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13 March 2012

Dead Kennedys - 'Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables' (Cherry Red)

The first time I bought Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was in 8th or 9th grade, at a local chain store called Camelot Music. The format of choice, of course, was the cassette, and I rocked the shit out of this tape in my high school years. The political-themed satire was not lost on my young mind, nor were the fast tempos and rocking guitars. I loved Dead Kennedys, even delving into Jello Biafra's spoken word records (which I actually used to own on vinyl! Hooray for podcasts in expensive formats). Listening now, I still think the band never made a record better than this, but they're also playing in a really weird style that I didn't pick up on when I was young. Dead Kennedys really don't sound like anyone else, ever, even in punk. It's too melodic for hardcore, and too theatrical overall. They have a strange surf-music edge that cuts through everything else, and then Biafra who sing-shouts like a rabid animal being electrocuted (which inadvertently made him one of the unique vocal stylists in all of rock music, though he'll never be recognised as such). Biafra actually wrote the words and music to the majority of these songs and he has tendencies towards Phil Spector-style 60s pop. If you don't believe it, listen to 'Let's Lynch the Landlord', which is pretty much a bouncy Ronettes song with novelty lyrics. But DKs are too sophisticated to be novelty music, even novelty punk, and there are moments of genuine anger at the forthcoming Reagan 80s throughout the lyrics. All are readable, of course, on the brilliant Winston Smith collage if your copy is lucky enough to have one included. Mine wasn't, but then a few years ago at a flea market in Scotland I found a copy of this record with the actual LP missing, but collage intact. And as political theatre, Biafra is hilarious, since the punk song is the perfect format to taunt without needed footnotes or citations. Some of Fresh Fruit's finest moments are the less pointed ones, such as 'Stealing People's Mail' or the brilliant 'Your Emotions' (written by guitarist East Bay Ray). But the high point of the whole record comes from former guitarist 6025's contribution, 'Forward to Death', which is a perfectly articulated burst of pure nihilism. It feels out of place on Fresh Fruit, probably suiting a different band, which is probably why 6025 was out of the picture by the time they recorded this. But thank Franken-Christ that they still recorded it. His other contribution, 'Ill in the Head', contains a bit of edgy guitar interplay that is another reminder how precisely good DKs are as a rock band. The two most famous songs from this album are 'Holiday in Cambodia' and 'California Uber Alles', both of which I've listened to so many times I can't even hear them anymore. That 'California' was articulate enough to critique Jerry Brown for neoliberal populism is remarkable, I suppose. But the twisted cover version of 'Viva Las Vegas' which closes the album is maybe the truest expression of Biafra's America - a messy ball of chaos and vapidity which, despite his anger, he secretly loves.

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