While the California punk culture is known for its skate punks and as the birthplace of American hardcore, there’s an oft-forgotten art punk scene that played rhythm guitar to the leading one in New York City – the most famous (and visible) of which are San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys. Acts such as The Units and The Screamers utilized gender-bending imagery and played antagonistic live shows that baited and harassed audience members; unfortunately, the latter’s failure to ever produce an album outside of a couple demos and some bootlegs relegated them to obscurity in the modern information age, although their influence is alive in well in the Kennedys. They were artists among a sea of interchangeable angry punk kids, and their callous treatment of all things sacred typifies their debut full-length Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
Look no further than “Drug Me,” which features The Screamers’ Paul Roessler playing the creepiest synthesizer chords this side of Suicide as Biafra describes a Huxley-esque obsession of and need for conformation. Whereas other punk artists used harsh vocals to portray anger, frontman Jello Biafra’s1 shaky voice and methamphetamine-speed delivery2 demonstrated the barely-hanging-on frenzy behind seething anger toward sociopolitical norms with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Who knew a track called “Kill the Poor” could sound so upbeat? But then again, that’s the point.
The instrumentation of early hardcore punk (e.g. Middle Class, early Black Flag, early Dischord Records) was rarely more complicated than a few power chords played as fast as possible; the Kennedys were unique in their nuanced amalgamation of surf rock,3 rockabilly, and musical theatre. Of course, there are the well-known punk anthems “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia,”4 but there’s also the Haunted Mansion-themed solo on “When Ya Get Drafted,” the demented carousel motif at the end of “Chemical Warfare,” and the controversial Elvis Presley cover of “Viva Las Vegas.” Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables also has its fair share of hardcore finger-shredders, such as “Stealing People’s Mail” – an ode to anomie for its own sake. Klaus Flouride’s5 bass is spectacular, and it’s good that it’s so damn audible on an album with threadbare production. The lack of overall fidelity may rob his licks of their power, but he’s the strongest part of the Kennedys’ sound; without which they would be just another west coast punk band with an eccentric frontman.
Sometimes, the artistry is a little weird. What the hell was the group thinking with “I Kill Children” and “Funland at the Beach” – two gross-outs that predate The Offspring’s equally grisly “Beheaded” by a decade? Biafra could be commenting on the aestheticization of violence taken to a logical extreme, but as queer as a clockwork orange that a man named Jello may be, a Stanley Kubrick he is not. Biafra has a strange interest with the deaths of young children, but hey, that’s certainly a means to an end in offending conservative family values. Whether or not it passes into teenage edginess is up to the individual listener.
Biafra is also inconsistent in his commentary: it’s ironic for a man who decries yuppie white kids as needing a holiday in a police state to get their worldview in line to compare his homelife situation to Dachau.6 He has the attitude that he’s awakened, that his views are interpreting the world for the corrupted mess that it really is, and that those who don’t understand or disagree just aren’t using their brain to really think;7 Biafra is angry and frustrated, but he’s also arrogant. Always a better poet than a lyricist, “Your Emotions” and “Ill in the Head” have some ferocious wordplay, but Biafra’s delivery is too snotty to facilitate those tracks’ semi-empowering content; and “Forward to Death” holds no candles to Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown.” No wonder Herb Caen called them “tasteless” with regards to their live concert on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the JFK assassination in 1978.8
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is an album whose songs make better covers than they do originals. Dead Kennedys were never the best studio band, and their raucous, frequently bizarre stage antics9 rarely translated their wit and wrath onto wax. Robert Christgau famously referred to Biafra as a “would-be out-of-work actor with a Tiny Tim vibrato,”10 an acerbic comparison that isn’t entirely too far removed from what the Kennedys were going for in the first place. Politics is an absurd profession, and what better way to highlight that than through art and performance that is even more so?
1. Kill the Poor – (3:03) – ★★★★☆
2. Forward to Death – (1:21) – ★★☆☆☆
3. When Ya Get Drafted – (1:22) – ★★★☆☆
4. Let’s Lynch the Landlord – (2:10) – ★★★★☆
5. Drug Me – (1:54) – ★★★★★
6. Your Emotions – (1:19) – ★★★★☆
7. Chemical Warfare – (2:54) – ★★★☆☆
8. California Über Alles – (3:00) – ★★★★★
9. I Kill Children – (2:02) – ★★☆☆☆
10. Stealing People’s Mail – (1:32) – ★★★★☆
11. Funland at the Beach – (1:47) – ★★☆☆☆
12. Ill in the Head – (2:43) – ★★★☆☆
13. Holiday in Cambodia – (4:32) – ★★★★★
14. Viva Las Vegas [Elvis Presley cover] – (2:36) – ★★★☆☆
1Real name “Eric Reed Boucher.” I like to pretend that he and Claire Boucher of Grimes fame are related.
2Ha, I made a pun.
3Does the intro riff to “Chemical Warfare” sound familiar? It’s almost identical to that on the “Too Drunk to Fuck” single.
4… the latter of which has an extended guitar intro and solo absent on the single release and that on the Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death compilation.
5Yes, “Flouride;” not “fluoride” like the element. It bothers me, too.
6… from “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”
7Biafra would claim as much in his spoken-word introduction to The Offspring’s Ixnay on the Hombre in 1997.
8Caen, Herb. “On the Rotunda.” San Francisco Chronicle, November 1978. Accessed April 27, 2016.
9… as documented on “Pull My Strings,” a live track from the Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death compilation album.
10Christgau, Robert. “Robert Christgau: Consumer Guide May 4, 1981.” Robert Christgau: Consumer Guide May 4, 1981. Accessed April 27, 2016. http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/cg/cgv5-81.php.
Taken from the Village Voice publication on 4 May 1981.