When they were just high-school students riding the desegregation bus from South Central Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, the members of Fishbone were collectively hooked by the Funkadelic song “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock” and the bold endorsement of musical genre- blending the title implies. It became their manifesto; early on, some would label Fishbone a ska group incorporating other styles, but the band’s stew of funk, soul, punk, metal, jazz, reggae and seemingly everything else musical is far more distinctive — and exciting — than simple categorization allows. As Fishbone tried to explain in one of its songs, the group set out to create a “brand new nutmeg.”
On the Fishbone EP, their sense of humor is surpassed only by the six tracks’ non-stop hyperkinetic energy. Whether the lyrics are socially relevant (“Another Generation” and especially “Party at Ground Zero”) or just plain silly (“Ugly”), the vim and vigor level is maintained. If you can sit still throughout this, you’re probably dead.
In Your Face is branded with a then- uncommon “EXPLICIT LYRICS — PARENTAL ADVISORY” warning, but the real warning should be to fans. With David Kahne’s inappropriately slick production, the band mellowed out considerably for their debut longplayer. Nothing wrong with trying a new direction, but several cuts here are just MOR soul-rock, and that’s simply not what this bunch is cut out to play. The lyrics are nowhere, too — the promising title “Post Cold War Politics” is an instrumental. Back to the drawing board.
It’s a Wonderful Life, also produced by Kahne, is a Christmas EP that puts a casual ho-ho-ho twist in your stocking. The title tune is actually the least interesting of the four gratuitous charmers; the soulful disenchantment of “Slick Nick, You Devil You” (“Spilling Jack Daniels all over the drapes/Tattoos on his arms and knees/I never thought Santa Claus would be such a sleaze”) and the funked- out “Just Call Me Scrooge” are the real winners. A welcome gift to cheer up any celebration.
Shot in the foot by poor sequencing and a baffled record company, the brilliant Truth and Soul should have been Fishbone’s breakthrough. While the first side is distinguished only by a scorching metallic cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” the second half is a dazzling grand-slam of the band’s vibrant stylistic array. From the party anthem “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” to the scalding anti- racist “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party),” the near- hardcore of “Subliminal Fascism” to the soulful “Ghetto Soundwave” and the acoustic racial-unity ballad “Change,” it updates and rivals Sly’s finest work.
Abortive sessions produced by the Jungle Brothers figure prominently in the Bonin’ in the Boneyard EP, which couples two radical revisions (one of them completely X- rated) of the two-year-old title track with three insane B- sides. But it was merely the set-up for Fishbone’s masterpiece.
Over a year in the making (eighteen engineers are credited), the sprawling Reality of My Surroundings reprises much of Truth and Soul‘s spirit and sound, but is far more ambitious in scope and philosophy. Utilising the format of a rap album (lots of mini-songs and chatter between the longer ones), Fishbone tackles even more styles than before: while their characteristic punkfunkrockska is prominent, the band also explores Sly Stone-land (“Everyday Sunshine”), Funkadelia (“Behavior Control Technician”) and even psychedelic territory (“Those Days Are Gone”), finishing the album off with the brilliant “Sunless Saturday,” which manages to be the band’s most radio-ready single and one of its most poignant lyrics to date (“I see the shards of shattered dreams in my street/I face the morning with my customary sigh”). And although Kahne carries an associate producer credit, most of the production (and all of the songwriting) was done by the band. Once again, they sequenced the best tracks towards the end but, despite the occasional misfire, Reality is Fishbone’s best.
Give a Monkey a Brain is as eclectic as The Reality of My Surroundings, but Fishbone here mingles styles rather than hopping from one to the other. The result, unfortunately, is not as satisfying; the music is more mannered, never quite catching the furious zeal Fishbone previously tapped. The album’s best moments are still powerful: Pantera would kill for the lumbering hard- rock monster groove of “Swim,” Branford Marsalis blows freestyle sax on “Drunk Skitzo” and Billy Bass of Funkadelic works out with Fishbone on “Lemon Meringue.” The messages are still potent — “Black Flowers” is about the African-American community’s lack of leadership, “Servitude” questions true accountability — but there’s a pervading sense that Fishbone’s eye is on the prized alternative nation, and the band, which played Lollapalooza that summer, is compromising its instincts in that quest.
The Japanese Singles album is hardly a perfect retrospective: “Sunless Saturday” is one of the many essential tracks not included. But it’s not a bad sampler, and the live versions of “Freddie’s Dead,” “Those Days Are Gone” and “Fight the Youth” provide a taste of the group’s wonderful concert performances.
Returning to active duty in 1996 as a quintet, Fishbone made Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge, a genially bitter and somehow positive broadside about the band’s past record company experiences, bluntly characterized here as slavery. The album was produced by Atlanta R&B wunderkind Dallas Austin and includes guest shots by Joi and Busta Rhymes.
While a manic stage act belies the members’ considerable talents as musicians, Fish (Phillip Fisher) is the group’s secret weapon. A soulful blend of Charlie Watts, Keith Moon and assorted great jazz drummers, he’s guested on tracks by Little Richard and Bob Dylan. Various ‘Bones have stomped, yelled or blown on records by Jane’s Addiction, Keith Levene, Thelonious Monster and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.