A Guide to Fishbone
photo by Jeff Farsai
by Peter Crigler
In 1979, Fishbone formed in California as a rockin’ six-piece with Angelo Moore on vocals and saxophone, Norwood Fisher on bass, Chris Dowd on vocals, keyboards and trombone, Kendall Jones on guitar, Philip ‘Fish’ Fisher on drums and ‘Dirty’ Walter Kibby on vocals and trumpet. From the beginning, the band blended elements of soul, gospel, R&B, funk, rock and ska together to create one hell of a sound. They became known all over California for an intense live show which included insane mosh pits and Angelo regularly stage diving while carrying a sixty pound sax. This is a look at their discography and how underappreciated it’s really been.
Fishbone EP (1985)
The band began playing around regularly and building up their repertoire until in 1984, they released demo which contained the legendary “Skankin’ to the Beat” which was later used in the film Say Anything. Not long afterward, the band signed to Columbia Records and began working on their self-titled EP. The first single was the chaotic and immortal “Party at Ground Zero” which also became their first video, a weird and now painfully-dated mix of animation, masks and the apocalypse. The EP also contained “(?) Modern Industry” which was seemed to be only call-out’s of radio station names, but was also a knock at the music biz itself. This song showed that whatever they could think of to write about, they did. It also contained the classic, if just for the title “V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F.” which allegedly stood for “Voyage to the Land of the Freeze-Dried Godzilla Farts,” as well as one of their best songs ever, “Lyin’ Ass Bitch,” which was later covered by Reel Big Fish and is one of the best ‘fuck off’ songs ever written.
In Your Face (1986)
Next, they came back with their first full-length record. This record began to explore the various elements of their sound. Songs like “Simon Says the Kingpin” and “When Problems Arise” were hard and funky while others like “Turn the Other Way” and “Cholly” showed the soul that lay underneath the funky exterior. “When Problems Arise” was the only single released from the record and ironically, problems began arising not long after the record was released. The band began to feel stifled by producer David Kahne’s involvement in their work, which included adding additional guitar and keyboards and co-writing “When Problems Arise,” “A Selection,” “Knock It,” “In the Air” and “Give It Up.” Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the band’s problems. But this is also where the band began to understand their strengths and would use them to devastating effect on their next two records.
Truth and Soul (1988)
While recording their next album, guitarist Kendall Jones’ mother passed away. This was an extremely traumatic event in Kendall’s life and what some people say was the start of a long downward spiral that would reach its crescendo a few years later. Truth and Soul was critically hailed as a triumph upon its release with songs like “Change” enabling the band to explore their sound even further. The record peaked at #153 on the Billboard chart but could’ve done a lot better. The first single was a metal remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” followed by “Ma and Pa.” While both songs are OK, the two real standouts are Chris Dowd’s “Pouring Rain,” a beautiful piece of soulful funk and the slammin’, funky spoken-word of “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” which had been recorded and performed by the band in the film Tapeheads, also released in 1988. The record also spawned one of the band’s most notorious songs, “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” which was later released as an EP along with outtakes. The actual song itself is best known for Norwood’s superhuman bass playing, which has to be heard to be believed. The band toured for over a year, receiving tons of raves before settling down to start working on a new record.
The Reality of My Surroundings (1991)
During this time, the band added John Bigham, a former sideman to Miles Davis to the lineup as a second guitarist. It was also during this time that the band’s long-standing tenure with David Kahne finally came to an end as the band began producing themselves. Kahne wound up with an executive producer credit as well as a co-producing credit on three songs regardless. When The Reality of My Surroundings was released in the spring of 1991, it was a chaotic, bizarre and brilliant masterpiece. Styles ranged from R&B-gospel (“Everyday Sunshine”), punk (“Pressure”) and funk (“Housework.”) Then there was some of the strangest stuff the band had done, including the rambling four-part spoken word “If I Were A…I’d” and Walter Kibby’s bizarre “Babyhead.” While the album is very scattered, it is one of the most brilliant records of the ‘90s and deserves to be ranked right alongside the Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, released the same year. Videos for “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday” launched the album to #49 on the chart and an appearance on Saturday Night Live should’ve pushed the band over the top.
For the next album, the band decided to try something different and hooked up with Pantera producer Terry Date and began working on a new record. During this time, Kendall began falling apart. Stories from other band members had him trying to baptize their instruments; they also said he was becoming extremely depressed over a split with his girlfriend and a drinking problem wasn’t helping matters. Desperate, the band said he turned to his father, who had become involved with a cult. Discussions with his father led Kendall to believe he was doing the ‘devil’s work’ and at one point called the band, its music and everything it had ever stood for as ‘demonic.’ After finishing the record, Kendall took a leave of absence as John Bigham stepped into the main guitarist role for the band’s slot on Lollapalooza in the summer of 1993.
Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe (1993)
When this oddly titled record was released in the summer of 1993, it tanked, only reaching #99 on the chart. One reason it didn’t perform well is because it felt like Fishbone’s time had passed and I believe they knew this, which was why the record was so much harder than its predecessor. Also, songs like “Properties of Propaganda (Fuk This Shit on Up)” and “End The Reign” didn’t jump out and scream, “I’m radio-friendly. Please play me!” One song, with its complexity and weirdness so strange that it has to be heard to be believed was “Warmth of Your Breath” with its chorus of “May your dog’s colon be familiar with the warmth of your breath.” Kendall begins a completely unseen religious route on songs like the quasi-rocking “Servitude” and “End The Reign” while Angelo and Norwood get all confusing on our asses with “Drunk Skitzo,” which at over five minutes is incredibly too long and sounds like something that would’ve been on the first EP. The guests on the record show how far-reaching they were at this time though; Branford Marsalis blows his sax on “Drunk Skitzo” and Billy Bass of Funkadelic vocalizes on “Lemon Meringue.” Although “Swim” was on the Last Action Hero soundtrack, neither “Unyielding Conditioning” nor “Servitude,” both written by Kendall, succeeded and the band began slowing down.
After promoting the record, Chris Dowd departed because of rampant infighting and the loss of Kendall. Chris and Kendall were partners in singing and writing and without Kendall, Chris had no one to help him combat against the other five when it came to various decisions, both musical and financial.
Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (1996)
Starting around the end of 1994, they began touring in order to make ends meet. Finally in late 1995-early 1996, they were signed to Rowdy, a new subsidiary of Arista formed by Dallas Austin, the producer who crafted many of TLC’s hits. Immediately afterward, they started recording a new record. In the summer of 1996, Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge was released. It peaked at #158 on the chart for a week and then disappeared. Apparently, in order to try and sell the record, the label attempted to get the first single “Alcoholic” played at urban radio. While the song dates back to the band’s beginning and quickly became a concert staple and is fantastically representative of latter-day ‘Bone, the song is just too out-there to have had any commercial potential. Other songs like the ten-minute “Fight for Nutmeg,” “Beergut,” “In the Cube” and “Monkey Dick” were far too hard or strange for urban radio to play. The underlying racist tones that the band throw at their old label on stuff like the interludes, “Rock Star” and “Riot,” which begins with Angelo screaming, ‘Kill Whitey!’ don’t make the listener feel bad for the band because it makes it seem like they brought some of this on themselves but didn’t want to admit it. The results left a sour taste in the mouths of critics and all but hardcore fans.
Then in 1997, Fish left. There have been many stories thrown around the inter-web about what happened but no one has really stepped forward with the real truth. It’s been alleged that during his last few months in the band, Fish had become so disappointed with the band’s situation that he started playing with his back to the crowd. As a result of many different reasons, he shortly thereafter quit. A short time later, they found a permanent replacement for Chris in John McKnight, who stayed with the band until 2011.
After the seemingly unending fiascoes, the band continued touring and occasionally making demos to send to record companies. After getting a new guitarist, Spacey T, in 1997 and a new drummer, John Steward in 1999, the band was able to hook up with Hollywood Records sometime in 1999 and began recording a new album. That summer, Santana had a comeback with a cameo-fueled album and Hollywood believed they could do the same thing with Fishbone. Once the band was informed of what could happen, they began bringing in all of their well-known friends like Rick James, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Clinton, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, H.R. of Bad Brains and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction.
Fishbone and the Familyhood Nextperience Presents: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx (2000)
In April of 2000, the band released their first album of the new millennium. The first single, “The Suffering,” bombed and the record didn’t even chart. After the single died, the label lost interest in the album and a second single was never released. The album is lackluster as all hell, try as they might. Attempts like a cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star” just fall on their face and never go anywhere. While there are a few bright spots, including a cover of David Baerwald’s “AIDS & Armageddon,” the rest of the record just feels empty and lifeless; the numerous superstar cameos make it feel more like a record company hack job, which is what it was.
By the end of the year, the band had been dropped and went back to touring. During this time, Norwood took over the direction of the band and as a result, they relentlessly continued touring. In 2002, they released a live album Live at the Temple Bar and More but other than that, nothing new was forthcoming.
As a result of this and other things, tensions began to grow once again and Walter and Spacey T were becoming upset at the lack of motivation in the band as well as the fact that the band had new songs to record but couldn’t find the right avenue to release them. Then around 2003, the band announced that Walter and Spacey had both departed. The shock of the announcement was almost a death-blow to the band and surprised all the fans.
In 2006, Fishbone made their first video in ten years for a cover of Sublime’s “Date Rape,” which they’d recorded for a tribute album. The song was good but Angelo’s vocal problems were painfully obvious. Fifteen years ago, he could scream, wail and croon with no problem at all but now he sounds like he can barely sing above a loud croak. He still has the dynamic stage presence that has made a Fishbone live show so exciting; rest assured, he will continue singing no matter what ends up happening.
Still Stuck In Your Throat (2007)
In October of 2007, the band released this album, engineered by David Kahne. Initially, the album was only released in Europe but it was released in America with “Party with Saddam” being the first single. The record immediately launched them back into the limelight as they reverted to their original sound. It didn’t hurt that new guitarist Rocky George, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies, was able to play like nobody’s business and has earned comparisons to Kendall.
Fishbone Live (2009)
They toured successfully for the record and was able to gain back some of the fanbase they’d lost with previous records. The release of Fishbone Live is testament to the fact that things are still the same in the world of Fishbone. The interesting news of the year was that Kendall had rejoined the band for an encore in California in the fall of ’08, followed by a Pepsi commercial that featured Chris and Walter, who announced in 2010 that he had rejoined the brotherhood. The fact that relations between everyone look to have gotten better than they’ve been in years makes the fanbase hope for a reunion of the classic lineup. Whether that happens or not, their accomplishments have cemented them as legends.
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