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Friday, October 28, 2011

My Life with the Knife pt II: Explosion!

In anticipation of our show next Tuesday I'm writing a series of posts on one of my favorite bands from my mis-spent youth, Shonen Knife...

One thing I often hear as a criticism about SK is that all of their songs are either about:

(a) Animals


(b) Food.

This is obviously false--they also have several songs that are about:

(c) Both animals AND food simultaneously.

Actually there are other notable digressions from their usual lyrical obsessions. Today I would like to highlight one of their lesser-known records that came out in '97 after they were dropped from their major-label contract with Virgin:

Granted, there are plenty of animal and food songs on this one ("when you feel down, I recommend to you: eat lots of fruits and vegetables"). The overall production is less giddy and DIY than their earlier records, so I think it generally gets dismissed/ignored by critics and SK fans. But there are also a couple of rather heart-felt songs about boredom and inertia that hit me really hard when I first heard them, and one that actually reduced me to tears while I was driving in my Toyota Camry. I will explain.

Biographies of Shonen Knife always mention that they started the band as a hobby to relieve the tedium of their go-nowhere office jobs:

Despite Shonen Knife's relentlessly upbeat image, their origins were quietly rebellious in their own culture. The three young women—sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano and their friend Michie Nakatani—came from Osaka's middle class, where a young woman's life was expected to follow a strict path. When the three decided to form a band in the early 1980s, they had no intention of pursuing rock and roll fame...

Consequently, the Yamanos and Nakatani saw their music as a hobby only, one that would relieve the tedium of their day jobs: Naoko and Atsuko Yamano, who lived with their parents in Osaka, held office jobs with a plastic surgeon and fashion designer, respectively, while Nakatani worked as a word processor. The band's beginnings were appropriately simple, as Naoko described in Pollster. "It was after we finish school," she explained. "Me and Michie were bored so we decide to start a band, but we need drummer. I made a pretty flyer and put it on refrigerator. Soon Atsuko see.... She said she would be drummer." *

Around the time Brand New Knife came out I was working a series of frustratingly boring, low-paid, go-nowhere office jobs myself, with little sense of purpose and no idea of how to get myself to a better place. I always hear about that time (the 1990's in general) as being an era of a strong economy and easy money; I guess it was, except I had no ability to tap into that money myself, and I was hurting financially just about as badly then as I ever have. I had also managed to run up some spectacular student loans but was making maybe a third or quarter of what I'd need to make, income-wise, in order to pay them off in a timely (say, fifteen years?) fashion.

So, in that context, I picked up a used copy of Brand New Knife maybe a year after it came out; dutifully made a copy to cassette (transparent red cassette--where are you now?) so I could listen to it my car, and put it on while driving to work. Instead of the expected sparkly songs about kitty cats, the record kicks off instead with "Explosion!" (see above). This is...not about kitty cats. Or food. It's an ominous punk ode to that feeling of frustration with the status quo that's so familiar these days--perhaps it resonates more strongly today than it did when it was released. The lyrics in English go, in part:

Nothing's gonna start if you and I do nothing
Nothing's gonna change if you and I are only waiting
Nothing's gonna move if you and I see only one thing
Nothing's gonna work but I can't change the system of this world

Hey money junkie, what are you living for?
I burn with anger, I set time bombs everywhere.

So, there's that, which I wasn't expecting. There's some more good songs on there, like the moody "Wind Your Spring" and "E.S.P.," which is totally charming and is about exactly what you think it is. Plus it has a great guitar solo.

But the song that really hit me was, oddly, "Loop Di Loop," a perky little number about riding a roller coaster. Except, right in the middle of cruising along happily, you come to the bridge--a bridge that, out of nowhere, completely changes the song's direction:

Trash, rubbish, foolishness
Repeating the same thing everyday
Trash, rubbish, foolishness
Feeling boredom everyday

I don't know if they had their day jobs in mind when they wrote that, maybe not; but when I heard it I was stopped in my car at a traffic light, on my way to my miserable office job, and it struck me with such force and resonance that I starting tearing up. In despair. I don't think there's many bridges that can do that, and so I hereby nominate it The Greatest Bridge Of All Time. Well, it's certainly in the Top Ten of Bridges, okay? Okay. Anyway, "Loop Di Loop" was one of the things that pushed me to start my own band with Mary, and for that I will always be grateful. Check it out:


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