My first Fishbone show was a transformative experience. Prior to it I had been a metal head with punk and hardcore overtones. The show was as intense and physical as any hardcore set, perhaps even more so. As opposed to other shows, this one was overflowing with positivity. Slamming and diving were encouraged. So was supporting one another and keeping each other safe. Unlike punk or metal shows, if you fell in a Fishbone pit a sea of hands were instantly there to drag you back to your feet. Midway through the show the whole of the crowd in attendance – young and old, black and white, male and female, punk, metal, funk – were inducted into the Fishbone Familyhood. We became Fishbone Soldiers, sworn to protect one another and stand up for what was right. Later in the show the band encouraged a young man to attempt his first balcony dive while the pit below was commanded to ensure the nervous boy’s safety. He was grinning ear to ear as he leapt into the void and touched down on his new familyhood. In the end it was less a show than it was a religious experience. Fishbone broadened my horizons. Fishbone changed my life.
That was in 1986 at the Metroplex, a tiny shithole in a sketchy part of downtown Atlanta. The ‘Plex featured alternative music back when it truly was alternative… in other words, well before the classification “Alternative” had been coined. This was where the weirdos hung out. The only press the ‘Plex got was bad press. Some of the more outlandish stories about the place were too ridiculous to believe. Some of the ridiculous ones were, in fact, true. The Metroplex was a grimy oasis in the grey, violent, soulless city that was Atlanta in the early/mid 80’s, well before its claims to being the metropolitan city of the south, or the “City Too Busy To Hate,” were even remotely applicable. It was the safe haven for generation x’s misfits long before Lollapalooza and Hot Topic commoditised what was an outcast culture, making it safe for normals to adorn themselves in its trappings. During that time no one really cared what happened in or around the Metroplex, save for when it required riot gear as a response.
Fishbone, or perhaps better said a variant thereof, are still at it. The band is, among musicians, critics and aging counterculture types, legendary. But an all black band playing an unclassifiable mash of punk, funk, metal and ska with dizzying precision and ferocity was more than corporate music America could handle. Even as their influence spawned massively successful bands from the Chili Peppers to Janes Addiction to No Doubt and countless others, and they remained the undisputed Best Live Band in The World amongst those in the know, they struggled. By the time they were prominently featured on Lollapalooza’s main stage in 1993 the classic lineup of the band was falling apart.
Now it’s 2014 and both the band and the world they play in are dramatically different from 30 years ago. Most of the original members of the band are long gone. Despite a tiny exposure bump thanks to an excellent documentary (like the band, critically acclaimed and mostly overlooked itself) they’re slogging away in small venues playing to diminishing returns. Like many bands of their generation, they’ve been doing this since they were kids. It’s literally all they know. They can’t stop because there’s little else they know how to do. This is their skill; their art. This is who they are.
Also like many of their peers, the most lucrative tours often wind up being those on the nostalgia circuit, teaming up with other groups circa their heyday to pull larger audiences. It was on one of these tours , Fishbone and English Beat, that Angelo Moore, Fishbone lead singer and original member, performed his trademark dive into the audience and allegedly booted a woman in the head, causing major damage, leading to a series of lawsuits.
There has been a lot of discussion on the intertoobs about this situation, most of it pretty incendiary. Fans are angry. “What did she expect!?” They say. “Why was she front and center in the pit if she didn’t know the band’s MO?” “That’s the risk she took!” I appreciate this fervent loyalty to the band, but given my own experiences I suspect that the people saying this are either living in areas where the Familyhood maintains a stronghold and thus the band plays to rowdier crowds, or they’re letting their love for the group cloud their better judgement.
I saw Fishbone on this tour with English Beat at a club in Atlanta. The crowd was comprised mostly of 40-something normals. People came dressed up, buying expensive mixed drinks that they carried to the front of the stage, waiting to hear “Mirror In the Bathroom,” not “Sunless Saturday.” People who were too middle management to even pogo, let alone slam. Fishbone played first, and when Angelo launched himself from the stage to the crowd it was not enthusiastic Familyhood he landed on but carefully coiffed women in heels clutching purses and men in collared shirts howling as their Crown and Cokes spilled onto their sensible shoes. As the show progressed these attendees were driven angrily to the back to grumble and complain and wait for Dave Wakeling while the last vestiges of the Familyhood in Atlanta (a distinct minority of the crowd) cheered Fishbone on.
Maybe things were different at the shows in New York or Ventura, where more of the faithful would turn out. I can’t help but wonder if that the show in Philadelphia, where the alleged head boot incident occurred, wasn’t a lot more like Atlanta than LA. In Atlanta there was no “pit.” Fishbone fans were seriously outnumbered. And Angelo’s diving wasn’t received with punk rock enthusiasm or even 90’s nostalgia. It annoyed.
This is the inevitable reality of the nostalgia tours. By and large the people that attend these shows long ago became slow and safe and normal (if they were ever anything but) and they want the performance to be similar. They aren’t there to rage, join the Familyhood, be engaged in the performance, or even pay attention save when the 2 “popular” songs they remember are played. They’re there to take a trip down memory lane, perhaps relive some naive feelings of relevance, and partake in a watered down facsimile of their younger days.
And in fairness to them, they’re in the right place.
The English Beat put out its last album in 1982. They have more “best of” compilations than official releases. They are a brilliant band, but the last time they pushed an artistic envelope Dave Grohl was a freshman in high school. The only thing they’re pushing nowadays is “Remember The 80’s?” history. Laurels, resting and all that. Properly put, this incarnation isn’t even “The English Beat” anymore. Wakeling’s the only original member. Ranking Roger, an integral part of the English Beat sound, has his own separate version of the band (“The Beat”) he’s touring with. In other words, this is not really the place for dangerous rock and roll.
I’m sure it didn’t help that, as according to this article, it appears Angelo repeatedly ignored the judge and the courts. I would hope that his camp encouraged him to do otherwise. Regardless, he’s known as a headstrong individual. Whatever his reasons behind his lack of responses, it surely didn’t help his case. Nor did the comments he reportedly did make, which may have sounded punk rock in his head but out loud come across as unrepentant. Whether or not these continued lawsuits are frivolous, this woman was seriously injured. This is important.
And I do agree with those saying that the repeated lawsuits seem to be frivolous. She’s already settled with the management company and tour promoter. Who’s next? The t-shirt vendors and bartenders? Probably. Because anyone who knows anything about lawyers and cases like this knows that you’re encouraged to sue everyone within shouting distance of the alleged incident. That’s how lawyers work. It’s how they get paid. And it’s a large part of why they’re reviled.
Despite this, my current takeaway is that my beloved, most influentially mind expanding, personally impacting band fucked up. They didn’t play to the crowd, and they’re paying the price. This isn’t to say that I think they deserve to lose $1.4 million dollars (which I assure you they do not have – not even close), or that the claimant deserves it. Absolutely not.
It is what it is. 2014. Where old punk rockers sue each other and get sued. Punk is dead. Again. Bands and fans should adjust their expectations accordingly.