Clip: Shonen Knife turns 25
Knife Is Beautiful
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, April 13, 2006
It's hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since the
Yamano sisters formed the pioneering Japanese alt-rock trio Shonen
Knife. But the band that made believers out of Kurt Cobain and Sonic
Youth's Thurston Moore turns 25 this year -- riding a wave of
early-album reissues, and with their all-new indie disc Genki Shock!
hitting boutiques this week.
The big news in music this week: On April 8, the rocktogenarians known
as the Rolling Stones played their first-ever concert in China. While
it's nice to see Jagger and Co. keepin' it real for the AARP-core set,
more indie-minded music mavens were getting satisfaction from a
different event: the first U.S. release of a new Shonen Knife album
since 2003's undeniably brilliant (and painfully overlooked) Heavy
Tom Wolfe was famously quoted as saying, "The Beatles want to hold
your hand, but The Stones want to burn your town." Shonen Knife? All
they want is to make you smile.
The 13 tracks on Genki Shock! (Glue Factory Records) are classic Knife
-- ecstatic, punk-pop gumdrops, complete with effortless melodic
hooks, buzzing three-chord guitars and chiming vocals from lead
guitarist Naoko Yamano, also the band's chief songwriter. (Knife is a
family affair: Naoko's sister and bandmate Atsuko plays bass and drums
and designs the duo's captivatingly kooky stage outfits. Naoko's young
daughter Emma contributed the joyously scribbled doodle for the
Genki Shock! showcases Knife doing what it does best: crafting wildly
enjoyable rock-candy confections themed around an eclectic range of
consuming passions, from snack foods and fuzzy animals to the joys of
Some musicians reinvent themselves with every album, striving for a
kind of credibility through diversity. Not the Yamano sisters: With a
few exceptions (such as 2000's unusually experimental Strawberry
Sound, the first Knife album recorded after the departure of original
band member Michie Nakatani), they've steered an uncompromisingly
steady course through the roiling waters of alt-rock fashion.
More to the point, as of December of this year, they'll have done so
for a cool quarter-century. "When we first started out, I couldn't
imagine being where we are now!" says Naoko. "But we never thought
about how long we would keep playing. We feel like everything about
Shonen Knife is always fresh, so it never feels like 25 years have
Twenty-five years ago, having just graduated from junior college with
a degree in English, Naoko Yamano faced the typical life options
available to a middle-class Japanese woman in the early '80s: a brief
career working part time as a clerk or receptionist, then parental
introduction to a suitable partner, followed by marriage and a life of
child rearing and household chores.
Naoko wasn't having any of it. Unlike her pop-idol-worshipping peers,
she'd spent her adolescence whipping her head to the music of Western
punk bands like the Ramones and Britain's Buzzcocks. She coaxed her
younger sister Atsuko and college friend Michie into forming a rock
band, despite facing two very real challenges: their utter lack of
musical training, and the disapproval of the Yamano sisters' father,
an Osaka civil servant who was furious when he saw his little Naoko
lugging a large and heavy guitar case into the family home.
(One can only assume that the trio's early and haphazard practice
sessions didn't make domestic life any easier chez Yamano. "My family
hated us playing rock, but years later, they came to understand us,"
says Naoko. "Our parents died in 1999 and 2004, and I think before
they passed away they finally approved of our band.")
But after a year spent rehearsing and writing songs, the girls got
good enough to win their first play date. "At first, our only dream
was to be able to play a show," says Naoko. "Just one gig was all we
wanted! But after our first gig, many other bands invited us to play
with them at clubs. And record labels asked us to release an album."
Figuring they had nothing to lose, the band put out their DIY 8" vinyl
debut, Burning Farm, on Japanese indie label Zero Records in 1983,
featuring now-classic tracks like Knife's gabba-gabba-hey tribute to
America's plastic blond bombshell, "Twist Barbie," and Naoko's
minute-long ode to a favorite household cleanser, "Turtle Brand Pot
Cleaner's Theme." Zero pressed 1,000 copies, figuring that would be
plenty -- but the first run sold out almost instantly, forcing the
label to double its initial order.
