By Richard von Busack
Should-have-been successes, musicians’ musicians that they were and are: Fishbone are profiled in Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s delightful Everyday Sunshine, playing at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco through Friday.
Fishbone had its pinnacle of popularity circa 1980-92—the film’s title comes from a song on their 1991 album The Reality of My Surroundings. Tim Robbins, himself the son of a one-hit musician, sums it up: “Fishbone’s music didn’t have a section in the record store.”
Certainly, the L.A. based band were the descendants of the various George Clinton family acts. Funk was their business, but they were also eclectic enough to have jump-started the unkillable ska scene down south of the Tehachapis. Gwen Stefani of the second-wave ska band No Doubt is interviewed here, and she’s certainly one of the beneficiaries of Fishbone’s style. Fishbone got a bit of attention with ska. We see the band backing up Annette Funicello in the 1987 film Back to the Beach; they’re redoing her c. 1964 “Jamaican Ska,” a very early (if pretty awful) example of California skanking.
The eclecticism of Fishbone may be essential to the difference between two of the founders. In the late 1970s, the large and in charge Norwood Fisher of South Central LA encountered Angelo Moore, slightly Urquelesque, devoted to Bootsy Collins. He was a young man judged “devoid of ‘hood sense.” The two young men met because of L.A.’s experiment in bussing at the high school in Angelo’s neighborhood Woodland HIlls. After some suspicion on Norwood’s part, Moore joined in on saxophone in Fisher’s apartment, with Fisher’s brother Phillip “Fish” Fisher on drums.
Fishbone’s first gig was at the punk rock capital Madame Wongs’ in downtown Los Angeles. Having chops, Fishbone could play that “stringy-haired white boy music” (such was a putdown Fishbone’s members heard). In fact, Fishbone’s tune “Subliminal Fascism” was pure de political punk rock, as four/four and as shouted out as all get out.
Like another ornament of that day’s scene, The Minutemen, Fishbone were much better musicians than many of the bands for whom they opened or closed. This didn’t matter to the mohawked fans who were there to dance.
If Fishbone had been British, they would have been swept up by the press and the record companies; there was a strong trad of “two-tone” music in England. For that matter, Fishbone’s video for the tune “Everyday Sunshine” looks quite like it would have fit right in with the ecstasy-rinsed Manchester scene…just as Spike Lee’s video for “Sunless Saturday,” also off Fishbone’s The Reality of My Surroundings album, has quotes of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night.
It seemed the band was going to breakthrough. They were even on SNL. But David Kahne of Columbia Records, who sketched the early version of the band’s fish-skeleton logo on a demo tape, sums the problem up. From the beginning, Fishbone was considered too white for a black audience and too white for a black audience. Kahne considers their ultimate inability to get a huge hit the biggest failure of his own career. Similarly Les Claypool of Primus, a fan, opines that there never was a studio recording that allowed Fishbone to be as bracing as they were when they played live.
Unfortunately, the film Everyday Sunshine has been getting dismissed as a jumped-up episode of Behind the Music, and that stints its uniqueness. It looks like that kind of broadcast, because there are quotes by fellow musicians Stefani, Flea, George Clinton, and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt.
But note Everyday Sunshine’s affection for its subjects, and the animated sequences that not only work as narration but have some pungency to them…a situation that isn’t frequently the case in low-budget docs. And give this band further credit for the uniqueness of their woes: they weren’t stressed because of substance abuse or Babylonian excess, as much as artistic decisions and the wear and tear of what narrator Laurence Fishburne describes as “25 goddam years on the road.”
It was in the last two decades things really got eccentric. The Rodney King riots slammed the door shut on the idea of racial progress in Los Angeles. Then guitarist Kendall Jones executed a parabola from too much booze, straight into the embrace of a particularly demanding, head-shaving form of Christianity. When the band intervened, fearing that Jones was in a cult, Jones responded by filing kidnapping charges against his former bandmates.
Meanwhile the always-zany Angelo developed an insane passion for the theremin in 1993, and urged the band to include that instrument in every song they recorded. He developed a character called “Dr. Mad Vibe” to augment his crazed-scientist act of bending electromagnetic waves with his bare hands.
On the bright side, Moore became unquestionably the foremost rock thereminist on the scene today. This was little consolation for band members who had enough of the wobble, shriek and uncertainly-pitched instrument interrupting their solos.
Angelo’s famously wide smile has aspects of a wince when he describes his side of the Boomerang Generation life: he moved back in with his mom, a Jehovah’s Witness, after some dispute with his own landlord.
The film has tragic-hilarious moments: persistence in the face of underattendance and a record signing straight out of This is Spinal Tap. Moore and Fisher, the last two original members, must be sticking together at this point just to see what could possibly happen next.
There hasn’t been a documentary on the rock musicians’ life that’s been this fun to watch since Anvil!.
But there’s no sense that there’s lives these men forgot to get along the way. Everyday Sunshine stresses the closeness Angelo Moore has with his grown-up daughter Cheyenne. Even just listening to the way Angelo instructs Cheyenne on bowling— “You can’t just fling it, baby, you’ve got to swing it”— we can see how deeply the music is in this man. Norwood himself has grown more serene: still wearing a unicorn’s horn of dreadlocked hair out of the vent of his reversed baseball cap, and still sporting the braided beard, he now spends some of his time surfing by the Santa Monica Pier.
Every band, wondering when their ship is going to come in, is only one licensing deal away from fame. And this film—sharply edited, full of wild, lively music—has to be doing its part to help put Fishbone on top where they belong.