Monday, March 12, 2007

Review of the self-titled debut album by Skafish


I was listening to my vinyl copy of Urgh! A Music War today. It features live versions of songs by The Police, XTC, Gary Numan, Devo, X, and many more punk/new wave bands circa 1980. The last track on the double record set is Sign of the Cross, an irreverent, hilarious bit of religious satire, passionately performed by Jim Skafish and his band. Easily the most compelling song on the record, it seems to have been saved for last for good reason.


Although Skafish never attained any more commercial success in his career after releasing two albums, he was still a multi-talented trailblazer of rock music. A child prodigy, he was far ahead of his time, to be sure, incorporating every musical style imaginable, costumes and choreographed skits in to his performances. And his physical appearance was deliberate and shocking.

"Skafish’s decision to initially present a non-flattering look—sometimes male or toddler boyish, sometimes female or old ladyish, sometimes androgynous—is revolutionary in its deliberate self-debasement, contrary to the glamorous image of many entertainers. But perhaps the most shocking aspect to Skafish is what is God-given: His 6 foot, 3 inches tall towering beefy presence, enormous hook nose, and pale white skin, all which seem to underscore the appearance of breasts." (from the Skafish website http://www.skafish.com/index.htm)

It seems that his controversiality was what kept him from a mainstream audience. He was doomed by his vision to be a fringe artist. The punk world initially supported him, but his music was actually beyond punk too. Although most of his songs had punk energy, some pieces were arranged and played with the preciseness and professionality of progressive rock. In many ways, he out-punked punk.


The lyrics and themes on his self-titled first album are sarcastic, searing, and at times hateful. On the opening track, Joan Fan Club, Skafish rages through like the sickest bully, with often frighteningly violent threats, and all the while accurately immature the way you remember bullies being. You know from this first track that he sings from what he knows. Reading the biography on his website, you'll not be surprised to learn of the many horrible experiences of his own childhood. Musically the song is like the punk rock equivalent of the infantile chant Nyah Nyah-Nyah-Nyah Nyah! with a 50's rock and roll structure complete with rolling piano trills (think Jerry Lee Lewis). It ends with a wind-up featuring Skafish calling Joan on the telephone and goading her. No wonder punk rockers liked him so much. Anarchy in the UK seems tame by comparison.

The next track, Maybe One Time, by contrast sounds like a Roxy Music pastiche. String Synth parts soar over modern rock chord changes and melodies, with Skafish sincerely singing about his longing to find that special someone with whom he can fall in love. Its sensitivity and confessional qualities could not be more polarized from the vitriol of the first track.

Obsessions of You is the first of the progressive-like arrangements i alluded to before. That aside, it's a catchy song with a killer refrain Obssessions, Obsessions they are of you. Possession possession i want your heart. Returning slightly to scarier themes, this one plays out in the pseudo-stalking scenario of someone who feels unworthy to love. It's erie how Skafish can musically mask these disturbing themes in very listenable, hooky music.

We'll See A Psychiatrist is punk/new wave with bizarre harmonized vocals, lots of solos (synths, guitar, piano), and again a tragic lyrical look back to Skafish's childhood past. Side one then ends with Romantic Lessons, a doo-wop song without the harmony vocals, at least until the final seconds. Like the second track, this one is a sincere longing-for-love song lyrically summed up by the last few lines. Everyday I watch one kiss, so wonderful to see, but not for me, it's out of reach, romantic lessons everyday.

Side two opens with Work Song, which begins with the question What's the average guy going to do? and then proceeds to answer it with the mind-numbing details of the life of a blue collar laborer. Musically it's a relentless and driving rock song with some interesting vocal counterpoint on the bridge sections. After being pummelled by this song, Guardian Angel mellows out, sounding stylistically not unlike the less frenetic material from Talking Heads '77. The chorus is sing-songy and the lyrics are the most straightforward of all the songs on the album.

Disgracing The Family Name is like a demented Bruce Springsteen song complete with ballpark organ and Max Middleton style drumming. But Bruce could never cull up this much sarcasm and dark humor. It also reminds me, oddly enough, of The Roches. This song is followed by No Liberation Here, which continues the theme of self-debasement. It's a bit of Heavy Metal pastiche as Skafish works through his sexually repressive issues, likening his situation to being incarcerated. Here prison does not need bars, Blood shed today, And we know it will not change, We live in shame, We don't have a right, No liberation here.

Take It Out On You is the perfect endpiece to Skafish's album-as-therapy. A biting, hateful, endicting lyric letter to his nemesis, most likely one of the bullies of his youth as evidenced in this section of lyric: You can slice a stray dog, You can beat a retarded kid, But you kicked me in the teeth, Gonna take it out on you. The song seems like a catharsis for him, dispelling his past abusers by answering their immature threats of violence with, instead, intelligent threats of violence. But you can see how he is working through the issues by writing the songs, because they are tempered by a self-awareness that his violent tendencies are bad. Understandable, but still bad. Thus the guilt and self-debasement. The last lines of the song sum it all up: I will live a short life, I won't resolve a thing, I will die suspended, but before i do, I jump on to your heart, Trampoline on you, All you guts will fly out, I cease the life inside of you, Jump on your heart, And just remember, All of this is because of you.

Skafish was, and is, a brilliant musician/songwriter who unfortunately didn't keep his record- making career going. He continued regionally around his East Chicago (Indiana) home in to the 80's and 90's but never had any serious commercial releases after his second LP for IRS Records. Check out his website at http://www.skafish.com/index.htm for more current information about his life and music, including a recent self-released CD which can be purchased from CDBaby.

4 comments:

Gareth said...

Probably a bit hard on himself, I still reckon Pete Townshend is uglier.

Good album too!

TFO said...

yeah it is a great album. since this post i have emailed with Jim Skafish a bit and he's a really cool guy. his jazz christmas album from a few years ago is great. and yeah i don't think he was ugly but he tried to accentuate it for the sake of his on-stage persona. very punk rock. Townshend is no fluffy duckling, and neither is Keith Richards. Or Mick jagger for that matter. Rock is full of uggos!

Anonymous said...

Agreed Phil, a great LP and deserving of a greater audience. I bought it in a second hand vinyl shop in the early 80's for the sleeve alone and still listen to it. The second LP (Conversation)is a lot milder but the song "I might move in next door" conjurs up the spite of the first LP.Thanks for your review which was spot on and has inspired me to dig out the vinyl again! R

TFO said...

Thanks Anonymous, rock on!