How does one qualify an album which is almost universally considered a lynchpin release for the musical genre it occupies and has incited a seemingly endless stream of arguments and upheaval on personal, political and social levels IN ADDITION TO causing a host of legal battles among the men responsible for creating and releasing it?
Under normal circumstances, one might call such an album a classic, essential or even simply an ‘important’ album but, when the genre that album falls into rejects all of the concepts associated with those terms, the discussion gets more difficult. Not only that but, AT THE SAME TIME, how does a band (or its individual members) walk behind the “punk” banner – which itself has always called for freedom from the ties of commercialism – but in-fight litigiously when it comes time to divide the spoils generated by the music which was produced?
These quandaries have been associated with the Dead Kennedys and their catalogue for decades. Since singer Eric “Jello Biafra” Boucher left the band in 1986 and the remaining members – “East Bay” Ray Pepperell, Geoffrey “Klaus Flouride” Lyall and Darren “D.H. Peligro” eventually decided to continue as a band without him (beginning in 2001, they continue to this day), arguments about song royalties, performance rights, who owns what and what it’s all worth and more have never been decided in a manner which everyone involved has found equitable or satisfactory.
None of the above sounds much like the sorts of things that the average punk band would have to contend with, right? Well, while it may come as a cold comfort, Dead Kennedys have never been an average punk band. From the moment the DKs first appeared with their first album in 1979, they introduced a socio-political dimension to punk rock which had (somehow) never been developed before. Granted, bands had their politics (Johnny Ramone, for example, was a Republican and The Ramones did release a song called “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg” in support of Ronald Reagan, after he was elected), but no group presented politics as a central role in their make-up quite like Dead Kennedys did. Frankly, the DKs flaunted their political beliefs and installed them as pivotal in their persona and music but, rather than making their points seem just timely (as those like “Bitburg” did), Dead Kennedys presented their politics as timeless social commentary, like manifestos of revolt more than just flash-in-the-pan complaints.
That spirit continues to hold up on the band’s debut album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, even now, thirty-seven years after its original release. “Kill The Poor” is the album’s opening track and flies in the face of both punk and rock orthodoxy in every way the band could think of. Conventional wisdom had (prior to this release) dictated that punk shouldn’t be dramatic? Maybe to make a point, East Bay Ray opens the song with a set of arena rock-ready, whole note down-strokes followed by Flouride and Peligro. That would be enough to get most punks’ attention (as well as raising a bit of ire, perhaps) but then Jello Biafra coasts in on top of them with a melody which is equal parts anti-anthemic (and perfectly formulaic) and saturated in ennui.
Somehow, while it shouldn’t sound good or particularly epic, the result is brilliant. There’s a grace about it which mocks the conventions of both rock and punk while simultaneously building momentum as well as listeners’ adrenaline levels. How’d they do it? Who knows. How does it still manage to sound good? Same answer – it just does. In fact, it turns out to be an ideal introduction for the bizarre glam/rockabilly/punk rock hybrid which follows it.
Incredibly, what “Kill The Poor” also does is establish the socio-political foundation upon which Dead Kennedys would build their legend for the duration of their time together too. Right off, Biafra’s lyrics which introduce his band, “Efficiency and progress is ours once more/ Now that we have the Neutron bomb / It’s nice and quick and clean and gets things done” establish a hyper-intelligent persona that introductions like “God save the Queen/ She ain’t no human being/ There is no future/ And England’s dreaming” or “Hey ho, let’s go” don’t even come close to mustering. Somehow, here, Dead Kennedys immediately establish themselves as a complete brand apart from EVERYTHING ELSE which happened to be going on in rock (regardless of whether it was punk, metal or just good ol’ rock n’ roll) and spontaneously expand a lot of minds as they do it. BUT THEN they lower their brows for listeners who need a pop hook and just blurt the words, “Kill kill kill kill kill the poor” as if they need to, in order to make sure tat some buffoon somewhere didn’t get the point.
Even now, almost four decades later, “Kill The Poor” remains as crass blunt and despicable as it is brilliant. In one fell swoop, Dead Kennedys establish their outward persona as great purveyors of unrefined, inconvenient truth pushed through by the singer’s wise desire to make it obvious when they’re playing down to the lowest common intellectual denominator, and add enough party-ready hooks to make them pogo along instead of scratching their heads. It’s frustrating, fun, aggravating and astute, an archetype for a genre which has historically laughed at the concept of archetypes.
Regardless of how “foundation establishing” “Kill The Poor” may or may not be, Dead Kennedys continue assaulting listeners as though they have something to prove through the rest of Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables‘ A-side. While songs like “When Ya Get Drafted” can blend easily into the background of any punk rock mix-tape now, they were incredibly incendiary when the album was originally released – at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, right before Ronald Reagan took office (and REALLY gave politically-minded punks an image to revolt against).
Lines like “Are you believing the morning papers?/ War is coming back in style/ There’s generals here, advisors there/ And Russians nibbling everywhere/ The chessboard’s filling up with red/ We make more profits when we blow off their heads” absolutely smack with vitriol, and the rushed, fairly uncertain tempo of the song itself perfectly complements such sentiments. In that way, it could easily be argued that what Dead Kennedys were doing was some honestly next-level writing and arranging in a medium which was still very much a pop music form – the sort of thing which hasn’t really been attempted much since.
