If you want to make an old punk rocker feel positively creaky in the knees, just tell him about the special 25th anniversary reissue of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the debut album from legendary San Francisco trailblazers the Dead Kennedys. The strange thing is, even though it’s a quarter-century old, Fresh Fruit sounds remarkably, well, fresh, to modern ears. Jello Biafra and company wrote about things ranging from our sensationalist obsession with violence to our government’s callous disregard for the lives of the poor—there’s even one about corporate profiteering off of war—all topics sure to ring a few bells for anybody paying even the slightest amount of attention to the news these days.
To simply call it “classic” or “significant” would do a major disservice to a record that literally set the standard for politically charged punk rock in America and wrote the blueprint for the hardcore punk movement that would follow in the Kennedys’ wake. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is, simply put, a perfect punk rock album. It is original, brash, obnoxious, profound and revolutionary—all within the space of 14 songs, two of which happen to be among the best punk songs ever blasted through a set of speakers.
The most definitive feature of the Dead Kennedys’ sound would have to be the high-pitched warble of lead singer Jello Biafra, who infused their music with a shrill energy and a political consciousness that would become synonymous with the band itself. More effectively than any other singer of the punk era, Biafra was able to balance his sense of outrage with a sense of humor and a knack for irony.
Unfortunately, his larger than life persona, both on and off stage, would overshadow the other members of the band. This is a real shame because few punk bands could boast of better musicianship than the Dead Kennedys. Klaus Flouride was a nimble-fingered bassist who meshed well with Ted, the manic, tempo-pushing drummer (who left after the first album). As a rhythm section, they could handle playing at breakneck speeds, but, unlike many of their hardcore acolytes, they could swing, too. Add East Bay Ray to the mix and you’ve really got something special. Truly one of the most underrated punk guitarists, East Bay Ray often eschewed the typical power chords in favor of surf-influenced lead lines that were much more visionary than just about anything else that passed for punk guitar back in 1980.
Part of what makes Fresh Fruit such a special album is that it simultaneously appeals to the intelligent, politically plugged-in hipster punk audience and to 13-year-old misfits and misanthropes. Even better, the band is tailor-made to piss off all of their parents.
“Forward to Death,” a paean to the live fast, die frustrated ethos (actually written by 6025, who briefly played second guitar), is probably the song you most related to if you got into the Dead Kennedys during high school. “I Kill Children” also has a distinctly juvenile vibe to it, although you could probably argue it’s merits as social commentary and satire, too. It certainly does have one of the creepiest opening lines ever: “God told me to skin you alive.”
Not content with mere infanticide, Jello Biafra uses Fresh Fruit to establish a dominant theme that runs through all of his writing: the sick revenge fantasy. “Chemical Warfare,” a certifiable Dead Kennedys classic, is about breaking into a military chemical weapons depot and releasing mustard gas during a dinner party at a ritzy country club (complete with bewildered- choking-golfers sound effects). Be honest: Who among us hasn’t ever fantasized about doing that?
“Let’s Lynch the Landlord” is a homicidal ditty that actually makes tenants’ rights seem cool, and “Stealing People’s Mail” is about what the kids who don’t go to their high-school pep rallys get up to instead. Wreaking havoc—what Jello Biafra would later call “monkey-wrenching the New World Order”—is near and dear to the singer’s heart.
Another theme that would come up again and again in the Dead Kennedys’ music—a theme that one wishes more of the hardcore bands influenced by the Dead Kennedys could have internalized—is the deadening force of conformity. Both “Drug Me” and the East Bay Ray-penned classic “Your Emotions” speak to how a sick culture stifles creativity and originality.
Cultural decay and political hypocrisy would always be the central subjects of the Dead Kennedys’ penetrating gaze. Biafra was on a one-man mission in the early 1980s to out-natter the nabobs of negativity at every turn. His favorite target was the religious right and the politicians who enabled them, but, true to the punk rock ethos, nobody was let off the hook. “Kill the Poor,” which opens the album, is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy about using the neutron bomb to clear out the slums without adversely affecting property values. In Biafra’s version, Jane Fonda goes on TV to “convince the liberals it’s ok.”
