Monday, 17 August 2009

Dead Kennedys - In God We Trust, Inc./Plastic Surgery Disasters (1981/82)

You lucky people!
We're on a mini-tangent of conscious punk rock here, and what history of sober reality-music would be complete without a look-in from San Fran peeploids the Dead Kennedys? (Explanation of the name: Biafra's idea was that the Kennedy assassinations marked 'the end of the American Dream' and a point where the mainstream populace tuned in and turned off, so to speak).
If you've never heard 'Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables', the hallmark West Coast punk album, you had better be ready for fast, loud music that is a total subversion of the meatheaded, cultish nihilism that had come to characterize the stale punk scene of the early 80's. If it weren't for these guys and a few select believers really pushing the limits, slapping the kids out of an insular scene mentality, then punk would not have been the all-important social movement it was and the 80's underground wouldn't have happened. Period.

The band, fronted and personified by the brilliantly-named vibrato/activist Jello Biafra, also manage to introduce no small degree of musicality into the mix . The other Dead Kennedys were seasoned guitarists (both in their early 30's by 1980) with a fetish for surf music, rockabilly and Ennio Morricone; these influences do plenty to illuminate just what made the band's take on hardcore punk so unique and apealing. But they didn't stop them diving in head-first and play everything at 1000 miles an hour, of course.
Over the four LPs they banged out no social hypocrisy was safe from Jello's fearsome pen, no politician or evil-doer let off the hook. The result being that by album number three the music was starting to take a backseat to Biafra's soapboxing. They never made a truly poor album by anyone's standards though, always challenging what was then-acceptable in Reagan's America of suppression and under-the-counter dealings. It's the job of art and succeeding generations to challenge, in case you forgot. And for several years after that debut landed, it must've seemed like the Dead Kennedys would keep accelerating and mouthing off until they dashed themselves to pieces (or at least until the CIA did some tour van brake-tampering).

'In God We Trust, Inc.' is the mini-album breaker between 'Vegetables' and 'Plastic Surgery'. It's their most conventionally 'hardcore' album musically, and I included it because it's better than everything you cherish and includes some of their catchiest ditties.
The production on the sophomore album presented here, 'Plastic Surgery Disasters', is even louder than on the previous records, amped up right across the board, frequently fuzzing out and coming off like 'Raw Power' as written by Noam Chomsky. It's as good as, if not better than 'Vegetables'. The lyrics are razor sharp, often hilarious and encouraging, and much of the album resonates even more in today's society; although there are a couple of topical references that might warrant a wiki ('Kepone Factory'). Biafra's sense of humour as usual keeps things ticking and there's no air of preachiness about songs like 'Forest Fire' or the classic extended metaphor of 'Halloween' - he's just pointing out the bloody obvious, and it's both funny and infuriating. They call it satire, I believe?
Jello is still going strong as an activist and musician with the inspirational label he founded in 1979, Alternative Tentacles (love the 'batcasts' and free mp3s on that site); he briefly ran for leadership of the Green Party in 2000 and I intend to post at least one of his better spoken word-tour albums on SS at some point. Some of his collaborations down the years are surprisingly good, too, he's done an album and tour with Melvins and a handful of albums with Ministry as Lard.

If you're one of the uninitiated and are by some freak chance still reading, you'll doubtless be sucking your thumb and wondering why all the 'Plastic Surgery' songs sound the same, with indecipherable but articulate-sounding lyrics garbled over the top. To this I would counter: a) yer wrong; b) remember what it was like to listen to music? Didn't think so; c) if you are still having trouble go here & here and see if you can't clear some cobwebs. If you require incentive, just imagine you're being told to do this by the Wire/Pitchfork/NME/Guardian supp./Daily Mail (delete as applicable).

Ripped @ 320 avec R't.
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Jello Biafra meets the mighty Nardwuar

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