Big in the United States: The Influence of Japanese Garage-Rock on U.S. Music

Martin Douglas
Shonen Knife at Lollapalooza 1994, Photo by Tim Mosenfelder

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Shonen Knife has always been imbued with the sort of threadbare innocence which made it no surprise their tremendous debut album Burning Farm found its cover art adorned with the K Records shield as it moved off independent record store shelves in North America. They were never formally described as twee, though they were so spiritually aligned with the genre, the lyrics for “Cycling is Fun” and “I Am a Cat” could stand to be verses in its bible. (Of course, its cover would be pink and adorned with hand drawings of French fries, kittens, ice cream cones, and rocket ships.)

Their sound on those early albums combine the sweetness of their music (influenced by the Ramones and candy shops) with the spiky edge of punk rock. When asked by Rolling Stone in 1993 what their name means, Yamano replied, “Shonen means boy [in Japanese] and is a cute word, and knife is a sharp word. I like mixing the two.”

As the biggest rock star in the world and humble steward of the punk rock underground, Kurt Cobain famously invited the Osaka bubblegum-punk stalwarts on a tour supporting the colossus Nevermind, buying a copy of Burning Farm “from [his] friend Calvin” (that’s Calvin Johnson, K Records founder, International Pop Underground Convention co-organizer, and frontman for twee pioneers Beat Happening). Cobain famously described himself as a nine-year-old girl in the throes of Beatlemania when he first heard Shonen Knife live. By 1993, the power of the trio hadn’t worn off. In an interview with MTV News, with Dave Grohl by his side rhapsodizing the band winning over surly American teenagers in the midwest on tour, Cobain gushed. “I was an emotional sap the whole time,” he said. “I cried every night.”


Even before the co-sign that would secure their legacy, Shonen Knife were big in the United States. After the underground success of Burning Farm, their song “One Day of the Factory” was picked for inclusion on the epochal Sub Pop 100 compilation, John Peel played their songs on his radio show, and the band opened for Sonic Youth in their hometown. They even had a tribute album recorded for them long before they had even heard of Nirvana, not hearing the music of the hottest band on Earth at the time until their invitation to perform on tour together. By the time MTV came calling, Shonen Knife were already bestowed with rapturous idolatry all over the world.

Mainstream critics initially thought Shonen Knife were a novelty act; three adorable Japanese ladies singing adorable punk rock tunes about sushi and candy and household products. But they weren’t a gimmick, they were simply the funnest, most joyous band on any of Earth’s continents. Rock critics who understood what the band was going for weren’t quite so cynical. In 2021, Shonen Knife will be celebrating 40 years as a band, which outlives even the best novelty music acts by an average of about 36 years.

Says frontwoman Naoko Yamano in the same 1993 Rolling Stone interview, “I think people from the British press are very cynical. They take everything so seriously, they even said our music isn’t serious enough. It’s second-class, not first-class. I couldn’t understand why British press people cannot understand the ironical part of songs.”

In numerous interviews, founder and frontwoman Naoko Yamano has said Shonen Knife songs are frequently sung in the English language because it is not only the language of America and Britain (you can argue amongst yourselves which country was the birthplace of punk rock) but the language of rock and roll itself. She acknowledges rock music as an art form created in the United States and while Shonen Knife puts a very individualistic spin on their music – they were essentially a twee-punk band before twee became a descriptor – the band has been steadfastly reverent of their influences and the genre’s foundation since their inception.

Early on in the band’s long life, their alluringly catchy tunes were sung in the band’s native language. On Burning Farm, only “Twist Barbie” – to which their idolization of Americana manifested itself in an ode to the iconic doll – was sung in English. It doesn’t, however, stop the album from being irresistible, as their gift of the universal language that is melody shines as if they scrubbed it down with Tortoise Brand pot-scrubbing cleaner.

Let’s Knife, the band’s major-label debut, contains a number of previously beloved tunes cast in a new light with glossy studio production. Crystal clear vocals and guitars; big, early-1990’s concert hall drums. The album is a synthesis of most of the band’s initial influences – the Beatles, the aforementioned Ramones, Motown soul – and their thematic focus on both the surreal and the mundane with signature cuteness.

