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Clip: Shonen Knife turns 25

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  • Carl Z.
    ASIAN POP Knife Is Beautiful By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate Thursday, April 13, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 16, 2006
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      ASIAN POP
      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
      Songs.

      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
      album's cover.)

      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
      healthy sports.

      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
      passed."

      Knife Begins

      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
      clear.

      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
      community.

      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
      Subversive Records.

      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
      others.

      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
      Lollapalooza.

      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
      1963.

      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."

      None?

      "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
      on stage!"

      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
      mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other
      breaking Asian and Asian American pop-culture news.
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