As unrest grows in response to the constantly worsening global socio-political climate, there has supposedly been a resurrection of the idea of protest via music. That’s right, the protest song is making a comeback. R.E.M. put out a free download to protest the war in Iraq. Fat Mike of NOFX put out not one, but two compilations of Rock Against Bush in a failed effort to combat the re-election of George W. Bush. Ministry put out an entire album dedicated to Bush, every song featuring the letter ‘W’ in some way. Green Day is in year two of a tremendous boom in popularity thanks largely to songs that take potshots at the current United States administration.
Of course, the cumulative effect is largely a resounding “who cares?” from the general populace.
The truth is that a relatively small pile of people are eating this up because dammit, it sounds rebellious, and dammit, they want to be rebels. Don’t wanna be an American Idiot? Fine, you and 5 million of your closest friends are officially enlightened. I’m sure all of you remembered to fucking vote.
Dead Kennedys, and particularly lead vocalist Jello Biafra, were the real deal back in ’79. Biafra ran for Mayor of San Francisco, not because he thought he’d win, but to point out the corruption and hypocrisy that ran through the city’s local government. And he did this while fronting a slowly-gaining-steam punk band that was finding an audience by tapping into the undiscovered rage of the dissilusioned masses. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is Dead Kennedys’ first album, now freshly remastered and released in a shiny new (color-correct for the first time) package, backed with a brand-new DVD that goes into the circumstances surrounding the formation of Dead Kennedys and the creation of the album. Particularly in this form, it is an essential release, one that accentuates just how far one band could take an unproven sound and unorthodox attitude, eventually coming up with a classic album that stuffs more vitriol into 33 minutes than most bands can muster in a career.
Now, even a remastered version of an old punk album is going to sound kind of crappy, and Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is no exception. On the DVD that accompanies this edition, guitarist East Bay Ray goes into the difficulties in mixing a typical punk album — the most obvious of which is the fact that so much of the sound is mid-range. Mid-range guitars, mid-range vocals, and mid-range snare drums all need a distinct part of the mix, and it’s difficult to separate the sound of the three. As such, the sound is a bit muddy, and I suspect that there’s only so much fixing that could have been done to snazz up the sound of master tapes from 1979 and 1980. Even so, a little bit more bass would have been nice; Klaus Flouride’s bass is an integral part of the Dead Kennedys’ sound, and he gets shafted a bit, pushed to the back of the mix.
Sound issues aside, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is absolutely required listening for anyone who likes their music loud, hard, and fast — it is how to make powerful music without studio wizardry, music that will make you think as often as it sends you bouncing off the walls. They could record something as immediate to their personal experience as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” (and make it fun!), and then raze rich kids with problems and the hostile culture of an entire country in one fell swoop in a song like “Holiday in Cambodia”. They open the album lampooning a conservative culture who would just as soon forget about the poor as campaign to them (“Kill the Poor”), and close it lampooning the actions that make the poor even poorer (their splendid cover of “Viva Las Vegas”).
And, of course, they do it while reminding us that, say, System of a Down wouldn’t exist without songs like “Drug Me”.
The DVD that comes with this edition of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables contains a decent little documentary called “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Eyeballs”, which doesn’t contain a whole lot of new information, but does work in six very, very early live Dead Kennedys performances, sure to titillate the hardcore fan and fascinate the Dead Kennedys newbie. The documentary material contains lots of interview footage featuring East Bay Ray (including how his name came to be) and Klaus Flouride — though the lack of new footage of Jello Biafra is unfortunate and nearly damning, as expected as the omission may be. The bad blood between Jello and the rest of the band is well-documented, and the other members’ positive words for him are pretty much all anyone could expect — reconciliation simply isn’t in the works for this band.
But then, such bull-headed attitudes are part of what allows Dead Kennedys to maintain the mystique that they continue to own. Dead Kennedys didn’t perform half-way, they didn’t record half-way, and they didn’t break up half-way, either — the embers of the split still smolder, occasionally sparking when the question of rights to the Dead Kennedys name becomes an issue. Regardless of which side you may be on, however, you owe it to yourself to see and hear this version of Fresh Fruit with Rotting Vegetables. It’s as close as the band has ever come to realizing the vision for the album that they held in 1980, but never quite got right. Whether this version is “right” is up for debate — what’s not up for debate is that it’s the best one so far.