The Crawling Ear: On the subject of Skafish

James takes some time out to salute one of his all-time favourties...

Skafish: the debut album

I had a wonderful dream a few years ago in which I awoke on a chilly November morn to discover my darling mother had left a special gift for me on my nightstand. The present in question was a compilation CD from Rhino Records entitled New Wave Thanksgiving. As the title suggests, this album collected all the best musical Turkey Day delights recorded and released during the height of the Original Skinny Tie Era (which I believe occurred between the years of 1978 and 1982). I was overjoyed to receive this inherently awesome disc and immediately began spinning it in my tiny, cloud-filled room.

Unfortunately, I soon woke up for real and the truth about New Wave Thanksgiving hit me like ten pounds of frozen breast meat: this record didn’t exist, primarily because little to no Thanksgiving music has ever been recorded (aside from traditional Pilgrim jams, that acoustic nonsense Adam Sandler wrote, and fellow “SNL” alum Jim Breuer’s fictional heavy metal ode “Devil Turkey”). This was almost as bad as the time I dreamt a leprechaun gave me a Mickey Mantle rookie card for my twelfth birthday (HEY GUYS, I’M FROM THE STATEZ – SORRY LOL). Talk about rude awakenings. I felt like drowning my sorrows in a river of instant gravy. So I did. Now I weigh more than five Chris Farleys. At least I now know three gallons of the brown stuff isn’t enough to kill me in one sitting.

I was always kinda depressed about New Wave Thanksgiving and the impossibility of its existence until a few months ago when I discovered a rollicking slab of Windy City pop punk circa ‘79 entitled “Disgracing The Family Name” by a guy named Skafish (pronounced SKAY-fish). If ever there was a song written specifically for the Thanksgiving punk compilation I created in my mind’s eye, this was it. It begins with a fanciful organ choking out the dulcet, ancient tones of Al Jolson’s “Swanee River.” Suddenly, a walloping drum roll winds up and unleashes a twisted carnival anthem that’s one hundred percent pure black sheep celebration (“I crawl all through the garden with the worms,” Skafe gleefully sings. “I am the rotten apple with the worms – chewing at my core!”). Simply put, “Disgracing The Family Name” takes all the embarrassment parents project on their kids, especially on that most American of holidays, and throws it back in their faces like wet, mangled confetti.

Originally released in the U.K. on Illegal Records and on I.R.S. in America, the “Disgracing” single (backed with the equally great “Work Song”) made enough of a splash to warrant a full length Skafish album. The self-titled release, which hit shelves in May of 1980, was a well-rounded (and well-polished) chunk of spunky, punkish new wave on which zany keyboards danced happily next to angry, surging guitars. Skafish’s sing-songy, childlike voice was quite endearing and lent itself particularly well to the handful of straighter cuts on the album (including “Maybe One Time,” an upbeat Morrissey/Smiths-type thing, and the malt shop popper “Romantic Lessons”). The real treats are the more obtuse songs, though, including the sadistic opener “Joan Fan Club” in which the Skafe playfully tosses cruel threats at some frightened fat girl he relishes tormenting. The chilling lyrics are augmented by a chord progression that would give Tim Burton a massive skeleton boner.

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Skafish is easily one of the best records I’ve ever heard from the heyday of bullshit like the Knack and the Boomtown Rats. It’s vibrant and fun, yet so weird and discomforting. A perfect musical geek-out. Alas, massive global success was not in the cards for our skinny, strange hero. All anyone could ever seem to focus on with Skafish was the singer’s abnormally large honker. Call it the nose that sank a million units; despite support and praise from industry heavyweights – including legends like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon – the mainstream couldn’t get past Skafe’s appearance. Skafish didn’t sell, the sophomore album was rushed, and poor skinny Jim (that’s his first name) was forced to remain the biggest little name in Chicago’s underground rock scene.

That’s okay – that just meant more Skafish for those of us smart/determined enough to find him. Most of this guy’s stuff is out of print, but if you’re vigilant enough, you’ll find it. Jim himself is actually pretty active on the web: he has a rich, expansive website here and an equally satisfying blog here. Last April, Skafish released What’s This? 1976-1979, a collection of unreleased early tracks complete with audio commentary(!) from Jimbo and liner notes by Cheap Trick. You’d better believe I’ll be pickin’ that up before the decidedly non-new wave Thanksgiving I’ll be having this year (I have to go to Texas to see my family…yee-haw).

Hey Jim, if you’re reading this, New Wave Thanksgiving is the first thing I’m putting out if I ever get my own record label. I want “Disgracing The Family Name” for the lead off track. How much will that set me back? Get in touch with my people and we’ll work something out. You are truly a genius. Now give me your art for my stupid holiday cash-grab. Thanks.

Check out the Crawling Ear every Wednesday at Den Of Geek. The last Crawling Ear can be found here.