25 Years Ago: Fishbone Release the Funk-Metal Blueprint, ‘The Reality of My Surroundings’
Even Los Angeles, where much of the music industry is focused on egocentric self-promotion, there are bands that no self-respecting musician would pass up a chance to see. Sometimes the draw is exceptional musicianship. other times it's an incredible live show or an electrifying frontman. But sometimes there's just something about a band that's magical.
In L.A. during the late '80s, that band was Fishbone, and they had it all. Their blend of punk, funk, ska and whatever else caught their ears was unlike anything else happening at the time. With bassist Norwood Fisher, they had a bottom end that was the envy of peers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction. Guitarist Kendall Jones shreds as hard as any of the Sunset Strip guitar gods, and vocalist-trumpet player Walter Kibby provided him a brassy counterpart. Up front, there's Angelo Moore. A childhood friend of Norwood's, Moore is as magnetic and energetic as David Lee Roth if Roth sported a Mohawk, could play saxophone and had three times the vocal range. But Moore served as more than Fishbone's singer: he was their hype man, clown and evangelist. Together, Fishbone became the definitive band's band.
With the release of 1988's Truth and Soul and the ensuing tour supporting their friends in the Chili Peppers, Fishbone began to break out of that narrow definition of "insiders' secret." Concertgoers responded enthusiastically to their high energy shows, pushing the album into the Billboard 200. Fan John Cusack even helped their cause that year by giving the band a small role in his movie, Tapeheads. In other words, as the '80s came to a close, Fishbone stood on the brink of greatness. All they needed was a breakthrough album.
The band spent the bulk of 1989 writing the songs for The Reality of My Surroundings just as Jane's Addiction spent the same period working on their 1990 classic, Ritual de lo Habitual, and Fishbone beat their buddies to the market by a good eight months. The album's Top 20 showing created buzz around L.A.'s alternative scene, further increasing expectations for Fishbone's next release.
The lead single on Reality, "Fight the Youth," served as a surprise to longtime fans expecting more of the band's unique sound. The funk was still there, but any trace of ska had been replaced by Jones' metallic-edged guitar.
"Fight the Youth" ran into the same problem that plagued Fishbone throughout their entire career: The single was too "rock" for black radio and too "black" for rock radio. The band's greatest strength was also their biggest liability. Their broad range of tastes and influences didn't fit neatly into a radio programming pigeonhole, though MTV gave the track (and subsequent singles) decent air time.
The second single, "Everyday Sunshine," was more in keeping with the band's good-time Southern California vibe – but only on the surface. The song's brassy, uptempo sound belies the heaviness of the lyrics.
Thematically, the yin to the song's yang is the album's third single and album closer, "Sunless Saturday." Written by guitarist Jones, it's a slice of dark cinema verite that enumerates the things he's seen: pestilence, insanity and "the means of help elud[ing] us again." It's no wonder Moore wanted to chase the clouds away on that sunless Saturday.
The song foreshadowed perhaps the most startling turn in Fishbone's very twisty history. The 2010 documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone goes into great detail regarding Jones's split not just from the band but quite literally the reality of his surroundings. After the release of Reality, the guitarist found himself in a Northern California cult, convinced that his former bandmates were demons. An ill-conceived attempt at an intervention eventually landed bassist Fisher in court on charges of kidnapping.
But there's no denying the significance of the band and the underrated complexity of their music. The singles on Reality are fantastic, but it's the deep cuts that made it Fishbone's masterpiece. "Naz-Tee May'En" is the missing link between Prince and Outkast. "Behavior Control Technician" remains the thickest slice of funk rock this side of Primus. And if the rock-reggae vibe of "Pray to the Junkiemaker" didn't directly inspire Sublime, it at least paved their way.
And while Fishbone's crowning creative achiement set the table for a host of '90s imitators, the album only peaked at No. 49. Later in '91 the Chili Peppers would go global with their funky masterpiece, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and four years later, No Doubt would help kickstart a ska revival that owed just as much to Fishbone as it did the Specials and Madness.
Throughout the band's nearly 40 years, Moore and Fisher have remained the only constants in the lineup. Kibby has been back up front on trumpet and vocals since 2010, and the band remain as brilliant of a live act today as they were during their prime. But, like many other band's bands, they find themselves more famous than wealthy and more respected than rewarded.
Still, The Reality of My Surroundings remains a milestone achievement in alternative music a quarter-century after its release. The fact that the core of the band remains as vital as ever is enough to chase the clouds away from any sunless Saturday.