Shonen Knife

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The Japanese trio Shonen Knife began their career playing a brand of Ramones-meets-Beatles, bubblegum-flavored punk-pop, singing charming songs about animals and food, then never stopped no matter the circumstance they found themselves in. The group’s innocent and often shambling records from the early ’80s found favor among bands like Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, and eventually Nirvana. A strong connection with the latter led to a huge boost in the band’s profile in the early ’90s; the 1992 album Let's Knife was their most widely heard record to date. Though their star faded as the decade wore on, the group kept making the kind of records they always had, despite lineup changes that often left singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano the sole constant member. Later records like 2003′s Candy Rock and 2011′s Osaka Ramones had all the sweetness of their early work, and as their 40th anniversary as a band rolled around, the trio were not done making fun and frolicsome pop-punk, as 2023′s Our Best Place made crystal clear.
Formed by Naoko Yamano (vocals, guitar), Michie Nakatani (vocals, bass), and Atsuko Yamano (drums), Shonen Knife started in December 1981 in their hometown of Osaka, where all three members were working as office clerks. The group played their first real show in March of the following year. Soon after, they began issuing albums in Japan, including 1982′s cassette-only release Minna Tanoshiku (English translation: “Everybody Happy?“), 1983′s Burning Farm, 1984′s Yama No Attchan, and 1986′s Pretty Little Baka Guy. The band’s tuneful and fun records struck a chord with the American underground, and in 1986 their song “A Day of the Factory” appeared on the Sub Pop 100 compilation next to songs by Naked Raygun and the Wipers. By 1989, they were popular enough that a collection of alternative bands ranging from Das Damen to Government Issue recorded renditions of their favorite Shonen Knife songs for the tribute album Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.
The first Shonen Knife release to be issued outside of Japan was a 1990 self-titled compilation that featured the entire Burning Farm and Yama No Attchan albums, as well as three tracks that were only previously available on the obscure Japanese comp Aura Music. Shortly thereafter, the group began touring America on a somewhat regular basis, supporting their 1991 release 712 with dates opening for Nirvana just prior to the runaway success of that band’s Nevermind album. Partially thanks to that tour, Shonen Knife signed their first major U.S. recording contract with Capitol, resulting in the release of one of their finest (and best-known) albums, 1992′s Let's Knife. A year later, the group switched to the Virgin label, issuing Rock Animals, which would spawn a semi-popular MTV video with “Tomato Head” (even landing a spot on the network’s popular animated series Beavis and Butthead).
In 1994, the trio performed at Lollapalooza and contributed a cover of “Top of the World” to the Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter, while Virgin issued an 18-track collection of rare tracks, The Birds & the B-Sides, in 1996. As the alternative wave receded, the group returned to the independents to release more records in the same vein, including 1997′s Brand New Knife, 1998′s Happy Hour, and the 2000 Japan-only release Strawberry Sound (which featured the band’s revamped lineup of Atsuko Yamano on bass and Mana Nishiura, who joined Shonen Knife after Nakatani left in 1999, on drums).
Vocalist Naoko Yamano was the only original member during the mid- to late 2000s, but even after 20-plus years and difficulties maintaining a consistent lineup, the band showed no signs of slowing. In 2005, Oglio reissued the Shonen Knife’s first four albums, and the group released Genki Shock in Japan. Late that year, Nishiura was killed in a New Jersey traffic accident while touring with DMBQ. Both Shonen Knife and DMBQ performed at a tribute concert for Nishiura that was held in Kyoto in spring 2006. The group continued on with drummer Etsuko Nakanishi and bassist Ritsuko Taneda, releasing a live album and another full-length, Super Group, in 2009. A few months after completing 2010′s Free Time, drummer Nakanishi parted ways with the band, to be replaced by Emi Morimoto. After celebrating their 30th anniversary with a concert in New York, the Yamano/Taneda/Morimoto lineup released Pop Tune in 2012 and Overdrive in 2014.
The year 2015 saw more lineup changes. In March, founding drummer Atsuko rejoined Shonen Knife on bass, a reunion that was supposed to be a temporary gig while Ritsuko was away on maternity leave. However, Ritsuko did not return, and Atsuko continued with the band. Months later, Morimoto announced her departure and was replaced by Risa Kawano. In April 2016, the year of their 35th anniversary, Kawano and the Yamano sisters returned with Shonen Knife’s 20th studio album, the ’70s rock-inspired Adventure, which showed the band to be as sprightly and fun as ever. The following year, they delivered the compilation Ready! Set!! Go!!!, a special collection released in conjunction with their tour of Australia. In 2018, the group celebrated their enduring status with ALIVE! in Osaka, a live collection culled from their lengthy list of punk confections.
Shonen Knife’s next two albums, 2019′s Sweet Candy Power and 2023′s Our Best Place, featured the same lineup as Adventure and continued their ’70s obsession. The latter album even featured Thin Lizzy-style guitar leads and a cover of a song by Pilot. As always, the band’s light and bright approach was sure to bring smiles and showed no signs of dimming even into their fifth decade. ~ Greg Prato & Neil Z. Yeung