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Music Review: Jello Biafra – In The Grip Of Official Treason

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Quipped the prophet Elijah one evening whilst lolling about a particularly refulgent cumulonimbus arrangement – “Do you know this what I’m goin’ to tell you? It would be easier to tear the night-time from the skies with nowt but the yellow off a badger’s teeth, so it would, than to keep even halfways up to date with the recorded works of Jello Biafra.”

“Ho, now” says Mohammad from atop a similarly spectacular cloudscape. “He’s shockin’ altogether, isn’t he just? Never sleeps a wink so long as he knows there’s a record being made somewhere that he hasn’t got somethin’ to do with.”

“You think you’ve got them all” Elijah laments, “When here, by Jesus, hasn’t some Melvins collaboration you never heard tell of gone and revealed itself at the quantum level somewhere?”

“A man I knew” says St Paul, himself lain bare-back midst the sapphire blooms of a copse underneath, “He was troubled somethin’ wicked with a pain under the arm there. Threshing the oxster raw, it was. Says all and sundry; ‘That’s a cyst is what that is, and the devil’s torment thrice over it’ll give if you don’t get it seen to by a doctor.’ So away he goes to the doctor. ‘Doctor’ says he, ‘I’ve the right hoor of a cyst on my oxster there, would you for mercy’s sakes bid it shoo out o’ that.’”

Mohammad gives a knowing sigh. “They’re the wicked buggers right enough, the cysts. One on the back of my neck at a time, I had. Bad rascals if ever were any.”

“The doctor takes the scalpel to the article” St Paul continues, “and here he is pokin’ away there, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out to be no cyst at all but rather six EPs Jello Biafra had somehow released via the poor bastard’s immune system someway.”

Elijah and Mohammad both tut and shake the heads, the latter saying “For the record shelves can hold no more.”

“Damn the shelf can bear another note” Elijah says. Then, after a moment’s thought – “Mind you, we’d be a sorry bunch o’ boys without them.”

“Well this is it” St Paul agrees. “And it’s a sacrifice I’d be hard pressed to refuse. Should it prove the ruin of all the armpits and the quarks in the world, still I wouldn’t be without a single Jello Biafra recording.”

“All the armpits in china I’d relinquish for it” Elijah nods, twirling a length of vapour around his index finger. “Some of the best records ever made, that man put his name to.”

A litany of wonders recounted – Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, Frankenchrist, Prairie Home Invasion, that one with DOA…

Last Scream Of The Missing Neighbours?” St Paul offers.

“The very one” says Elijah. “The very one.”

“D’you what I love most of all?” St. Paul enquires wistfully. “The spoken word records. Aw but they’re beautiful so they are. Orations as spectacular as any I’ve heard that were given on a stage or a podium and not a mountain.”

“There’s a new one an’ all” Mohammad says, “But damn the word I’ve got to hear for I’ve been that busy with the you-know-who gettin’ up to no end of you-know-what – the fiercest grief I’m gettin’ over the head of it. D’you know what they’re at next? They’ve only just -”

At this, Elijah raises a hand, thank God, and also a compact disc player. “Well now” says he. “It just so happens I have here in these clouds a cd-r of In The Grip Of Official Treason that I burned from off the copy Mary stole off Arthur Miller there Saturday past.”

“You have not!”

“I have boy.”

“Oh but that’s the quare wonderful turn of events! And there I thought I’d never hear a word, what with the -”

“Hush now” says St. Paul. “Hush now for by God the last thing we need is a barrage o’ that class of talk, thank you all the same.”

And so, with much nodding of heads and raising of eyebrows and chortles of “That’s the boy, Biafra, you tell them!”, Mohammad, St. Paul and Elijah sat huddled about the speakers, cocking the ears to hear over the intermittent raging of Jehovah, Himself busy smiting the balls off of some crew of pagans nestled to the west of Cyprus.

