It Started With A Disc From R2 September 2017
It wasn’t my first experience of the Dead Kennedys. That had come a few years earlier when – I know this sounds a little crazy – I was walking in the Black Mountains with the scouts and one of the scout leaders saw my Walkman and leant me three tapes: Bruce Springsteen’s The River; the soundtrack of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle; and Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys. I guess neither of us really belonged in the scouts. I loved The River and now I still see the hills and trees of my first listen. I could take or leave much of the Sex Pistols: some great recordings and much padding which made little sense outside the film. The Dead Kennedys, however, were a total revelation.
I was a quietly anti-establishment fourteen year old with a wont to gently undermine authority: pushing the boundaries without ever really getting into trouble at school because the teachers didn’t expect this quietly academic boy to challenge their authority. It was this joy at causing offence which appealed to me about the Dead Kennedys: the very name was a poke in the eye for the American establishment. Songs like ‘Kill The Poor’ were clearly played for laughs, but underpinned by a real burning anger at the iniquities of society. And Jello Biafra sounded scarily enraged. When I heard the scathing attack on middle class liberals that was ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ I was totally won over.
Musically the surf-punk sound had roots in The Ramones, but with such sonic attack that it often obscured the lyrics. This was a more subtle sound than simple punk thrash; but with a high octane ninety mile an hour delivery.
Fast forward to 1985 and I had started at university, had a bit more freedom to poke at the underbelly of conformity and pomposity: but I never really had the confidence to do anything genuinely outrageous. The Dead Kennedys were my outlet. When I first heard Frankenchrist I could hear the subtlety – yes, I know you have to listen hard for it – that had always been there. The music brought the wit, irony and satire to the fore all drenched in righteous indignation; hatred for a system that destroyed individualism.
The dystopian vision in these songs was genuinely frightening and intrinsically part of the eighties: the death throes of the cold war; the power games played out in the middle-east by Western ‘democracies’ (consequences still with us); and the unholy combination of Reagan and Thatcher. Jello Biafra was puncturing the posturing of mid-America. The slow degeneration of the sixties dream of social cohesion was described in ‘This Could Be Anywhere’:
‘My dad’s a vigilante now
He’s bringing home these weird-ass friends
Like the guy who fires blanks at his TV
When Kojak’s on
Or the guy who shows off his submachine gun
To his sixteen-year-old daughter’s friends.’
There were songs which poked fun at the worst excesses of American society: the mindless pap of MTV – how accurate was Biafra’s prophecy that ‘The lowest common denominator rules’?; the mindless bigotry and violence of Jocks and Goons who become the business leaders and politicians: ‘The future of America is in their hands/Watch it roll over Niagara falls’. The songs were slower, but the guitar no less jagged and the drums beaten with no less force. There was even a trumpet.
What about the blasphemy of the album title? They’d already released an EP titled In God We Trust, Inc exploring religion as a justification for big business. The album’s title clearly referenced the use of religion to justify the greed of man and ‘A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch’ asked ‘Will Elvis take the place of Jesus in a thousand years?’
The whole album package was designed to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. The cover showed a group of Shriners, a sub-group of the Masons, in mini-cars with each driver wearing a fez; so far beyond caricature and satire that it needed no comment. Inside was a pull-out reproduction of an image by artist HR Giger, who designed for the film Alien, simply called Landscape XX, more commonly ‘Penis Landscape’. The intention was to offend the sensibilities of the right wing moral majority. And they succeeded. In ways they might not have predicted.
The final track of Frankenchrist is an extended anthem to an anarchist future, saving America from nihilistic destruction. Biafra’s manifesto if you will; he would later run for President as the Green Party candidate. ‘The Stars And Stripes Of Corruption’ goes beyond the realms of much politically inspired hardcore and tries to suggest solutions. Okay these solutions may be trite; but this is a song and call to arms, not a political tract. It includes these lines: ‘I’m thankful I live in a place/Where I can say the things I do/Without being taken out and shot.’ Unfortunately for the Dead Kennedys the moral majority, in the form of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, led a prosecution of their record label for obscenity. HR Giger’s painting which was completely devoid of eroticism, rather a literal representation of a society based on how we can screw each other over.
The band collapsed under the pressure and then further tore the remnants apart years later in a fight over publishing rights and royalties. Frankenchrist, however, remains a high point of American punk. No the lyrics weren’t profound, but they were witty and incisive, and the music was defiantly hardcore, but inventive and creative.