But to reduce the work of Shonen Knife to cute songs about cuddly animals and insects, sweets, and tasty food – as many reviewers have – would be a huge disservice to the 21(!!) full-lengths they’ve recorded over the past nearly four decades. Here is a short list of the headier topics the band has written songs about: The moon, reincarnation, food poisoning, bootleg Louis Vuitton bags, the band Redd Kross (the first band featured on 1989’s Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them), famine and genocide in Ireland, a woman with psychic capabilities, a movie about a “devil house,” their hometown of Osaka.

In the time since their Nirvana tour and major label debut, Shonen Knife has kept up a mark of delightful artistic consistency and has grown and shifted, a natural byproduct of anything continuing to exist. They have welcomed and endured lineup changes, pregnancies, terrible car accidents, and the longstanding love and gratitude of their fans. They’ve recorded a cover album with songs belonging to their beloved formative inspiration the Ramones. They’ve contributed songs to the soundtracks of Powerpuff Girls (a spiritual connection if there ever was one) and that one Fast and the Furious movie set in Tokyo, they’ve delivered outstanding overs of My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep” and the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” to tribute albums. They’ve been panned by widely celebrated 90’s music critics Beavis and Butthead, a gold ribbon of success in the MTV era.

Shonen Knife has toured the world many times over, spreading their singular sense of joy to anyone lucky enough to witness their collective charm in person.


The story has been retold so many times it has practically ascended to folklore. Quentin Tarantino was in Japan for business related to his fourth feature film, Kill Bill Volume 1, in its earliest stages of production. He found himself sifting through the racks of a thrift store in Tokyo neighborhood Ebisu when he heard a pretty wild rock ‘n roll tune called “Bomb the Twist.” Knowing he had a flight to catch, he asked the shop assistant – who happened to be a friend of the band – if he could purchase the CD she was playing. She declined, telling him to buy his own copy.

After agreeing to pay double the retail price, he obtained a copy of Bomb the Twist before returning to America. Not incredibly long after that, the’s were invited to Beijing to be a part of the Uma Thurman-led hybrid of spaghetti western and kung-fu cinema. The band was in China for ten days but only spent three on set. Be that as it may, the band were still billed as co-stars of the movie while Nancy Sinatra’s immortal “Bang Bang” played during the film’s opening credits.

The scene where the’s play their famous covers of “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)” and “Woo Hoo” (along with the final bars of their stellar original “I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield”) precedes one of contemporary film’s most infamous bloodbaths. Dressed in matching yellow suits, the trio plays through while Thurman’s character, resplendent in a yellow, Bruce Lee-inspired bodysuit, draws her enemies from their private room and proceeds to slice, dice, and stab her way through an army of assassins clad in black suits, keto masks, narrow ties, and schoolgirl uniforms. The House of Blue Leaves was resplendent and stately before its pool is colored in a deep red.

By the time the fight scene stars, the band and clubgoers flee the scene in terror, but in a 2003 interview with The Japan TImes, frontwoman Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama mentioned an alternate take. “When Sofie gets her arm hacked off, there was a scene of the three of us running down a corridor with Uma Thurman,” she said. “But that didn’t make it.”

Inspired by the rollicking, high-volume, snotty tributes to rock ‘n roll of bands like the Cramps, the’s never had any use for delicate precision, instead calling on a variety of emotional tones; romantic and soft doo-wop (“Dream Boy”) coexists like a blanket with loud and bratty rock ‘n roll (the aforementioned “Bomb the Twist”). Beauty coexists with violence, and sometimes in violence. The Kill Bill guest spot, as the film’s vaunted director once told the band, came about as smoothly as destiny.

“I like Chuck Berry and we wanted that sound,” Ronnie explained in the aforementioned 2003 interview, but we wanted to deconstruct rock ‘n roll into punk music by using distortion and noise and screaming.”

Without the benefit of context, it would be easy to believe Kill Bill was the band’s big break, but in truth it’s more like a late-period explosion. Ronnie and her sister Sachiko, the band’s drummer, actually formed the band in 1986. Between then and the Tarantino’s October 2003 release, like a good many garage-rock bands before and since, there were plenty of lineup changes and shows with fifty-or-fewer attendees.

