Jello Biafra is, or was, one of the guiding stars of my universe. I feel guilty that he’s fallen from my firmament. Although I love his records as dearly as I ever did, I’ve lost touch with what he’s done in the last ten years as i’ve become more and more of the chickenshit conformist he always warned me about. Perhaps I knew I wasn’t living up to his expectations. It’s not you Jello, it’s me. I’m sorry. I genuinely feel bad about it.
Biafra is most famous for his time as lead singer of San Francisco punks Dead Kennedys, but the musical collaborations and long string of solo spoken word albums were arguably even more powerful and, as it happens, more prescient about where we were all headed.
Biafra had his naysayers who considered him anywhere from a strident hectorer to a hysterical doom-monger. Neither were fair criticisms and now, the records he released around the turn of the 90s are very, very funny – they always were – very penetrating and, pretty much, very right.
Musically they are a varied bunch, although most share a desire to crack your skull open, but throughout runs Biafra’s amazing voice, an insistent cross between Daffy Duck and a Dalek. I suspect that music is primarily a means of delivery for Biafra. Each song carries a wild payload of hotwired facts and delirious conjecture. But when the musicians he’s with match the intensity of his singing, the results are spectacular.
1. Dead Kennedys – ‘Pull My Strings’ (Recorded live in 1980, Released 1987)
Pull My Strings is a song the Dead Kennedys only played once, on 25 March 1980. The organisers of the Bay Area Music Awards thought it would be great idea to invite some local punk rockers along to their bash to give a little credibility to the proceedings. Enter Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride and drummer Ted. The band rehearsed the song they were asked to perform, ‘California Uber Alles’ and when they took the stage that evening they cranked out the first few bars, then, having walked on stage wearing white shirts with black ’S’s painted on the front, they stopped playing and pulled around black ties to form dollar signs before telling the audience precisely what they thought of them. ‘Pull My Strings’ swerves into an evisceration of the New Wave scene which was getting into bed with the music industry, selling out the aggression and political bite that the Kennedys cherished in return for radio play.
Biafra believes in pranksterism as a political and social tactic and ‘Pull My Strings’ is the sound of someone taking his opportunity. When it would have been easier to do what was asked and scrabble a few inches up the greasy pole, Dead Kennedys rip into a pastiche of ‘My Sharona’ by crossover one-hit wonders The Knack before leading the audience in a singalong “Is my cock big enough? Is my brain small enough? For you to make me a star?”
Lard – ‘The Power of Lard’ (1989)
After Dead Kennedys split in 1986, amidst their prosecution (failed) for alleged obscenity, Biafra and members of Ministry formed Lard. ‘The Power of Lard’ is the lead-off track from their first EP. It blew my mind when it first came out and it still delivers a hell of a jolt. The band shifts from tribal pounding to a nervy skitter and finally into a piledriving industrial thrash whilst Biafra slices through with an electrifying sermon lurching from cultish entreaties “Lard is the Om! Lard is revolution!” to yuppie pastiche to twisted headlines from a degenerate culture. It’s a terrifying, overwhelming psychedelic whirlpool that never fails to suck me in.
Whilst working on a film soundtrack Biafra collaborated with both DOA and NoMeansNo, in the process finding partners for his next two albums.
‘Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors’ is four direct chunks of steely speed punk plus a great cover of ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ and then, across the whole of side 2, ‘Full Metal Jackoff’. It’s Biafra’s widescreen epic (“Mein Kampf! The mini-series!”), spinning out from a black-windowed mobile crack lab circling the Washington DC Beltway to take in the whole of an America under an undeclared ‘Narco-Military’ dictatorship, slowly being crushed by the bootheel whilst drugs are pumped into the ghettos to pacify the poor, deliberately stoking poisonous sectarianism. It’s an astonishing achievement, a song genuinely worthy of a movie adaptation. DOA riff away, slowly ramping up the pressure over 14 minutes whilst Biafra paints the bleakest possible diorama, his voice no longer comic but chilling. The intensity builds and builds and builds and the end result is as thrilling as it is horrifying. By the closing chants of ‘Ollie for President – He’ll get things done!’ you’ll want to run and hide.
The second spin-out collaboration was ‘The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy’ recorded with existentialist provocateurs and Alternative Tentacles stalwarts NoMeansNo. The record is frenzied and hilarious by turns, from the Space Shuttle panic of the title track to the Wild West escapism of ‘Ride The Flume’ and on into the urban nightmare of ‘Chew’. ‘Bruce’s Diary’ is an out-of-step jazz-punk number told from the perspective of a spook spying on an entire population. It starts with surveillance
No one ever sees me/Yet I know all of you/ It’s sort of like a small town/When your whole lives are on my computer
then swerves into political and social control
A lethargic population/Is the key to our control/Who’d rather watch someone’s life on TV/Than participate in their own
Mentally they feel helpless/Physically they just give up/We priced the healthy food so high/They can only buy soda pop
A housebroken bee colony/That goes home after 5/Too burnt and glazed to threaten us/With purpose in their lives
And on it goes…
We melt you with acid rain/Keep you poor for economic gain/Convince you your biggest threat/Is drugs and terrorists
They don’t even have to be real/Just find a face, make up a crime/Run sensational headlines/Works every time!
