White Label Wednesday: Fishbone, “Party at Ground Zero”

Written by Music, White Label

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Today’s special: pink vapor stew. Yummy yum.

To say that Fishbone was exploring uncharted waters when they dropped their eponymous EP in 1985 is a great understatement. They were five years too late for the second wave of ska, and twelve years too early for the third wave, meaning they were playing ska at a time when even the spinoff bands from the English Beat had forsaken it. Fishbone could also rock when they felt like it, but they lacked the crucial ingredient that propelled the Specials and the Beat to superstar status in their native England and cult status in the States: white guys in their band. Nope, Fishbone were all black, thank you very much, which seriously led some to wonder: are they allowed to do that? If you think I’m kidding, then you clearly weren’t there.

But Fishbone knew how to play the game. For starters, they used their playful nature to their advantage; the lyric may be more focused on the “Ground Zero” part, but the music is “Party,” “Party,” “Party,” which made their tune about dancing when the bombs drop an easy sell. Most importantly, they made great videos – in fact, the video for “Party at Ground Zero” was directed by a young Henry Selick, of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline fame – causing MTV to play the daylights out of them at a time when the channel played few black artists outside of Michael Jackson and Prince. Perhaps it was this blend of originality and fearlessness that convinced our friend Francois Kevorkian to try his hand at a remix of “Ground Zero.” Or maybe it was a fat paycheck from Columbia, one of the two. Either way, the end result is a remix to a song that sported a BPM count in the 190s, which is about 70 beats per minute above the norm at the time. Awesome.

And awesome is exactly what this remix is. Kevorkian used the standard dub practice of drenching some bits in echo – he also dramatically restructured the song, much to its benefit – but the remix’s piece de resistance is the part where he triggers the word “party” to launch whenever the snare drum hits, then pans the vocal hard from left to right. He hints at this in the mix’s opening five seconds, but it’s impossible to tell what it is at the time. Later, it makes sense. “Party-party, party, party, pa-pa-party, party,” and so on until drummer Phil “Fish” Fisher goes rat-tat-tat with a 12-beat snare drum fill, and the net effect is a vocal machine gun. Arthur Baker surely pumped his fist when he heard this for the first time.

Fishbone – Party at Ground Zero (Vapor Mix)