So, like in the good old days, a meme is doing the rounds and it has fallen on me. Apparently this originates on the wild hinterlands of Facebook but, knowing nothing about such diabolical malevolence, I am indebted to caddyman
for initiating me into the inner circle of this particular one. Essentially the remit is to talk at some length about a specific band of the choosing of the originator and in may case I have been called upon to discuss the fair Shonen Knife and their opera. Splendid. So without further ado.
Time was the immediate answer to the question "who's your favourite band?" would for me be Jethro Tull, but that all began to change in early 2007 when I made the decision to investigate Shonen Knife. I still love the Tull, of course, but, having really enjoyed a bit of the 18.104.22.168.'s that I stumbled upon by accident, I was in the mood for Japanese girl rock and Shonen Knife fitted the bill better than any of their competitors. Others, like Lolita No. 18 and Lulu's Marble, have subsequently come along and vied strongly for my affections but for the depth of canon none of them can touch the Knife.
Although they've always been a three piece there can be no doubt that some animals have been more equal than others and the only permanent member, singer/guitarist/producer/songwriter/
occasional keyboardist Naoko Yamano, has bestrode the band like a colossus since their inception and continues to do so to this day. More than anybody it is Naoko, a lady of 49 summers, believe it or not, when I took this picture
, who has been responsible for the unmistakable cutesy but still hard garage-flavoured pop-punk sound that has defined the band throughout their career.
That's not to say that there hasn't been changes down the years. Formed by Naoko, her sister Atsuko and their friend Michie Nakatani in 1981, they ignored the anodyne j-pop that was emerging at the time, to instead take their lead from western punk bands. After a very limited release of Minna Tanoshiku
in 1982 (a total rarity that I admit to never having heard) their first major indie release, Burning Farm
came out the following year. This was part of an early naive period for the band, which was showcased even more strongly on follow-up Yama-no Attchan
, where they experimented with some mid-80s styled synthesisers and production techniques, to generally disappointing results.
It would be 1986's Pretty Little Baka Guy
where they really started to come into their own, returning to their punky roots but adding in a strong layer of garage rock to finally settle on the sound that would become their stock in trade. 712
followed five years later and, despite opening with a very ill-advised rap, this was where Shonen Knife came of age as the band we now know and love. By this time they had come to be feted by Kurt Cobain and others in the grunge movement, who admired the deceptive simplicity of their songs and the wonderfully silly innocence of their lyrics. A crossover into something approaching the mainstream in the Anglosphere was guaranteed but for once that was to be a good thing.
On the face of it 1993's Let's Knife
(the first album I ever heard by the band incidentally) seemed like a bit of a naff cash-in, taking as it did a number of songs from their earlier albums, re-recording them with slicker production and translating the lyrics into something approximating English. Far from it however, as it remains for me their crowning achievement, a wonderful slice of daft enthusiasm that contains seven of their all-time top ten songs. Opening track "Riding on the Rocket"
is probably my favourite of all their songs and almost certainly the best opening track to an album in the history of rock music. It didn't quite turn them into the global megastars that it should have but nevertheless it did increase their exposure in the west markedly. It was promptly followed by Rock Animals
which kept the quality quotient high (if not being quite in the same league), then Brand New Knife
, which, whilst still good, revealed a calmer and more introspective side to the band which, whilst not without its charms, didn't necessarily suit them that well.
Then the rot started to set in. Four decent but rather formulaic albums were churned out at regular intervals before the nadir was reached in 2006 with Genki Shock
. It's not that it was terrible it's just that it had all become far too predictable and it looked remarkably like they weren't trying any more. By that point they had been recording in English for thirteen years but the lyrics had got worse and what had once been cute now just seemed like a lack of effort. When I tell you that one of the songs was about the fact that a lot of people wear jeans you know they're phoning it in! It clearly told as follow-up Fun! Fun! Fun!
initially was released in Japan only but fortunately it proved a step up, as the band returned to a slightly punkier sound. 2008's Super Group
cranked up the punk vibe a little further and was all the better for it, making it their best work since Rock Animals
. It was when they were touring this album that I finally got to see the band live in May 2010 in the Scala in King's Cross. I was at the height of my haemochromatosis but still pulled myself out of my sick bed to make the pilgrimage and finally see them in the flesh. A fine time was had by all and I even got to meet Naoko and current drummer Emi Morimoto, although I must admit finally meeting the great woman did overwhelm me a little rendering me unable to say anything of any profundity to the lady. Nevertheless it was a transcendental experience to be in the presence of a goddess, despite my lack of loquacity.
It's something of a shame that their subsequent output has tailed off again somewhat. Free Time
was the definition of a curate's egg, with some good ideas generally ruined by the songs being too long and repetitive (the soul of early punk is surely brevity, not length) whilst the double header of Pop Tune
and Osaka Ramones
suffered because of how indebted they were to the Ramones. The latter was an album of Ramones covers, most of which were played note for note and so ended up sounding like a Japanese woman singing a bunch of karaoke songs whilst it's Pop Tune
follow-up mostly sounded like a collection of Ramones rip-offs, barring the track "Psychedelic Life" which, in something of a full circle for yours truly, had a nice bit of flute very reminiscent of Jethro Tull. Perhaps if I rated the Ramones more highly the albums would have appealed to me more (and the covers album was generally received positively despite my reservations) but I've never really cared for them so listening to albums on which they were the sole influence, rather than one of a number of influences, was always going to be a trying experience.
These days you can generally set your watch by Shonen Knife, so I anticipate a new album should appear sometime around mid to late 2014. My hope is that the Ramones stuff will be out of their system and they will return to their own sound which, whilst undoubtedly influenced by the shaggy New Yorkers, had a lot more to it than just that. Naoko will be 53 next month so there is unlikely to be too much more left in the tank but I remain convinced that she has one blinding album left in her. Hell, who knows in late middle age she might go all crazy and come 2018 churn out some strange Yoko Ono/Jarboe/Diamanda Galas effort a million miles away from what we're expecting. Or not. Either way though Shonen Knife still have a great legacy in their wake and I remain committed to description of Naifu as my favourite band.
And if anybody wants this just ask and I'll give you one of your bands.