“He’s the wild man for the smiting” St Paul says with a skew of the mouth. “Jesus but it’d drive you mad, that bit of smiting he goes on with.”

“Quiet till we hear” says Elijah, crossing the legs. “Good stuff, this…”


So much has Jello Biafra to say, and so passionately does he say it, that I’d be truly shocked to the back of my absent vulva to learn he goes through anything less than forty-nine tongues a fortnight.

Throughout his regular spoken word performances, I’d wager he needs a new tongue after every other sentence. Roadies come bounding across the stage, I dare say, decked out in black shirts and trousers so as we can only see the disembodied balding heads hovering eerily about the monitors, soldering the new muscles into place mid-syllable, racing off then into the wings with the spent articles clutched in the paws like jellied eels.

Facts, figures, names dropped and kicked senseless and tossed to the crowd, myths debunked, fresh myths woven…

Like a man possessed he goes, the droll, oft-times incredibly sarcastic delivery masking only slightly the torrent of information each beautifully phrased quip might hold.

Sadly, the audience, most likely, have only got, at most, two ears per head, which is at least eight shy of the ten you’d need to take it all in. Thank God, then, that Alternative Tentacles have long been releasing live albums recorded at these particular performances, and so a fella can pause it a time here and there, can think, muse, take notes, allow himself a bitter laugh without fearing it’ll be at the expense of something altogether astounding coming right after the funny thing.

The most recent of these albums, an epic three-disc (or three-psalm) affair by the name of In The Grip Of Official Treason, consists of recordings made at various American venues from 2004 to 2006, the shebang kicking off with an awe-inspiring harangue captured at a Punk Voter / Rock Against Bush extravaganza in 2004.

Characteristically shy and wary of stoking any controversy at all, Jello’s been on stage for no more than 30 seconds before he’s announcing, with the veins audibly erupting ‘neath the skin of his neck, that “Nobody has done more to disrespect and exploit the innocent people who died on September 11th and piss on their graves than George Bush.”

Cheers and hollers from the audience.

“If you know anybody who’s in the military or thinking of joining up, and you care about them, now would be a really good time to tell them to get the fuck out of there as quick as they can.”

Further cheers and hollers.

By the end of the 24-and-a-bit minutes Jello spends wrestling with the microphone, they’ve been cheering and hollering with such zeal and passion that a fella finds himself pitying both whoever took the stage thereafter, and whoever has to clean the site at the end of the evening – throats choked out faces litter the grounds, a fella can reasonably assume, surely to God.

Of the topics snared and bitten and stomped to colourless mush;

Gulf War Syndrome. Media Distraction / Media Subversion (“Become The Media!”). Military Strategy (“All we’re doing is planting the seeds for more Osama Bin Ladens!”). Medical Insurance (“What kind of twisted, fundamentalist, Christian Nazi logic is this? The life of the unborn child is sacred… But once they’re born? Fuck ‘em!”). The Iraq War (“Hey, I support the troops when I say Bring Them Home!”). National Security. The importance of local elections. The worth of individual action – however slight – in the face of condescending snobbery from the More Radical Than Thou elements. The loss of American jobs to China.

And so on and so forth.

This extraordinary spiel sets the tone, more or less, for the remainder of the set. Incredibly incisive critique coupled with brilliantly rabble-rousing sloganeering, deeply distressing facts and figures nestled alongside the kinds of asides that have a fella hunched and spluttering with the laughter careering out his face like a herd of rabid gazelle.

Upon reflection, also, a fella notes that, in his continual emphasis herein on the importance of grassroots politics, of local elections, of “widening the base of the pyramid”, Jello is concerning himself not only with problems but with real, workable solutions – long-term solutions that may take a year or twenty to bear fruit, but which, in their very far-sightedness, are steeled against the disappointment and sense of futility that might otherwise have gripped hold the soul with, for example, the re-election of George W Bush. Biafra, it becomes apparent, never expected anything else. These things don’t change in a few months, or a year or two years. The work put in now is in service of a reward or series of rewards flittering up out the cracks in the stone maybe a decade hence.