The people must not realize/They are being manipulated/For them to be manipulated effectively
We give ’em things to worry about/Buying clothes and losing weight/Your lack of curiosity/Is the key to our success!
And of that sound familiar?
When this record came out, it sounded like hyperbolic and often hilarious exaggeration, so wild it was relatively easy to laugh off whilst fuelling the dismissive view that Biafra was a tin-hat-wearing conspiracy nut. Now, in an age where we accept that we are being spied upon by our own governments, we’re terrified of other people in case they want to kill us, we’re assailed by images of bodies and things we are supposed to want and told that consumer spending can be the key to economic progress, then let’s reflect that the of the words above only the reference to ‘acid rain’ sounds dated. This song was written in 1991 before we’d even heard of the internet.
Biafra’s collaboration with scuzzy sample wranglers Steel Pole Bath Tub was perhaps his most darkly persuasive in its sound. This rattling number stitches together genuine newspaper headlines into crazed non-sequiturs, constructing a cracked mirror to reflect the media’s complicit role in distracting the masses:
Designer beef/Surfing for Christ/Horse molester must be stopped/Police kill man to stop suicide/City burns, Party goes on!
Headlines! I wanna hear some/Good News! Even if it’s a lie/Scandal! For me to graze on/Entertain me tonight!
‘Prairie Home Invasion’ was, of all things, a country and western meets psychobilly album. It’s pretty great. Biafra is perhaps less direct, at least as concerned with creating an authentically bonkers american folk vibe as hitting his targets full on, but when he hits he scores. See the point blank pro-choice anthem ‘May The Fetus Be Aborted’.
My favourite track was always ‘Love Me I’m A Liberal’. Lyrically it’s a straight update of the Phil Ochs classic and credit for most of the best lines goes to Ochs, but it’s performed with such brio by Jello, Mojo and his band the Toadliquors that it raises a smile even as you realise it’s probably you he’s knifing in the front.
So there you have it. A terrible choice for Devon Record Club, where scabrous noise tends to fare badly and lyrics are the last thing we want to concentrate on. Nonetheless, Biafra is an important figure for me and whilst I wouldn’t have wanted to choose a specific album, Tom’s compilation theme gave me the perfect opportunity to share the Virus.
And hey, Biafra! We should get reacquainted.
Tom listened: Although we had carte blanche to choose whichever songs we liked, Rob’s chronological tour through Jello Biafra’s recordings was a stroke of genius. Not only did it allow me to become acquainted with the surprisingly eclectic discography of the Alternative Tentacles main man but also it allowed him to cherry pick from a vast array of music and, I suspect, in this case Rob used the opportunity to paint Jello in the best possible light. Songs were bright, exciting and refreshingly accessible, lyrics obviously irreverent and witty and it certainly helped to have Rob set the scene for each song so expertly. I thought Full Metal Jackoff in particular was exceptional and its 14 minutes fairly flew by in a rush of intense energy and ever more unhinged vocals.
As someone who had the required lone Dead Kennedys’ obsessive whilst in the sixth form (who seemed to hog the stereo and ‘treat’ us to Fresh Fruit and Rotting Vegetables as often as he could), I was particularly surprised at how unlike that most of the music Rob played us sounded.
A great idea for a future theme Rob, I can think of a few recording artists in my collection that could well benefit from similar treatment.
Graham Listened: As we went round the table with our choices, I have to say I was feeling initially nervy when we stopped at Rob’s turn each time. As time went past the sense of foreboding diminished and each track was more intriguing than the last.
I have avoided Mr Biafra since 1984 when the obligatory fellow 6th former in my year tried to convince me that the Dead Kennedys were the most important band in the world and forced me and many others to listen to their music. Sadly he became ostracized from the entire 6th form as his determination to convert us got stronger and stronger. Wonder what ever happened to him? Expect he formed a band.
Clearly someone who has important things to say and possibly good foresight into the way the world is going/has turned out. ‘Full Metal Jackoff’ was brilliant and everything to do with the live performance and imagery of ‘Pull my strings’ was inspired.
Nick listened: Did one of those stupid Buzzfeed quizzes the other day about ‘which 80s hardcore shouty American underground rock dude are you’ and, because I ticked all the anti-capitalist answers rather than the drug hoover answers, I got Jello Biafra. I was way too young to know anything about The Dead Kennedys at the time, and they’ve not been an act I’ve sought out since for numerous reasons (being British, not being into much hardcore, etcetera), but I pretty much thoroughly enjoyed everything played on Rob’s list, and, moreover, agreed with it all ideologically pretty strongly. We could really do with more of his ilk now. Really.