Funk-rock fusion band
“Who says a rock band can’t play funky?” sang George Clinton’s groundbreaking band Funkadelic in the 1970s. “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?” That these questions needed to be asked underlined a major division in popular music. Among the listeners to Funkadelic’s innovative fusion of hard rock and heavy funk were seven kids who would one day be the members of Fishbone. This ambitious crew blended the structural complexity of progressive rock and fusion, the crazed intensity of punk, the rhythmic ecstasy of ska and funk’s relentless groove, producing a mixture that other groups would successfully exploit before Fishbone itself broke through in 1991.
The group’s wild palette of musical styles encountered mostly indifference when they signed with Columbia Records in 1985. Audiences and executives threw in the band’s face precisely the myths it wished to dispel: that rock was “white” music and funk “black” music, and that radical mixtures of reggae, punk, progressive rock and dance music would never find a mass audience. While the band fought its way to mass-market
Band formed in 1979 in Los Angeles; founding members include John “Norwood” Fisher (bass and vocals), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Kendall Jones (guitar and vocals), Angelo Moore (vocals and saxophone), Christopher Dowd (keyboards and vocals), and Walter Kibby (trumpet, trombone, and vocals); John Bigham (guitar) joined band c. 1990; prior to signing with Columbia, band was known by a variety of names, including Hot Ice, Counterattack, Diamonds & Thangs, Megatron, and Melodia; released first record, Fishbone (six-song EP), for Columbia Records, 1985.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 666 Fifth Ave., P.O. Box 4455, New York, NY 10101-4455.
success to disprove the latter idea, it has dedicated itself to addressing the former in interviews.
In an interview with Guitar Player, guitarist Kendall Jones referred to the classification of music by color as “brainwashing.” Jones, like the rest of the band, insists that rock and roll was pioneered by black artists—he poured scorn on white rock idol Elvis Presley in an interview with Spin —and that black radio’s reluctance to play records outside its format has limited the receptivity of black audiences. “You could be making millions, millions, millions,” Jones complained to Guitar Player, “but if they haven’t heard your stuff on [black] radio, you ain’t shit. You need to get another job.”
The band’s earliest incarnations—which sported such names as Hot Ice, Counterattack, Diamonds & Thangs, Megatron, and Melodia—began searching for their ideal musical fusion in 1979. Its founding members—Jones, brothers John “Norwood” Fisher, bassist, and drummer Phillip “Fish” Fisher, singer-saxman Angelo Moore, keyboardist Christopher Dowd, and brass wizard Walter Kibby—got together in high school in California’s San Fernando Valley. They liked funk, reggae, punk, hard rock, progressive rock and ska.
Although early publicity suggested that the white kids at the school to which all but Moore were bused from South Central Los Angeles introduced Fishbone to hard rock, Norwood says otherwise. “[Canadian progressive-rock power trio] Rush was about the coolest thing we found out,” he told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke; he noted in the Guitar Player interview that “as soon as I heard punk, all that progressive rock and fusion started not to mean a damn thing to me.” Somewhere between the energy and rebellion of punk, the musical integrity of fusion, Funkadelic’s groove-oriented eccentricity, and what Norwood Fisher called the “kicking flavor” of his favorite reggae bassist lay the territory Fishbone would claim.
The band’s stage shows earned them a reputation for wild humor that would be a blessing and a curse. Although the manic energy in their songs assisted them in getting a record deal with Columbia, Dowd recalled to Spin’s Bill Holdship, the label wanted them to be “those crazy new wave negroes from South Central Los Angeles!”Despite its wildness in performance and its often bizarre song concepts, Fishbone had a lot to say, and it felt that the record company was uninterested. In 1985 the band released Fishbone, a six-song EP; it included “Party at Ground Zero,” an irresistible stew of ska, pop, and a guitar motif plucked from the Bizet opera Carmen.
“Party at Ground Zero” fared well on alternative radio stations like Los Angeles’s KROQ, which gave it substantial rotation, but the record—produced by David Kahne, a veteran producer of “new wave” rock bands—didn’t lead to any big breaks for Fishbone. It did, however, catch the attention of some discriminating listeners. As Havelock Nelson wrote in his review of the record in High Fidelity, the band’s “style adds a potent, hard-driving edge to what has always been—and will always be—a good time.” Nelson admired Columbia’s “taking a chance” on an adventurous band, though he doubted Fishbone’s bold eclecticism would find its way into the Top Forty.
Nelson’s prediction held true for some time. The group’s next effort, 1986’s In Your Face, expanded the musical range explored on the debut record but once again was not promoted by the label. In Your Face included trademark ska workouts like “A Selection,” the reggae ballad “Turn the Other Way,” and the gospel-tinged rocker “Give it Up.” The lyrics touched on the band’s central preoccupations: sex, social independence, and the incompetence of America’s political leaders. The latter subject is illuminated without words on the album’s final track, a minute-long instrumental clown theme—led by Kibby’s trombone—called “Post Cold War Politics.” Although they continued to wow the faithful with their stage shows, the members of Fishbone were caught in the limbo of record company indifference. The message was not getting through.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the band completed Truth and Soul, an album that demonstrated a further leap in Fishbone’s musical ambition and thematic scope. The album opens with a cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s moody 1970s classic, “Freddie’s Dead,” which made the biggest wave of the band’s early career as a single and video; it proceeds through an array of genres and arrangements that are impressive even when compared to the band’s earlier work. Though the sexual swagger and funny voices associated with Fishbone’s “zany” image are integral to the record, there is a seriousness of purpose here: “Question of Life” and “Change” are somber pleas for social justice, and “One Day” and “Ghetto Soundwave” address the situation of urban blacks with greater maturity than anything the band had done previously.
