Monday, February 26, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #002 - 'fresh fruit for rotting vegetables' by dead kennedys

So for the second episode of this series, I wanted to tackle something a little more widely known - and we immediately hit a quandary, because in the 1980s, hardcore punk didn't cross over to the mainstream, not unless you had a hot single or managed to snag the popular zeitgeist for one blistering sharp moment in time. And that also means that I'm going to be talking about a lot of records in this series that even decades later didn't sell at all. 

Today, we're going to be talking about one of the exceptions, one that actually predates Black Flag's Damaged by about a year, from a band further up the west coast that were a fair bit more political, but possibly dating themselves in the process, a band that had a legit underground single that led this record to actually move units and win certifications, even spots on the UK charts! But of course it came with a fair amount of controversy, protests, and holds a much more contentious spot in the hardcore canon. But when it comes to bands bridging the gap between traditional punk and hardcore, they do deserve attention, even if they're far from the purest expression of the genre. In other words... strap in, folks, we're talking about Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys, and this is Resonators!

So a few things need to be established before we go further, most notably that in comparison with the records Dead Kennedys would release after this, they weren't quite a pure hardcore punk band just yet, still owing a fair amount to acts like The Sex Pistols, to which comparisons were made incessantly by the critics of the time. And on that subject, for as much as many today have celebrated Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables as a landmark record in defining the hardcore of the 1980s, it wasn't really critically acclaimed at the time, certainly not to the same extent Damaged was and still is. Sure, people love it now, but at the time the band was heavily criticized for good ideas and interesting framing but not living up to their potential, a messy project not helped by frontman Jello Biafra's eccentric vocal delivery. 

So where does that leave me, as someone not part of that critical establishment or among the hardcore punk fans that would canonize the record? Honestly, somewhere in the middle, mostly because it's a very different sort of animal than Damaged would be a year later. For one, while the record would embrace the brutality, nihilism, and abbreviated song lengths that would characterize much of the hardcore movement, there is still very much a foot in traditional punk, mostly characterized by embracing more melody and slightly more traditional song structures, with the most prominent example being their 'cover' of Elvis Presley's 'Viva Las Vegas', which in the grand tradition took classic archetypes and basic song structures of 50s rock and used the language of sarcastic deconstruction to show the ugly underbelly of the anthem Elvis had created. This gave Dead Kennedys a few standout strengths, the biggest being accessibility - going back to Damaged again, even despite Black Flag having a token few songs that might get alternative crossover success, the record as a whole didn't really fit in that lane, especially its dour and gripping final third. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, meanwhile, despite embracing some similar subject matter, utilized the band's uncanny knack for hooks to pull together a catchier record, and by placing the smash single 'Holiday In Cambodia' near the very end of the project, the sequencing made this record much easier to revisit as a whole, especially as they seemed to have more of a sense of humor and were determined to mock the systems that would give them real success even despite making hardcore punk. It certainly isn't as visceral as Damaged, but that was also part of its appeal, smuggling similar ideas and even more explicit political commentary in a more attractive package. 

But by introducing the politics, we also have to consider the question of relevancy, because it's been nearly forty years since this album was released, and there are definitely references that feel linked to their times. The biggest example of this is 'California Uber Alles', a track explicitly targeting Governor Jerry Brown of California and the spread of 'California values' across the United States, the sort of anti-liberal screed that put forward an idea of left-leaning authoritarianism with their political correctness and what Biafra would describe as a 'zen fascism'. Now for as much as this reads as absolutely absurd now with historical context, it does make a twisted sort of sense, especially coming out of the late 70s, with the failures of Jimmy Carter to revitalize the U.S. economy in the face of stagflation and the California culture industry scrubbing the hippie ideal down to a veneer of what it once could have meant - and man, if you took a look at what happened to mainstream music around 1979 and 1980, I completely get where Biafra's anger might have come from. At the same time, with the rise of Ronald Reagan out of California and the hard right shift that would come thanks to the boomers in the 1980s, even Biafra would realize this song is more conspiracy theory that social commentary, to the point where just a year later they'd remake it as 'We've Got A Bigger Problem Now' addressing Reagan - but it doesn't help Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables to have that smack in the middle. And this is where I'm going to bring back my 'three p's for great political art: precision, power, and populism, and while Dead Kennedys have the the power, the snide mockery of everything doesn't exactly help their populism and you rapidly realize their arguments might be more sensationalistic that accurate, which makes it hard to appreciate more of their messages. Yes, 'Kill The Poor' is a potent track, taking the hypothesis of a neutron bomb that uses more radiation than fiery destruction to wipe out the poor, and I get the transgressive idea that they'll even get liberals on board by using Jane Fonda and playing to white NIMBY ideas... but even with Cold War paranoia heating up again, it pushes feasibility, even if it is playing to parody rapacious capitalism. 

