Jan Svenungsson

"Shonen Knife – Spider", bcnvt.se, Stockholm 6.8.2021

The first known recording with Shonen Knife consists of three songs, live in a venue in Osaka on April 17, 1982. For anyone who has once begun playing in a punk band without any previous knowledge, but with unwavering confidence and interest – this is truly a madeleine. One song is called Spider and is dominated by a clumsy wandering bass line on top of hopeless drums. The melody sounds familiar... it takes a while to figure out why. Then the coin drops. Edith Piaf: Milord. "We can't play, but that won't stop us! We have ideas!" The next song, Secret Dance, drowns in a fuzzbox. The third, I'm A Realist, has a different character, but is incompetent as well. It doesn't sound very good, exactly... not good at all – but ideas are bubbling and just a few months later Shonen Knife will release a cassette album and one year later they will debut on vinyl, with Burning Farm. There are songs here that have become classics. Playful and quirky songs, that I can replay in my mind whenever I want. One of them, Twist Barbie, I saw Naoko Yamano and her younger sister Atsuko play live in 2019, both in Berlin and in Vienna.

It was, in fact, something rather unusual that was born in a kitchen in Osaka in late 1981: a female punk-pop band that started from scratch and then never stopped. Two sisters and their friend, Michie Nakatani. To date, Shonen Knife has released 20 albums of original material, one of Ramones covers, plus a number of live albums and compilations. They've toured Europe and the US numerous times, mostly in small circumstances, and they have fans everywhere, watching as Naoko, like a Zen master, stays true to her mission: to keep going. Playing, writing, existing. Keeping the flame alive.

Somehow in 1985 a cassette found its way to indie circles in the US, leading to more records and then a major label debut in 1992 with Let's Knife, which consists of re-recordings of older songs (including Twist Barbie). Kurt Cobain was their biggest fan and Shonen Knife became the opening act for Nirvana on tour in England. New albums followed with bigger budgets but no real compromises until one day in the late 90's when Michie quit and disappeared from the public eye. Naoko gives birth to a daughter but doesn't stop, instead continuing on a smaller scale. Atsuko switches from drums to bass. New, younger, drummers appear. Atsuko gets married in Los Angeles, quits – but came back a few years ago.

Is there any other woman in the world who has continuously led a rock band she started for 39 years? Besides Naoko Yamano? It can't have been an easy journey. Yet the band's image is impenetrably positive, childlike, friendly. The songs are (with rare exceptions) about nice things from an eternal pink dreamland: food, parties, cats, outings. Never about love. Nothing private. Time stands still. The repetition of themes can feel unbearable. Food, food, food. An almost parodic example of Japanese pop culture's obsession with pretty surface and cuteness. Or is it? It was different in the early years, there were experiments with the lyrics too, but then a form emerged. A protective cover, perhaps – or a tool. To be able to... continue.

The music remains consistently homemade. Generous with influences, with a clear tone of its own. In recent years, often heavier. Naoko likes Black Sabbath.

When Shonen Knife plays at a club somewhere, they do it with such a transparent appeal that it's impossible to resist. Naoko introduces a song in English and hesitates a bit, as if she's not sure about the words. The band today is as tight as can be, but when Naoko plays solos she sort of hesitates just a tiny bit. As if what's happening is actually brand new at this very moment. A real meeting. Just today.

Jan Svenungsson