At near four-hours long, In The Grip Of Official Treason is immense and demanding. It requires a sharpness of ear and brain that most likely isn’t gonna hold out much further on first listen than the hilarious, scathing attack on Hilary Clinton and her “friends” near the end of the first disc – “These people are not our friends!

What it requires is that the listening be spread out over three days – a day per disc – and even then, each disc in itself has so much goin’ on that the chances of picking it all up on one spin are nigh-on impossible. Too often the mind will bound towards this or that revelation or musing as a woebegone sailor to the sirens, and will reel around those rocks for maybe forty-five minutes, contemplating and assessing, before returning to the shore, only to find that the disc has ended, that the applause and the hooting has stilled and that nowt but the hiss of the radiators or the batterin’ of the wind at the windows and doors remains.

Again, that finger must be jabbed at the Play button. Again, for I’ve missed the entirety of the updated "Die For Oil, Sucker". Again, for I’ve missed that brilliant account of Jello’s visit to post-Katrina New Orleans. Again, for the stuff about Reconstructionism and theocracy and the coalition twixt the Christian Right and the Jewish Right has passed me by entirely.

Jello Biafra is a hero of mine and the only one that makes me feel guilty for such. The irony of it all – the idolised iconoclast…

He remains important, relevant, exciting, even when so many of his Old School peers (his old bandmates, for example), have fallen knackered to the dirt, content to deal in nowt more than nostalgia, set upon at the last by the wolves so gallantly held at (East) Bay (Ray) for so long.

The shift from red to blue – so beautifully lamented by Billy Bragg in the opening track of William Bloke a decade ago – is not, people like Jello Biafra (and indeed Bragg himself) constantly remind us, inevitable.

It is possible to retain the anger and the passion and the humanity of youth, yes, and to utilise those articles for so long as you’re capable of utilising anything, in the pursuit of great and wonderful things.

In The Grip Of Official Treason is a great and wonderful thing from which any amount of great and wonderful things might be wrought.


A Word About The Artwork

The first thing a fella notices about In The Grip Of Official Treason, long before he’s ever plucked a disc from out the bindings, is how extraordinarily beautiful those bindings are in themselves.

Folks weep and wail and gnash their teeth over the heads of the sundry casualties of the Download Era. Strewn left and right across the web, bloodied, begouged and degraded wrecks of creatures with names like Sound Quality and Artist Rights and Industry Green.

But for Shafting Noah’s Sakes will somebody please consider the artwork?

For sure, you can get a hi-res jpeg image of what the cover might look like in some mystical “physical” realm, you can get the general gist of the thing, but to hold In The Grip Of Official Treason in your hands, to sniff and to feel and to scrutinize with fingers and with eyes every inch of Winston Smith’s astounding artwork, or of Jello Biafra’s pain-stakingly assembled collage… It is a pleasure of rare potency.

It’s a package the likes of which will have you phoning folks for to say “I’ve finished with the lawnmower / dildo / bottle-opener if you wanna come pick it up” just so as you can have it sitting in full-view on the kitchen table, that they might catch sight of it in passing, and you can chuckle to yourself for the rest of the evening at the thought of the jealousy and the awe battling it out in the whites of their eyes.

To the best of my knowledge there’s no real equivalent in the digital realm. To the best of my knowledge no-one sits in their bedroom for sixteen hours salivating over the colours of an mp3.

The artwork is something to be studied and scrutinized for months, years. As is the content of the record. Whilst some references may be dated (Janet Jackson’s tittie!) and some names may have already toppled into the most ill-lit corners of historical obscurantism, the point of it all remains valid, the humour remains razor-sharp and the joy of Jello in your ear-holes for a time remains as ineffable a delight as ever it was.

Thanks folks

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