Saturday, February 19, 2011
You'll have to excuse my absence of late. In what little spare time I have, the last week or two it's been dedicated to watching DVDs and reading books: not sitting in front of this recently-aquired MacBook and contributing to this blog w/ heart-stopping tales of musical ephemera. My guilty conscience has gotten the better of me, and so it's time for me to say something about something...
That record above, you probably know about it. I'm willing to bet that a certain, sizeable percentage of readers are wincing just thinking about it. The Dead Kennedys are/were a band who divide people into strictly pro- and anti- camps. I can handle that. For myself, they were, along w/ the Sex Pistols, the band who ruined any chances I held in my younger days of being a normal human being. Their ability in warping young peoples' minds was quite exceptional. When I listen to some of their records these days - a mighty rare occasion, and one I just did for the sake of this blog entry - they do somewhat strike me as purveyors of juvenile rebellion, a band custom-made for disgruntled suburban teens... but really, isn't that the case w/ most great rock & roll? What makes the DKs different? The lecturing, the political didactics, the smug pomposity of the frontman? Yes to all three, I suppose, but I guess that when a band hits your adolescent mind like a bomb, forever changing its circuitry, you can forgive that kind of crap 25 years down the line.
The subject of discussion is Plastic Surgery Disasters, their sophomore full-lengther, originally released in 1982 at the height of the US HC (man, I just love saying "US HC"!) explosion. As w/ their debut, it made a major splash in Europe and Down Under (the band charted here - like charted - a few times back in their early years), and probably sold a respectable amount of copies in their home country, I'm willing to bet. After all, the band were a big deal, one of the big-league hardcore outfits and one of the few to make a serious dent in suburban America. And that's possibly another reason to dislike them: perhaps you'd call them mall-punk. But that criticism says more about the critic than the music, and that's one point which is either lost or ignored by most critics of the band: just how good their music could be. Rad politics aside, Plastic Surgery Disasters is a really excellent and musical record w/ a wide variety of sounds clogging its grooves.
Biafra at the time claimed they were delving heavily into a new, psychedelic sound, and whilst some folks would say that the band was about as "psychedelic" as Sonny & Cher, I'd say the description isn't that far off. East Bay Ray's guitar work was never better, avoiding thrash/barre chords in favour of a massively echoed surf twang (his guitar work was always good, the only lacklustre outing being on the generic thrash of Bedtime For Democracy); Klaus Flouride was absolutely one of the most inventive, lyrical and expressive bass players of the era; and D.H. Peligro similarly knew about dynamics and went to accent certain parts of a song, giving the tunes a tension/release set-up which defines the best rock music. Sounds like I'm gushing, correct? You would be correct. Whatever embarrassments followed the various members throughout their subsequent careers, this is a disc to stand by well into adulthood.
As a single entity - a collection of songs making up something larger than the sum of its parts - it's a remarkable achievement. More than that, it strikes me as a definitive statement. Much like another classic statement of punk rock juvenilia, the Circle Jerks' Group Sex LP from 1980, PSD attacks every facet of square society and does it so relentlessly and effectively that the results are jarring. Well, shit... they were, and still kind of are now. Back when I first discovered and bought this album as a 14-year-old, I used to read the lyric sheet (actually a large, 20-page booklet w/ lots of Winston Smith collages) nightly, devouring its contents voraciously as if it were a sacred text. Embarrassing stuff, perhaps, but you'll have to forgive me for what happened 25 years ago, and failing that, I'd probably just have to tell you to go fuck yourself.
There's a bunch of great songs just on side one: "Well Paid Scientist" (probably the best flat-out hardcore song they wrote), "Government Flu", "Buzzbomb", "Forest Fire", "Winnebago Warrior" and "Halloween", the last being the highlight, both musically and lyrically (one of the best aspects of their early work was their equal disgust w/ both conservatives and liberals). The A side goes mainly for the short/fast/loud side of things, cramming in nine songs (if you include the introduction) in a relatively brief period, the songs twisting and turning and stopping and starting w/ aplomb, aided and abetted by the band's superioir musicianship; the B side having only five, longer tracks which stretch things out a bit and get more interesting, too. Best of the lot is "Bleed For me", also released as a single at the time, a number which starts w/ a relentless, aggressive four-to-the-floor beat after a creepy intro and then explodes into a truly ripping punk rock tune w/ Jello's growls (none of that warbling, thanks) tearing the song up. The song flat-out nails it. After that is a vaguely funky, mid-tempo tale of paranoia, "I Am The Owl", and two other, more "rock" oriented tracks to close it out, "Dead End" (a rare song from the band which actually appears to not be about politics, but instead about friends deceased) and "Moon Over Marin", another surf-damaged number (East Bay Ray had cut his teeth for years "on the circuit" playing in surf bands before the band formed in 1978; he and Klaus Flouride both being a good decade older than Biafra) which is probably the album's poppiest.
I was a big fan of "political" music (ie. - rad/leftist/fuck-society lyrical concerns) as a teen and into my early 20s, though my enthusiasm to hear what a musician thinks of the state of the world's political problems has decreased considerably over the years. It's not because I've become more conservative or apathetic, it's just because I couldn't give a fuck what someone whose prime "profession" or mode of expression is music thinks about political matters. To me it's simply not where I go to look for political commentary. And that's probably why I listen to Black Flag a whole lot more than I do the Dead Kennedys: their "politics" were primarily personal. But most of all, I listen to music because of one thing, the music. Dead Kennedys made a bunch of it, and the vast majority of it still sounds good to me. If you wanna debate me, I ain't going anywhere.
The band known as the Dead Kennedys tour here this April, for the first time since 1983. I was way too young to see them then, and though I definitely wasn't into punk rock as an 11-year-old (I was a New Romantic tragic. Suck on that one), I was aware of the band being in the country. It was a big deal at the time, the news even filtering through to a clueless spud like myself. This time they're playing without both Jello and Klaus (apparently he doesn't tour w/ them anymore), making the current band the biggest mockery of a supposed rock group this side of INXS. I won't be there to witness it, and frankly can't imagine why on earth anyone would want to.