“I grew up listening to seventies punk and as soon as I heard the Sex Pistols, I knew I wanted to be in a rock ‘n roll band,” Ronnie told The Independent in a 2004 interview. “At first I just sang because I couldn’t play the guitar. But I started to learn because I wanted to be like Johnny Thunders!” Just like most of their primary influences, they were punks in the 1980’s drawing back decades and pulling back the source from which their songs were made -- the 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s.

According to Sachiko, it took almost five years for any label to be interested enough in their first single, “Mondo Girls A-Go-Go” to release it. The band had a very modest following in Japan, but their name grew to the point where Bomb the Twist was released on an American imprint called Sympathy for the Record Industry, a label which would find great success through a little Detroit band called the White Stripes. With their cover of the Rock-A-Teens single catching fire across the world, “Woo Hoo” took the band across the United States and United Kingdom extensively, even playing quite a few well-regarded gigs with their onetime labelmates.

Bomb the Twist remains the band’s most pivotal work because of the band’s facility with the genres they explore; throat-shredding twelve-bar bruise, rolling instrumental surf-rock, doo-wop with pitch-perfect harmonies and candy-coated lyrics about boys sure to cause love sickness and sugar crash. They were born under mountains of beer cans and ash trays overflowing with cigarette butts; the physical manifestation of the rock ‘n roll spirit as it was originally intended.

In 2011, Jack White’s label Third Man Records issued a 2010 live performance from the band and reissued their 1994 self-titled album the same year. Since then, the band has released a number of reissues and singles, but only one new full-length in 2014’s Tanukigoten. A limited-edition, 30th anniversary reissue of “Woo Hoo” (with “Dream Boy” as its b-side) was released in 2018.

In the entire time the band has been active, they’ve always held day jobs, experiencing the same long-term cult success as many of their peers over the decades.


Listening to Link Wray’s memorable 1958 single “Rumble” 52 years later is a document of the guitarist being incredibly far ahead of his time. Wray was a master of the electric guitar in a way never before shown in the genre; he was a jazz guitarist who accidentally stumbled into a beach kegger. “Rumble” is the closest he ever came to a swingin’ doors ballad in his early years; the thump of the rhythm section, the use of distortion at a time long before it was a well-worn shade to use on a rock music canvas, the innovation of the power chord.

A young man by the name of Seiji had recently moved to Tokyo and was the lead singer for a band called Far East punch. After trying to learn guitar several times unsuccessfully, he serendipitously came upon a copy of “Rumble” while browsing the Shibuya location of Tower Records. Guitar Wolf may have never formed if not for this encounter with fate.

While working at a rockabilly-leaning vintage store in Harajuku, he met another young man working at the punk rock store next door. He went by the name Billy. After a few chats about music, it was natural for the two to start a rock ‘n roll band, enlisting Seiji’s coworker Narita on drums. They adopted the names Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf, and Drum Wolf, and the band was born.

Expertly trained in the intrinsic arts of muscle car rock; the kind of violently loud surf music ripping the floor out of teen dance halls while the smell of reefer hovers like a toxic fog in the parking lot, courtesy of the guys around back; sub-Stooges sludge and caveman stomp; rockabilly teetering the edge of psycho. Guitar Wolf are so skilled at wielding primal, nasty rock and roll like a switchblade, like a syndicate of hired guns clad in black leather. In the Japanese rock scene, Guitar Wolf has remained the bull of the woods for almost 35 years.

For a long time, Bellingham-based rock ‘n roll label Estus Records held a music festival called Garage Shock at the 3B Tavern, which hosted the likes of legendary garage bands like the Mummies, the Trashwomen, and the’s. Around the time he started playing in a band called the Oblivians, Eric Friedl (better known as Eric Oblivian) traveled from Memphis to attend Garage Shock. There, he saw a guttural, out of tune, almost obscenely loud Japanese band by the name of Guitar Wolf. Friedl followed the band from Bellingham to Vancouver, where they played a show with Young Fresh Fellows. Guitar Wolf borrowed their gear and ended up breaking something; Young Fresh Fellows were most certainly not too happy about that.

