Monday, May 13, 2013

FISHBONE, Dingwalls, London
Melody Maker, February (?) 1988

by Simon Reynolds

There’s no bigger bummer than being obliged to use language that’s repugnant to me. This, after all, is the year in which we’ve ripped up the old rock charter of values, its accepted lexicon of approbation, and celebrated instead neurasthenia, directionless languor, casual unearned brilliance, groups that are barely there. Then here come Fishbone--a band who fully and forcefully occupy every inch of the stage--and they damn near force me to write about them as if they were a go-go band. More baffling still is that, as implicated as they are in a whole bunch of obsolete values--sweat, soul, charisma, energy, tightness, fluency and working your butt off--Fishbone are bloody good. Great, even.

I guess Fishbone show that all ideological stances, however valorous and supremely demanded by the times, are going to come a cropper once in a while. How do they do it? It must be that they take it all a little bit further than anyone else before. So you’ll just have to accept that when I say the horns were “blistering”, I mean like a flamethrower against paint, rather than like the Q-Tips giving it some; that when I say they’re “tight”, we’re talking strict time, dance music as a stricture, a rhythm section nearly seized up with hypertension; that when I shamefacedly allude to “energy”, we’re talking palsied, St Vitus Dance, unhealthy vitality. Watch the critic squirm.

Everything Fishbone are made from--R&B, Ye Olde Funke, ska, hard rock, soul--is organic in the most reactionary sense, and simply not on the agenda for 1988. But somehow they transcend. What could be a horrible mélange, as with the very boring Living Colour, is an electric soup. Fishbone are just the right kind of deeply confused.

The most bizarre trick they pull off is to make ska--surely the most redundant, greyest of genres--seem vaguely appealing again. But somehow the cataleptic beat, hair-trigger shudders of rhythm guitar and the nervous tic vocal gibberish make splendid (non)sense when spliced to P-funk bass squelches, Hendrix whiplash licks and Sly & the Family Stone zany chants.

In truth, they are not as glorious as when The Studs and I saw them in Rotterdam--and no doubt the blame is all Dingwalls’s. For stretches they were as negligible as Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band, all perspiration, call-and-response and “are you havin’ a GOOD TIME? I said ARE etc etc.” There’s a little too much deference to JB-type “hardest working man in showbiz” mythology. On the plus side, they are domineering in a way that implies a degree of rap-consciousness: Angelo comports himself like a character in If, has an utterly aristocratic, silver-spoon sense of self, and his attempts to shame lazy-ass non-participants in the audience were impressively dictatorial. I’m just glad he didn’t pick on me.

Like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, they’re an anomaly, not an example to us all. I couldn’t handle any more bands like Fishbone. But they’re doin’ their own thing with a singleminded mania that burns a hole through the overly neat demarcations we’d drawn up for 1988. They’re neither oppressive nor out-of-this-world, but they are virulent. They don’t really touch, but they can convulse.

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