To their father's annoyance, it seemed like the Yamano girls were
going to be some kind of rock stars, though what kind was not yet
Living the High Knife
The answer came a few years later, when influential Olympia,
Wash.-based indie label K Records decided to re-release Burning Farm
on cassette. Then-unknown Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain was exposed
to Knife through K, and so was Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and White
Flag's Bill Bartell. All three became fanatical converts to the cult
of Knife, spreading word of the trio far and wide in the alt-rock
Soon, Naoko, Atsuko and Michie found themselves being buzzed about in
enthusiast mags like Flipsides and invited to contribute tracks to
edgy grunge compilations. Their third album, Pretty Little Baka Guy,
was given a simultaneous Japan-U.S. release in 1986, via now-defunct
A few years later, Bill Bartell organized what must have been a first
-- an all-star double-LP tribute album by some of indie rock's biggest
acts -- for a band that was largely unknown outside of rarified
cult-connoisseur circles. The result, Every Band Has a Shonen Knife
That Loves Them (Gasatanka, 1989), features covers of prime Shonen
Knife cuts by L7, Sonic Youth, Lunachicks and Redd Kross, among many
In 1991, Kurt Cobain asked the girls to open for Nirvana on their
British tour, sending Knife's fourth album, 712, rocketing up the U.S.
college music charts. (The album's title comes from the Japanese
pronunciation of "712": "7" is nana, "1" is ichi and "2" is futatsu --
thus na-i-fu, or "knife.")
That same year, their holiday single, "Space Christmas," topped the
British indie charts. They were featured on CNN. They released their
major-label debut, Let's Knife, on Virgin Records.
In 1993, they toured the United States, Britain and Canada. Their
single "Brown Mushrooms" hit No. 1 on CMJ's college music charts.
In 1994, they released their second major label release, Rock Animals.
They were featured on MTV and Conan O'Brien. They even played
The girls had climbed to the pinnacle of the alt-rock mountain, and
they weren't afraid to show it -- even singing a blissed-out cover of
"Top of the World" for the tribute album If I Were a Carpenter by way
of celebration. (As if to underscore how everything they touched was
turning to gold, the song was subsequently picked by Microsoft as a
theme song for its Windows 95 advertising campaign -- alongside the
Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up.")
But for all their success, 1995 would also mark a turning point for
Knife's mainstream ambitions. Virgin unexpectedly chose to drop Shonen
Knife from its lineup (though some Knifers suggest that the decision
was mutual, with the girls wanting greater control over production
after the critically and commercially disappointing Rock Animals).
The group then signed with indie label Big Deal and released two more
U.S. albums -- the uncharacteristically listless Brand New Knife
(1997) and the superior, but still undistinguished Happy Hour (1998).
Then Michie quit the group, explaining that she was tired of the rock
life. Knife, unsure of its future, was forced to end its contract with
Big Deal. Though there was no doubt that the group would continue in
some form, the loss of the group's bassist and co-founder was a
serious issue. Atsuko eventually took over bass duties, with session
musicians filling in on drums. Still, the band wouldn't release
another album in the United States for the next five years.
"For the first half of the '90s, Shonen Knife was the only band from
Japan being seen on network TV, the only one that was able to headline
international concert tours," says Eric Bresler, host of the J-rock
show "Tokyo No Radio" on Drexel University's WKDU.
"But ultimately, they still ended up coming off as a novelty act, and
that's unfortunate. People were tuning into them for a dose of
wackiness, rather than the music itself. Sure, maybe their lyrics
might come off as odd to U.S. audiences, but not any more so than,
say, ABBA or Björk. You can't say that that was the reason why people
weren't able to take them seriously as musicians. ...You have to
wonder if maybe there's something else going on. I think there's a
taint there: It's the Pink Lady effect."
Out of the Pink
Most Americans know Pink Lady only from their ill-fated variety
program on NBC, which is frequently cited as a nominee for the worst
show in network television history. But at the apex of their careers,
in both Japan and the United States, Pink Lady were megastars.
