To say that this record is one of the best and most underrated releases of 1985 and the entire decade of the 1980’s is an understatement. It’s my way of saying that the debut release from Fishbone was something that I could not keep myself from. If the first half of the 80’s featured a number of brand new musical discoveries for me, then this was easily the crossroads that put me over into a new territory, for a number of reasons.
The first time I heard of Fishbone was through the video for “? (Modern Industry)”, which at the time I felt was one of the oddest songs due to its lyrical content:
WBRU, KABE, WFLY, Cool 92
KAX, KOKE, KRO
WAMX, YES, WOW!
The majority of the song was nothing but radio station call letters and as Angelo Moore says during the chorus:
This is the music behind the machine
These are the voices of modern industry
As someone who loved the power of radio, enough to where my childhood dream of being a radio disc jockey became true when I joined the Radio/Television Production class at the local vocational skills center during high school, hearing this was a dream. It was a song about the radio that I would never hear on any local radio stations, which made it even better. Yet it wasn’t just the call letters that moved me, it was the attitude of the band and especially the musicianship, these guys rocked. One would never expect a band who looked like them to play music like that, but outside of Los Angeles, who would expect anyone to look like that? These guys were punk rock and new wave in their own world and I had to have more.
The next time I heard them was with their follow-up video, or at least that’s how I had seen it before. One video may have been made before or after the other and “Party At Ground Zero” looked independent compared to the major label clout of “? (Modern Industry)”. Then again, unless you were Michael Jackson, black artists in the 80’s were lucky to have any level of a music video budget, look at how homemade Atlantic Starr’s video for “Secret Lover” looked, followed with “If Your Heart Isn’t In It”. One wasn’t expected to be a pop hit, one showed the after effect. Nonetheless, “Party At Ground Zero” was incredible for it started off somewhat low-key and mellow and about a minute into the song, it interrupts itself by going to a major shift in vibe and attitude:
Party at ground zero
every movie starring you
and the world will turn to flowing pink vapor stew
All of a sudden, it was a ska basement party we all wanted to find ourselves in, a tasteful song about being in some kind of apocalyptic realm where during a time of utter chaos, all you can do is party. Or as Frankie Goes To Hollywood once said in the liner notes for one of their albums, “get off your dance, we’re all going to the same grave” so if the end is truly coming, end it by gyrating our bottoms.
I just loved what these guys were going, how they were coming off so I went to the local record stores to find this self-titled EP on Columbia Records. I could not find it and I found myself frustrated. I was in my mid-teens, going out of town to Seattle for school clothes or just a visit out of town was common. I always made sure that we would go to Tower Records since I had made that place “a home away from home” when I visited Tower regularly when I lived in Honolulu. All of a sudden, there it was: the tape. In time, I would eventually discover for the next six years that my Fishbone purchasing tasks were always out of town. Despite me assuming their music was getting more popular due to seeing their videos on BET and MTV, I guess since I live in a “small market” town, their music was never sold here, or at least I never noticed them. If it wasn’t in Seattle at Tower on 5th & Mercer or in the U-District, it was in Portland at the Tower on 82nd. If not there, maybe I’d lever buy their Christmas EP It’s A Wonderful Life in Spokane at Eli’s. Before the easy access of MP3 files and now streams, if you really wanted the music of a band one liked, you had to make the effort, or at least “the effort” was a bit more difficult than it is these days. I found myself loving Fishbone and I enjoyed buying their music by going long distance, at least before 1991 when I finally became a part of Columbia Records’ promotional mailing list and was able to get Fishbone advance tapes and CD’s for free. I’m jumping ahead of myself in this story.
The union between Angelo Moore, Philip “Fish” Fisher and brother Norwood Fisher, Kendall Jones, Christopher Dowd, and Walter A. Kibby II was something that could not quite be understood despite reading about it. They were all young kids from South Central Los Angeles enjoying the kind of music most kids from South Central weren’t exactly listening to. They loved soul, funk, and jazz, with Moore with his love of the saxophone and Norwood getting down with the funky bass but learning how to play those instruments was a process in itself. They gathered together just to jam and party, the idea of doing it for a living really didn’t happen until later. However, as other kids saw this “disparate, all-black oddball crew” having fun and at times taking themselves seriously, that’s when they started to do more shows throughout L.A. and eventually California. They seemed to fit in with what the Suicidal Tendencies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faith No More were going, mixing up soul and funk in odd ways, but also bringing in ska, reggae, punk, and metal. At that time, ska music was considered “white man’s reggae” partly because no one bothered to discover ska was a pre-cursor to reggae. Thus, for a short time, Fishbone were considered a band playing “white man’s reggae”. In truth, the band who were one of the most successful groups who played white man’s reggae was not The Specials or Madness, but The Police. Their album Reggatta de Blanc was called that for a reason. It was a different time but for the weirdness people saw and heard in Fishbone, it lead to them being signed by Columbia Records, where they ended up working with producer David Kahne, a relationship that would last for years.
