In the landscape of American postpunk music, with its jaded rejection of popular culture, a Japanese “girl band” that sings about candy and cute animals would seem to be an unlikely candidate to become what Pollstar has called the “darlings of the underground rock world.” Nonetheless, Shonen Knife—three Japanese women enamored of American pop culture and punk music—gradually gained that status, carving a niche for themselves with American underground audiences in the early 1980s by recycling the sounds of 1970s and 1980s punk bands like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks into a format that, as Musician’s Chris Rubin quipped, “sometimes suggests a K-Tel Sampler of ’70s new wave and punk.” Initially treasured by the likes of Nirvana, the lead band of “grunge” rock, Shonen Knife was discovered by mainstream media and major-label record companies in the early 1990s.
Despite Shonen Knife’s relentlessly upbeat image, their origins were quietly rebellious in their own culture. The three young women—sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano and their friend Michie Nakatani—came from Osaka’s middle class, where a young woman’s life was expected to follow a strict path. When the three decided to form a band in the early 1980s, they had no intention of pursuing rock and roll fame.
Naoko Yamano told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press that her parents “used to make us keep our guitars hidden. They thought members of rock bands are bad people; it’s a very typical thought of conservative Japanese people.” She explained that the financial situation made it difficult for them to pursue their music full time: “If I will be independent from my parents, it is easy [to be in a band]. But I can’t get enough money to live alone now. Usually Japanese women live with their parents till get married. If I get married and go out from my family house and my husband [encourages] me, I can play band more.”
Consequently, the Yamanos and Nakatani saw their music as a hobby only, one that would relieve the tedium of their day jobs: Naoko and Atsuko Yamano, who lived with their parents in Osaka, held office jobs with a plastic surgeon and fashion designer, respectively, while Nakatani worked as a word processor. The band’s beginnings were appropriately simple, as Naoko described in Pollstar. “It was after we finish school,” she explained. “Me and Michie were bored so we decide to start a band, but we need drummer. I made a pretty flyer and put it on refrigerator. Soon Atsuko see.… She said she would be drummer.” They chose the band’s name, like the music that would follow,
For the Record…
Members include Michie Nakatami, bass; Atsuko Yamano, drums; and Naoko Yamano, vocals and guitar.
Band formed in Osaka, Japan, 1981; recorded three EPs with small Japanese label, early to mid-1980s; occasionally performed in Tokyo and Osaka clubs; first EP imported to U.S., 1983; band picked up cult following in alternative rock market; released Burning Farm, 1985; played first U.S. club date, Los Angeles, CA, 1989; signed with Giant, 1990; toured U.S. and Europe; signed with MCA (Japan), Creation (Europe), and SBK/ERG (U.S.), 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
because its playfulness and incongruity appealed to them. Naoko explained in Rolling Stone that a shonen knife is a children’s pocket knife; “‘Shonen’ means boy and is a cute word,” she elaborated, “and ‘knife’ is a sharp word. I like mixing the two.”
Taken by the fun of it, the three proceeded to record three albums through the early 1980s with an independent label, Zero Records, based in their home city; Frank Kogan would later dub the EPs “three blasts of gleeful beauty” in the Village Voice. Each album sold only approximately 2,000 copies—a negligible number for an ambitious rock band; for Shonen Knife, however, it was a nice extra as they went along with their “hobby.”
The group couldn’t have anticipated the interest in their music that would surface on the other side of the world after the first imports of their EPs reached the United States in 1983. K, an independent label that Kogan described as “tiny,” made a contract with Shonen Knife for their first U.S. release, Burning Farm, in 1985. Although the cassette-only recording was restricted to a small audience, it nonetheless began establishing the band with listeners searching out developments in alternative rock.