Instrumentally, Truth and Soul allowed the band to branch out radically. “Change,” with its acoustic guitar and evocative melody, recalls the fine textures of the best progressive rock. “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” one of Fishbone’s many anthems to sexual freedom, has the funky abandon of Clinton’s feel-good classics. “Ma and Pa” retooled the group’s well-known ska approach for a serious subject: a family torn apart by divorce. The band’s calls for independence were matched by its own: Kahne, who had been an important musical and technical contributor to the first two records, hung back. “By the time of Truth and Soul, I was doing much less,” he told Musician’s Roy Trakin. “And that’s the way I wanted it.” Even so, the band didn’t have a hit single, and Columbia didn’t push the record. They were still in limbo.
Meanwhile, as the 1980s came to an end, rock and roll saw an explosion of bands who challenged the rigid formats of commercial radio. Groups like Living Colour, The Red Hot Chili Peppers—whose founding members jammed with Fishbone in Los Angeles—and Faith No More played volatile mixtures of funk and hard rock. Living Colour’s Vernon Reid was a black guitar hero who mixed metal licks with rhythm-and-blues riffs; Faith No More’s Mike Patton was a white rapper-singer; the Chili Peppers’ Flea was a white bassist who played funk with a punk accent. These groups amassed huge audiences, reorienting alternative radio and throwing the smug assumptions of programmers and record executives out the window. Columbia, the members of Fishbone believe, finally realized it had been sitting on a gold mine.
Of course, there had been some changes at the label. Many of the executives who had ignored Fishbone had moved on, and Kahne became head of the company’s A&R division. By the time the band finished its third full-length album, The Reality of My Surroundings, in 1991, they found an unprecedented enthusiasm in their label’s response. Columbia booked Fishbone to appear on NBC’s Saturday Night Live before Reality came out, and the first single, a sleek rocker called “Sunless Saturday,” made an impressive display on MTV, with a video directed by filmmaker Spike Lee. With the second single, however, Fishbone finally broke through the clouds. “Everyday Sunshine,” a gospel-soul workout that many critics compared with the sound of funk pioneer Sly Stone, became a hit, partly thanks to an exuberant video that MTV played liberally.
Jones told Trakin he considered The Reality of My Surroundings “the first fully functional Fishbone record.” It is certainly the most relentless. New guitarist John Bigham now shared six-string duties with Jones, giving the band an even heavier sound. In addition to the party-ska raveups—such as the frantic skanking of the three-part “If I Were A … I’d …” and the frenetic “Housework”—Reality features the metallic riffing of “Fight the Youth,” the slamming funk beat of “Naz-tee May’en,” and the psychotic fusion of “Behavior Control Technician.” The lyrics further focused Fishbone’s concern for black survival, even as they argued for fun. Both “Sunless Saturday” and “Everyday Sunshine” use weather as metaphors for inner-city life. The reggae/soul tune “Pray to the Junkiemaker” addresses all kinds of addiction.
Down Beat labelled The Reality of My Surroundings “One of this year’s most exciting albums,” calling the music “adventurous and teeming with life.” Reviewer Dan Ouellette awarded the record four and one-half stars. “What makes this album so remarkable,” he wrote, “is how effortlessly Fishbone has stitched together such a wide variety of black-music traditions.” Creem’s Sean O’Neill dubbed the band’s new effort “the best record of this nascent decade.” Musician agreed: “This band isn’t as good as they say: It’s better.” People called the record “the group’s most impressive.” And according to Billboard, the “Rich, dense new album is a thrill for the ears, and may remind many of Funkadelic’s best.”
Fishbone finally got the attention it had been striving for and was vindicated by both commercial and critical success. In 1991 it went on tour with fellow funk-and-rollers Primus and vowed to continue on its mission to promote awareness and fun. “When we first started, our whole thing was to get everybody to unify in the house,”Dowd told Fricke. “Black, white, whatever. Feel like brothers. Because even then we realized the system works to keep people separated.” As drummer Fish reminded Trakin, this issue of unity was central to the band’s commercial accessibility as well as its social message: “Basically you have to play for those who are in your congregation, and ours is still growing. We’re doing what we can to reach our people, too.”
On Columbia Records
Fishbone (six-song EP; includes “Party at Ground Zero”), 1985.
In Your Face (includes “Turn the Other Way,” “Give it Up,” and “Post Cold War Politics”), 1986.
Truth and Soul (includes “Freddie’s Dead,” “Question of Life,” “Change,” “One Day,” “Ghetto Soundwave,” “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” and “Ma and Pa”), 1988.
The Reality of My Surroundings (includes “Sunless Saturday,” “Everyday Sunshine,” “If I Were A … I’d …,” “Housework,” “Fight the Youth,” “Naz-tee May’en,” “Behavior Control Technician,” and “Pray to the Junkiemaker”), 1991.
Billboard, April 27, 1991.
Creem, June-July 1991.
Down Beat, July 1991.
Guitar Player, August 1991.
High Fidelity, September 1985.
Musician, May 1991; July 1991.
Rolling Stone, October 3, 1991.
Spin, July 1991.
"Fishbone." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fishbone
"Fishbone." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fishbone
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