Destroy All Monsters of Rock!
Although it has been a while since Shonen Knife was the rage, the band has certainly never been without style. The Japanese all-girl trio first captured America's hearts in the late 1980s for the simple reason that they maintain interest today: They're too entertaining to resist.
The American appetite for Japanese pop culture, everything from Godzilla and Speed Racer to Nintendo games and Yu-Gi-Oh, has long been rabid, and it can be argued that some of Shonen Knife's early buzz was owed to the pure novelty of it all. Three cute Asian girls sang funny songs in heavily accented English while wearing trendy Japanese fashions -- it was like Hello Kitty times three come to life in the form of a Rising Sun version of Josie and the Pussycats. And it was irresistible. While that helps to explain some of their appeal long ago, it can't account for the longevity of their career.
So you have to set aside the novelty factor, and what you find is the fact that beneath the cute veneer lies a great band. You could even make a case for them as the Ramones of Japan. What has helped the Ramones' music remain so enduring (aside from the band's well-known musical innovation) is the strength of Dee Dee and Joey's songs, and likewise Shonen Knife knows what makes a great pop song. Also like the Ramones, Shonen Knife celebrates kitsch and strips the music down to bare essentials, and over the years they've become very adept at their instruments and have kept their music evolving by incorporating a wide variety of influences.
Heavy Songs, their newest American release, is one of their stronger recent records. The mix of songs in Japanese and English is led off by the ferocious "A Map Master," in which the navigationally challenged narrator bemoans her lot in life. "I have a poor sense of direction," sings guitarist Naoko Yamano. "I need to put on a radar detector."
The tune is a perfect example of what makes them so enjoyable. It sticks in your head so hard you can't shake it. "Rubber Band" is another one they pound into your skull until you annoy everyone by singing it incessantly. Elsewhere, they resurrect John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever with the disco/new-wave sounds on the robotic "Boogie Monster." And of course it wouldn't be a Shonen Knife record without a few songs about food, covered here with the clap-along "Mushroom Cut" and the electronica of "Mango Juice."
As can be seen, gone are the days when Naoko would wax poetic about junk food; in 1990 she sang both "I Wanna Eat Choco Bars" and "Ice Cream City."
"Recently I found out artificial coloring for food is very bad for health," she says via e-mail from her Osaka apartment. "So I don't eat junk food which uses an artificial additive but I like other 'healthy' junk food."
Which is not a bad way to describe the Ramones -- or Shonen Knife, for that matter. Their music is cheap, tasty and good for you. And lots of people like it. Shonen Knife's place is secure in the annals of rock history as the first Japanese band to catch a significant foothold stateside, and while there's no accurate way to tally their sales in our market, it's a safe bet that they've been the best-selling Japanese rock band overall.
Still, there's success and then there's success, and Naoko clearly sees the emphasized version as more of the real deal. "Our activity in America started step by step by ourselves. It was not a sudden change," she says. "I don't know if we got real success or not. If we were successful, we might have a big house at Beverly Hills."
Naoko says her "very unique punk-pop music" is influenced by the Ramones, Buzzcocks, KISS, Earth Wind & Fire, the Beatles, video game soundtracks, hip-hop and heavy metal. Like many Japanese bands -- Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her and Super Junky Monkey come to mind -- they have a unique name. "Shonen Knife is an old very minor brand name of pencil knife," Naoko explains. "Shonen means 'boy' in Japanese. The images of the words are Boy = cute; Knife = keen. It's just like our music.
"I think we are not old-style or new-style," she says. "We are always Shonen Knife-style. If people are so concerned with just buying into new things, well, those new things will get old very soon. It's silly to just purchase things for fashion. People should purchase with feeling. If it's good, get it, old or new."
One prominent person impressed by the Shonen Knife style was Kurt Cobain. "When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert," he said of the band that toured with Nirvana twice. From there, they quickly grabbed the attention of such rock royalty as Sonic Youth and Redd Cross and then the imagination of the caffeinated '90s at large. Wherever there was something that screamed '90s, Shonen Knife was there. Lollapalooza? Yep. The Conan O'Brien show? Uh-huh. The soundtrack for a commercial for the ultimate '90s product, Microsoft's Windows 95? You betcha.
Since then they've had a lower profile. Naoko explained that original bassist Michie Nakatani left the band in 1999, and the next year Naoko gave birth to a daughter. The band has stayed busy in Japan -- Rock Candy, an all-Japanese record, recently came out -- but has stayed close to home. But those homebody days are gone, as they matter-of-factly (and politely) remind their fans on their Web site: "Shonen Knife is giving live performances and releasing albums more energetically than ever this year. Please continue watching their powerful activity."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.