I made it out of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s without a single tattoo, but if I did get inked, it likely would have been a Fishbone logo. They were my favorite band when I was a teen, and I wasn’t alone. Back in the mid-to-late-1980’s, two Los Angeles area bands—the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone—were on the cusp of blowing up big time. The Chili Peppers were suffering from a string of lineup changes and drug addictions that led to the death of one founding member, so the safe money was on Fishbone. But given the career trajectories of each band, that obviously would have been a bad bet.
Fishbone was red hot, but they were impossible to package and sell to a mass audience. For starters, they were six black men from South Central L.A. who played punk, reggae, ska and metal, sometimes all in the same song. They were signed to the biggest major label around, Columbia Records, which had no clue how to handle them. The other problem was that Fishbone could never fully translate their live energy onto record. As great as some of those studio recordings were, they never came close to capturing the intensity of their live shows. Speaking from firsthand experience, Fishbone concerts were completely off the hook. It was fairly common, for instance, to watch frontman Angelo Moore jump twenty feet into the audience off a lighting rig or balcony
The 2010 release of Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s critically acclaimed documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone might just give them the exposure they deserve. It features an eclectic who’s who of interviewees/fans (rapper and actor Ice-T, jazz artist Branford Marsalis and members of No Doubt, Living Colour, Circle Jerks and the Red Hot Chili Peppers). “Since Everyday Sunshine has been playing theatrically,” says filmmaker Chris Metzler, “we’ve been able to do combo screenings and concerts, and the number of people in those audiences have steadily increased over time.”
Like many other fans, I lost track of Fishbone as the 1990s wore on. That’s why it was such a pleasure to re-immerse myself in the music of a band that refused to be boxed in by racial categories, musical genres, or any other limitations. I recently spent an hour talking to founding member and bassist Norwood Fisher about their three decade-long career, and their experiences with Everyday Sunshine.
Tell me about the early days of the band.
Me and Fish, my brother, were six and four when we started playing together. I got an acoustic guitar and he got drums for Christmas, and so we immediately started writing songs. [laughs] Then we started playing music with guys in our neighborhood, and when I was thirteen I was bused to Hale Junior High in the suburbs, where we met future Fishbone members Kendall and Chris. We talked about playing together for about a year, and when we got to ninth grade, in 1979, we started the band.
How did you discover punk?
It was brand new, it was in the media, and it was supposed to be really scary. New Wave was starting to happen too, and it was more accessible than punk. Devo was on Saturday Night Live, and we all liked Devo from the very first record. Also, the Talking Heads. The first punk band I ever saw was The Clash opening for The Who on their first farewell tour.
Did anyone from your neighborhood go?
Hell no! [laughs]
What other music were you guys were listening to?
Black radio, in about 1978 and 1979, started to play Bob Marley songs, which you could hear every now and then. After that you’d hear Third World, Steel Pulse and Black Uhuru. We started playing with these reggae rhythms, but we also liked punk, so we started speeding up the reggae rhythm. We thought we invented ska! What were we gonna call it? “Punk rock reggae!” [laughs]
How did you find out you were reinventing the musical wheel?
Two days later, a friend came back with an English Beat record, and then we saw the Specials on Saturday Night Live. We ate up a lot of music we saw on that show. Then we discovered late night television, especially New Wave Theatre, on some UHF channel. They had punk bands on. It was bad ass.
What was it like to be Fishbone and get signed onto a major label?
We were just out of high school, six black guys on Columbia at age 19, and we confused the hell out of people at the record company. The industry was segregated by color, and by genre. Funkadelic and The Clash mixed up genres, but most everyone else had to stay in a box. There weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for Fishbone, because you couldn’t pigeonhole us.
Do you feel that the industry has changed since then?
The label that put out our last record, Crazy Glue, we have a deal where we split the profits. That would have been impossible 20 years ago. And now live shows are more important than ever for your career. In the last 10 years, in spite of the way the economy has gone, we’ve held steady and have grown.
Has the film helped with booking shows?
It absolutely helped. After people see the movie they become fans, which is just amazing. And there are also a lot of old fans that rediscovered us.
What was it like seeing yourself as a character in a documentary?
It’s like watching a home movie on steroids, a Frankenstein patchwork of your life. The reaction to the film has been extremely gratifying and validating. This far along in the game, for me to be talking to someone like you who was a fifteen year-old listening to us in the 1980’s, it’s humbling. The whole experience makes me feel very fortunate.
Any last words?
Even though my bank account doesn’t reflect it, I can look back with a sense of pride when it comes to the quality of the music we made.
Kembrew McLeod teaches at The University of Iowa, and plans to work Fishbone into the curriculum of his Media, Music & Culture class.