Sound Advice: Fishbone with Downtown Brown

Saturday • Madison Live

As my musical horizons expanded in high school, I gradually developed an affinity for Punk Rock and New Wave, became obsessed with 2 Tone-era Ska bands like The Specials and The English Beat, found Funk by digging out my dad’s Sly and the Family Stone records and dabbled in Heavy Metal thanks to a metalhead roommate. And then, in the mid ’80s, I discovered a band that took every one of those styles, mixed in healthy doses of humor and social commentary and brilliantly fused it all together to create something that, to this day, sounds like nothing else.

Fishbone’s debut EP only had seven songs, but the kitchen-sink diversity and hyperactive performances made it feel like a dizzying, kooky epic. When I finally saw the band live, I was blown away by the relentless energy — all six members of the group never stopped moving. I knew right then that Fishbone was one of the best live bands on the planet, and the dozens of times I’ve seen the group since — in venues big and small — continually back up that assertion.

Musically, Fishbone grew and matured over time, leading to a taste of mainstream success in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Upheaval in the group led to various lineup changes, and Fishbone gradually drifted out of the spotlight and back to its underground roots. The band still puts out new music fairly regularly, but it largely works the road and continues to blow roofs off of clubs worldwide.

Fishbone is the most underrated act to come out of the “Alternative” L.A. scene of the ’80s — which produced bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction — especially in terms of influence. The Chili Peppers and Jane’s certainly took some cues from (and were friends with) the group, Gwen Stefani has been very vocal about her love of the band, the members of Outkast were such big fans they tracked down some of the members to appear in the duo’s Idlewild film and younger acts like Slightly Stoopid (which did a split single with Fishbone) and numerous others that fuse Ska, Punk, Funk and other styles over the past 20 years might not exist were it not for Fishbone. And that’s not even touching on the racial elements of Fishbone’s impact on music; seeing powerfully creative musicians forging their own sound out of Punk, Hard Rock, Metal and other styles many young black musicians might have been discouraged from exploring undoubtedly helped encourage innumerable artists to follow their instincts and play whatever kind of music they wanted.

The 2010 documentary film Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone is an excellent examination of the band’s career. Fishbone’s story is so fascinating, even those who don’t know or don’t like the group’s music should find the movie compelling. It’s tale full of struggles and triumphs, and it’s hard not to feel a little sadness by the end of the film. Despite all of the joy and inspiration the band has given, Fishbone is still fighting it out on the road and making a meager living, while the Chili Peppers and other peers and disciples are living in mansions.

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