The Tokyo band ended up playing a couple shows in Memphis (to this day, Seiji refers to the city as their American home) and Friedl ended up with a cassette and their fax number. When it seemed as though no label was interested in putting out a Guitar Wolf LP, Friedl decided to do it himself. Even the band themselves were surprised, as they figured he only wanted to release a 45. Friedl secured his distribution through Forced Exposure and released Wolf Rock! in 1993 as the maiden voyage of Goner Records.

In an interview with renowned zine Razorcake, Friedl said, “It was the right time. The garage-rock thing wasn’t played out yet. And Guitar Wolf was a weird mix – sort of a noise-rock [band combined with a] garage-rock band.”

Their early songs drowned in static; it sounds like the music is being pushed out of the dirty needle of a record player. But there’s a thrilling quality to the hysterically low fidelity. When played loud -- how this album and the best of rock ‘n roll is meant to be played – the band sounds like they’re playing in a tight space, like a storage closet in the corner of your living room.

It bears great significance that Wolf Rock! was Goner Records’ flagship full-length, as the label as held distinguished standing as one of the last keepers of the flame as far as the loud, rebellious character of rock ‘n roll goes. Notoriously recorded in a basement practice space on a four-track -- and in parts, a portable cassette recorder – Wolf Rock! served as a spiritual predecessor of almost every underground legend which came after. The Oblivians, the band responsible for Goner’s first singles release (with a poetically fitting catalog number of 0), were a band of Guitar Wolf’s ilk already, and they would naturally grow louder and dirtier as a sibling band to their Tokyo counterparts.

A Memphis kid by the name of Jay Lindsey, a disciple of the Oblivians’ style of rock ‘n roll, began recording demos at the age of 15 and adopted the name of the Reatards for what would evolve into a full band. Eventually he would embark on a successful solo career adopting the surname of his old band, but had graduated from its blistering rock ‘n roll and adopted a tighter, cleaner punk sound. The Reatards’ full-length debut on Goner, Teenage Hate, bears a resemblance to Wolf Rock! jams like “Red Rockabilly” and “Shooting Star Noise,” with added stomach bile spat all over.

“Machingun Guitar,” if it had just a dash of studio spit-shine, could easily pass for a track on Ty Segall Band’s 2012 classic Slaughterhouse, one of the three albums he put out that year, after two records on Goner helped gain him a contract with Drag City.

There’s a chance these bands would have existed without Wolf Rock! leaving a trail of fire, but they might have sounded a bit differently. Would Goner Records have existed differently? After being in a car accident sometime in the mid-90’s, Friedl was at a crossroads in life and slowed down the label for a while. He told Maximum Rock ‘n Roll in 2014 one of his regrets was not releasing Guitar Wolf’s next album.

Guitar Wolf would eventually sign with Matador for a two album deal later in the 90’s, recording 1997’s Planet of the Wolves and 1999’s Jet Generation. The band would frequently refer to their style of music as “jet rock ‘n roll,” indicating their songs are as loud as a plane’s engine. The many years since releasing Wolf Rock! has seen plenty of lineup changes, heartbreaking early deaths (Billy, the original Bass Wolf, passed away of a heart attack at the tragically young age of 38), their own label imprint, zombie movies, and their own motorcycle jackets.

Their seventeenth album, LOVE&JETT, was released last year on Third Man Records, Jack White as faithful a custodian of rock ‘n roll as any lover of the genre. It received a 7.4 on Pitchfork, the scientifically proven numerical equivalent of a favorable review.

In a 2004 interview with The Japan Times, over many, many beers, Seiji was quoted as saying, “I don’t like people who do music with ease. It always has to be extreme. I like people who fight and go to the limit.” Most bands as engaged with mortal danger as Guitar Wolf don’t last nearly as long. The Oblivians only lasted five years in their initial run as a band. Jay Reatard died at only 29 years of age. Guitar Wolf’s lifespan is double that of even the most successful groups regardless of genre, which is a miracle when considering how often they bring themselves to the brink of collapse in their music.

While most rock ‘n roll bands flame out or fade away, Guitar Wolf continues to ignite a familiar burning sensation into ears all over the world.

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