There is no band on earth quite like Fishbone. Sure, one might argue that anybody could make the same claim about one’s favorite band. But in this case, it might be the objective truth. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the producers of AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, “a documentary series dedicated to bringing contemporary stories of Black people around the globe to American television audiences”, made the brilliant decision to open its fourth season with Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.
Narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, the documentary – which airs on The World Channels on Sunday, January 22 at 9 p.m. – tells the story of Angelo Moore, Norwood Fisher, Kendall Jones, Phillip Fisher, Chris Dowd and Walter Kibby II…six Black teens from Los Angeles who formed a band featuring THEE BEST blend of ska, funk and punk rock since God only knows when.
Infused with their own rollicking brand of humor, political satire, and soul, Fishbone is an amalgam of talented musicians. The band is fronted by an energetic lead singer who sports a blond Mohawk, has a knack for diving into crowds, and plays the saxophone bare-chested and dressed in loose-fitting pants held up only by suspenders. The whole scene is a hilarious visual rooted in true Fishbone style. Their shows are on high-octane from start to finish; an unforgettable experience that has earned them a distinct cult following that spans from coast to coast. Fishbone is a band worth discovering if you know not from whence they come. If the music doesn’t make you a believer, the hyperactive live shows will.
Though the mix of musical genres was thrilling for those of us fortunate enough to have had an inbred taste for the eclectic, for other listeners, and certainly for radio station managers in the 80’s and 90’s, Fishbone was hard to classify. Their music was too rock-inspired for R&B stations. And because the band members are Black and tend to combine rock with funk and ska, they were not fully embraced by rock stations and the likes of MTV. In a scene from the documentary, frontman Angelo Moore expresses his dismay for Black audiences’ reluctance to give the band a chance: “I tell all the Black people to come check out Fishbone. I say ‘It’s good music, it’s funky, it’s Black music, too, and they say they’re not trying to hear none of that stringy-haired, white-boy music’. Those are the responses I would get in return from a lot of Black people. And so, we would get the majority of white people, which was fine, but it’s frustrating when your own people don’t want to come out and represent and give props for what you do,” he says.
Despite this, and other issues, Fishbone never sold out.
From classic albums such as the self-titled Fishbone EP debut (1985) and In Your Face (1986) to noted successes such as Truth and Soul (1988) and The Reality of My Surroundings (1991), the band stayed true to their sound. They continued to write infectious, thought-provoking songs about post-war politics, racism, and social unrest…all set to dope, driving bass lines and perfect-pitch, soulful vocals (Movement in the Light), reggae-tinged ballads (Turn the Other Way), and stand-out guitar work (Servitude; and pretty much everything else) that gets better and better with each album.
“We knew we wanted to be original,” says Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals) in a scene from the documentary, “We thought that was what success means.”
Here, Norwood and I talk about the band, their new documentary, and the complexities of the music industry.
SW: How long did it take to make the film and what was the experience like revisiting those early days of Fishbone?
NF: Three years of actual shooting. It was really cool going back to the high school where we all met. I don’t take walks down memory lane that often so that was kind of refreshing.
SW: The problem Fishbone has faced with radio station air play…would you say that’s a United States issue or do you think the same would be true if the band originated elsewhere, let’s say, London, England?
NF: It’s less of a problem in the rest of the world. It’s not as big of an issue as here in the states. With music, people abroad don’t have those problems in a big way. They have cultural problems. And they don’t necessarily have problems with people of African descent. The issues don’t follow the same route.
SW: I’ve been to many sold-out, jam-packed Fishbone concerts and I’ve always wondered why that level of popularity and love didn’t translate to the kind of financial, chart-topping, success that lesser groups, quite frankly, were enjoying. If you could blame one thing, what would it be?
NF: I would blame the band and its insistence on being as eclectic as we were. There are elements and issues that involved race, but ultimately, if we were a band that did one or two things and grew to doing seven things, at least, as our fan base grew it would have been easier for a radio programmer to say, “This is a punk rock band” or “This is a ska band” and throw us down that shoot. We had an artistic stance that I think needed to be taken because we were the prototype “mash-up” idea.
SW: When I met Angelo [lead singer Angelo Moore] at a Fishbone concert in 1988, we engaged in a great discussion about music, and he played me a sampling of what he was into at the time…Black Flag, Bad Brains, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and some other stuff. What do you say to people who can’t get with the notion that, in addition to R&B, Black people make rock music too?
