Fishbone - Biography
Emerging from the same loose Los Angeles scene that produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone ranks as one of the 1980s most genre-bending groups. Never quite reaching the super stardom of many of its peers, the band plowed through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with some incredible records. Fishbone’s unique blend of thrash-punk, ska, classic rock, funk, soulful R&B and metal serves as a huge influence to later bands such as Primus, No Doubt and Sublime and its earliest work is often celebrated as setting the stage for the first wave of American ska bands. Easily ranking as one of the most socially conscious alternative rock bands of the ‘80s, Fishbone’s sharp political awareness, searing sense of humor and constant anti-racism campaigns served to open the minds of countless fans, expanding the band’s influence beyond the musical.
Formed in 1979 while its members were still in high school, Fishbone’s original lineup included five members from South Central and one from the Valley; Angelo Moore (saxophone, vocals), Walter Kibby (trumpet, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar, vocals), Chris Dowd (keyboards, vocals), John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals) and Phillip Fisher (drums). The sextet quickly gained a strong reputation for its intense, hyperactive and quirky live sets that blended amped up ska, funk and rock influences bolstered by Moore’s energetic stage presence. Columbia records took notice and the band signed with the label in 1985, immediately releasing a self-titled debut EP.
After the heavy ska and punk of the EP, Fishbone branched out on its first proper full-length, 1986’s In Your Face. Adding liberal amounts of George Clinton inspired funk as well as rock elements, the record features several great songs. Tracks like “In the Air” and “Knock It” showcase the band’s love of funk, while storming punk-metal tracks “Simon Says the Kingpin” and “When Problems Arise” seek to capture the energy of Fishbone’s live shows. The following year brought the release of an oddball Christmas EP titled It’s a Wonderful Life (Have a Good Time).
By 1988 Fishbone was playing shows with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys, touring in the States and abroad, and receiving some attention from MTV. In the midst of all this activity the group released what is perhaps its best album, Truth and Soul (1988). Further expanding on its genre-busting sound, these songs add stronger focus on guitar driven rock and classic soul elements. If In Your Face suffered slightly from overly slick production, Truth and Soul feels rougher, lending an ecstatic bounce. Kendall Jones’ guitar work is stunning throughout, especially on the band’s funk-metal cover of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Freddie’s Dead.” Other standouts include the party funk of “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” and the ska-punk of “Ma and Pa.” Previous songs had hinted at the band’s socio-political awareness, but Truth and Soul outs the African-American rock group as true cultural commentators. Songs like “Deep Inside,” “Subliminal Fascism” and “Ghetto Soundwave” deal with issues like racism, police injustice and poverty with intelligence and sincerity.
Although the band wouldn’t release its third album for another three years, Fishbone hardly went away. The group maintained a strong touring schedule and added former Miles Davis guitarist John Bigham to its ranks. When the next album did come, it hit hard. 1991’s The Reality of My Surroundings was the group’s most diverse and successful record to date, reaching 49 on the Billboard album charts. All of the band’s vast influences led up to this record’s dizzying blend of styles. Its genius lies in the fact that it simply sounds like Fishbone. These songs sound looser than previous work, as if the group were more comfortable taking risks. The hard rock element takes center stage here, especially on tracks like “Fight the Youth,” “Behavior Control Technician” and the stunning lead single “Sunless Saturday.” Funk, R&B ballads, ska, dub and punk all find their way into the mix as well. The production is seamless, the best yet on a Fishbone release, adding layers of studio-enhanced sonic detail. The group was finding its audience and augmenting its popularity with a classic performance on Saturday Night Live and a heavily rotated video for “Sunless Saturday” directed by Spike Lee.
1993 brought the band’s fourth studio album Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe. Critics and fans alike have derided the record for its lack of stylistic breadth. Most of the songs again explore the hard rock angle, and this time around the songwriting seems less inspired. Tracks like “Swim” and “Drunk Skitzo” sound clichéd, a sloppy mess of paint by numbers metal and grunge. While not as diversely textured or layered as the previous album, the record features a few great songs like “No Fear” and “Unyielding Condition.” Allegedly the band’s lapse in quality indicated drama behind the scenes. Founding member Kendall Jones quit the group immediately after its release, and after the supporting tour, which included high profile performances at Lollapalooza, Chris Dowd left as well. Columbia, the band’s longtime label, dropped Fishbone in 1994.
The band signed briefly with Arista subsidiary Rowdy Records for 1996’s mediocre Chim Chim’s Bad Ass Revenge. By now the group’s sound was dominated by metal and hardcore mixed with funk and soul. While some of the playing remains excellent, the songwriting falls flat, relying on clichés and toilet humor. Despite being included on the successful Warped tour, the album fell flat. Another founding member, drummer Phillip Fisher, left the group and Arista ended the contract.
The group stuck it out, touring frequently and remaining a live attraction for fans. With no record contract, performing was the only thing keeping Fishbone alive. In 2000 the band tried again, this time with Hollywood Records, releasing The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx. Featuring some of the band’s best songs in years and a return to the warm ska and funk of its early days, this group of songs is a fine return to form. The album is most notable for its bevy of guests including Rick James, Gwen Stefani, Perry Ferrell, H.R. of Bad Brains, most of RHCP, and George Clinton. This role call of guests acknowledges the breadth of Fishbone’s influence and fans. Sadly, with little support from its label, the album went largely ignored.
After a few self-released EPs, much touring, and some live albums, Fishbone returned in 2006 with Still Stuck in Your Throat. Only Angelo Moore and John Norwood Fisher remain from the band’s original lineup, but the album recalls classic early Fishbone with its blend of sunny, uptempo ska, muscular funk and burning punk rock.
Recently Fishbone has reunited with some original members for performances. The band is also getting some much overdue attention with the release of a 2010 documentary titled Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone that chronicles its history. The band continues to tirelessly tour to this day.