The band that arguably had the most influence in Los Angeles’ 1980s music scene was neither the Red Hot Chili Peppers nor Jane’s Addiction. It was a band called Fishbone—and that band will be playing at Coachella on Sunday, April 13 and 20.
While many contemporaries in the L.A. music scene went on to have great mainstream success, Fishbone struggled—but despite years of heartbreak and failure, Fishbone keeps on going.
The story of Fishbone goes back to 1979. John Norwood Fisher (bass), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards and trumpet) and “Dirty” Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were placed in a busing program that took them from South Central L.A. to a junior high school in the San Fernando Valley. In school, they met a local by the name of Angelo Moore (vocals), who would bring all of them together to start a band influenced by funk, punk, reggae and ska. In fact, they were the first band to bring the “funk to the punk,” according to the 2010 documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone. The all-African-American band simultaneously enthralled and confused both white and black audiences.
During a recent phone interview, Norwood Fisher said that being bused to the San Fernando Valley definitely changed his perspective when it came to music.
“It absolutely had an impact on a certain level,” Fisher said. “It brought me closer to the conversation of punk rock. In the hood back in ’79 to ’83, no one was playing punk rock. Plus, when we would sit around and talk about who was the best guitarist in the world, we’d be like, ‘JIMI HENDRIX!’ Some white dude would say, ‘JIMMY PAGE!’ And then one time, somebody said, ‘FRANK ZAPPA!’ I didn’t own any of (Zappa’s) records, so I had to find Dr. Demento on the radio, who would play Frank Zappa, and I was like, ‘THAT’S THAT GUY!’ I was really able to dig in to Frank Zappa that way.”
The band began playing shows in the Los Angeles punk scene, and formed close bonds with local musicians including the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Thelonious Monster, both of which started in 1983. They would later befriend the members of Jane’s Addiction, too. It was a time when the Los Angeles music scene having an impact on the world.
“It really looked like a pinnacle point for underground music,” Fisher said. “Looking back, everything in L.A. was on fire. The dance clubs, the live music of all kinds—hip hop, reggae, punk, the East L.A. sound, and East L.A. punk—and Fishbone were mixing it all up; so were the Chili Peppers. There was this rockabilly scene that was vibrant, and there was just a lot going on. It was the time when you could go to any club, and fall in, and hear some really good music.”
Although Fishbone was influencing numerous musicians and playing epic live shows, the record labels didn’t know what to do with the band. Columbia Records was the first of many labels to sign the group, in 1983. The label first released a self-titled EP—which featured the track “Party at Ground Zero”—in 1985.
“Even through the confusion, I can see where Columbia Records was doing its best,” Fisher said. “They were used to a cookie cutter, easy-to-understand world. The fact that we confused them didn’t mean they didn’t work their asses off.”
Much later, representatives of a record label came clean about their feelings regarding Fishbone.
“We were with Hollywood Records and did The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx (in 2000), and they told us, ‘We were always afraid of the Fishbone project.’”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the band members began to add a metal sound to their music; for example, listen to their cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” and tracks such as “Fight the Youth” and “Sunless Saturday.” Fishbone’s 1991 album, The Reality of My Surroundings, was critically acclaimed and earned them their biggest commercial success. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction also invited the band to play on the Lollapalooza tour in 1993.
However, things began to fall apart right before Lollapalooza, when Kendall Jones joined a Christian religious cult led by his estranged father, who was in Northern California. Fisher, along with some of Jones’ siblings, went to try to bring Jones back. A scuffle ensured; Jones and his father later filed attempted-kidnapping charges against Fisher. Fisher assembled a top-notch legal team and was eventually acquitted, but only after a costly trial; many people contributed to Fisher’s legal fund, and bands such as Tool and Alice in Chains played benefits for him.
“Believe me when I say my life would be so different today if people didn’t do that for me,” Fisher said. “It’s hard for me to grasp the words on the level of gratitude. I was a guy facing nine to 11 years in prison! That’s pretty deep. I kept my composure, for the most part, but god damn! If it would have gone the other way, it would have been a tragedy, especially when I think about if I were represented by a public defender.”
Fisher said the incident was an unfortunate and trying mistake.
“The situation to me was that (Kendall) was my brother, and he needed help,” Fisher said. “That was all that was in my mind. It fucking had nothing to do with the band continuing. It was just Kendall was my best friend—he was my drinking buddy. We wrote tons of songs together, and we did all kinds of shit. So, that’s what that was about.”
The attempted-kidnapping debacle began what may have been Fishbone’s most-trying period. Some original members left; they were dropped by another label. Soon thereafter, the third-wave ska revival hit full swing, thanks in part to No Doubt, a band with whom Fishbone once shared the stage. Other ska-based bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Sublime were also making it big—yet Fishbone was largely left out in the cold. Not even the band’s 1996 album, Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge, would help.
“We were not even wanted, and that was it,” Fisher said. “We made Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge, and we had to go make another record that never got released. The material was right; the production was right; and that was aiming us in the perfect direction for us to join in and be a part of that. Unfortunately, our producer, Dallas Austin, got into it with Clive Davis, and it became a record that never got released.”
Still, Fishbone has drawn a devout niche audience over the years. Meanwhile, Fisher has been involved in a few side projects and even played on a tour with Clarence “Blowfly” Reid. Angelo Moore, under the moniker of Dr. Madd Vibe, and has released solo material, including books of poetry.
Kendall Jones has since left the religious cult, and was shown in Everyday Sunshine playing a show with Fishbone as a surprise guest. Fisher said he has forgiven Jones for what happened—but a return to the band is unlikely, given Jones is not currently in contact with the other members.
Meanwhile, the working relationship between Fisher and Moore has been strained at times. Fisher explained what keeps them working together.
“It’s the love of the music,” Fisher said. “We’ve been playing music together since 1979, so it’s like a family affair. We both have other projects and stuff, but I’m very aware and attached to the legacy of the band and trying to preserve that.
“At my core, I just feel like the world needs a Fishbone. As long as there is some fun to be had with it, it’s working for me. If it’s too much of a chore, maybe we need to take a break.”