SKAFISH – AN OVERVIEW
Skafish made history in the 1970s. Those who were present when this innovative, multi-faceted performer appeared as a bolt of lightning on the musical scene, are emphatic in their acknowledgement of this virtuoso’s standing in musical history: a transcendent artist who was at the epicenter of a cultural earthquake that continues to rock the musical world today.
“If there is a Bach or Mozart in this time period, it is Jim Skafish,” said Dr. Ramon Satyendra, former Asst. Professor of Music Theory at Yale University.
“Unpredictable, over the top, with life or death conviction and reckless abandon, Skafish created Punk, New Wave and Alternative Rock in Chicago,” wrote rock legends Cheap Trick in April 2007.
“I was there. Skafish was the first and the only and so completely different that no other performer could follow him,” said Robin McBride, former head of Midwest and International A&R for Mercury Records, and Producer/Executive Producer for such groundbreaking artists as David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck.
Miles Copeland, founder and CEO of the legendary I.R.S. Records and manager of such artists as Sting and The Police said of Skafish, "Jim Skafish was one of the geniuses I thought I could give to the world, but the world wasn't ready! As a pioneer, innovator and someone who was just too hard to classify, I realize now that all he did way back then was what the musical world would eventually become. He helped put Chicago on the map as the pioneer of Punk and New Wave there and on the international stage, gave audiences a really insane ride." Besides signing such artists as the Go-Go’s and REM to his label, Copeland booked the Sex Pistols on their first European tour and was the first to bring artists such as Television, Patti Smith, Blondie and Wayne County to the UK.
Journalists have commented on Skafish’s genius as well. Bob Kurson, formerly a feature writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, whose stories have appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, and is now a contributing editor to Esquire, wrote in the Sunday, August 11th, 1996 issue of The Chicago Sun-Times, in an article entitled, Spirit Lives on for Chicago Punk Pioneers:
“Jimmy Skafish broke punk in Chicago in 1976 during an audition night at the now-defunct B’Ginnings nightclub in Schaumburg. Wearing an old ladies one-piece bathing suit and a purple page boy haircut, Skafish sprinkled the crowd with holy water while spewing bilious, fury-driven songs that terrified the entirely unsuspecting crowd. It was the first of countless performances at which the audience would literally desire to kill the outrageous singer, but it was also the birth of punk in Chicago….”
Kurson went to on to write: “Skafish is also thought to be among the first out-of-town punk performers to play New York’s infamous CBGB’s nightclub, where he appeared in 1977. Big name artists like Cheap Trick, the Police, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, XTC, the Dead Boys and David Johansen considered Skafish an originator and highly valued his work. His brilliant eponymously titled 1980 album – complete with horrifying cover – is among the most important records ever produced by a Chicago artist. It, however, like Skafish himself, is virtually unknown today.”
There are undoubtedly reasons for Skafish’s diminishing public profile, highly undeserved according to those-in-the-know. First, his art was so new and revolutionary, so multi-faceted and multi-layered, so ahead of its time, that it was hard for his audience to process it. Also, his physical appearance with its deliberate ugliness, enormous hook nose, appearance of breasts and gender disorientation was too shocking and psychologically disturbing for most people, even in the Punk scene.
As John Anderson, another eyewitness to Skafish’s early performances, and 2005 Grammy Award nominee as the director and editor for the Brian Wilson Presents: SMiLE DVD, said: “Skafish not only single-handedly created the Punk, New Wave and Alternative music movements of Chicago, he transcended these art forms both aurally and visually. His genius is beyond what most people could ever comprehend or process.”
Skafish, as a pioneer of Punk, New Wave and Alternative, incorporated tremendous variance into his work in terms of these newly emerged musical forms – from piercing, rage-filled, discordant, jarring cacophonies, often with lyrics that are still disturbing by today’s standards to melodic, gentler melodies. Many listeners at the time could handle one or the other, but not both. Another factor was that Skafish transcended, as John Anderson alluded to above, even the new movements he helped invent. His works were so ahead of their time that they might be perceived as fresh and new if introduced today.