Chuck Eddy, one of those first listeners, was taken by what he called the group’s “surf-gone-funk bass-gurgles” and “shattered-window percussion” in a Village Voice review. Critics were particularly intrigued by the band’s lyrics—what Rubin described as “guileless songs about the minutiae of daily life [written] with equal enthusiasm and sincerity.” Burning Farm contained, for example, “Parrot Polynesia,” “Elephant Pao Pao,” “Banana Fish,” and “Twist Barbie”—titles that accurately predict the songs’ lyrics.
A slightly more substantial independent label, Subversive Records, brought out a second American album in 1987. The songs on Pretty Little Baka Guy, as before, addressed everyday objects and events in playful language, mixing English and Japanese with abandon, and unabashedly displaying their infatuation with American pop culture. The reviews multiplied. Eddy praised the LP in the Village Voice: “The surprises come in the tempos thrown awry by spasmodic staccato lisps and adenoidal nonsense scats and histrionic Rob Halford-style screeches, in the trashy farfisa and intercepted shortwave signals and grinding one-chord sludge tattooed onto Ferris wheel samba/blue-beat/exotic-bounce, in the phrasing and pronunciation and grammar that deliberately maul the English language.”
A summer vacation in Los Angeles in 1989 brought Shonen Knife the chance to perform one show at the Second Coming club—a slot that friends had arranged for them. Since their musical interests were still too marginal to win them popularity in Japan where they were playing only once a month, the group was astonished to discover the size of their following in the United States. The audience that filled the club demonstrated its enthusiasm in a variety of ways, as promoter Bill Bartell recalled for Kogan: “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to anything ever. People shouted out song names, threw Snickers bars onstage during ‘I Wanna Eat Chocobars.’” Kogan recalled that the audience wouldn’t let them leave, insisting on a series of encores; local papers, including the L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, reviewed the show with approval.
A year later—almost 10 years after Naoko’s note on the refrigerator brought the band into being—Shonen Knife passed from underground oddity to a kind of retro-alternative rock phenomenon. Bartell, who owned the Gasatanka recording label, arranged for them to reissue earlier recordings with Gasatanka and Giant, bringing them one step closer to major-label patronage. The first, Shonen Knife, combined cuts from Burning Farm and Yama-no Atchan, one of the EPs that had been previously released in Japan.
The most unusual event, however, was the tribute album put together by Western bands that had followed the trio for years; some of the most famous indie rock bands in the States, including Sonic Youth, recorded their own versions of the music of this Japanese trio on Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.
After these releases, the Knife’s reputation expanded at a remarkable rate, prompting a small tour of the United States in the summer of 1991, where they played at some of the major punk landmarks, including New York City’s CBGB. A chance to open for Nirvana on a three-week tour of the United Kingdom brought them under the wing of Kurt Cobain, the leading figure of grunge rock. In the spring of 1994, after Cobain’s suicide, Naoko told Graff that Nirvana “took care of us a lot. Shonen Knife and Nirvana were like brothers and sisters. I feel now like I almost lost my good brother.”
In 1991 Shonen Knife released a second album, 712, and the band had a chart hit in England with “Space Christmas.” The momentum from these two years broke them into the major labels in 1992, when Japan’s MCA, Creation in Europe, and SBK/ERG in the United States all offered them contracts. Virgin’s Let’s Knife offered re-recordings of songs from earlier releases.
Several critics noted the band’s growth with 712: Steve McClure commented in Billboard that “the band has moved from so-bad-it’s-good amateurism to a more polished style, without losing its charm or sense of humor”; Scott Schinder remarked in Pulse! that the band had “traded the game amateurism of its indie releases for a more driving sound, applying upgraded instrumental chops and studio technique to souped-up reworkings of its indie hits.”
The release of 712 anticipated a well-received appearance at New York’s 1992 New Music Seminar—the recognized testing ground for alternative rock—and tours throughout 1993 that included a turn through Europe. By the spring of 1993, Shonen Knife’s record sales remained comparatively small, but they had attained what McClure called “unprecedented visibility for a Japanese act in the U.S.”