As the A-side continues, the going does get a little lighter in regards to how harshly subjects are treated (check out the comparative escapism of “Let’s Lynch The Landlord,” a fact furthered by the dreamy/surfy bass and guitar arrangement that the song features), but also and with a hard, vicious bite (see the frenetic “Drug Me”), as if to compensate for such dalliances, but always returns to its plainly evident, incredibly critical center (as evidenced by the sardonic indictment which is “Your Emotions”).
That “return to center” is what makes the side-ender, “Chemical Warfare,” so satisfying, against an unnerving, frenetic (and sort of surfy) backdrop. Biafra fantasizes about breaking into a government facility and making off with toxic chemicals (check out “Now I got my own mustard gas in my pocket/ Climb on a tree on a branch and drop it/ On a country club full of Saturday golfers/ So I can watch them die chokin’ shakin’ in convulsions/ Go crazy crazy crazy crazy”) and can really win listeners thanks to the high energy alone. Granted, a song like this wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting released in the post-terror Excited States of America (not even by Biafra) without a festival of scandal and fallout, but it was possible to do in the Eighties which makes for a great time capsule, and it also leaves the energy levels sky high for listeners to hurriedly flip the vinyl in order to find more. “Chemical Warfare” is a perfect fate, bait and inspiration.
The B-side of the Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables LP follows a similar structural paradigm to the A-side but, where the A- shocks listeners into action, the B- plays a more active role in simply keeping them moving. To that end, “California Uber Alles” opens the going by carefully touching nerves and causing the dander on the backs of listeners’ necks to stand perfectly erect, before Biafra bellows the title lyric so hard that it will cause the unsuspecting to recoil with all the force their central nervous systems can expend. The sinister vibe of the song quickly becomes positively dark as Flouride’s bass takes on an almost mechanical precision and Pepperell’s guitar slithers and slinks darkly, exploding to punctuate lyrical moments in the chorus.
“California Uber Alles” sets an engaging tone for the B-side of Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables without question, but that is not to say the song is the shining star of the second side. In fact, it’s simply the jumping-off point for it. “I Kill Children” follows “Uber Alles” and removes all the pretense that any thinking man may try to affix to the band by just oozing bile (lines like “Ever wanted to die?/ Of course you have/ But I won’t ’til I get my revenge/ I don’t wanna see people anymore” about say it all), before taking a warm eye to the most civil of offenses, “Stealing People’s Mail.”
That string of three songs actually proves to be the most genuine on the album, really. The civil disobediance in each is obvious, but there are fewer fashionable provocative slogans compared to “Chemical Warfare,” “Kill The Poor” and “When Ya Get Drafted.” Unlike those songs too, there doesn’t feel like there’s as much image cultivation; the triad of “California Uber Alles,” “I Kill Children” and “Stealing People’s Mail” just stand rigid and let listeners’ imaginations run wild with them.
As the side begins to draw to a close, Dead Kennedys find another anthem of provocation in the form of “Holiday In Cambodia” (if lines like “You’re a star-belly sneech/ You suck like a leach/ You want everyone to act like you” don’t raise a bit of social ire in you, dear reader, check your pulse) which remains a classic, in spite of both the band’s and genre’s dislike of the term. There, after some whirling guitar notes successfully create a sense of dread and Biafra mumbles the first words of the first verse, the different angles of aggression lock together perfectly and explode after the lode is primed. Here, again, the guitar doesn’t exactly follow punk convention as Pepperell whips up a torrent using surf-rock sounds and a muscular but lean progression, and the whole thing just bursts wide open when the band hits the chorus and mixes pop with napalm to create a delightfully caustic amalgam guaranteed to spawn earworms in those exposed.
Even now, decades later, “Holiday In Cambodia” plays like a perfectly ecstatic aural assault but then, as if to add insult to sublime injury, Dead Kennedys slam Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables closed with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” which perfectly crosswires and/or inverts the concepts of “subversive genius” and “farce.”
To this day, listeners will find themselves wondering why Dead Kennedys chose to wind up their debut with a Presley cover. This was, after all, a band who seemed to have an ulterior motive behind everything they did – so why cover Elvis? The singer had already been dead for a couple of years when FFFRV came out, so taking shots at his cultural image would have been fairly petty, but what other reasons could there be? The clear and obvious one which leaps to this critic’s mind is simple: it is a poetic way of implying that “The king is dead – it’s our turn now.”
That may or may not be the case, but the excited air as well as the dayglo coloring which feels as though it has been splattered all over the song here makes it easy to believe; here, Biafra pushes the tremolo which is always in his voice that much harder, and presents it at a level which is undeniably garrish while East Bay Ray amps up the tempo of the song to make it feel like a really manic party. The final result of the band’s tinkering is a cover which is both better-than-the-original and more representative of the Dead Kennedys’ personality than it was for Presley himself; it was little more than a late-period novelty number for Presley, but it’s an anthem for Dead Kennedys.
“So, because of its vintage (thirty-six years, as of this writing) and obvious influence on modern punk rock and hardcore, why shouldn’t this review be filed under the ‘Classics’ heading,” you ask, “What’s the deal?” Well, funny you should ask, reader. It’s entirely possible that Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables could be regarded as one of the most influential punk albums of all time but, because the members of Dead Kennedys have always been as vocal in their dislike of such concepts as “classicism” and “historic” as they have been in the concept of “nostalgia,” attaching any of them even now may still be seen as abhorrent – and so cast the validity of this critical essay into question. It is for that reason we will simply articulate the gravity of Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables thusly: “the relevance of Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables cannot be easily measured. This album might just be one of the most influential of all time in that it continues to exert a tremendous amount of interest to this day, and elements of this music continue to help shape new bands and their music, even now.”