Tuesday, September 28, 2010

30 Years of Rotting Vegetables

Another anniversary worth celebrating: The Dead Kennedys' debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables dropped, according to Wikipedia, some time in September 1980. It was an extremely important album for a certain time, place, and mindset. Almost everyone I knew who was into punk in high school had been introduced to the genre through this album (well, along with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols). And, as often happens with insular scenes, it's very popularity made it suspect. This album, and particularly the "hit" "Holiday in Cambodia," was the punk album that people who weren't really that committed to punk all listened to, or at least were aware of, and as a result, by 1984 it was considered the height of poseurdom to mention the Dead Kennedys, the equivalent of showing up to a Jesus Lizard show in 1992 wearing a Green Day t-shirt. This was, of course, a ridiculous situation. DK deserved to be the most popular hardcore band! They wrote great, catchy, memorable songs with hooks sticking out of them on all sides. They had a great frontman with a distinctive voice, writing memorable lyrics and presenting an iconic image (he always kind of reminded me of The Joker). They had great album covers (thanks mostly to the collage artwork of Winston Smith). There was every reason for them to be the stars of the scene. (This is one of the reasons I like blogging about this stuff. Would anyone born even 5 years before or after me be aware of the cultural signifigance of the Dead Kennedys at that particular moment? Could research of the record of sales or media coverage bear it out?)

Take the albums opener, "Kill the Poor." With it's marshall intro and it's ridiculously catchy chorus, it's a song that grabs people's attention. "Accessible" was kind of a dirty word at the time, but a song like this being accessible meant that more people were exposed to Jello Biafra's radical (and somewhat incoherent) politics. At the time I first heard DK, I was deeply into Alice Cooper, and I took songs like "Kill the Poor" and "I Kill Children" as cousins to Alice's songs like "Dead Babies" and "I Love the Dead," purely designed to shock and offend the audience.* But after a while, the lyrics sink in, and I realized that there was an idea behind this shock. "KtP" is an update of "A Modest Proposal" for the Reagan era (and yes, I realize Reagan hadn't even been elected in September 1980), and it doesn't spare the feckless left ("Jane Fonda on the screen today/Convinced the liberals it's OK/So let's get dressed and dance away the night"--I love that internal rhyme, "Fonda on da"). Liberals get some of the harshest blows from Jello throughout the album, from "Holiday in Cambodia"'s caustic portrait of priveledged college students who wear their liberal causes like fashion accessories, to "California Uber Alles" which imagines Jerry Brown becoming president and instituting a totalitarian rule where people are forced to do yoga at gunpoint (following Reagan's election, they would rewrite the song to be about Ronnie as the far-less-funny "We Got a Bigger Problem Now." In the early 90's, Bay Area rappers The Disposable Heroes of Hip Hoprisy rewrote it again to be about governor Pete Wilson).

Jello's politics are not exactly the most mature or coherent. He seems to be some kind of anarchosocialist who believes the government should not exist, and should heavily tax and regulate business.** But he's the right guy for the job--you don't want a reasonable moderate writing your punk songs, you want a guy that wants to lynch his landlord and release chemical weapons at the country club. By the time the second album rolled around, Jello's paranoia becomes comical, and by Frankenchrist, he can no longer seem to contain his rants in accessible pop songs, and ends the album with "Stars and Stripes of Corruption," 7 minutes of catchy hooks like "Budget's in the red? Let's tax religion" and "Why not more arts and theater in schools instead of sports?" Eventually, he just started doing "spoken word" performances, which were basically nutty political rants, and releasing them as 3-disc albums. The guy had a lot to say. But on Fresh Fruit, he manages to squeeze his views into kick ass punk rock songs.

With all the rad politics the album is built on, one of my favorite tracks remains "Stealin' People's Mail." It's such a ridiculous song, pretty much the only one Jello wrote on the album that isn't hammering some political point home (there is that brief reference to "Checks to politicians from real estate firms"), and it just ROCKS. It sounds great on a mix tape, whiplashing from whatever song precedes it.

To my ears, Fresh Fruit is the perfect punk rock record. It almost feels like everything that had come before was paving the way for this record, which takes the best aspects of all previous punk bands and bonds them together through a mysterious alchemy.

One of the hallmarks of the hardcore era was shitty recording, since none of these bands were backed by major labels, and many of them were just small town kids with no idea what the fuck they were doing in the studio. Fresh Fruit is a great example of this, the sound being pretty awful in a way that actually makes it sound better. It's way too treble-y, the guitar pushed into the red, the sound overly compressed. It's not a "warm" sound by any means. But it's exactly the sound this music needs, making everything sharper, harsher, emphasizing the attack. It's as unpleasant a sound as the subject matter. Meanwhile, you've got the band playing ridiculously fast for the time. Within a couple years, this album would sound quaintly old fashioned next to Minor Threat or DRI, but for 1980, these guys are playing FAST.

By the way, their second LP, Plastic Surgery Disasters, is just as good. Maybe even better, in fact, with amazing full on punk songs like "Terminal Preppie" and "Forest Fire" on the A side, and some really cool extended prog-punk pieces like "Riot" and "I am the Owl" on the flip.

*This turns out to be true--Jello was a huge Alice Cooper fan, and acknowledged that he was consciously trying to write horror songs in the Alice Cooper/Black Sabbath tradition, but he decided that, instead of writing about vampires, he'd write horror songs about cops.

**It's fun to try to make out coherent philosophies from the angry young'uns of the early 80's. Sometimes you get these odd trains of thought that make sense, but are completely off the political grid. Bay Area band Code of Honor, for instance, advocated California seceding from the union to escape Reaganomics, making them one of the few leftist voices for state's rights.


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