Cult heroes Fishbone: ska-punk-funksters of the LA underground scene

Their idiosyncratic mixture of personal, protest and party music earned Fishbone some famous fans, but bad timing, bad luck and a religious cult set them back

The righteous skank of the Californian ska-funk-punk fusioneers Fishbone was blindsided by outrageous misfortune in 1993. Following his mothers death, founding guitarist Kendall Jones abruptly quit the group to join a religious cult, declaring Fishbones music demonic. Believing the grieving Jones had been brainwashed by his domineering father, bassist Norwood Fisher attempted to rescue his bandmate, and wound up almost choking an uncooperative Wood unconscious, and being charged with attempted kidnapping.

Fishbone had formed in 1979, when five childhood friends from South Central LA Jones, Fisher, Norwoods drummer brother Philip (AKA Fish), keyboard player Chris Dowd and trumpeter Walter A Kibby became beneficiaries of a bussing program that sent inner-city kids to school in the more affluent Woodland Hills. There they found a kindred spirit in the flamboyant singer Angelo Moore, and, aged only 14, began making music together, drawing on a shared love of Hendrix, P-Funk and reggae.

By the time they exploded on stage in 1983, the groups killer elements were already in place singer/saxophonist Moore seeming like he just bounced out of his own comic strip, his lunatic energy more than matched by his anarchic bandmates and their vivid splatter of blaring brass, chicken-scratch guitar and punk rhythms, a hybrid they happened upon by trying to play reggae songs at punk tempos. We thought wed invented something, remembered Norwood, but then Kibby brought in [records by] the English Beat. He knew better.

Fishbone might not have been the first to fuse ska and punk, but the infectious attack of early anthems such as Party at Ground Zero, U.G.L.Y. and Lyin Ass Bitch kickstarted a US ska-punk movement (No Doubt were lifelong fans), and made an impression on their friends in the mid-80s LA underground rock scene, Janes Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hollywood also fell for the group, casting them to perform Annette Funicellos The Jamaica Ska alongside the Beach Movie icon in 1987s campy Back to the Beach, and uniting them with hero Curtis Mayfield for Keenan Ivory Wayans 1988 Blaxploitation satire Im Gonna Git You Sucka. But it was on stage that Fishbone really burned: their stage shows were extraordinary parties, with the band seeming to spend as much time stagediving as playing. In theatre venues, Moore would get himself hauled from the stalls crowd up to the balcony and then dive straight back down, 20ft or more.

Their second album, 1988s Truth & Soul, was Fishbones first true stab at greatness. The vibrancy of their early material remained intact: single Bonin in the Boneyard welded its cemetery jollies to Ritalin-spiked horns, sampled dog-barks and a bassline that seemed to invent the Seinfeld theme a year early. But a newfound political bent saw Fishbone deliver fusillades burning with anger, compassion and wild humour: Slow Bus Movins impressionistic history of white supremacy and black resistance; the satirical thrash of Subliminal Fascism; Ghetto Soundwave, a frenetic Fela-goes-ska bustle haunted by poverty and police brutality. The rubber-legged ska of Ma and Pa, meanwhile, an autobiographical tale of a kid caught in the tailspin of her parents divorce, encompassed unsuspected depth and nuance, its jerky pelt a poignant riot of love and hate, joy and pain.

Fishbone didnt deal in polemic or sentimentality. Their songs drew on the pungent sting of their own experiences, reflected by the title of their 1991 double album The Reality of My Surroundings. That albums breadth of theme and mood still impresses, chronicling the crack epidemic to sunsplash gonzo-reggae on Pray to the Junkiemaker, recounting further tales from a broken home on the gleefully nutty ska of Housework, and delivering a melancholic state of the ghetto address on So Many Millions, which couldve fit on Curtis Mayfields Aint No Place Like America Today. The Reality of My Surroundings played like a funky prog/metal/ska/soul reimagining of Princes Sign o the Times, crossed with a little of Songs in the Key of Lifes bittersweet jubilation. The addition of John Bigham, a multi-instrumentalist whod worked with Miles Davis, only encouraged their growing ambition.

Their 1993 follow-up Give a Monkey a Brain and Hell Swear Hes the Center of the Universe threatened to finally take Fishbone into the mainstream. The band became regulars at Lollapalooza and their albums move into heavier realms was in sync with the grunge zeitgeist, but they never sacrificed their most idiosyncratic charms. Indeed, Give a Monkey contained some of their finest songs: the deliriously aching Lemon Meringue; the P-Funk throwdown of Properties of Propaganda; the bleak, powerful and profound Black Flowers.

But Kendalls breakdown, the botched rescue and Norwoods arrest scuppered everything. In the years that followed, they left Columbia Records, the classic line-up unravelled, and they have recorded only three albums of new material in the last 20 years. Moore, Fisher and Kibby remain, but in the 2011 documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, that friendship seemed fractious. They continue to tour, although in 2010, a stage-diving Angelo broke a concertgoers skull and collarbone and the group were successfully sued for $1.4m.

Fishbones luck has scarcely improved in over two decades, then. But their cult following remains, possessing high-calibre members like John Cusack (who has sported Fishbone T-shirts in numerous movies, and was actually blasting Fishbone from his boombox when filming that scene in Say Anything); the Roots, who famously welcomed rightwing Republican Michelle Bachman on to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with Lyin Ass Bitch; and DAngelo, who covered Black Flowers at Afropunk festival 2014, accompanied by Angelo Moore.

For all the famous fans, Fishbone have never become more than a cult. But time hasnt mellowed them. The bands Facebook page is headed by a photo of Moore performing. Even now, 30 years later, hes still doing it from a position being held aloft above the crowd.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2016/aug/23/cult-heroes-fishbone-ska-punk-funksters-of-the-la-underground-scene