Thursday, 21 April 2016
Oliver: Shonen Knife - Flying Jelly Attack/Watchin' Girl [Peel Session] (25 January 1992)
"But this was a myth, built upon a fantasy."
"And it had a profound effect on the way we live our lives."
I wonder whether Adam Curtis is an admirer of Shonen Knife? Given the eclectic music scores of his documentaries, it's certainly possible that he's heard of them. I've been watching some of his films in the last couple of days and Shonen Knife are a wonderful corrective to the depression one feels after Curtis's dissections on the unlearned and oft-repeated foibles of our world - be it connected to consumerism, our over-reliance cum enslavement to technology or the way in which populations are manipulated by media and government. Inevitably though, there is a degree of cultural bleeding from one form to another, and in thinking back on the popularity Shonen Knife enjoyed among pop and rock cognoscenti in the early 90s, I can't help but looking, Curtis-like, under the surface enjoyment to see if there was something more sinister underpinning it all.
First of all, there's the elephant in the room - Westeners can't help laughing at South-East Asian
singing voices when the group are singing in English. I'm sorry but it's true. I speak as a man whose witnessed a Japanese lady trying to sing Charmless Man by Blur to a Falmouth pub on a karaoke night and then there was Martin Kelner's 1994 Radio 2 documentary on strange cover versions of Beatles songs calle Let It Be...Please which showcased the good (Doo-wop versions of Hey Jude), the charming (The Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da Polka), the curious (Brian Sewell analysing the lyrics to I Wanna Be Your Man - "I've no idea what the music is like but the lyrics suggest a kind of highly erotic pillow talk") and the awful (Joan Collins channelling Margaret Thatcher in a version of Imagine) but the piece de resistance for me, on another plane to anything William Shatner did was a version of Don't Let Me Down sung by a Japanese man who as Kelner put it, proved it was possible to commit hari-kiri and cover a Beatles song simultaneously. I could cope with the "Don't Ret Me Down" refrains but it was the self prostate examination sounds he made on "Nobody ever loves me like she duzz. Yes, she duzz. Oooh, she duzz." that finished me off.
When Shonen Knife recorded a song called Space Christmas, I commented that every care had been taken to remove the possibility of low humour as they wished us Merry Christmas. But on Flying Jelly Attack, we get "jerry jerry jerry jerry jerry jerry jerry jerry cream", not to mention Watchin' Girls's "Oooga oooga oooga oooga oooga" refrain and as I said about Datblygu's Welsh language rapping, the straighter it's presented, the more the temptation to smirk. Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for the screenplay of a film which used this kind of phonic sniggering as a centrepiece, so it would be naive not to imagine a degree of cultural sneer behind Shonen Knife's ascent.
Counterbalancing that though was the fascination with Japanese mass culture. It remains the byword for quick, disposable, tacky but enjoyable product. Open 24 hours and easy to get your hands on anything. The aforementioned Lost in Translation made it look like hell on Earth to be stuck there with nothing to do, but such was Japan's rise to economic and industrial dominance, at least up to its stagnation and decline that in a sense, we were all Japanese at one time. Shonen Knife could have spearheaded a Japanese assault on Western pop culture. A shiny, silly, irresistible confection hoovering all up before it, but for those consonant sounds getting in the way. Maybe it was for the
best. They were too enjoyable and lovely to be dismissed as the pop music equivalent of those clips of Endurance that Clive James and Chris Tarrant used to make us feel smugly superior to, until we reached the point where such shows became automatic commissions here.
Not only was there fascination about Japanese culture and way of life, there was also admiration as well. To quote LA Law "Is it the fault of the Japanese that their factory workers can do algebra while many [American factory workers] can barely read". They seemed to have it all: vibrant economy, leading the world in manufacturing, a cultural landscape that went into more areas than any other, with a greater level of edge too and now they were bringing the world a band that made the two and a half minute pop song seem like the easiest thing in the world. It all seemed so easy for the Japanese. They may have been making trash, but they led the world in it. And that automatically lent a surface allure to Japanese bands that wasn't so obviously to be found on bands coming out of Washington State or Manchester. It was light and throwaway, but irresistible and essential too. A perfect blend, until the marketplace started to change and rock music's attention span deficit applied itself to a new curio.
Ultimately, Shonen Knife were among the best ambassadors Japan could wish for in presenting another facet of it's post World War II face to the world. Given the might of China and the sabre rattling of North Korea, Japan seems almost bypassed. A neon market town locked in its own bubble of fun and unconscious irony. Having an atom bomb or two dropped on you will go a long way to easing out the tensions in a ceremonial society. Once it had worked its way back to its feet, Japan dropped out and offered its citizens and bands the chance to kick back and relax - distracted by the deadening quantities of mass market culture. It needed a musical conduit through which it could project its "always open, always trading," kareoke bar identity and it was very lucky that, with a quirkiness that charmed rather than grated, Shonen Knife were able to carry off being the world's idea of Japanese pop music.
The songs they recorded for this, their first Peel session, have not been well represented in terms of sharing, hence why the two selections (out of three that I heard, six were broadcast in total) come from the studio versions on Let's Knife. This video contains the session version of Watchin' Girl and a number of tracks from their second and final Peel session in October 1992. You can beat me to it, when it comes to selections.
Videos courtesy of The Used1995.