Ah, Shonen Knife. This is another band that I can credit to my friend Pete’s indie rock re-education project: He loaned me a copy of their then-new album Let’s Knife in 1993 or so, telling me something like “They’re a bunch of Japanese housewives who play Ramones-style rock.” (I may be misremembering the “housewives” part, but that misconception stuck with me for a while.) Let’s Knife was an excellent introduction into the madness that is the world of Shonen Knife, seeing as it features:
- One song about cats.
- One song about jelly beans.
- Three songs about animals that are not cats (bison, bass, and insects).
Let’s Knife is also the home of what might be the strangest song in the entire Shonen Knife catalogue, which is saying something. It is titled “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” and goes, in its entirety:
Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner
Specially selected Pot Cleaner
The best pot cleaner in the world is
Specially selected Tortoise Brand
This appears twice on the album, in a slow version (“Sea Turtle”) and a fast version (“Green Tortoise”).
All of this is, needless to say, hilarious. It’s also great punk rock music, very much in the style of the Ramones, though some clever metal and pop touches float to the surface in places as well.
That was my first Shonen Knife record, and for a long time my only one. My second Shonen Knife acquisition came in 2003, when our friends Hova and Belinda started playing songs from the album Heavy Songs on their alterna-kids radio show, Greasy Kid Stuff, then airing Saturday mornings on WFMU. (It’s since moved to Portland’s XRAY.fm, where you can listen to it streaming or archived, as I do each week without fail.) In particular, one song, “Rubber Band,” was not only insanely infectious (and hilarious, with “boinggggg!” sound effects and lyrics about how “you can wipe away wickedness from the Earth using it”), it was the perfect song for bouncing my then-infant son on my knee to, provoking an inevitable giggle fit. (Even better, the next track, “Heavy Song,” is super-slow and ideal to make a giggly child stop bouncing and fall asleep in your lap.)
After that, I was a full-fledged fan. Founding bassist Michie Nakatani had left by this point, with drummer Atsuko Yamano shifting over to bass in her stead, but Atsuko’s sister Naoko was still there writing lyrics and playing guitar, and they were clearly still in top form. Eventually I got to see the band perform live, which was even better (it didn’t hurt that they played “Rubber Band”), as they blasted out song after song while wearing matching outfits and engaged in rock-band cliches like synchronized hair-flipping and pointing their guitars at the audience like machine guns.
This, in fact, is the essential mystery of Shonen Knife that I’ve yet to unravel: Are they serious about acting like heavy metal rock gods while singing songs about candy and bugs? Or is it all a goof? Or, possibly the most likely, is this some kind of Japanese merger of the two that has no direct analogue in American culture, like the opening of Iron Chef — something distantly related to “camp,” maybe, but without the irony?
It doesn’t really matter. Atsuko has since left the band as well, leaving Naoko as the only original member (Andrew likes to refer to them now as “Shonen Starship”), but new members Ritsuko Taneda and Emi Morimoto are great, and they continue to write songs that are both brilliant and loopy: Recent albums have included tributes to capybaras and to green tea ice cream. My son has grown into a big fan as well, coming with me to see them several times, including a show at Maxwell’s in 2012 where we were mere inches from the stage. The encore, at an audience member’s request, was “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” — played three times in a row, each one faster than the previous. If anyone went home unhappy, they don’t know what joy is.