Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: Dead Kennedys, "Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables"

Artist: Dead Kennedys
Album: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
Year: 1980
Label: Alternative Tentacles

Throughout the history of music, there are certain vocalists whose voices are so unique, they almost defy description. Not only do their voices define the sound of their band, but they often define the sound of an entire movement. Bringing often controversial, extremely left-wing views to the punk scene, Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys remain one of the most important bands in the history of music. Moving into what is know called "hardcore" and bringing extremely political lyrics, it is quite easy to see the connection from the Kennedys to groups like Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down. From their unapologetic lyrics to the strangely "poppy" feel to many of their songs, they are truly a unique band within the long history of punk rock. Their self-released 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is an amazing work of angst-ridden rock music.

The production on Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is sparse, to say the least. Early versions of the release have a noticeable "hiss" and the music itself is about as raw as any ever recorded. However, these facts are in NO way a distraction to the brilliant music found throughout the album. With their debut record, the Dead Kennedys separated themselves from the rest of the punk scene by the fact that their music was "heavier" than most of their contemporaries. In retrospect, it is clear that Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables was one of the first "hardcore" albums ever recorded. Everything about the album is original, from the sound to the lyrical content, even in the manner in which the band credits themselves in the liner notes. Overall, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is one of the most intense and intelligent records in history, introducing the public to what made the Dead Kennedys such an amazing band. Attacking ideas from pointless violence, the dangers of nuclear war, to overbearing governments, the Dead Kennedys took punk beyond simple "raging" against the establishment. With the lyrical brilliance of Jello Biafra, the Dead Kennedys "took it up a notch" and forced their audience to be informed and intelligent, not just yelling for the sake of yelling.

The songs themselves are quick, focused, heavy bursts of ferocious energy. The driving bass of Klaus Flouride sets a sense of urgency within the music, as well as providing a bit of a darker tone which works in amazing contrast to Biafra's vocals. The sometimes wild, sometimes crushing guitar work of the man simply known as "East Bay Ray" brings the intensity of the Stooges and it often sounds like he is trying to destroy his guitar with the ferocity with which he plays. Dead Kennedys drummer, Ted, is nothing short of a madman. Not a beat is missed anywhere on Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, and this is no simple task as the band plays in various time signatures, often switching mid-song. Biafra brings, in both style and substance, a vocal presences that had never before been heard. His snarky, warbling voice provides an eeirly whimsical mood to the songs, but the sense of honesty cannot be missed. Singing the most politically charged lyrics since the heyday of Dylan, the Dead Kennedys restarted the trend of the "underground" having keen knowledge of atrocities and other problems throughout the world.

The lyrical brilliance of Jello Biafra are highlighted throughout the album, but perhaps they are most clear on the two legendary tracks, "California Über Alles" and "Holiday In Cambodia." The first of these two songs was also the first single that the Dead Kennedys ever released. The name itself is a play on the old German National Anthem, which contained the phrase, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles." The Kennedys song is a scathing critique of then California Governor, Jerry Brown. The song, told from Brown's perspective paints a dark vision of America, where those who aren't hip and cool (hippies and punkers) are taken to "camps" or taken away by the "suede denim secret police." Biafra makes reference to George Orwell's classic "1984," as well as making a reference to some guy names Shakespeare. Musically, the song is one of the finest tension/release songs ever composed, and combined with the lyrics, "California Über Alles" is a simply stunning song.

"Holiday In Cambodia" is certainly one of the best known songs by the Dead Kennedys. Lyrically, the song is a mixed assault on the brutal totalitarianism in many of the Asian-Pacific countries as well as the prevailing apathy towards the problem that was displayed by most other countries in the world. The song delves further, attacking Americans who assume that they know everything with the lines, "So you been to school for a year or two, and you know you've seen it all...In daddys' car thinkin' you'll go far, back East your type don't crawl..." Biafra spends much of the song contrasting the "easy" life of Americans to the brutal living conditions under Pol Pot's regime. The song itself has a very menacing mood to it and both lyrically and musically, it is truly unrelenting. The lyrics move from antagonistic to very dark and extremely blunt when Biafra sings, "Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back, for a bowl of rice a day...Slave for soldiers till you starve, then your head is skewered on a stake..." Serving as a stirring wake-up call to the truth of the atrocities around the world, the Dead Kennedys no-holds-barred lyrical approach remains the model for countless groups to this day.

Though released nearly thirty years ago, the debut album from the Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, still stands as one of the most intelligently intense records ever recorded. The untamed, vigorous music of the band, combined with the unmistakable vocal style of Jello Biafra create a sound that remains unique to the Dead Kennedys. Forcing attention to issues of totalitarianism both internationally as well as domestically, the lyrics of the Dead Kennedys were unrelentingly critical of all forms of oppression. Raging against capitalist greed, conservatism, and violence in general, the Dead Kennedys ignited a social movement, as well as perhaps the California punk scene overall. While some of the lyrics now appear outdated, the message and the music found within the Dead Kennedys 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, continue to be relevant and inspirational to new bands. The album itself is truly a keystone of both the punk and hardcore movement, and it is a sensational record that should not be missed.

Standout tracks: "Kill The Poor," "California Über Alles," and "Holiday In Cambodia."

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