It’s time to enter the garage. Via Japan.
But first, let me tell you a little story. The year is 1981. In the megalopolis of Osaka, known worldwide for its sake, three young women start a band that’s different from the typical J-pop group. Combining influences from 60s girl groups, garage and punk rock, the trio create a poppy yet punky sound that is unusual in their home country. In less than 10 years they will be hailed by Kurt Cobain and other leaders of the alternative rock scene.
Now it’s 36 years later. And the band plays on.
Shonen Knife is an unusual creature, not really fitting into any convenient niche. Although they are most closely associated with a Ramones-like sound, their poppy and somewhat frail vocals immediately put them in a different category altogether.
(EVERYONE: THEIR POPPY AND SOMEWHAT FRAIL VOCALS IMMEDIATELY PUT THEM IN A DIFFERENT CATEGORY.)
Throughout their career Shonen Knife has delivered their own take on punk, garage rock and 60s pop, creating a unique amalgam. In fact, if there is a Shonen Knife sound, it would be poppy vocals over heavy music. The term pop punk, most often applied to bands that sound like Green Day, is not what I’m talking about here. Pop punk is fast, catchy music with a bit of an edge to the guitars. It’s homogeneous. Shonen Knife combines two sounds that really don’t fit together that well. But, and this is the important bit, they make it work. Recent albums focus on heavy metal (Super Group from 2010, Free Time from 2011), punk (Tribute to the Ramones from 2011), 60s pop (Pop Tunes from 2012) and 70s hard rock (Overdrive from 2014 and Adventure from 2015). Yet they all sound like Shonen Knife.
Lyric content definitely provides some continuity for the group. From early on, songs have focused on food (Sushi Bar, Wasabi, Fortune Cookie), animals (Parrot Polynesia, Bear Up Bison, Like a Cat) and science fiction (Planet X, Riding on the Rocket, Robot from Hell). In fact, it’s safe to say that SK’s lyrics are pretty weak in general. And this is not a criticism! Pop music is built on inane lyrics (There’ll be rainbows reachin’ cross the sky and we’ll both be so happy we will cry from The Monkees song The Day We Fall In Love). It’s practically required that pop music lyrics be absurd!
The 2014 album Overdrive (which was part of the EPL collection until recently) is a good place to start your acquaintance with these ladies. Filled with great hard rock riffs (Green Tea, Shopping), jangly dream rock (Fortune Cookie) and that “typical” Shonen Knife sound (Jet Shot), Overdrive gives an overview (clever wordplay alert!) of the band’s oeuvre. Why, Robot from Hell, a most excellent hard rock tune, is in itself worth the price of checking the album out!
Thirty-six years is a mighty long time for a rock band to successfully exist. Band members have left, been replaced, returned, had babies, quit, got a haircut and returned. They have toured extensively and released 20 albums. And still the music pours out of them.
So if you need a little spring in your step, a little cheer in your soul, get thee behind Shonen Knife. And as you go out into the world today, keep these lyrics from Bad Luck Song close to your heart:
The bad luck song might be my good luck song
This is the best way of thinking
Let’s take it easy
Change the way you’re thinking