Jim Skafish was born into a music family. His mother Violanda was a world class Coloratura Operatic Soprano and voice teacher. His father, Peter was a Big Band musician and musical arranger. Jim was first regarded as a child prodigy by his blind piano teacher, when he first began classical piano instruction at age 6. He began playing in Church, local Rock and Blues outfits at age 9. In 1969, at age 12, he began composing, writing jazz instrumentals and some pop songs. A year later, he made his first record. While continuing his extensive classical music studies all throughout high school, he also studied jazz piano with international jazz legend Willie Pickens at The American Conservatory Of Music in Chicago. In early 1973 at age 16, seeking to create music, sounds, forms and structures that had never been heard before, Jim began composing highly avant garde piano pieces, which lead to writing the songs that would create Chicago Punk.
From 1974 to 1979, Skafish wrote over 50 vocal songs for his band of the same name. What’s This? 1976-1979 contains eleven of Skafish’s most important songs recorded in August 1976, October 1977 and July/August 1978. Only two of the 11 recordings on this CD, Disgracing The Family Name and Work Song, have ever been released. In November 1979, Disgracing The Family Name and Work Song found their first record release in England and Europe on Illegal Records. In May 1980, his Eponymous debut LP was released internationally on I.R.S. Records, including two singles, Obsessions of You B/W Sink or Swim and Maybe One Time B/W No Liberation Here. In November 1982, Skafish recorded and turned in his second LP. So shocked and offended was the record company by what they heard, that Skafish was forced to issue a toned down version in September 1983, which the public knew as the second Skafish LP, Conversation. At the time, this proved for all intents and purposes to halt all of the momentum Skafish had so painstakingly built since his Chicago debut in February 1976.
Skafish’s credits are long, and he has toured and/or performed with the likes of: Ramones, Iggy Pop, The Police, U-2, XTC (who listed Skafish as their favorite new group in 1980), The Stranglers, Squeeze, New Order, Ultravox, Scorpions, UB-40, The Cramps, The Mumps, The Lemonheads, Scorpions, Sector 27, Sha Na Na and Dead Boys.
His credits include being the first Chicago punk / alternative artist to perform at CBGB’s in New York in April 1977; The Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles in February 1978; appearing in London in July 1980 before an audience of 45,000 with The Police, UB-40 and Squeeze; and that August, being filmed in front of approximately 20,000 people in the south of France for the now legendary international live concert film extravaganza, Urgh! A Music War, while on tour in England and Europe with Sting, The Police, XTC, Squeeze, and UB-40. In 1981, Urgh! A Music War was released and won the best music film award at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Skafish performed his magnum opus Sign of the Cross and was featured in the film’s finale alongside The Police and XTC.
Jim Skafish was the first Chicago Punk artist to receive national press beginning in February 1977 and the first to receive international press beginning in April 1978 in London’s New Musical Express with an article entitled: New Messiah Scores With Deviants by Punk writer Mykel Board. Skafish was also the first American artist ever to be signed to the now legendary I.R.S. records in February of 1979.
Skafish was unquestionably a pioneer decades ahead of his time. Billy Cox of PolyGram Records told him, “I believe you started Alternative music worldwide.” Twentieth Century Blues master and legend Willie Dixon repeatedly referred to Jim as “The best musician I know.” The peerless and one of the greatest Blues artists of all time, Muddy Waters, said of Skafish in a December 1981 interview in United Press International: “When Jim Skafish walks into a room, I could swear it was Mick Jagger.”
1988 saw Skafish’s first independent release, Limited Series Cassette, while 1992 saw the independent Chicago area release of his album, Best Kept Secrets. Skafish then began composing what would turn out to be well over 100 new songs throughout the next several years. In addition to the styles Skafish has already been known for, Jim has performed classical music since he was a small child and jazz since he was a young teenager. With that devotion to jazz and improvisation in mind, in May 2006, Jim released a much heralded CD for the Christmas season, Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas, on the La Befana Records label. The album showcased the artist’s great virtuosity and multi-facetedness, this time in the world of Jazz.
What’s This? 1976-1979
, to be released on April 1, 2008 by 829 Records
, the new Punk and Alternative label started by Skafish, stands as a permanent historical record of the artist’s musical breakthrough beginning in Chicago in the 1970’s. The CD holds the promise of a new appreciation for Skafish, his genius and pioneering achievement. It will be an appreciation long-awaited and highly warranted.