But that's the dangerous line that Dead Kennedys walk on this record: interesting political and social commentary, but when the implication are not thought through, they're harder to take seriously, especially when juxtaposed with more straightforward wild nihilism and drenched in satire that stripped out of the context of the time could be played straight by the last audience Dead Kennedys want. And let's not act like this couldn't or didn't happen: as much as punk as a whole trends left politically, there were right-leaning punks and skinheads that existed in the counterculture since the very beginning, and given punk's deconstructionist nature, it's not hard to see how when recontextualized without satire or the benefit of history, songs off this album could be played straight and certain audiences wouldn't bat an eye. That's where the sloppiness hurts this album, and while I get it - I sure as hell didn't have an eye for nuanced politics when I was in my early 20s like the rest of the band here - but it does hurt the replay value on certain songs, even 'Holiday In Cambodia'. Yes, I can appreciate the criticism of privileged armchair college kid activism, it's not like that has gone away, but it hurts your cause when a.) you yourself are getting details wrong, b.) by referencing the Khmer Rouge and other political strife around the world you're engaging in principle in a similar brand of detached awareness activism, and c.) none of this is helped by the heavier veneers of sarcasm, satire, and nihilism around all of it, all of which hurts any populist call to action - also, dropping the n-word on the first verse with the hard 'r' doesn't exactly help! And sure, Black Flag had the same sense of disconnected nihilism on Damaged, but beyond broad anti-establishment strokes, they weren't trying to be political, so it feels more universally resonant and relevant today. That's not saying Dead Kennedys don't land punches - I live in Toronto, and 'Let's Lynch The Landlord' certainly connects given the insanity of our real estate scene, and the broad strokes of sarcastic antipathy on songs like 'Forward To Death', 'Your Emotions', 'Stealing People's Mail', 'Ill In The Head', and especially 'I Kill Children' do have some transgressive edge - but it's less consistent and given the level of detail Dead Kennedys bring, you wind up wishing they connected more.

Of course, a huge part of that comes when you look at the compositions and instrumentation, because as I already mentioned, Dead Kennedys wrote some really damn catchy and infectious punk songs here, hardcore or otherwise. I know a lot of critics gave Jello Biafra mixed reviews for his vocals, and yeah, the yodeling warble he's got going on does take some getting used to, but it's distinctive enough to carry these tunes and he can get pretty wild if necessary. The larger problem with the vocal delivery is more around diction and production - if he's going to spit through songs that are so damn quick throughout the midsection of this album, it would do the band a favour to make them a little more consistently audible. And while we're on the subject of mixing, I will give the band a lot of credit for keeping the bass grooves developed and punchy, especially when the guitar leads have a little more melodic structure, but this is where we hit an odd contradiction with Dead Kennedys on this record, because for as much as the band adapted and twisted traditional song structures, it leads to some slightly mixed results when they either hew a little too closely or they fly entirely off the rails. In the one hand, you get the 'Viva Las Vegas' cover, which is a good sneering joke but really should not have ended the album, or the waltz-esque breakdown on 'Chemical Warfare' that doesn't do the song any favours - but on the other hand, when the songs have less of that structure pulling from surf rock or rockabilly, there's no way around how some of these tracks feel like fragments or kind of sloppy around the edges. That's not saying there aren't songs that work - l love the solo on 'Let's Lynch The Landlord', the twisted pre-chorus melody on 'Drug Me' is great, and as much as I have serious issues with the content, the nasty riffs on 'California Uber Alles' are pretty damn sweet. Hell, for pure hardcore shredding I really dug 'Funland At The Beach' and 'When Ya Get Drafted', and it's unquestionable that 'Holiday In Cambodia' stands head-and-shoulders above not just the majority of this record, but so many hardcore punk singles - it's a killer song with phenomenal melodic interplay and a great hook, if Dead Kennedys had only given us that, it might have been enough.

But as a whole, going back through Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, I can definitely see why it was more popular than many of the hardcore records that would come after them - it's catchy as sin, the vocals are eccentric but they grow on you, and the content has a wicked sense of dark humor and a lot of flair. If anything, it suffers many of the pain points you'll hear on lots of debut punk records: sloppiness around the edges, inconsistent production, and political messaging that doesn't always stick the landing. That's not saying this record is bad - not by any stretch, I'd argue it's pretty damn good - but it is more noticeably flawed and definitely shows its age nearly forty years later, and yet even if I was to evaluate this in 1980, it's a little hard to ignore the missteps in messaging that even the band themselves would seek to rectify. As such, for me, this is a very strong 7/10 - definitely good and probably essential to explaining the transition between punk and hardcore, but also showing some of the strain of that shift. And yet for a half hour of blistering, hook-driven punk, you can definitely get a lot worse - so yeah, check it out!

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