Cult Band Reaches For Pop Music Success
The word you most often hear in association with the band Fishbone is “hyperkinetic.”
Maybe it’s how frontman Angelo Moore wildly bounds around the stage like a human pogo stick. Or how the all-black outfit effortlessly melds genres into a high-speed stew.
But however you describe the band and its music, they’ve been doing it for more than two decades.
And after eight albums together, Hollywood Records has just coughed up the group’s latest offering: Fishbone and the Familyhood Nextperience Presents “The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx.”
The new album is a collaboration between a revamped lineup of the L.A. band and about a dozen guest artists — which, according to rumor, was how the band finally got signed to a major label.
This album is a last grasp for the popular acclaim that has eluded the group. During those years, racism on the corporate level, the narrow playlists of African-American radio, bad luck, infighting and the group’s “hyperactive” musical sensibilities took their toll on the band.
Unfortunately, the new record fails miserably. Where once Fishbone could shift easily from romping funk to sprite ska numbers and then white-hot guitar assaults, the new record offers up 10 half-baked ska tunes.
Things weren’t always so bleak.
More than 20 years ago, the group, which included lead singer/sax player Moore, trumpet player “Dirty” Walter Kibby II, guitarist Kendall Jones, singer/keyboardist/trombone player Chris Dowd, drummer Fish and his brother, bassist Norwood Fisher, went to school together in Los Angeles.
After-school jam sessions eventually evolved into a freewheeling band that combined punk, funk, ska, rock, metal and R&B.
Before the members graduated from high school in 1979, they were already playing the L.A. club scene. While hair metal bands like Poison, Motley Crue and Ratt were kings of the hill, Fishbone and bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, later, Jane’s Addiction carved out their own niche.
In 1985, the group signed with Columbia Records and released a self-titled EP. A year later, their first album, “In Your Face,” hit the stores. Though both records showed that the group was in a formative stage, there was something there amid the high-speed ska and punk songs.
Despite their promise, both records were invisible to the radio and the public. The group was too rock for black radio stations playing R&B and hip hop, and were too black to appear on MTV or rock radio (black artists weren’t even on MTV until Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in 1983).
In 1988, the group released “Truth and Soul.” The album, with cuts like “Ma and Pa,” “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” and a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” was perhaps the group’s most commercial effort and a stunning leap forward.
Fishbone seemed to have grown more comfortable with its wide musical palette, but it was also tighter. The Fisher brothers’ telepathic connection was a solid foundation for each song, while horns, guitar, keyboards and vocals fought for the melody.
Throughout the period, the group had to endure pressure from the record company to make its music more commercial. Producer David Kahne, who had previously worked with the Bangles, manned the boards for their first two albums and worked with the band members to streamline their songwriting.
But despite Kahne’s efforts, the album’s inclusion in “Rolling Stone’s” top albums of the 1980s and such vocal champions of the band as John Cusack (who included the band on the soundtrack for “Say Anything”), “Truth and Soul” also went nowhere.
Though its records performed poorly, the group was attracting a reputation as an explosive live act, with the manic Moore cast in the role of ringmaster. One reporter remarked that Fishbone live was “tighter than a mosquito’s ass.”
For more than three years after the album’s release, the group laid low, recording their next effort.
In the meantime, they saw other bands breaking through. Their New York-based, “black rock” rivals Living Colour garnered two Grammy nods, two platinum records and became MTV staples.
By 1991, bands like Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana brought alternative music to the pop mainstream, opening the door for dozens of bands.
Fishbone, however, kept recording. They even turned down an offer to join the first Lollapalooza tour in order to finish their record. (The group had also taken on a second guitar player, John Bigham).
When it came, “The Reality of My Surroundings,” was the band’s masterpiece and an artistic triumph. Largely produced by the band and largely freed from label constraints, the group went wild in the studio and stacked layers on instruments on each song.
Musically unbridled and stylistically anachronistic, the album was compared to “Sgt. Pepper.” The whole record overflowed with music.
The standout tracks were the metallic “Sunless Saturday,” the bass-heavy “So Many Millions” and the neo-soul of “Everyday Sunshine.” With the latter song, the group mutated a blissful Sly and the Family Stone-type song (with dueling vocal parts from Dowd and Moore) to a high-adrenaline gospel service.
The album also saw the band’s lyrics flourish, as Moore was given a free hand to write (Dowd and Jones were otherwise the group’s key songwriters). A brilliant poet on his own, Moore’s playful, if sometimes vicious, rhymes were scrawled all over the record:
If I believed everything I saw on television
I’d … Think
Like Brady Bunch
Eat Wendy’s for lunch
Drive a Datsun Subaru and never question much
Though the group appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and got some meager MTV time, the album never really caught on.
After a tour, the group went back to the studio.
Perhaps feeling a bit out of place in the era of grunge, the group enlisted metal producer Terry Date for its next album, 1993’s “Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe.”
The record was a mixed affair, focusing on the group’s heavier numbers and stressing crunching guitars, while all but forsaking the group’s funk/ska/soul roots.
The problem was that the metal songs weren’t that good. There were plenty of riffs, but the tunes were lackluster. And overall, the band seemed to be suffering from a lyrical lobotomy.
The worst was yet to come. The group had already accepted a slot in the third installment of the Lollapalooza tour when guitarist Kendall Jones quit the band and joined what has been described as a religious cult.
Though still somewhat shrouded in mystery, Jones had allegedly been having emotional problems for quite some time. His mother had reportedly passed away, and according to recent statements by Norwood Fisher, he had quit drinking after heavy alcohol use.
Eventually, Jones turned to religion and sought guidance from his father, who was allegedly involved in the cult. According to band members, Jones became obsessed with the apocalypse.