NF: I think with most of the so-called minority cultures in America, there’s a very conservative mindset. It’s automatic, I think. And that might be a survival mechanism. You can see it in the Asian cultures, in Latino cultures…it’s not specific to Blacks. Some of those people may have an easier time opening up and embracing other things than us. But what makes it different about Black culture is that Black culture created rock and roll. My observation is this: Black youth invents something. We hold on to it, we love it and then white culture adopts it. They figure it out…they figure out how to express in that manner and then it becomes everybody’s thing. And then Black youth are set to the task of creating something that’s just ours because when white culture takes it on, it actually shuts out the Black artists. It happened with rock and roll. We saw Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Little Richard, and Ike Turner actually create something. And then after that era, Blacks were largely shut out. We only had a few [Black rock artists]…Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone…and they were awesome. But they were integrated bands. By the 1960’s, an all-Black rock band was not seen doing rock and roll. And thank goodness for the Black front men who made it through.
It happened with jazz, too, but because jazz is a musicianship-based thing, Black musicians were able to still poke through and dominate. But when it comes to what pops in jazz, it’s usually white artists. Miles Davis kept flipping it, though, and making different sounds.
And we see now it’s happening with reggae. You’d be hard-pressed to find a 19-year old, Black reggae artist. You can find it in dancehall…the guys who did it electronically. But name a 22-year old reggae bass player, Black, and from Jamaica…you can’t. There might be some white guys in California doing it, and God bless ‘em. I love ‘em, but there’s an imbalance.
This seems to be the pattern. We will continue to get pushed out of musical forms, possibly even hip-hop one day, unless we reach the point to where there is a traditional African-American sound that is based in the funk. And hip-hop is an expression of that. I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. I think there will be another evolution of sounds and rhythms. That’s the fun part of looking back. When you look back at ragtime, blues, and all forms of jazz and eventually rock and roll and soul and funk and reggae and ska…it’s all linked. All of these forms were born out of some kind of jazz. It all goes back to Scott Joplin. Period. That’s where you can draw the line. Ska preceded reggae, with Blue Beat and RockSteady in the middle. Ska was famous among people listening to New Orleans radio and doing their own interpretation. And you know what? Hip-hop is based on dancehall’s idea from reggae. The sound system…it’s all related.
And hip-hop has fought hard to be like ‘Yo, anybody can’t just do this’. And I think it’s because they kept it on an artistic level. So a guy like Eminem who is brilliant and has super-talent can break through. But you can’t be mediocre in hip-hop. There won’t be a whole lot of white kids who will grow up and be able to stand next to a Jay-Z. So, hip-hop has figured something out.
SW: What are some of Fishbone’s musical influences? What would you play if you threw a party tomorrow?
NF: Including the groups that Angelo played for you that day, there’s Parliament, Bootsy Collins, Funkadelic, Rush, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Sun-Ra, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Al Green, Kate Bush, Bob Marley, The Specials, The English Beat, The Selectors, The Sex Pistols…the list just goes on and on and on!
SW: Recently, I was listening to Fishbone’s It’s a Wonderful Life and I was laughing hysterically at the way the song ends! What is the source of the humor in Fishbone’s music?
NF: In the best of times, we’re sitting around laughing a lot. Fishbone took on serious subjects and found ways to present them with humor. Richard Pryor is a personal influence on me. He took deep, dark subject matter and made you look at the underbelly of America and he made you laugh at it. It was not because he was mean-spirited. He had so much compassion for his subjects. It was incredible! And he could make you laugh. And many times, that’s where we’re coming from. We grew up on Mad magazine and National Lampoon’s magazine. And the first cast of Saturday Night Live was really influential on us…political humor, political satire, which is really important to the political discourse in America. Those are the things that influenced us and it’s why we could take serious subjects and clown. If people look at what we’ve been doing this entire time, it was more along the lines of social commentary.
And since I’m on that subject, I’m gonna say…my man Questlove (member of The Roots) using Lyin’ A** B*t** on the Jimmy Fallon Show to bring out Michele Bachman…that was an honor for us that he chose the song…and actually the only reason it hurt so bad was that it resonated truth. So, in this case, the song wasn’t about her being a b*t**, for the people who want to call it misogyny. He was addressing the lying part. I think I read somewhere recently that someone clocked her as having the most fabrications of any presidential candidate ever. So Questlove was spot on. And that [the lying], being a pathological liar, in and of itself, in the streets, can make you a b*t**, whether you’re a man or a woman.
SW: Norwood, is there any chance that the original members will perform a reunion concert together at some point soon?
NF: At some point soon? I doubt it. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen at some point in the future. And just because I can’t see right now, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
SW: What do you hope will come of the documentary?
NF: I believe there will be a ton of new fans. We did the film festival circuit for a year and a half and we did Q & A specials with the audiences. I asked how many people had never heard of Fishbone before now. It was a mix of responses. There were definitely some newcomers.
SW: Last question. In the film, how great was it to have Kendall [original guitarist Kendall Jones] show up and perform the beloved “Party At Ground Zero” with the band?!
NF: It was a complete surprise! It was the apex.
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone airs this Sunday, January 22, at 9 p.m. on The World Channels. In New York City, it’s Channel 164 via Time Warner Cable and Channel 132 via Cablevision.