One of the great enduring classics on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is “California Uber Alles,” a flamenco-inflected punk song (you read that right) that imagines California governor Jerry Brown as president (he actually did run for president in 1976 and 1980, and again in 1992). Brown, a Democrat, replaced Ronald Reagan as California governor in 1974 and he was often referred to as “Governor Moonbeam” because of his hippy-dippy, new age persona.
“California Uber Alles,” which references the Nazi national anthem in its title, portrays Brown as the head of a hippy-fascist state complete with “suede-denim secret police” who force kids to meditate in school and drag uncool people off to death camps with organic poison gas chambers. One of the
best songs ever written about the dark side of peace and love, “California Uber Alles” is the anthem for any left-leaning person who considered biting down on the business end of a 30-ought-6 every time the Clinton/Gore team played “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” on the campaign trail in 1992.
The standout track among standouts, however, is “Holiday in Cambodia.” It is not only the best song the Dead Kennedy’s produced—it’s one of the best punk rock singles ever. The full genius of East Bay Ray’s guitar playing shines through on this one and Jello’s lyrics are biting and inspired. The song takes aim at pampered, college-educated elitists who think they understand suffering at the same time that they help perpetuate it.
Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin that you know how the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul
How does Jello suggest we deal with such snot-nosed pricks? Pack them off to Cambodia to slave for the Khmer Rouge where they can get a taste of real suffering, of course. The song opens with the tendrils of Ray’s echoey guitar line and ends with a hypnotic chant of “Pol Pot” that builds with the music up to a frenzy before the chorus kicks back in for a final time. Four and a half minutes of perfection.
The Dead Kennedys, even with their band name, courted controversy and it never seemed to stray too far from their sides. Klaus Flouride later claimed that the name was not meant to be a slight against the Kennedy family martyrs, but rather a reference to the death of the hope for America they represented. Considering their willingness—eagerness, even—to skewer political figures on the left and the right, however, this seems far too sentimental of an explanation to be plausible.
In the 1980s, the Dead Kennedys made a powerful enemy in Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Council, a precursor to prudish media “watchdog” groups like the Parents Television Council of today. She called the band a “Trojan Horse, rolling explicit sex and violence into our homes,” thanks in large part to her total inability to see the sarcasm in such classics as “Too Drunk to F**K” (a great song that makes fun of idiotic frat boy-types).
The PMRC put the Dead Kennedys on the kooks’ radar screen and it wasn’t long before they were dragged into court on charges of “Distributing Harmful Matter to Minors” because of a poster by Swiss surrealist H. R. Geiger (most famous for designing the monsters in Alien) that was included in their 1985 Frankenchrist LP. They ultimately won the case but they were tapped out financially and emotionally. After the 1987 release of Bedtime for Democracy it was bedtime for the Dead Kennedys.
Unfortunately, their litigious history doesn’t come to an end here. A couple of years ago, East Bay Ray and Klaus Flouride sued Jello Biafra and his Alternative Tentacles record label for years of royalties they had never been paid. Biafra lost the case, and with it, control of the name Dead Kennedys. And that, sadly, is the real occasion for this reissue. Manifesto Records is reissuing Fresh Fruit, which was originally on Cherry Red Records, and the entire catalog of the group’s former Alternative Tentacles releases. Even more depressing is the fact that Ray and Klaus have played shows as the Dead Kennedys with a new lead singer.
The Manifesto release of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables does come with a bonus DVD documentary called Fresh Fruit for Rotting Eyeballs that features extensive interviews with Klaus and Ray (no Jello, however) about the early days of the band. There’s even an extended section devoted to Jello Biafra’s 1979 run for mayor of San Francisco. He came in fourth out of ten candidates and prompted city officials to pass a law banning anyone from running for mayor under an assumed name.
The best thing about the DVD is that it includes full-length live performances of “California Uber Alles,” “Funland at the Park,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Kill the Poor” and “Chemical Warfare.” Watch these performances and you’ll see why the Dead Kennedys without Jello Biafra just aren’t the Dead Kennedys at all.