Niall McGuirk reviews Michael Stewart Foley’s book on Dead Kennedys‘ 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
Part of a series of books on specific records that now numbers 105 and counting this is a story of Dead Kennedys’ debut album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. A wonderful idea and a perfect record for the series. Few people in the punk world would question its inclusion – after the Clash, Crass and arguably the Pistols, what other album had such a profound effect? It doesn’t make them the best records of all time, just groundbreaking at the time. Of course this is the second book about this album, whether the story beyond that will ever get told impartially is open to question. The band have had a major public falling out over royalties and songwriting credits. It’s hard to see them even being in the same city again never mind the feature of a story.
The book tries to give a sense of where the band members were coming from in their songwriting process. It gives the background into San Francisco of the era, the era of the Jonestown massacre where the mass suicide of over 900 people took place, the era of proposition 13 being imposed which removed $6billion in local government funding in the U.S., the era of the murder of gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk. There was madness in the city, and punk rock offered “solidarity in the wreckage”. This was a punk scene operating out of the run down and seedy North Beach neighbourhood, like New York with CBGB’s and DC with Georgetown as explained in the excellent Salad Days documentary. These areas gave the freedom for a new movement, a place where those wishing to operate outside of what was construed as the norm for many in society could go.
As the people who were saying something in the sixties were sitting around getting stoned it was up to mavericks like Jello Biafra to tell a tale of revolution. For many of us, punk rock was our road to change the world. Foley says “maybe punk could not make a revolution but it could provide the space, the fertile soil – where seeds of revolutionary action could take root“.
This is not an argument that this is the greatest punk record of all time, it is much more than that. It is a political document for a generation. While all this is very grandiose I type this whilst listening back to the album and am still blown away by its energy, it’s musicianship and its radicalism.
Chapter 1 offers a background to 3 of the bands members. California native Ray Pepperell, Geoffrey Lyall from Detroit and Eric Boucher from Colorado grew up miles away from each other, and were possibly never to realise their destiny as kids in their small towns. Each had parents willing to talk through issues of the day and were pretty grounded in equality and seeing war as a tragic waste of human life. Each was to move to San Francisco and be moved by the Ramones. Each was to give themselves a stage persona and decide through their music they would look to inform and entertain.
The band started in a time somewhat dubiously entitled a golden age for serial killers in the U.S. and in a state that had truly shocking gruesome murder figures. Punk was out to shock, to shake society, but this society was already nervous, and questioning had been off the agenda for a while. It is also interesting to note that the author states that the Dead Kennedys came into existence at the dawn of a new era in American selfishness and political cowardice, when lower taxes became more important than higher quality public services. Maybe we can expect a similar scene to take place in this country as tax continues to be something to avoid rather than embrace?
To understand the record we are given a tour of the politics of the city, the feel of the area. This is the backdrop for the music and San Francisco of the day provided the space and reasons for the songs. Of course the album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was recorded soon after Biafra ran for Lord Mayor of San Francisco in the perfect embodiment of both him and the Dead Kennedys. A prankster with a very serious message out not only to upset the status quo but to do all he could to smash it. The act of running for election and the campaign itself was as theatrical as his stage shows, but deep down the intention was to instigate change if even only to attitudes.
As for the dissection of the album there is some poetic licence in saying it offered a flicker of hope for those who were as the beaten end of a national crisis of confidence. The record is a startling account of how the American Dream was viewed by a sizeable minority who found it a nightmare to live through. Even now, 33 years later, it paints a picture of society that has let its people down and it sure stands any test of time. It was put together as a labour of love, every detail dissected to ensure it met the bands extremely high standards
The Dead Kennedys were more than just a band, and Fresh Fruit is more than just a collection of songs. Whilst the music is some of the most powerful yet still tuneful works, your ears will thank you for listening to the lyrics are covered by Foley. California Uber Alles and its theme around governor Jerry Brown’s eventually unsuccessful march toward the Whitehouse gets explained. Kill The Poor is given real context. A neutron bomb being developed to take out people and not property is not an effective weapon of war against another state but rather a potential instrument that can be used to suppress people. When you get drafted is 83 seconds of speed spitting out words against those in power casually forcing the poor to join the army and being led to their death. Each of the fourteen songs are detailed.
It is refreshing that this is a tale of the songs. The band have since made a lot of lawyers rich which is the real shame and currently the story of the Dead Kennedys. Instead of the talk being of one of the greatest and possibly most important debut albums ever, we are being confronted with a choice of which site to take. Michael Stewart Foley, whilst no doubt having a side, doesn’t leave us wondering where he stands. It’s just not an issue for this book – this is for the songs, their history and the messages they promote.
Well worth your time. Get the book, put the album on loud, and rejoice.