Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fishbone - Fishbone EP


I've been pissed off at the band Fishbone for almost 25 years now. Why? I feel like they lied to me. They told me one thing, and told it so convincingly that I believed them. Then suddenly, they changed on me, and turned into something I didn't recognize, the opposite of what they assured me they were. For me, that's unforgivable.

During my sophomore and junior years at the Naval Academy, I worked off and on in the Academy's low-powered student-run radio station, WRNV, as one of my extracurricular activities. The station offices were located in the basement of the Eighth Wing of Bancroft Hall, and consisted of a couple of cramped rooms filled with broadcast equipment, microphones, turntables and tape machines (this WAS the mid-80s, mind you - CDs were practically non-existent), and a larger room with shelves on the walls holding thousands of vinyl records and boxes of cassette and 8-track tapes (relics of the 60's and 70's WRNV, I assume).

The student DJs at WNRV presented basically two sorts of programs: either a straight-ahead presentation of music, with little or no chatter in between (other than record identification); and the "wild-'n'-crazy guy"-type shows, where guys would cut up on air and try to be funny in the long breaks between the tunes. All of these latter DJs wanted in some way to be the local "Grease" - Doug Tracht, a.k.a. The Greaseman, the host of the morning drive-time show on Washington's WWDC (DC-101).
[Side note: The Greaseman was the guy who took over Howard Stern's slot in 1982 when Stern bolted DC-101 for a better deal (and bigger audience) in New York City. Over the years, Stern has made a point of publicly flogging the Greaseman on several opportunities, verbally and in print, for his inane, talentless schtick - and for once, Stern's comments are spot-on. Compared to Tracht, Howard Stern is a combination of Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and Socrates. But that's neither here nor there in terms of this narrative. Besides, the Greaseman got what was coming to him later on - if you don't know what happened, look him up in Wikipedia for the details.]
Anyway, leave it be said that the Greaseman show, replete with tasteless, risqué humor, nasty sound effects, and coded catch phrases like "hobble-de-gee", was hugely popular with many midshipmen, and many wanted to emulate him. I too wanted to have a "funny" show, but with a style of humor somewhat different from that of the tiresome Greaseman or his ilk. I had big dreams of airing the coolest show possible, playing the most cutting edge music (which back then would have been stuff like Big Audio Dynamite and General Public) and having everyone love my program . . .

Unfortunately, I never really learned how to work the equipment properly. There wasn't a full-time radio engineer available at WRNV; you were sort of on your own to learn the ropes. And I never could get anyone to walk me through the whole process. My one attempt at airing a show was a disaster, resulting in almost ten minutes of dead air until another station member came down from his room to rescue me. From then on, I guested from time to time on other DJ's shows, as an Ed McMahon-type sidekick or as a remote microphone, doing brief but silly "man in the street" interviews. I still retained my station privileges, which included the combinations to the locked office doors, and use of all the tape/dubbing equipment, which I made frequent use of.

The best thing about being part of that station was the access to TONS of music. WRNV's signal was so weak that it was hard to hear it more than a mile or two outside of the Academy gates. But that didn't stop record distributors from treating WRNV like it was an influential station. The station received seemingly dozens of free records every month, most of which were just duly catalogued and stacked on the rickety shelves in the library. I used to pore through those new shipments every week, looking for the latest cool record to copy onto C-90 cassette tape and add to my personal collection.

I didn't find the first Fishbone release, the Fishbone EP, in those mailings; a friend of mine at the station did, and played a cut off of it, "Party At Ground Zero", on his show one night. I heard that song while studying with the radio on, and the moment it ended, I dropped what I was doing and ran like a bastard for the station. Wow!


 I believe I mentioned in an earlier posting what a big ska fan I was, but 1985 was a rather fallow period for the genre. Britain's 2-Tone had sputtered out the year before, The Special AKA's In The Studio album serving as the last gasp and coda for that movement. And the Third Wave, driven by American ska bands like the Toasters and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, really hadn't gained any traction yet. It looked like ska was dead again.

So you can imagine how I felt when I heard that Fishbone song - ska was BACK! I got to WRNV in record time, burst through the doors, and practically snatched the record out of my friend's hands. I wasted no time in taping a copy, and found that the entire EP was full of classic ska bits - the aforementioned song, "Ugly", "Lyin' Ass Bitch" - mixed in with punky, off-the-wall experimental stuff like "? (Modern Industry)". I honestly thought Fishbone was the Second (well, at that point, the Third) Coming of Ska, and I set out to learn more about them.

Fishbone was formed in South Central Los Angeles in 1979 by six black junior high school students, including the brothers John and Philip "Fish" Fisher, Angelo Moore and Christopher Dowd. They got a lot of early attention for their shows in the L.A. area - yeah, black dudes playing scorching punk and ska sets are DEFINITELY going to get noticed in that town! With The Untouchables, who were also playing around L.A. at that time, Fishbone became one of the leaders of a slow-building but growing West Coast ska/punk movement. They signed with Columbia in the early 1980s, and the Fishbone EP was their first release with the label. Columbia marketed the band as a wild punk/ska fusion band - just look at their outfits on the cover of the EP: the porkpie hats, suspenders and pub creepers scream "SKA".

Like I said, I thought they were the real thing, and eagerly awaited their first full album release, which would no doubt have more of that wild ska sound. Months went by before that debut album, In Your Face, was released by Columbia in November 1986. I stood outside Oceans II Records in downtown Annapolis in the cold on the day that album came out; when they opened the doors, I ran inside, snatched up a cassette copy, practically threw my money at them and raced back to my room to hear it . . .

Oh my God, what a disappointment! In place of the great ska and punk workouts of their EP, on In Your Face Fishbone became a boring, run-of-the-mill funk band. The opening cut, "When Problems Arise", set the stage - a "message" song, very slickly produced, lacking in any sort of energy or verve. I kept hoping that the next song would be better, or have more energy, but no such luck - every song was overproduced to a bland, mushy pulp, with barely a lick of ska contained anywhere.

It was then and there that I completely wrote Fishbone off. I never paid attention to or purchased any of their subsequent releases. The few songs of theirs I heard on the radio in the following years, all funk and hard rock tunes, did nothing to salvage their reputation for me. Like I said, they lied to me - they swore up and down that they were a ska band, when they apparently weren't. Hell hath no fury like a music fan scorned.

And so much for that. Here's that first EP, and Fishbone in all their (fleeting) glory - enjoy:

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link. I just bought the vinyl. Their early stuff is awsome!

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