Happy 30th Anniversary to Fishbone’s second studio album Truth and Soul, originally released September 13, 1988.
One of the most popular bands to come out of the Los Angeles music scene in the ‘80s was Fishbone. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Truth and Soul, their most consistent album, it’s hard not to think about the many “what ifs” and if onlys” that swirled around the band at that time. MTV, mainstream radio and a handful of music critics couldn’t quite figure out what to make of Fishbone. Before Truth and Soul, critics saw the band as some sort of ska/funk/rock novelty act, but they were much more than that.
The band was formed in 1979 by junior high school friends bassist John Norwood Fisher, his brother Philip "Fish" Fisher on drums, guitarist Kendall Jones, "Walter Kibby II (vocals and trumpet), Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, and vocals), and larger than life frontman, Angelo Moore. The Fishers, Kibby, Jones and Dowd lived in South Central Los Angeles but were bused to the predominantly white Hale Junior High School in the San Fernando Valley, where Moore’s family lived.
According to a bio written by Columbia Records, their label until 1995, it was at Hale where the group learned about bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush and incorporated those sounds into their music. In 1991, John Norwood Fisher told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke a different story. “Rush was about the coolest thing we found out. But my dad was always listening to rock & roll stuff. It wasn’t like a new experience. I learned to hate motherfuckers who told me Jimmy Page was better than Jimi Hendrix.” They attended high school back in South Central Los Angeles and the comparisons of the two vastly different environments helped shaped their opinions and their politics.
On their first two releases, 1985’s self-titled EP and 1986’s full-length debut In Your Face, Fishbone’s ska/rock/funk mix of humor and social commentary helped them gain a huge cult following, but they were in danger of getting the “goofy” label attached to them. Jones once remarked to Rolling Stone, “We tried to take our thing, our politics, and put it with humor, make it funny so people would listen. And it was wrong. You try it that way, and it just cheapens everything you’re trying to say.”
On Truth and Soul, Fishbone toned down the humor and infused a harder rock sound which paid huge dividends. The album starts with a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” It was a very wise choice to open with because it pretty much set the course for what you were going to hear for the next 41 minutes. Jones’ guitar work is the unsung star of the LP because it breathes life into their unique sound. It also hides the somewhat dated sound of the keyboards, which has made other ‘80s records close to unlistenable now. A personal highlight for me was seeing them perform “Freddie’s Dead” on Soul Train. Don Cornelius had no idea what he witnessed or where they were coming from.
“Ma and Pa” is the ska influenced second track that tells the story of a family split apart by divorce as seen through the eyes of a child. (“Hey Ma and Pa / What the hell is wrong with ya'll / Hey Ma and Pa / Fighting for love on an angel's feather / Why don't ya'll get your shit together”). While not the cheeriest of subjects, they somehow get their social commentary out there without compromising their sound. It’s a fan favorite that they still play in concert.
“Question of Life,” “Pouring Rain,” and “Deep Inside” are incredibly strong tracks that put Fishbone’s versatility on display. They go from uptempo crowd pleaser to ballad to hard rock without missing a beat. “Deep Inside” sets the tone for the second half of the album, which showcases the band’s lyrical improvement. Before that happens, Fishbone dips their toes into the waters of their past. “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” is a throwback to their previous releases that shows off their improved musicianship. It’s a palate cleanser for what is about to come.
“One Day” starts with a ticking clock with Moore taking on the role of a preacher who makes a lot of proclamations, asks some questions and has no answers, all accented by the exceptional bass playing of John Norwood Fisher.
Written in the Reagan era, the prophetic “Subliminal Fascism” is another observation as seen through the eyes of the song’s writer, Angelo Moore, who proclaims, “Well the bad gets worse /Too fucked up / And the hate grows more each day / So when the infected try to effect you / Don't listen to them when they say / Follow the rules and forget the bomb Communistical patriotic / The plan is subtle but it's in the open / Kingpins Nazi scheme getting under your skin / So you better wake up U.S.”
"Slow Bus Movin' (Howard Beach Party)" is a reference to a racial incident in the Howard Beach section of Queens in 1986 in which a black man named Michael Griffith was killed as the result of being chased by a mob of white teenagers onto the Belt Parkway. The song is an expression of frustration of how slowly and how relatively little things have changed.
“Born in the 1940s, my parents couldn't vote / X and King were on a march for power true / Black power that is / Panthers and their attitudes / Sport fresh new business suits, yeh / Stricken with determination to rise above a slave / The mayo men used firehoses / To spray the monkeys back in their cages / Round and around and around they go / The bus is goin’ mighty slow”
Not only was this their most overtly political statement to date, it also called attention to an incident that did not get enough press outside of New York.
“Ghetto Soundwave” continues along the same vein. One scenario decries the senseless murder of a young black male, while another tells the tale of an immigrant who struggles to earn a living for his family. “Ghetto Soundwave” was timely back in 1988 and it’s still relevant today in 2018.
“There's another cry of murder / Policeman shoot down baby brother / Shot him, shot him down in the street / But did they know the mother's grief / Were they sure they got the right one / Did they know he was her only son / A father tries to feed his family / They come here to find their opportunity / Living, living, living in the streets / With their dreams and with their humility / Can't we see all the pain and hurt / They love this land maybe more than us”
Truth and Soul ends with the calm, meditative and un-Fishbone-like “Change.” It’s emblematic of the many unfair criticisms the band received. The critics wanted the goofy and silly Fishbone and instead they got the insightful, witty and socially conscious Fishbone. “It bugs me, man,” Norwood admitted to Rolling Stone. “People think we’re some kind of traveling Negro circus. Bingo Long and His All-Stars. All entertainment and no mental stimulation.”
What makes Fishbone special, and in particular, Truth and Soul is that they can blend genres, get their message out there and still manage to have fun doing it. Truth and Soul was exactly what 1988 needed.