By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Add Charlie Chaplin, Iggy Pop and James Brown to the mix. Friends who knew Angelo back then tend to describe him as a prodigy and a goofball in the same breath. Talented, sexy, whip-smart yet completely aloof, charismatic, lackadaisical -- the ultimate artist. As a young boy, he must have been a handful for any schoolteacher. ”We wanted to do Bootsy covers in Mr. Lewis’ typing class,“ Angelo says. ”That‘s where the idea for the band came about.“
”Angelo used to write these crazy-ass Bootsy-style lyrics,“ says Norwood. ”He would come around and bring us all these lyrics, and at first we must have said, ’We gotta kick this guy‘s ass! What kind of freak is he?’ But we was all at the same kind of freaky level. We was all ages 12 to 13 when we met. We talked about getting together and playing -- and then, about a year later, we did it.“
By 1979, Norwood and Philip had teamed up with Angelo, Kendall, Walt and keyboardist-trumpeter-vocalist Dowd, and begun to jam in the Fisher boys‘ basement, working out covers of Rick James, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rush, Bad Manners and the Selecter. As a garage band, they experimented with all sorts of sounds and styles, from slamming funk, to breakneck punk, to reggae-ska covers. And where most bands quickly settle on a style and play to the denizens of one local niche, Fishbone ignored such constraints, veering from one extreme to the next. Slowly but surely, they began to find their own sound, to compose a sizable repertoire of original songs. ”We just kept messin’ with the funk,“ Walt says, ”and we took it to some new places.“
After Hale, the boys headed off to different high schools (Walt and Angelo to El Camino in the Valley, Kendall to Dorsey, the rest to Hamilton), but they kept the band together, continued to develop and refine their sound. By the time they took it to the stage in 1983, they were way ahead of the game, despite being a decade or more younger than most of their punk-rock peers. ”There was one club, Club Lingerie, where we had to stay outside until we went on,“ Angelo recalls. ”[As minors,] we couldn‘t do shit in the clubs.“
Fishbone quickly began to catch a buzz in Hollywood. They also developed a penchant for Mohawks and outrageous clothes (or, in Norwood’s case, no clothes at all). Along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone helped to define the punk-funk style, but also began crossing over to the Madness-Specials crowd with upbeat ska tunes. And they became notorious for their over-the-top live shows.
”At first, we didn‘t give a fuck,“ says Norwood. ”Where it all came from, man, was from seeing Parliament-Funkadelic live. For us, that was the greatest show on Earth.“ Every member of the band developed into a front man. Angelo and Walt sang lead and played horns, while Kendall and Norwood bounced around and Chris rocked on the keyboards, often yanking his DX7 right off the stand and playing it like a guitar. Meanwhile, Fish anchored the explosion with his brick-house backbeats and relentless precision.
For Fishbone, the future was now.
Columbia Records caught on quick. ”When we opened for the Neville Brothers at the Palace,“ says Norwood, ”well, shit kinda changed after that. We got to meet a lot of different people.“
Among them was A&R whiz kidup-and-coming producer David Kahne. He got Fishbone signed to CBSColumbia and began to mentor the band, helping them arrange songs and harness their energy into something a bit more digestible. The result was Fishbone’s first, eponymous EP, released in 1985, featuring the minihit ”Party at Ground Zero“ and fan favorites such as ”Ugly“ and ”Lyin‘ Ass Bitch.“ The album wasn’t exactly a runaway smash, but it did garner Fishbone a ton of press and media attention. ”Party“ got airplay and scored the band some major gigs, including the legendary Public Enemy--Stetsasonic--Living Colour show at the Santa Monica Civic.
The band and Kahne went back into the studio and recorded their killer first LP, 1986‘s In Your Face. A tight, well-crafted party album, it featured an array of terrific pop songs set to upbeat, ska-flavored rhythms. Word began to spread nationally about this young band of black panthers. Hungry, street-smart and young enough to truly not give a fuck, Fishbone were a force to be reckoned with.
The band returned to the studio and kicked out the jams on a 1987 holiday EP, It’s a Wonderful Life, to tide fans over till the next full-length. But signs of the decline that was just around the corner had begun to appear. First off, Columbia seemed to have no idea how to market Fishbone, or who their audience was. They were too punk for the pop audience, too funk for the punk audience, too heavy for the ska crowd, too ska for the metal crowd, too white for the black crowd and way too black for the white kids. They were growing into fantastic musicians and solid songwriters, but their record sales were low and their label was clueless. They knew they had something special on their hands, they just didn‘t know how to sell it to people -- a problem that would plague Fishbone for the rest of their career.
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