Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

If any band stands for the sheer joy of making loud music for a live audience, it is Shonen Knife. I don’t think I have ever seen a band enjoy playing so much as I saw tonight.


First support band tonight is Smallgang, a three-piece from London. Imagine a sort of post-industrial version of Pavement, with almost spoken-vocals delivered by Bill Callahan of Smog, and you get the idea. The three bespectacled band members all look rather academic and the music has a mathematical quality about it. They have a pretty chunky sound and interesting lyrics, including one song about fantasising in the library (the best place to fantasise, the guitar player tells us). An interesting band and an absorbing performance.

Johnny Foreigner

Next up are Birmingham indie-rock band Johnny Foreigner. Although based in Digbeth, this is their first gig at The Glee Club. They are in the hallowed position of having been singled-out by Shonen Knife to support them and it doesn’t take long to see why. This is pretty jerky, frantic and high adrenalin stuff. Guitarist and vocalist Alexei sweats buckets during their performance and mentions Pixies and Sonic Youth as major influences, which is a good starting point for any band. The manic and experimental qualities of both those bands is present here. However, Johnny Foreigner are certainly not copyists and have their own style. There is interesting interplay of instruments and great sparring male / female vocals between Alexei and bass player Kelly. An exciting band that deserve to go further.

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

If somehow you have missed-out on them before, Shonen Knife are a three piece (all female) Japanese pop-punk band who have been around since 1981. Only guitarist Naoko remains from the original line-up, but you wouldn’t believe that bass player Ritsuko and drummer Emi had not been long-term members, as they really gel as a band.

Shonen Knife are a force of nature and you can see why Kurt Cobain was particularly fond of them and asked them to play support to Nirvana on their ‘Nevermind’ tour. They are heavily influenced by punk bands like the Ramones and Buzzcocks, but also dip into other areas such as 1960s pop, girl bands and 70s hard rock. They are great musicians and the music is immediately likable and accessible (and also very danceable).

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

The band knows how to put on a show and they come on in matching abstract art tops (Mondrian-style square patterns), holding Shonen Knife inscribed banners above their heads, to an enthusiastic audience reception. The banners are sort of long towels and at the end of the gig, band leader Naoko informs us that these are on sale and suggests a number of potential uses for them in an attempt to boost sales. Naoko also acknowledges Birmingham’s place in rock music history and her mention of Black Sabbath raises a cheer.

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

Shonen Knife have made many albums over the years and tonight they are keen to feature some tunes from the latest, ‘Pop Tune’ (2012). But there are also lots of old favourites thrown in, like the Ramones-ish Rubber Band (a useful item, we are informed), Devil House and BBQ Party. The titles of their songs are fascinating in themselves, frequently referring to animals or everyday items like paper clips.

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

The band has previously recorded a Ramones tribute album (‘Osaka Ramones’) and tonight we get a version of Rockaway Beach. However, Shonen Knife go far beyond being a punk tribute band and their material is pretty diverse for what is essentially a guitar, bass and drums outfit. They have always aimed at both a Japanese and an international audience and have recorded in Japanese and English and there are all sorts of versions of their albums available.

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

Seeing Shonen Knife in action at close quarters on a small stage is a thrilling experience. There is so much energy and they really thrash about. Standing at the front, by the low stage, I had to step back to avoid getting poked in the eye by the end of a guitar on a number of occasions!

Shonen Knife, Birmingham 8-10-12

After an hour the band leave the stage, eventually to reappear by popular demand, now dressed in Shonen Knife tee shirts and, again, holding up their Shonen Knife towels. Naoko asks the crowd for suggestions for the encore. The general audience opinion is for ‘Capybara’ (a South American rodent!), from the 2010 album ‘Free Time’. Naoko seem a bit uncertain about this, as the band has not played it for a while. However, they have a go at this very poppy tune and it sounds great. Finally they leave the stage to reappear at the merchandise table to sign CDs (I’m not sure if they signed the towels, however!). A great night out, demonstrating the universality of great music.

Shonen Knife, setlist, Birmingham 8-10-12

Photographs and Review by John Bentley

One Response to “Shonen Knife + Johnny Foreigner + Smallgang @ The Glee Club, Birmingham, UK – 8th October 2012”

  1. Bianca Says:

    The 3rd from last photo is amazing John. Love the swishy hair and angle. Simply stunning!

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