In Erik Barnouw’s memoir, Media Marathon, the young media polyglot gets his first job in commercial radio at the very dawn of its Golden Age. With a wide-open space ahead of him, what does he do? A depression era Howard Stern Show: Brother Can You Spare a Stripper? No, he does the only thing he can think of: dramatic plays on the radio—summer stock for the blind.
Years later, radio formats grew beyond their grease-painted roots. But Barnouw was right to fall back on his theater background. What else could he have done? The nascent radio audience would have been as incapable of absorbing anything else, as he would have been of delivering it. The best you can do is twist what’s come before. It’s not stifling; it’s just the way things are.
And the same is true in pop music. New genre, new technique, it’s all based on something. Someone like Beck borrows sounds and melodies ironically, inauthentically and without regard to their original meaning. But at the same time, he borrows sincerely—takes musical and structural ideas from his forbearers at their face value. He has to; even the idea of borrowing is borrowed.
My point is this (bear with me here, I’m about to talk Funkmetal): At its heart, all art both bends and respects genre. Genre bending or appropriating, done with or without irony, is nothing to be ashamed of . . . necessarily. But at its nadir: that moment in the late eighties when hard rock bands felt comfortable incorporating all sorts of things into their riff-tacular oeuvre—well, its hard to defend that.
Or is it?
Even though the Funkmetalists were often ham-fisted, wasn’t that sometimes the fun of it? I won’t dispute that the fiftieth guy to play slap bass over heavy power chording deserved to be strung up by his skater cut. And Living Colour’s Cory Glover is guilty of crimes both vocally and lyrically that can only be addressed through prison time (the Body Glove clothing was its own punishment). But the first time you heard crunchy guitars with pseudo Larry Graham funk licks? Wasn’t it kind of cool?
The conventional wisdom is that all of the following bands are now embarrassing: Love/Hate, Follow for Now, Twenty Four-Seven Spyz, Living Colour, Faith No More, Fishbone. The truth is, most of them are terrible. But most of any genre is terrible. There is good stuff in that Funkmetal abyss, too. If you want proof, take Fishbone’s Truth and Soul—a celebratory mess that single handedly validates the genre.
Fishbone formed humbly in Los Angeles, California in 1978. Founding members Norwood Fisher, Philip Fisher, Kendall Jones, Walter Kibby, and Chris Dowd were participants in L.A. County’s school bussing program and among the few black students at Hale Junior High in The San Fernando Valley. They weren’t thrilled with being “flies in the buttermilk” (as they would later put it), but the experience turned out to have an upside. At Hale they met and befriended the school’s resident extrovert weirdo, Angelo Moore and began playing music, in basements at first, and eventually on stage. As kids raised on seventies funk, they imitated Parliament, both in their music and in their open-minded attitude to disparate styles and ideas. At Angelo Moore’s urging, they started absorbing the British ska and California punk that inundated The Valley where the school bus dropped them every day.
Through years of practice the group became a serious musical force. Drummer, Philip Fisher, by then known as Fish, was the most capable musician of the lot. (For proof, listen to The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk. Fish plays drums on one song, “Taste the Pain”. It’s the solid highlight of a fine but frantic album.) But there were no weak links. Like all great bands, they were loose and tight at the same time.
After being signed to Columbia, Fishbone released their first EP, Fishbone, in 1985, and their first LP, In Your Face, one year later. Both records were brimming with unpolished energy and juvenile humor. In 1988 they released Truth and Soul and it’s still their masterpiece. The album begins with the Magna Carta of Funkmetal: a Van Halen-influenced version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead”. Though it’s sacrilegious to say so, their version fits the song’s angry lyrics better than Mayfield’s. They free it from seventies cool and put a little eighties venom in it. And still, it’s one of the weaker cuts on the record.
With the second track, “Ma and Pa”, things get better in a hurry. The tune is ostensibly about divorce, but the real message is that reggae rhythms can liven up pop songs like nobody’s business. Whether Fishbone learned this from the Clash, The Police or Bob Marley isn’t clear, but they spread the word with the zeal of true believers.
The genres keep coming: There’s heartfelt gospel soul (“Pouring Rain” and “Change”), Steely Dan guitar leads (“Mighty Long Way”), punk of one sort or another (“Deep Inside” and “Subliminal Fascism”), country/gospel (“Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)”), pornographic agro-funk (“Bonin’ in the Boneyard”), and some stuff that’s hard to classify. By the time the album is over they’ve referenced most of pop music and they don’t seem to be breathing hard.
But the thing that distinguishes Fishbone from current musical omnivores is that, though their use of disparate styles is occasionally ironic, their songs usually aren’t. This isn’t true of all their records, but on Truth and Soul they resemble no one so much as Sly and the Family Stone. The lyrics attack social issues of the day with an optimistic multiculturalism that is reminiscent of the early seventies. And the music is so buoyant and charming that even now, I’m inclined to excuse their naiveté.
The fallout from Truth and Soul was not immediate; but in retrospect, it was pronounced. In business terms, the record’s steady sales paved the way for the chart success of scores of Orange County ska bands (No Doubt should be paying Fishbone a particularly hearty tithe). But aside from causing a national scourge of arrhythmic seventh chords, Truth and Soul has been largely forgotten. Critics and music buyers moved on almost immediately when the radio rediscovered rock and roll in the early nineties and stole the underground’s thunder. Guns ‘N Roses led to Seattle, which led to wherever we are now. But Truth and Soul still existed in the minds of a lot of musicians. Some heard it when it was first released, but even more received it as a gift from a friend or sibling—a quickly dubbed reminder of the possibilities of music. I remember hearing about Truth and Soul from three friends at once. What I heard when I bought the CD was both familiar and totally new. It combined elements of bands I loved—Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, Bad Brains, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimmy Cliff, Steely Dan—and it didn’t sound quite like any of them. That was the trick with great Funkmetal, and for a time, Fishbone was great.