Dillinger, Burgers, Werewolves and Hollywood in Jello Biafra's Mad Words
Jello Biafra broke into the public consciousness in the early 1980s, first as the sarcastic, politically charged lead singer of the punk band Dead Kennedys and then as a sarcastic, politically charged public speaker. In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the fact that his bids to become a sarcastic politician met with only minor success, he rekindled his (never abandoned) music career and formed a new band subtly named “Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine”.
As the band’s second album White People and the Damage Done begins, Jello Biafra is still as sardonically angry as he was during the Reagan Era when punk fans embraced his music for its subversive lyrics and catchy hooks. There are still plenty of catchy hooks and loud guitars on this new album and those same, now grown, punk fans can’t claim that Biafra (who started the band to celebrate his fiftieth birthday in 2008) has softened with age. His lyrics, on the other hand, are hit and miss.
In the opening track “The Brown Lipstick Parade”, Biafra says “I hate to use an old cliché but we’ve got a class war in this country!” This may be true, but in his unique, if ungainly turns of phrase, Biafra seems determined to coin a few new clichés. American politicians are deemed “The Illumi-Nazis” in a government he calls “Corrupt-a-saurus Wrecks”. This is still the equal opportunity offender (or, perhaps, offendee) who indicted both Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown for corruption in the classic DK song “California Über Alles”. In “The Brown Lipstick Parade”, Republicans are “Filibustering Elephants” who “stand for greed, corruption, bigotry and war” while Democrats are “Rubber-stamping donkey acts” who “pretend to feel guilty” about the same things.
This song serves as a thesis statement for the entire album. Clearly Biafra (who is credited as having written “all tunes”) is still angry about almost anything in the news (gun violence, Middle-East affairs, Wall Street bailouts, doomsday prophets, Corporate America, and Hollywood Celebrity worship are all skewered here). While all of his anger seems righteous (at least to him) many of his lyrics (serious or otherwise) consist of cumbersome metaphors.
“John Dillinger” begins with a classic punk-oriented bass line and builds promisingly with its thrashing guitars and an enticing lead over them. Then the lyrics begin with “John Dillinger was a bad, bad man. He robbed banks. He had a gang”, and the song suddenly feels trite. We get his meaning when he says “The Bernies Made off with the Stimulus and more”, but by then the analogy between crooks and bankers feels as clunky as the opening line.
Luckily, Biafra’s banshee-like voice still has that same Dead Kennedys wail to it. This unique, clear scream he employs helps him credibly belt out leaden lyrics like “We’re the bull in the china shop / And we’re never gonna stop” (from the Occupy movement-inspired single “Shock-U-Py!”) with a strangely smooth flow. This, combined with Biafra’s firm (and even evolving) knowledge of how to make a minimalist punk song sound complex, can almost excuse lyrics like “Butthole in the clouds / Poison gas spewing down” (from the song “Crapture”)… almost. His voice also sounds both as sincere and funny as ever when chanting lines like “Shut up & shop” and “Exhume/ Consume” on “Hollywood Goof Disease”.
However, when Biafra turns to acting and employs other voices (like the whining, privileged angry Yuppie from “Road Rage” or the timid President of “Shock-U-Py!”) we see Biafra’s other side, that of the clownish political cartoon. That’s not to say such moments are unworthy of a listen, but they lose the charm that pulls the listener into interpreting the lyrics, rather than taking them on face-value.
There are also moments when everything comes together. The title track features a classic punk sound with an anthemic chorus and a guitar solo that tops most of the old Dead Kennedys catalogue. “Mid-East Peace Process” is probably both the heaviest and most pleading song on the album, featuring Biafra yelling his take on the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict over chugging guitars. Sure, you could slam dance to it, but it’s also intelligently written.
The end result of White People and the Damage Done is unfocused, occasionally forced and dated, yet often satisfying for punk fans and politicos alike. The problems arise when the sincere stream of political commentary bogs down with Biafra’s rusty lyrics. Punk bands like Bad Religion have lasted as long as Jello Biafra and have maintained their integrity, political commentary, and even biting satire without falling into cartoonishness. It’s clear that Biafra still has something intelligent to say and The Guantanamo School of Medicine has some great punk music to say it over but the attentive listener will want a little more consistent quality in the way he says it.