“He really lost it,” Bigham said in 1996. “He started talking about God this and God that and the end of the world is coming. … He wanted to be with his father, and we felt his father was manipulating him.”
After the album was finished, Jones allegedly shaved his head, moved closer to the cult and quit the band, calling them “demonic.”
Sensing that his friend was in danger, Norwood Fisher became involved with a mission to save Jones, an effort that ultimately failed.
Jones’ father pressed attempted kidnapping charges against Fisher, though he was later acquitted.
Looking back, Jones’ departure was the defining moment for the group. Besides losing a founding member and their best songwriter, his leaving seemed to signal a change in the band. The group seemed to have lost its direction, and it was having difficulties unifying the wide musical spectrum that the group was able to explore.
The group soldiered on, but at tour’s end, Bigham said that Columbia Records told the band that its record was dead.
Without label support and its record stalled, the group was at a crossroads. (Eventually, the group split with Columbia, both sides claiming that they instigated the break.)
Less than a year later, the group was dealt another blow when Dowd left the band, citing musical differences. Dowd’s exit was especially hard because it left the group without its two best songwriters (Dowd hooked up with Jeff Buckley for awhile and later released a solo album and toured with Alice In Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell.)
Down to a quintet and without a record deal, the group hit the road for two years.
In 1996, Fishbone signed to Rowdy Records, an R&B label run by Dallas Austin, the mastermind behind the rise of TLC.
It was during that time that Fishbone acolytes like No Doubt and other punk-ska acts took their watered-down versions to the top of the charts. It seemed that Fishbone’s opportunity might finally be at hand.
However, the record that the band delivered, “Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge,” saw the group drop to new lows. The album’s overwhelmingly angry tone (albeit justified) sapped any ingenuity or versatility that Fishbone had left. The songs, which fall under the category of blistering punk, were basically lifeless (however, the fact was that the group was still a stellar live band).
With little promotion and a naive attempt to market the group to R&B radio, the record tanked, Austin’s label disappeared and the group was again left to hit the road to pay the bills.
When I caught up with them in November 1996, the group looked exhausted, yet positive. Though possibly still shaken by the abrupt changes, the group insisted that they were now more united than ever and more determined.
They had missed the bus too many times and seemed content that history would eventually recognize their achievements, especially among African-Americans, as Parliament-Funkadelic had been.
More changes were in store: Bigham tired of the road and dropped out. The group hired a new guitarist and keyboard player and continued to tour.
Then, the group’s backbone — its drummer, Fish — decamped with the replacement keyboard player in search of a steadier income.
Though only one of many band splits, Fish’s leaving seemed to break the band’s heart. It split the Fisher brothers and broke up Fishbone’s thunderous rhythm section.
About two years later, the group looked like it was on its last legs. With only three original members — Moore, Norwood Fisher and Kibby — and a trio of new guys, the group was reduced to submitting demos to record companies.
Finally, the group inked a deal with Hollywood Records.
Taking a page from the Carlos Santana/Clive Davis desperation play book, Fishbone’s new album features a slew of guest spots: George Clinton, Rick James, Ivan Neville, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell and Donny Osmond (yes, THE Donny Osmond).
But rather than helping write some of the songs, the guests seem to have just shown up, did their parts and disappeared, leaving behind this bevy of bad material.
“Shakey Ground” is the first song and probably the best. Though it’s essentially a reworked P-Funk jam, the cut is pleasant enough. Things don’t get much better.
“The Suffering” has some great wordplay, but is a relatively tame ska tune. It has all the trademark elements: percussive guitar, a strolling bass line. But it never really goes anywhere.
A version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star” is pathetic, and the crew of guest vocalists don’t help. George Clinton sounds mopey, Rick James is busting a gut and Gwen Stefani squeaks her way through it. Near the tail end, the band abandons the song for a hyperspace romp, but that doesn’t help.
“One Planet People” is another mid-tempo ska tune that really makes me feel like I have a short attention span. I just want to get it over with.
“Just Allow” is almost catchy … almost. The tune is a bland but soulful demand for people to loosen up and let people be. Just when it sounds like a great hook is coming, the music detours into elevator music territory.
Where did it all go so wrong? From the looks of this album, this band is a mess. The music has been pushed very far back and the singing is way too prominent. (Perhaps this is done to hide how bad it is).
Another problem is Moore’s voice. He used to have such range and bite; He would howl and shout, but he could also croon in the spirit of Motown. Now, his voice is a raspy shadow of its former self.
Unfortunately, the band now seems poised to ruin its reputation. (Granted, the group might still be a great live band.)
When I interviewed some of the band in late 1996, we talked about the group’s lack of mainstream success, Whitney Houston (think back to the song from “The Bodyguard”) and about writing pop songs.
A couple of band members remarked that their music was their music: They simply didn’t know how to write sugary pop tunes. They said that their impulses were to create something different from that.
Though those tendencies would yield some great music in their prime, the band was consistently relegated to cult band status.
And now, when the group’s aim is to boil down their sound and reach out to the mainstream, the songs they create are an abomination.
Where once the group sounded like they were jumping out of their skin (and they were), they now sound like they’re walking in their sleep. This album doesn’t sound “hyperkinetic.”
You can almost hear the band members’ frustration beneath the album’s sunny ska exterior.
Check Out Some Audio/Video Samples:
For More Info:
- UnuttedNations.com — The Ofishal Fishbone Web site
- Hollywood Records’ Fishbone page
- Sony Music’s Fishbone site
- ‘Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge’– an Unofficial Home Page to Fishbone
- Zarbaka’s Fishbone page
- Fishbone.net – Unofficial site
- Atomic Underground
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.