Shonen Knife are still rocking after 40 years

Over a decade before Green Day would become the face of the pop-punk scene around the world, Shonen Knife were playing their first gigs in Osaka. Though the lineup has changed over the years, the chemistry and spellbinding energy that explodes on stage when they perform is undeniable. Forty years into their career, and they show little sign of slowing down.

After a long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shonen Knife finally took the stage at Brundell Social Club in Leeds as part of their 40th anniversary tour. At times it was a strange, almost tame evening, yet it was always undeniably fun.

Shonen Knife brings fun to pop punk

Shonen Knife performing in Leeds

Brundell Social Club feels like an upscale punk venue. Not expensive, but clean and well-equipped for the kind of music they tend to host. There was a healthy crowd present by the time the opening act took the stage at 8 pm. Oliver Asadi is a local rapper and music producer who took the stage and played incomplete songs about Jesus being gay and his love for Japanese food to a very confused audience. While the penultimate song of his set, Oh My God, is a legit jam, I’m not convinced he was the right act for this show. I’d definitely be up for seeing him again in his natural element.

The strangeness of the opening act didn’t do much to stir the crowd; fortunately, Shonen Knife’s energy is shockingly wholesome and infectious. Sporting outfits inspired by mod fashion of the 1960s and designed by bassist – and occasional fashion designer – Atsuko Yamano, they looked too relaxed to be a punk outfit. But you don’t perform punk music for 40 years without getting good at turning a crowd in your favour.

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the wall of sound Shonen Knife produces and the often-adorable subject matter of their songs. The setlist for the evening was something of a journey through their long history. Banana Chips and Twist Barbie, which was reportedly one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite songs, featured early in the set, with newer offerings like Pop Tune, MUJINTO Rock, and Sweet Candy Power sprinkled throughout.

For a fan like me, it was a dream set. Getting to hear a live version of Buttercup (I’m a Super Girl), a song that I’ve had perpetually stuck in my head for at least 20 years, was a treat, along with their fantastic cover of The Carpenters’ Top of the World as part of the encore. I wouldn’t have minded hearing their take on The Ramones, but with 22 studio albums in their catalogue there will always be tracks that don’t make it into the mix.

This was one of the most polished punk performances I’ve ever seen, with vocals and instruments remarkably close to the studio version. Even the band’s movements on stage, with synchronised jumps and head bangs, felt practiced and well-rehearsed. Despite some occasional feedback issues from the venue’s sound system, it was clear that this was a group who know how to deliver their songs to maximum effect.

I have a habit at live gigs of watching the drummer. You can always tell how good a band will be live by how much fun the drummer is having. Risa, who is the longest-serving drummer in Shonen Knife history aside from original drummer Atsuko, was fascinating to watch. Whatever the song the group was performing, she was a ceaseless hive of activity. Her hair flew in every direction with each beat, to the point where I am not convinced she saw the kit the entire gig.   

Shonen Knife provided fans with a performance that was, above everything else, fun to attend, perfect for punks who prefer to forego the mosh pit in favour of taking in the sights and sounds of the performance. It was the first time the band had been back in the UK in four years, thanks largely to the pandemic.

This tour is rapidly winding down and, with the current state of live music in the country, it might be a long time before Shonen Knife make the trip overseas again, but I’m hopeful we’ll get at least one more tour in the future. Forty years in and Shonen Knife show little sign of slowing down, after all.

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