The EP begins with “Ugly” and it became the best way one could start off their debut release.
Boy. you’ve got no method to control us all
for the mentalities are not that small
and now you’re thinking’ that you have won
but the revolution has just begun
It was their way of saying their music revolution is here and they are ready to attack whenever necessary, while also touching on social conditions while briefly making a pop culture reference to Dennis The Menace.
If the music of Fishbone may have seemed out of wack to some, their lyrics showed a very strong sense of maturity that perhaps showed subtle hits of what Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, and Bob Marley were doing: making statements that touch on how someones regular sense of living is interrupted just because they are not within the community of someone else.
Another trend to follow, another word to linger on
they may not even know the reasons why
you think without a vision, and then they try to call it ours
and it’s causin’ me to culture shock
It’s not saying they have created their own world, but due to personal interpreations and misconceptions, they were outsiders. In truth, it may have been a need to just fit in but they were more than happy to fit with whomever was willing to take them in, or to simple state “this is us, this is who we are and always will be and if you don’t like it, fuck off, we’ll find a place to call home because someone will welcome us.”
If there’s a song that was just outright foolishness, then that would have to be “V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F.”, featuring a lead vocal from Walter Kibby Jr. The initials stand for “Voyage To The Land Of The Freeze Fried Godzilla Farts” and if anything in the song makes some level of sense, it’s the chorus:
It take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
it take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
it take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
King Kong will fall as will the great wall
and the whole damn town will crumble
However, Norwood states the song is actually about nuclear war, even though the lyrics state Godzilla is going to come in and do his damage, whether it be with his feet or his flatulence, we are uncertain but one thing is certain: everyone will be scared.
The EP closes with “Lyin’ Ass BitcH”, which features Lisa Grant helping out on vocals and while the title suggests the guys in Fishbone were on the misogynistic, the song was actually condemning the treatment some men give to women. As Norwood Fisher said in a 1985 magazine interview: “(the song) isn’t ragging on women, it’s making fun of all that macho balderdash.”
She swears that her heart’s for you
and she swears that her love never ends
she swears that she’s all for you
as she messes around with your friends
I really thought our love was much too strong
but that little slut just proved us Wrong
I still care and that’s my fatal flaw
cause sharing you will surely kill us all
When the song was performed as Michelle Bachmann’s walk-out music during her appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, some people in the viewing audience who watched knew the song laughed, even though no one in the group sung the lyric “you’re nothing but a little lying ass bitch”, it was just the “la, la la la, la la la la la la” part. Nonetheless, the damage was done, The Roots’ drummer and band leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson was put in temporary “detention” and had things went a different way, The Roots may have been pulled off as the show’s band. They are now the official band for The Tonight Show and the song’s suggested for walk-out music for guests are “carefully monitored.”
Fishbone’s self-titled debut EP was a few seconds short of what was considered “album length” at the time (27 minutes) for if it was a second over 26:59, it would have been an album (a short album at that). Nonetheless, what Fishbone created in that frame of time was a revolution of sorts that had begun, even if they weren’t one of its leaders. For the next ten eyars, the band recorded some of the best music in their lives and best music ever made, whether it be the advanced fun they displayed on their debut album In Your Face, the next wave of intensity with Truth And Soul or the incredible genius that was their best album, The Reality Of My Surroundings or the last album to feature Kendall Jones and Christopher Dowd, the powerful yet emotional Give A Monkey A Brain And He’ll Swear He’s The Center Of The Universe, which also became their last album with Columbia. The group had hits but not solid pop hits like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Jane’s Addiction. They were always the band that could’ve or should’ve and it had seemed they were always on the verge of being ready. While that major success never happened, they didn’t bother waiting for anyone to say they are relevant, revolutionaries didn’t have time. In truth, they remain a band who are willing to execute any level of boredom within a room or even themselves, and it “began” in that small room on the cover of that EP, incredibly cramped, just like their music.