In Osaka in 1981, Naoko Yamano decided she'd had enough of life in the Japanese corporate culture and with her sister Atsuko and friend Michie Nakatani, formed a band called Shonen Knife. What began as simple escapism influenced by Western punk and hard rock bands eventually won the trio countless fans in Japan and beyond. Now undisputed as the country's premier “ultra eccentric super cult punk pop band," Shonen Knife have chosen to celebrate their 30th anniversary by releasing an album which itself celebrates one of the band's foremost inspirations: the electrifying music of the Ramones.
“I was inspired by late '70s punk-pop like Ramones and Buzzcocks then I formed a band," explains Yamano, now Shonen Knife's only original member. “I heard their music through the radio when I was a teenager. liked their pop melody line and Joey’s sweet vocal. It was very natural that I got an influence.” The decision to record a full-length Ramones tribute with recently-joined members Ritsuko Taneda and Emi Morimoto was a natural one, not least because “Shonen Knife covered their songs from the beginning." It was one particular show in 1998, however, which cemented the covers as a key part of the group's identity. The band “had a show which was all Ramones cover songs in Tokyo. It was just one show, but the rumour spread all over the world and many people asked us to play Ramones cover songs.” Since then the band have occasionally played as the Osaka Ramones – a term re-used as the title of the new covers album.
Given that Osaka Ramones picks tracks from throughout the Ramones discography, one might expect that picking the songs was a challenge, but while Yamano admits that “it was very difficult to choose because I like all the songs," she ultimately chose a simple approach. Rather than going for all the recognisable hits, Yamano, Taneda and Morimoto recorded a selection of their favourite heavy hitters. Including their deliriously entertaining versions of 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker' and 'Blitzkrieg Bop' was an obvious move (“I always feel happy when our audience shout 'hey ho, let's go' along with us at our show”) but the band also put together versions of less well-known songs like 'Chinese Rock' and 'Scattergun', from the 1995 final Ramones album ¡Adiós Amigos!
Shonen Knife have released 15 albums of their own, but especially given the “more powerful” sound Taneda and Morimoto have helped create, Osaka Ramones feels like a great introduction to a storied band that come from what seems like quite an alien culture, compared with the UK. “The rock cultures between the two countries are very different," Yamano acknowledges. “Japanese people usually listen to J-Pop or J-Rock - J-Pop normally has Japanese lyrics and it depends on the song, but the melody lines are a little different from western rock.” Osaka Ramones helps blur these distinctions, and once new listeners have raided the Shonen Knife back catalogue, Yamano suggests a couple of other Japanese bands Westerners might enjoy. “I like Yellow Machinegun and Convex Level. They are very underground bands. It must be difficult to get their sound.”
For all the looking back that a 30th anniversary has allowed Shonen Knife to indulge in – both in terms of their own career and that of their heroes, the Ramones – Yamano is confident about her plans for the band's future. “I’d like to continue to make fun music and make people happy. We’d like to play as long as we can, like the Rolling Stones.” It's a simple and admirable plan, and if Yamano is to Shonen Knife what Mick Jagger is to the Stones, that gives us at least another eighteen years to catch Japan's top punk export live. Not bad at all.
Osaka Ramones by Shonen Knife is out now