1990-1996

Wherein the American record industry does some funky math in the wake of the Nirvana explosion; decides Japan+female+catchy+Kurt=”niche dollas“; and tries to dilute one of the most singular bands of all-time for the sake of a new guest home in the south of France.

  1. Lazybone
  2. Ice Cream City
  3. Baggs
  4. Kappa Ex
  5. Antonio Baka Guy
  6. Spider
  7. Secret Dance
  8. I’m a Realist
(tracks 1-5 recorded live in Osaka, 1/21/90; 5-8 live 4/17/82)

When Gastanka/Rockville reissued Baka Guy in December 1990, bonuses were dependent on format. People who bought the vinyl got the first 5 live songs and three covers: “Chains” (by the Supremes), “Suzy is a Headbanger” (Ramones, duh) and “I Wanna Be Your (Wo)man” (Beatles). You gotta hand it to these women, when they go for the covers, they don’t shy from stepping to the biggest cheese wheels in the fridge. I am sad and peeved to report I still I have heard none of these songs, and scour Ebay for this LP like Jim O’Rourke for rare Japanese psych-folk from the 60s.

The CD and cassette, on the other hand, got all 8 live tracks; a fair trade-off, I’d have to think.

The offerings from 1990 are a window into the cozy world of a band of secretaries fresh off a hero’s welcome in the previously-thought impenetrable American rock scene. The highlight is “Baggs” a crabby-sounding toss that namedropped Louis Vuitton a full decade and change before Kanye West. Atsuko’s drumming is not only the best performance you’ll hear from her in any capacity, but its insistent shuffle still sounds current amid a wealth of West Coast dance-punk racket-gangs.

The ’82-ers are naturally inferior in terms of recording quality, but are top-to-bottom essential nonetheless. Dinky and doinky, not too far from sounding like three tipsy bridesmaids who just threw the wedding band off the dais so they could show off what Rocket to Russia taught them.

Okay, so what did it teach them? Guts. Honesty as godhead. Rock star as dayjob-tripper. It’s audible (hell, tangible) in the woozy giggle of “Spider”, the literally not-yet-up-to-speed punk rock that is “Secret Dance”, and the scraped-raw “Realist”. Shonen Knife would never show that much bone through the skin again.

712 (Nippon Crown, July 1991; Rockville, August 1991; MCA/Victor, November 1995; Oglio, January 2005)

  1. Shonen Knife”
  2. Lazybone
  3. “Diet Run”
  4. “Blue Oyster Cult”
  5. “Rain”
  6. “The Luck Of The Irish”
  7. “My Favorite Town”
  8. “Faith Healer”
  9. “Redd Kross
  10. “White Flag”
  11. “Superstar”
  12. “Expo ’90”
  13. “Fruit Loop Dreams”
  14. “The Moon World”
  15. Baggs

So the Americans have gotten their minimum wage record collector claws on the Knife. Hooray for wider distribution in the States, but boo to uneven mixes between the Japanese and U.S versions. For whatever reason, the mixes differ for “The Moon World” (more prominent keyb on the Rockville verz), “Blue Oyster Cult” and most tragically, “Redd Kross” (see below).

Shonen Knife”–The blare of an alarm clock followed by Naoko’s diamond-precious “Good morning, Shonen Knife freaks!” Well, they are now certainly aware they have a following. Whether or not they are clever enough to pull off joyous self-aware songwriting is entirely up to the listeners. Naoko raps over the isolated drums from “Don’t Bring Me Down”, if that’s any indication.

Ultra eccentric super cult punk pop band
Shonen Knife

Nick Lowe, Costello, Beatles
, Redd Kross
Ramones, Buzzcocks,
Shonen Knife is a cult band


There is a cause for alarm here beyond the introduction; how are they going to handle the transition from having mole landlords to being the recipients of a collective hairy taco slobjob from the cream of the cool? Will celebration of their endearing credulousness doom them to novelty status?

Lazybone–A nifty Beatles rewrite and dare I say one of the great choruses of the last 25 years.

You don’t need to be serious
You don’t need to be a walrus

You don’t need to be nervous

You don’t need to be an eggman
Uh uh uh


“Diet Run”–Why is Naoko credited as “Nancy” in the liners? I hope it was consensual. Oh oh, back to the Japanese! “On the diet run/Goodbye, superfluous flesh”. I bike 3 miles a day with this shit blaring in my gangsta headphones.

“Blue Oyster Cult”–It’s actually about oyster poisoning. “Oyster brings evil upon me”. Yeah, eat that, Meltzer. Pared-back and enchanting, fun for the whole fat family!

