Review Summary: The best album that the punk era has to offer.Every week for the foreseeable future (or until I get bored of the project), I will be reviewing a handful of albums from a given year. They may be albums that I feel are overlooked; that are in need of a review; or are just something that I want to write about. This week: 1980
The Dead Kennedys occupied a grey area between the wave of punk music coming out of Britain (Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, etc.) and the burgeoning hardcore scene in their native Los Angeles (Black Flag, Circle Jerks). They were harder edged than the original punks but not quite as aggressive as the violent hardcore groups. On top of that, they were better musicians than just about anyone in either scene. Whatever you call the Kennedys, their debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
stands at the top of the punk movement.
Dead Kennedys were:
Jello Biafra - vocals
East Bay Ray - guitar
Klaus Flouride - bass
Ted - drums
In 14 songs covering about 33 minutes, Dead Kennedys played what is effectively the most menacing surf rock ever produced. East Bay Ray's guitar style was like nothing else in the punk scene, making songs like "Let's Lynch the Landlord," "Kill the Poor" and "Funland at the Beach" sound like classic beach tunes--provided the listener ignored the gruesome lyrics about bombing the poor and crushed little kids on the boardwalk. That's not to say that music itself couldn't be violent and chaotic: "Drug Me" is one of the most technically impressive punk songs ever played; one of several blistering songs under two minutes on the album and a great highlight for highly underrated bassist Klaus Flouride. But Dead Kennedys are far from the monotonous angst and rage of their contemporaries.
Instrumental skill aside, the heart and soul of Dead Kennedys is frontman Jello Biafra. His variety of voices and biting sarcastic tone are the reason that songs like "California Uber Alles" and "Holiday in Cambodia" are all-time classics. He is gleefully psychotic in a way that suggests he's actually the only sane person around. He's the Joker if Batman were a concerned parent. Whether he's singing about stealing mail or using chemical weapons on a country club, he sounds dangerous in a way that the listener can't help but root for.
The combination of musicianship, intelligence and highly quotable lyrics put Dead Kennedys on a pedestal above almost everybody after just one album. Unfortunately, their future albums never quite captured Fresh Fruit
's magic, and the band dissolved after the mediocre Bedtime for Democracy
in 1986. But the debut is a must-listen for anybody that thinks punk music is just three chords and a lot of anger.