk Person.” So cute!
Naoko mentioned in an interview that she likes the performance aspect of punk rock, which is why Shonen Knife always wears matching outfits during their live sets and have synchronized head banging. On Tuesday, they arrived on stage, neatly single-file, holding up banners bearing their name. They then took their guitars and drumsticks and proceed to rock the hell out.
They went deep into their catalog and opened with a few early songs: “Riding on a Rocket” and “Catnip Dreams.” In between songs, there were a lot of Arigato!‘s and smiles. Right before they started playing songs from their new album, Naoko politely stated that they will now play songs from their new album, Free Time, and hopefully we will like them. Yes, of course.
Part of the reason for their following, I think, is that their love for rock, food, and cute things is genuine and honest, and you can feel that sincerity through their lyrics. There is nary an ounce of irony, subtext, cynicsm, or overwrought metaphor in their songs. If, say, an American band sang about this animal
accompanied by clashing cymbals and frenzied power chords, we’d juxtapose the cutesy lyrics with the loud music and conclude it was a song about being caged and oppressed by The Man. No, for Shonen Knife, the medium is the message, but so is the message. When Naoko introduced “Capybara” to the Spaceland crowd, she explained that she saw this South American animal at a zoo in Japan. So, “Capybara” is literally about a cute animal caged by man (“South American animal/Always biting grass”). Nothing more, nothing less.
Similarly, their songs about food – of which there are many – are about their genuine love for food. At Spaceland, Naoko noted the lovely Los Angeles weather and asked the crowd what they like to put on their BBQs. The leather jackets were surprisingly shy; the answer should have been, “RAW MEAT” but the skinny jeans part of the audience shouted out “Tofu!” Someone else yelled out, “Vegetables,” prompting Naoko to say, “Wow, a lot of vegetarians.” This was the preface to “BBQ Party,” where the primary chorus is “Pig out! Pig out! Pig out! Pig out!” Yeah, have fun pigging out on tofu and veggies, guys.
If every food blogger could write about food the way Shonen Knife sings about food, then the food blogging world would improve by leaps and bounds. Witness, for example, Naoko’s lyrical review in “Rock ‘n Roll Cake”, off of Free Time:
Fresh strawberries, banana, and melon
Wrapped and rolled in a soft sponge cake
Flour sugar butter
Mix and bake
I want to sleep inside it
It’s a sponge cake. She wants to sleep inside it. For a very long time. What else do you need to know?
Shonen Knife always said that they want people to feel happy listening to their music, and they, more than Disneyland, consistently achieve that happy high. Their encore was “Sushi Bar Song”, above, and afterward, they immediately went out to meet their veggie-loving audience and sign merch. They’re more successful now than they were 30 years ago, but they still have that DIY mentality that harks back to Sid Vicious’ safety pinned shirts (true to form, even their matching stage outfits were personally designed and patterned). A Shonen Knife concert is one of the happiest places on earth, and I have actually seen a girl cry at the end of one of their concerts – because of what, I’m not sure exactly. Is it that we really don’t give ourselves permission to be honestly, guiltlessly happy anymore? If so, that is sad, and if so, thank the punk gods for Shonen Knife.
Bonus! Check out my interview with Shonen Knife here.