I first came across The Dead Kennedys when I was in my early teens, I was obsessed with the singles chart at the time and they were a band who, somehow, did not get their records played so much on the chart rundown on BBC Radio 1 on Sundays. I guess if Frankie’s Relax got banned, The Dead Kennedys’ ‘California Über Alles’, ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ and ‘Kill The Poor’ were hardly going to get a look it. Since I had plenty of other music to keep me going at the time they remained a band who were, to my young mind, exotic and sick in equal measure (and writing that I now wonder why I did not explore them more).
Anyway things moved on and New Order, The Smiths and Two Tone bands dominated my 1980s, The Dead Kennedys went largely forgotten and I only came back to them in a rather roundabout way. While living in West Wales in the early 1990s I met some people who took me out of the musical rut I had got into and introduced me to some new bands. Enter The Pixies, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and…Ministry. I was absolutely blown away by all of them, but Ministry’s politically and musically full on Psalm 69 album became a real favourite during those long dark and wet Welsh evenings, and while their follow up, Filth Pig, did not have the same resonance for me Ministry’s Al Jourgensen’s side project, Lard, certainly did, and their 1997 album Pure Chewing Satisfaction became a real favourite.
Lard was a collaboration with, amongst others, Jello Biafra; late of the Dead Kennedys, and this lead me to revisit the latter’s music. I was impressed with what I heard and I discovered that they were not some sick novelty band from my teenage youth but a powerful punk band from California with Biafra at their politically motivated centre. Lard had two great politically motivated rock musicians in Biafra and Jourgensen and they worked really well together.
The next I heard of Biafra was when I went to see him in one of his spoken word gigs. In front of a crowd of no more than 200 he spoke for around 4 hours, and at no point during that time was I bored, nor did my mind wander. He was fascinating talking with immense passion and charisma about the political and social issues that have marked his oeuvre, although I am not quite sure whether some of the ‘punks’ who had come to see him were quite expecting what they saw; and he had to remind them at one point that it was not 1977 any more.
It is this comment that seems to typify Biafra. For him punk is not dead it has just moved on; and it never was about growing a mohican and wearing safety pins anyway. Which brings me to the subject of this review, for Biafra has remerged into my consciousness with his third album as Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
This is a true return to form from a man who seems as angry and as determined as ever to uncover cant, hypocrisy, and the evils of capitalist ‘democracies’; but especially the US. He is a born communicator (I know of no one else who could have kept my attention for 4 hours in the way that he did), and this comes out through his lyrics on this ‘White People and the Damage Done’ album.
Let’s get the music out of the way first, because this is never the primary reason for buying a Jello Biafra record, here the medium is not necessarily the message. This album is not going to set the world on fire musically, but it is solid and taut. Biafra has taken his influences on the way and what we have here is an accessible punk/ hardcore mix interspersed with elements as varied as jazz, country and garage. It fully does justice to the lyrics and makes it an angry and vital album to listen to, but it is the lyrics here that show that Biafra at his polemic and outraged best.
He rails against politicians, “Mr Smith goes to Washington/ Not to serve but to cash in” (The Brown Lipstick Parade), the banks “Who should really hang for doing the whole thing” (John Dillinger), Western corporate culture “We all go down for money that never existed” (The Werewolves of Wall Street), American foreign policy and homeland propaganda “Someday people will find the courage to live in peace” (Mid-East Peace Process), the ‘trained seals’ of celebrity culture (Hollywood Goof Disease), Right wing religion “The rapture has arrived and we’ve been left behind” (Crapture) and all encompassed by the title track “Where do we go from here/ we’ve become the great satan I fear” (White People and the Damage Done).
The foci of his attacks are all predictable, but always thought provoking and, the way he expresses them, self evident. He calls people to account in a society where he feels this is not sufficiently done anymore, and this is surely welcome. Nevertheless, as the lines that I have quoted above show, he writes in the second person and so he is not eschewing responsibility. It is very much his America that he sings about, but not an America he is comfortable with.
Finally, after nine full on tracks examining the negative side of the American condition, we come to the final ray of hope in last years single, Shock-u-py. With its AC/DC riff this is a real call to arms (though not in the NRA sense), which looks for an escalation of the Occupy movement, a reminder that while it has disappeared from the headlines the discontent remains, as the chorus goes: “Wake up and smell the noise/ We wont take it anymore/ Corporate rule must go/ We will occupy/ We will schock-u-py/ And we wont back down”.
Whether you agree with him of not, in these days of banal (hyper-) reality shows it is refreshing to have someone who cares so much and is so damn eloquent in doing so. This album has reminded me of the potential power of music and its ability to change, and that in itself can never be a bad thing.