"If you were in Japan in 1978, Mie and Kei were literally the
800-pound gorillas of the Japanese entertainment industry," says
Jeffrey Branch, whose labor of love, PinkLadyAmerica.com, is a
staggeringly detailed shrine to the duo. "They were churning out No. 1
songs on an assembly-line basis. They were appearing on TV shows, in
movies, in cartoons. They were pitchwomen for a numerous products
which scored enormous profits just because they were associated with
them. They were the top dogs. There wasn't anyone else even close."
It seemed natural that the Pinks would be given the opportunity to
make a rare break for crossover success in the West. If their English
was hypothetical at best, well, they were gorgeous and they could
dance, and body language, at least, is universal. And at first, it
seemed like they were poised to conquer the world of American pop.
Their debut single, a full-on disco number called "Kiss in the Dark,"
reached No. 37 on the Billboard charts in 1979, making it the first
song by a Japanese act to crack the Top 40 since Kyu Sakamoto's "Ue o
Muite Aruko" (better known in America as "Sukiyaki") hit No. 1 in
But "Kiss in the Dark" came and went within three weeks, and none of
the other singles on the pair's self-titled album went anywhere. Out
of desperation, the duo's managers agreed to NBC's idea to put them on
a TV variety program -- paired with mediocre comic Jeff Altman as
co-host, because someone had to speak English on the awful show.
It's not clear how anyone could have thought that garbled, phonetic
versions of American pop standards and racist and unfunny "comedy
skits" (think a yellow-face Sid Caesar shouting gibberish in a
recurring role as Mie and Kei's "Papa-san") might add up to
entertainment. Even NBC chief Fred Silverman's signature gratuitous
flashes of skin (every episode ended with Mie, Kei and Jeff signing
off while soaking in a hot tub) couldn't lure audiences.
The girls suddenly went from exotic novelties to laughingstocks. The
stench of the show even reached back to their native country, where
their records went from chart-top to must-drop nearly overnight.
Returning home, Mie and Kei came together for one final concert in
Korakuen Stadium, Japan's largest outdoor venue, then said a tearful
farewell to their fans.
This was 1981 -- the same year that the girls of Shonen Knife were
strumming their first awkward chords. Another little stab of irony:
One of the biggest hits of that year, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard
charts, was none other than A Taste of Honey's soulful,
English-language cover of Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki."
I Love the Knife Life
On the one hand, you have Sakamoto, whose original version of his
breathtaking, lilting ballad rose to No. 1 hit status, despite being
sung entirely in Japanese.
On the other, you have Pink Lady, and a long string of other Asian pop
idols since then, each of whom has tried -- and failed -- to crack the
conundrum that is the American pop market.
Some, like Hong Kong's CoCo Lee, have tried to reshape their image to
fit the American pop mold. Others, like Japan's Utada Hikaru, have
tried to carve out a niche in the market by sticking to the flavor of
bubblegum they know best. Despite looks, talent, serious corporate
backing and, in some cases, impeccably fluent English, all of them
have been forced to retreat to their home market in frustration.
"Three decades have gone by since Pink Lady, and people still look at
Asian pop music as foreign, as goofy, because it's such a tough stigma
to break," says Bresler. "Will we see an Asian rock or pop performer
break through to mainstream success within our lifetime? I think so.
At least one. But not many more than one. And unfortunately, it will
probably be some gimmicky pop group."
Naoko Yamano disagrees. "I don't know," she says. "Some major Japanese
pop artists have tried to sell their records in America, and they have
failed. I think the reason is that their music just imitates
Western-style music. It lacks individuality. I think only really
creative bands could have a chance to be popular in the U.S., and I
don't know any such bands who've tried so far."
"Hee-hee! Well, maybe Shonen Knife will get a platinum disc, and I'll
be a billionaire and retire," says Naoko. "We'll just keep going until
we get a platinum disc -- we'll be like the Rolling Stones! I think if
a person has good health and wants to keep playing, they should.
That's when I'm happy, when I'm playing on stage and making people
have fun. For me, every show is my most exciting and memorable
experience. Twenty-five years from now, if I'm still alive and Shonen
Knife still doesn't have a platinum disc, I'll still be playing rock
Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for
the market research company Iconoculture www.iconoculture.com. He is
the author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of
Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of
"I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern
Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City.
Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly
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