Often times the price paid by innovators is a path of opportunity for others. That’s how you might sum up Fishbone. Although the L.A. based band did well enough in the late ’80s to almost make it to the mainstream, they were too much of a genre breaker for the rigid promotional systems in place in America at the time.
It was plenty fine for white (often European) artist to create “black music”, but black artists struggled to get exposure when they made rock and especially alternative rock. Fishbone burst on the scene in a big way with their first full album In Your Face. It was an American take on a uniquely British pop music formula (ska, reggae, soul and punk) with a bit of funk.
In fact Fishbone was the only American band I could think of (then and now) that had any ska influences outside of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. So it’s feasible that I was not the only one to think they were English.
With it’s charismatic leader Angelo Moore, Fishbone’s arrangements were high energy, often with syncopated rhythms and funk-like bass lines. There was also a kind of new wave zaniness that could be equated to everyone from Madness to George Clinton. Bad Brains used a similar formula, but took it to more rock extremes.
However, it was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who came closest musically. Where the Chilli Peppers wrapped their mix in heavy metal, Fishbone did so with Funk and more exotic flavors of R&B. In fact the comparison to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers was a popular (and presumably annoying) practice made by the media when In Your Face was released.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers caught on for the long run while Fishbone peaked early and sorta faded out of the mainstream view. It wasn’t for lack of good songs. The funny and funky “When Problems Arise” was popular on MTV and was beginning to get airplay on select radio stations. With lyrics that could get political, yet maintain a kind of fun youthful energy, In Your Face was a collection of deceptively serious and outright funny songs. One of my favorites, the slow funk ballad “Movement in the Light” could have been a great addition to any George Clinton album. Other songs were a bit too ska for me (“A Selection”), while others sounded like a funky version of Madness (“I Wish I Had A Date”) complete with a horn section.
As an alternative album made by black performers, it did not fit the traditional dance or R&B model and was ignored by urban radio. Like Jon Butcher Axis before and Living Color a few years later, Fishbone just did not fit into the neatly designated format of most rock radio stations.
The band would move closer to heavy metal with their popular follow-up two years later with Truth And Soul. Fishbone is still together and maintains a loyal fan base. Surprisingly after all these years and with the cross pollination of musical styles being commonplace, very few have heard of Fishbone.