Listen to this song by Japanese office clerks turned punk-pop princesses Shonen Knife with their 1994 take on the Carpenters’ classic ‘Top of the World’. The tune is taken from the Carpenters’ tribute album If I Were a Carpenter, on which the hits of the Carpenters are covered by acts ranging from American Music Club, to Sheryl Crow, to Sonic Youth.
The first time I heard Shonen Knife, it was on TV, a musical segment program we have here in Canada aptly named the New Music. Sadly, no such program has risen to take its place. But, at its peak, it followed some of the most notable bands active, many of which were way off of the beaten track. And Shonen Knife are certainly that. An all-girl punk-pop band, they formed in Osaka in the early 80s, and their initial tour of Japan happened when the members – Michie Nakatani (vocals and bass guitar), Naoko Yamano ( guitar), and Atsuko Yamano (drums) – took their vacation time from their day jobs and used the time to go on the road.
Generally speaking, the band’s material centres around a sound that draws heavily from the Ramones, and because of that from Phil Spectre girl-groups too. But, lyrically the group is akin more to the Shaggs, singing about subjects that most rock songwriters don’t even consider. They write about food a lot, for instance, and not as a euphemism for something else, mind. Just food.
But one thing they put an emphasis on is melody, and with a huge pop sensibilty. Maybe that’s why their take on punk rock is so attractive. It’s not about what they’re saying or how they’re saying it. It’s about the fact that they just are, and have infused their songs with pure, unadulterated fun.
Perhaps this ran contrary to many of their North American contemporaries by the early 90s when they began to make an impact here. A lot of rock bands at the time were writing about weighty themes, and without all of the melodic sunshine that Shonen Knife brought. But, it didn’t stop Sonic Youth, Redd Cross, L7, and a number of other bands from loving them. Kurt Cobain was an enormous Shonen Knife fan, and the band opened for Nirvana on a number of dates during both the Nevermind, and In Utero tours.
One thing I love in great pop music is something of the unexpected. And another thing of course is a song that puts across a sense of fun in writing and playing music because its a fun thing to do. This cover tune of the Carpenters’ countrified hit, played in a pop-punk style and in their own accents takes in both. It’s irresistible, good people!
Although the band has changed personnel since 1999, they remain to be active, having just released their Super Group album in Japan at the end of 2008.
For more information and more music, check out shonenknife.net.