As Americans declared their love of Shonen Knife with more frequency, British reviewers began dismembering the band, trying to tear away the Knife’s appearance of ingenuousness. Article titles drew on puns demonstrating a simple-minded stereotyping of Japanese culture: “Sushi and the Banshees” and “Toyotas in the Attic,” for example.
David Stubbs summed up the debate in Melody Maker by asking, “Are the Knife genuine innocents, or are they cynically pandering to a certain racist notion of silly little Nips, scuttling through life happy-snapping at everything uncritically and unselectively?” Stubbs made his position clear when he announced it his “churlish duty … to indicate that Shonen Knife are bewilderingly, innocuously, irresistibly, cheerfully, naively, exuberantly CRAP.” Two weeks later, another Melody Maker writer noted, and resisted, the band’s quickly rising popularity: “We are supposed to like Shonen Knife. They are the latest pocket-sized Japanese accessory, a funny, throwaway novelty.”
Consequently, bandmembers began insisting that there was more substance to their music than writers had previously given them credit for. Explaining their ouevre in Pollstar, Naoko commented that “It is like candy. On the outside is sweet, and on the inside is a peanut. Something hard to bite down on.” Scott Schinder made an argument for the band’s substance in Pulse!, insisting that “while their popularity is often attributed to the camp value of the band’s innocently skewed take on Western pop culture, Shonen Knife’s true appeal lies in the guileless joy of its tunes, and in the more serious subtexts lurking beneath the threesome’s infectiously cheerful surface.”
Eddy distinguished Shonen Knife from what he felt were less powerful bands of the same genre, describing how their “cheesy AM-readymade schocktoons turn gleefully big and brisk and crude before your ears, with a vulnerable nursery school spunk.”
“I like Shonen Knife,” Frank Kogan explained in the Village Voice, “because they’ve got a sense of joy while being almost matter-of-fact about it. So they sound effortless rather than precious.” Eddy agreed in his summary of Pretty Little Baka Guy, which struck him “like some Bizarro world teenage utopia, but its giggles and gawkiness affirm life’s absurdity without mocking it, and that’s a pretty smart thing to do even if everybody else did get too jaded for it a long time ago.”
In a Rolling Stone review of Shonen Knife, Eddy attributed the popularity of the band within America’s musical underground to “an innocence that jaded Western postpunks have worked years trying (and failing) to win back.”
Released in 1994, Rock Animals presented the first slate of new songs from the band in quite a while. The album came at just the right time, challenging the group’s candy-coated image with an undeniably hard-rock sound. “Knifers from way back will be pleasantly surprised at the way Rock Animals rocks out,” Renee Crist claimed in Spin. “The Shonen Knife sound is typically spare and a little primitive (and not very sophisticated), but here the band nails its bare-bones style into hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos, killer drumming, feedback, flannel.”
Shonen Knife finally went professional in the spring of 1992, when the three women quit their various “office lady” positions in Osaka. Although “still largely viewed as an underground band in its musically conservative homeland,” as Schinder noted, their success with Western audiences convinced them to make music as more than a hobby. “Now I’m happy that I can play music all day long,” Naoko told Scott Schinder. “To release a CD for a major label isn’t our goal. To keep playing music, to keep having fun—that is our goal. If we become rich, we want to make a club in Osaka and invite many American, British and European bands to come and play.”
Burning Farm, K, 1985.
Pretty Little Baka Guy, Subversive Records, 1987.
Shonen Knife, Gasatanka/Giant, 1990.
712, Giant/Rockville Records, 1991.
Let’s Knife, Virgin, 1992.
Rock Animals, Virgin, 1993.
Billboard, April 24, 1993.
Detroit Free Press, April 29, 1994.
Guitar Player, June 1993.
Melody Maker, September 19, 1992; November 7, 1992; November 21, 1992.
Musician, March 1993.
Pollstar, March 1, 1993.
Pulse!, August 1992; March 1994.
Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; April 15, 1993; March 10, 1994.
Spin, December 1991; March 1993; February 1994.
Village Voice, April 26, 1987; March 27, 1990.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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