“Rain”–The inevitable Beatles cover, with Redd Kross brutha Steve McDonald on the assist. This is actually not a shambling disgrace, despite what reviews written by curmudgeonly self-appointed guardians of the Liverpudlian lad legacy may say. These are the same people who think Lennon’s songs on Abbey Road are better than McCartney’s. Bleh.

“The Luck of the Irish”–Now it’s Jeff McDonald and Naoko duetting on a Lennon/Ono song, and yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on or why it belongs on anything other than a Tater Totz record.

“My Favorite Town”–It ain’t East St. Louis! Michie restrung her bass with rubberbands for this one, I see.

“Faith Healer”–Written by the band Big Dipper just for the Knife, this mid tempo charger is a two-faced beast. Thankfully they didn’t fuck up the guitar mix for this song.

“Redd KrossHere is how this song is supposed to sound. It’s supposed to make you jump and sing and shout and hoot and speak in tongues and twist yourself apeshit with arms towards the heavens as your feet pound the ceiling of Hell. The tension gathered up in this song is like hoarded trick-or-treat candy that you can’t wait to unwrap and gorge upon before bed. You’ll get sick! You’ll eat more in the morning!

The Rockville version is absolutely insipid in comparison, practically no guitar oomph whatsoever. Who dropped the ball and was it promptly picked up and thrown at their heads as punishment?

“White Flag”–How you gonna put the two band tribute songs back-to-back when the second one just isn’t very good (band and song)? And no, Michie’s rapid reiteration of “White Frag! White Frag!” doesn’t strike me as funny. Slap yourself.

“Superstar”–Lamentably, not a Carpenters cover (that would come later). Cool song, but fails to transcend the room it’s in. Vintage Knife transcends the fucking house.

“Expo ’90” & “Fruit Loop Dreams”–Pairing these together because they feature lyrics written by Yankee outsiders: Steve Davis and Bill “Pat Fear” Bartell. Behold what American men think Shonen Knife should be singing about. Bartell in particular needs a near-death experience for making Naoko sing shit like: “There’s a big bird named Toucan Sam/With a pretty colored beak like a candy cane”. “Expo” at least has a swift guitar hook going for it.

“The Moon World”–Bears a veryclose resemblance to “Riding on the Rocket” in both melody and subject matter, but features keyboards and wild yelling. I want to find the Japanese lyrics so I can sing along with the chorus while dancing with my Santa Snoopy.

Baggs–The Live In Japan version is galaxies better.

In case you’re wondering about the title…

The album was named after the contraction of the Japanese words for the numbers 7 (nana), 1 (ichi), 2 (futatu), which, when contracted, sound like “na-i-fu.” Naifu is the imported word in Japanese for “knife.”

Let’s Knife (Virgin 1992)

  1. “Riding On The Rocket”
  2. “Bear Up Bison”
  3. “Twist Barbie”
  4. “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme (Sea Turtle)”
  5. “Antonio Baka Guy”
  6. “Ah, Singapore”
  7. “Flying Jelly Attack”
  8. “Black Bass”
  9. “Cycling Is Fun”
  10. Watchin‘ Girl”
  11. I Am a Cat
  12. “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme (Green Tortoise)”
  13. “Devil House”
  14. “Insect Collector”
  15. “Burning Farm”
  16. “Get The Wow”
  17. “Milky Way”

Oh how friggin‘ colorful. At least their entire bodies are shown this time. As you can see, Branson’s brain trust won the right to exploit the kooky Jap chicks! Man, it took Geffen seven whole minutes to get over that!

This album comes not quite one year after Kurt Cobain spent great chunks of interviews gushing over their purity and savant-brilliance. Anything that connected back to the giant pulsating Nirvana orb was seen as possibly profitable so milk that cow the best you know how.

Riding side saddle is executive producer Page Porrazzo. Off the name I could just tell he was an asshole.

The bulk of the material consists of re-recordings of their choicest early material. This is a good and bad thing.

“Riding on the Rocket”–First off, Atsuko was made a slave to a click track. While this makes for a steadier beat, it also makes for an ultimately sterile one as well. (Interestingly, 1992 also saw the release of Sonic Youth’s Dirty, their final bid for major label gold; drummer Steve Shelley later confessed that master mixer Andy Wallace injected drum samples into the final mix to give the beats more “oomph”.) Also, say goodbye to the clipped charm of the Japanese language.

Outsider meddling did birth some positives; mainly, the chunkier, sharper guitar sound. For the purposes of this blast off, the addition of a solo is cool and the fade out is a nice touch also.

