“Banana chips for you! Banana chips for me!” Shonen Knife sang on their 1998 album Happy Hour. Not to worry, there are enough banana chips to go around: since 1981, Shonen Knife have just kept on feeding the hungry masses with their special brand of buzzsaw, day-glo, banana-chip-flavored punk-rock.
For those unfamiliar with Shonen Knife: the Japanese all-female punk-rockers have provided a sugar-coated political alternative to Japan’s dominant J-pop scene, not only for Japan’s teenagers but for the rest of the world’s despondent youth (and, indeed, the despondent general population). Admired by Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain, and opening shows for Nirvana in the ’90s, the band continue to charm the underground and the overground with their sweet, terribly catchy, and subtly provocative tunes.
I must admit, I only really became familiar with the band during a month-long tour of the United States back in 2011, when one of the touring party began, and proceeded incessantly, to sing lines from unfamiliar texts which at first appeared to be complete nonsense. It was only after a few weeks that I found out that the person in question wasn’t mad and that the lyrics belonged to Shonen Knife’s most famous and damn catchy song, “Banana Chips,” as well as some lines from the Shaggs song “Philosophy of the World.” The “Banana Chips” song continued to haunt the vacuous alleyways of my tour-numbed brain for the duration of the trip.
On their latest record, Overdrive, Shonen Knife’s 20th album of their 33-year lifespan, the banana chips have been replaced by a range of new culinary delights, as the band shred their way through galaxies of fortune cookies, ramen and green tea.
Transported on a conveyor belt of Guitar Hero-esque power chords provided by the band’s only remaining original member, Naoko Yamano, and sporting high-pitched voices that sound as if they were recorded in a karaoke booth (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), with short reverb and a bright sonic finish, these three powerful ladies are “standing at the top with their hair dance.” (That’s from “Ramen Rock,” an ode to bassist Ritsuko Taneda’s favourite post-show snack.)
Joining Yamano are Taneda (2006–present) and drummer Emi Morimoto (2010–present), and together they share their favourite foods, house pets and pastimes, all while quoting riffs from ’70s hard rock legends such as Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Bad Company and Deep Purple, with ever-present droning power chords and rock-school drumming, probably with a kick drum the size of a monster truck tire and crashes the size of U.S. dinner plates. These are simple guitar patterns, power chords straight from a “learn to play guitar” book, executed with what sounds like a loose wrist, a wide stance and an even wider grin.
By the fifth listen, this record really began to dig in its heels and make me feel like I was regressing to my angsty ’90s self. The repetitive lines of “Fortune Cookie” crawl into the ear like fat, juicy worms, and stay there, proceeding to build a nest, buy a noisy TV and raise a family. The chorus “Fortune cookie, you are lucky” slowly colonizes the unconscious: “After lunch, after dinner, it’s fortune cookie time/Eat them and the piece of paper.” The lyrics might seem childish and better suited to a daytime toddler show, sung along with parents, but you’ll soon be singing them too.
Overdrive is aptly titled, a plug-and-play record with amps pushing past 10 and little room for Logic software, taking a stand against a “technology-obsessed civilisation,” a sentiment which they elaborate on in “Robots from Hell”: “Invisible to the eye, sneaking around your mind/here come the robots from the darkness/They are man-made invaders.” Kurt Cobain famously said of Shonen Knife, “When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” You may have a similar experience. Another common side effect is the possibility of inadvertently singing isolated chunks of the lyrics in public spaces: on the train, in a public bathroom, queuing at the post office. You may be met with some worried looks as you repeat “Robots from hell… out of control!” in a high-pitched, screeching monotone.
With all the sweet-toothed subject matter, and lines like “I like shopping, I can’t stop going shopping,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that these lyrics trivialise women, but this band were and remain pioneering women, rebelling against submissive female roles in Japanese, and indeed the entire world’s, popular culture. Back in ’81, an all-female band was very rare in Japan, especially a loud one that had drums, guitar and something to say; it inherently questioned dominant ideologies about the public and private roles of women in society. Not only does Shonen Knife challenge female stereotypes, the band also provides an outlet for men, uncomfortable with regurgitating dominant egocentric, muscular male stereotypes in popular music and wider society. Boys and men, like Cobain himself, can embrace the candied subjects and dance however they want to, singing along in high, free voices, leaving insecurities at the door. Shonen Knife is as liberating for men as it is for women.
So, from a distance, Overdrive may look like a giant sweet wrapper (or, alternatively, an homage to those atomically mutated ’80s turtles), flashing over a glory box of pic ’n’ mix separated into transparent flip-top boxes of green tea, noodles and kitty-cats. But listen a little closer and you will find some political narratives hidden amongst the candy prawns. They just require a little teasing through with those little plastic shovels.