Essential as a whistle in a bat cave, though.

“Bear Up Bison”–Well, bub, once your ears get acclimated to those robotic beats, and the sheeny, error-free vocals, you can appreciate that at least a great songwriter like Naoko Yamano has access to better equipment now.

“Twist Barbie”–But did it have to be so clean? Exactly how huge did Virgin think this would get?

“Tortoise Brand Pot (Sea Turtle)”–Spaghetti-western wistful.

“Antonio Baka Guy”Hmm…needs more feedback. The English version now gives gender to the “guy”, transforming it from shell to human male.

“Ah, Singapore”–Stripped of jittering percussion and decorated with Asian trapping and tinkles, this is the first “new classic” that improves on the original. Very pretty.

“Flying Jelly Attack”Naoko and Michie harmonize very well.

“Black Bass”–Ah, a newie! I know someone who is not me that is brought to near-tears by this song. Only Naoko could make a fishing trip sound like visiting a grave site. The guitar motif also reminds me a bit of the Buoys’ “Timothy”–just another twisted element.

Part that makes me want to wrap warm arms around the entirety of Japan for making possible these women of wonder: “Someone brought the black bass/To this lake from far away/Changing the biological distribution of the lake.”

“Cycling Is Fun”–Just ’cause you can don’t mean you should.

Watchin‘ Girl”–Let Atsuko’s heart shine through natural rhythm, not what you think a major label record should sound like! ‘Cause the guitars on this are fuckin‘ ripping, and that chorus remains aflame.

“I Am a Cat”–When I was 15 and bought this CD, I listened to Naoko sing about a trip into some “timeless zone” where she found cat ears and whiskers and put them on her head and face, thereby transforming into a gentle dancing feline lost in extraterrestrial bliss. Now I just listen and think, “YouTube link, or it never happened.”

“Tortoise (Green)”–Imagine the original, just without the slop and grit and quality.

“Devil House”–Listen for a peek of the old Knife (“Time warp time triiiiiiiiiiip!”)

“Insect Collector”–Sweet song. Always has been.

“Burning Farm”–The chants are elongated and made more palatable to the average listener. The solos are certainly raunchier.

“Get the Wow”

When you open my little box…Wow
Big surprise from me to you…Wow

Give it to you one more time…Wow

You’re my friend so say it again…Wow
C’mon now we’re gonna have a good party
Hey, let’s eat some honey pie baby

Ooh, the sun is smiling today
For you and me

Why, I ask you oh pervert, is this automatically about sex? Maybe Naoko has a little box with pie in it. Or jewelry. Or unmarked bills. I dunno, but stop making everything into one gigantic vagina metaphor!

Just enjoy a song so potent as to pass for a vaccination against death. The solo especially shows great understanding of melodic point/counterpoint.

“Milky Way”–Surf rock instro. Cool way to wrap it up.

Let’s Knife was many fans first exposure, and to a generation weaned on scrubbed-clean, wiped-louder “alternative” music, it sounded fantastic. For those versed in baby Knife, though, it was still fun, but had a whiff of compromise to it that lingered.

Rock Animals (Virgin, January 1994)

  1. “Quavers”
  2. “Concrete Animals”
  3. “Butterfly Boy”
  4. “Little Tree”
  5. “Catnip Dream”
  6. “Tomato Head”
  7. “Another Day”
  8. “Brown Mushroom”
  9. “Johnny Johnny Johnny”
  10. “Cobra Versus Mongoose”
  11. “Music Square”

Look closely at their faces; they don’t believe what they’re wearing, either.

Mixmaster Don Fleming vowed in interviews to keep the SK sound away from the generic, homogenized digital trap that the last record fell into, but the eight-track king was helpless to halt the Porrazzo Express in his thirsty quest to dilute this magical elixir!

“Quavers”–A love song that gets samey after a minute.

“Concrete Animals”–Okay, I forgive you. Once again, an innocent thing like animal statues in the park makes me want to cry. The chorus is practically begging for interaction with the inanimate objects. The bridge by itself deserves a statue, and at the base a plague to note Atsuko’s fills.

“Butterfly Boy”–I know it’s gonna make me come off like the raging SY fan girl I try so very hard not to be, but…Thurston Moore’s fuzz-fuck playing on this is the highlight. I’m sorry.

“Little Tree”–Aural azure-blue. I half-expected “Save the Last Dance For Me” to break out.

“Catnip Dream”–Jeff Buckley did this song live. That’s all I got.

“Tomato Head”–Too much tomato, not enough head.

“Another Day”–A piano-driven ballad. I don’t feel that they were 100% into this.

“Brown Mushrooms”–Just leaving your influences out there to flap on your sleeve is fine, just so long as they don’t overwhelm ya. This reeks of three weeks nonstop Nevermind on the stereo but retains the theurgic qualities of early SK: uncomplicated topic, unpretentious melody, fans ear for structure, and total fearlessness.

“Johnny Johnny Johnny”–Fit for sock hops and Grease sleepovers.

“Cobra versus Mongoose”Biiiiiiiiiiiiiggggggg fight! Suggestive of “Antonio Baka Guy”, what with the slooow rawk teased into a speed demon racer they keep together with scotch tape and butterscotch and butter and scotch. Naoko stays killin’ me with that screwface snarl. And peep the fuckin’ 80s hair metal solo! Loudness lives.

“Music Square”–What the hell? Oh, whoa, it’s a harmonica. Sorry for the fright, but hearing a harmonica on a Shonen Knife song is like hearing an elephant bark.

The Birds and the B-Sides (Virgin, March 1996)

  1. Heatwave, (Love Is Like)
  2. Gomi Day
  3. Top Of The World
  4. Ice Cream City – (live)
  5. Paradise
  6. Little Tree (Vivaldi Vibe)
  7. Space Christmas
  8. Fruit Loop Dreams – (acoustic version)
  9. Boys
  10. Till The End Of The Day
  11. Elmer Elevator
  12. Don`t Hurt My Little Sister
  13. Strawberry Cream Puff
  14. Neon Zebra
  15. Lazybone
  16. Public Bath
  17. I Wanna Eat Choco Bars
  18. Redd Kross

“Well, Shonen Knife, we tried. We tried to sell America on three bubbly Asian chicks with Ramones aspirations and solid connections. We gave you gloss, we take the loss. We couldn’t get enough milk out of you to drown a gnat! But you have one more album left to fulfill your contract, so we’ll just haphazardly compile outtakes, covers and live tracks and then you can cream puff back to whatever candy house you ate your way out of.”

“Heatwave”–Compact, swinging, but maybe a little too straightforward.

“Gomi Day”–Burpling keyboard flits over buried fuzz. “Gomi Day” is when the trash gets collected.

“Top of the World”–SK have made for an exceptional covers band, as the key to a memorable remake is for the artist to comprehend what they enjoyed about the original and then imbue it with their own personality, to adopt the song and mold it in their image. “Top of the World” would likely finish first on a “Best Shonen Knife Cover” fan poll (I’d vote for “Cherry Bomb”). It also appeared in a late ’90s Microsoft ad and made the Retrocrush “100 Best Cover Songs of All-Time” list. This song is always smiles-time!

“Ice Cream City”–Live! Tonight! Germany! Weird hearing the English version.

“Paradise”–You put the Atsuko in the coconut…a rare turn at the mic for the Shonen gatekeeper, tackling a Nilsson song. So layered and ethereal it’s hard to believe it’s them.

“Little Tree”–Lusher than the original, and more playful. A #1 hit in a world that made any sense.

“Space Christmas”–This was actually a hit on the indie charts in the fucking United Kingdom, 1991. The girls bundle up their energy into a sturdy box wrapped with smartly-trimmed paper and a tight bow. The breakdown is pre-Stereolab sheep choir.

“Fruit Loop Dreams”–Outtake. Thetrash.

“Boys”–Atsuko used to steal the show when she’d sing this slinky Shirelles b-side from behind her kit. Shonen Knife probably wish they could go back to the 1960s and rule teenage culture. Songs like this prove they would have.

“Till the End of the Day”–A great Kinks cover marred only by Page Porrazzo’s insistence on martial drumming that comes off as borderline fake-sounding. Back off, sleazeball. Please, please re-record this.

“Elmer Elevator”–Now sung in non-Japanese!

“Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”–Ripped from a Beach Boys tribute album, and again featuring the lovely pipes of Atsuko Yamano. This is light-hearted but mature, with crazy replay value. Get ready to have this stuck in your head all day and night.

“Strawberry Cream Puff”–A true b-side.

“Neon Zebra”–A Sub Pop single that gallops into kaleidoscope blade gleam stuck between the teeth of the rainbow rider.

“Lazybone”, et. al–Ever wondered what Shonen Knife sounded like opening up for Nirvana in late ’91 during the latter’s triumphant tour of the fucking United Kingdom? Well, stop it!

“Choco Bars” and “Redd Kross” in particular come off like they knocked the remaining teeth from every sneering punters gob. Tell the NME to go fuck itself.

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