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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist (1985)

I will never have any negative criticisms of the Dead Kennedys. For me, they were the quintessential punk rock band. Jello’s lyrics were satirical, intelligent, and full of a devastating and humanitarian critique of our current system. Often times his lyrics would initially make you laugh, until moments later when you realized the gravity and seriousness of what was being conveyed. He continues to fight the good fight to this very day. Every member of the Dead Kennedys was unique and astonishing in their deliveries: East Bay Ray (guitar), P.H. Peligro (drums), Klaus Fluoride (bass), and Jello Biafra (singer). Even the album art, by Winston Smith, hit as hard as the music and lyrics. All six of their releases were absolute life-changing classics.

Frankenchrist, their second to last album, was interesting for several reasons. It is the album in which the band seemed to really stretch out and write longer, mid-tempo songs. Their albums always varied, but this one seems more expansive. The causal listener finally gets to hear all the subtleties that only well-trained punk rockers notice in the much shorter and faster songs. DK was not only a great hardcore punk band, but also a great rock band all around.

If I had to pick one song to explain punk rock to a novice, it would have to be the closing track on Frankenchrist: “Stars and Stripes of Corruption.” It is their Magnum Opus and somehow encapsulates the Dead Kennedys and all they strove to achieve. It is still something worth striving for.

Lastly, Frankenchrist will also be remembered as the album that started the horrible PMRC (Parent Music Resource Center), led by Tipper Gore. Parental Advisory Stickers and censorship were to follow. The PMRC and the San Francisco Police Department made Jello’s life a living hell for quite a while, due to the H.R. Giger poster that was inserted within his band’s album—printed on his label: Alternative Tentacles. It was a historical trial.

In short, Frankenchrist changed my life.

Frankenchrist has a much different sound, for most of the album, than the hardcore punk sound of the DK’s that I initially fell in love with. While some sources say that East Bay Ray was listening to a lot of Spaghetti Western soundtracks, it gives off more of a surf rock tone, pushing the band near post-punk territory. Is this a bad thing? No. Do I like it? Yes, but it’s never given me the adrenaline rush I have every time I hear a track off of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (or In God We Trust, Inc. for that matter). That said, Jello Biafra lyrics still appear to be timeless, although I’m not sure if that is always good or bad. I mean I wish MTV would still get off the air. But it also makes me wonder if his lyrics are still relevant because the human race has remained stagnant, or taken steps backwards? On another topic of the album; have you ever seen the original inner artwork? So. Many. Penises. And. Vaginas. 

Class Warrior:
I first heard this record when I was in high school. It was one of the first punk albums I had ever heard—a part of my “intro to punk” course, I suppose, along with Bad Religion’s holy trinity (Suffer, No Control, and Against the Grain), Black Flag’s The First Four Years, and DK’s last album Bedtime for Democracy. I loved Frankenchrist then, and the passage of time has done nothing to diminish this love. I may even appreciate it more now.

I keep wondering how I got into this album in the first place. The songs are so long! The average length is four and a half minutes per song. One tune comes in at over six minutes. That’s an eternity for a punk song. I’ll tell you how I came to love it: almost every song on Frankenchrist is fantastic in one way or another. They hold my attention throughout. Jello Biafra wrote all the lyrics for the songs except for “Hellnation” (D.H. Peligro) and “At My Job” (East Bay Ray)—all (including the non-Biafra songs) are incredibly thought-provoking. In addition, Ray’s surf-psych guitar tone was a punk rock innovation that gave the DKs their signature sound—his twisted guitar work is front and center on all the songs.

It’s not quite a perfect album—“Goons of Hazzard” is a clunker for me—but it does have a perfect side. The first side of the cassette (I have it on CD now, but I had it on cassette forever before I replaced it) features five perfect songs. Most bands will never have five perfect songs in a career. They’re lucky to have even one. My two favorite songs on the first side are “This Could Be Anywhere” and “A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch.” Both still send shivers down my spine when I listen. Some of the best punk rock lyrics ever written!

The pinnacle of this album, though, is the closing number—the masterful “Stars and Stripes of Corruption.” Just as relevant now as it was in 1985. I’m reading the lyrics as I type—nothing’s fucking changed. How frustrating. How infuriating. I am so glad that I heard this song, and this album, when I did. It helped to solidify and refine my own critique of the United States and of capitalism.

Frankenchrist is the Dead Kennedys’ best album. It is in the top five of all punk albums ever created (along with Suffer, Kill from the Heart by The Dicks, the Ramones self-titled record, Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts, G.B.H.’s City Baby Attacked by Rats, the first album by The Kids…wait, I think I just named more than five). If you have not heard it before, you know what you should do.

My first Dead Kennedys’s record was Plastic Surgery Disasters. I had it on cassette tape. I loved the songs: “Terminal People,” “Forest Fire,” “Riot,” and “Bleed for Me.” The Dead Kennedys fascinated me, given their sound and Jello’s vocals. There was a depth to them that was definitely not found in mainstream music. I would often sit in my room, listening intently to each song, while reading the lyrics. It was a great learning experience, which continues today.

I was in junior high school when Frankenchrist was released. My friend’s older brother would let me transfer his records to cassette. I took my boom box and TDK tapes to his house and would get to work. Sitting in his room, I read through lyrics and looked at the record sleeves, since I would have to save up money to buy the records latter. The cover art of Frankenchrist amused me, given the Shriners in the little cars. I also liked that it did not feature the name of the band on the cover. But what I remember most about this first listen was the goosebumps that I got. I was immediately enthralled by East Bay Ray’s guitar sound on the opening of “Soup Is Good Food.” Surf and western influences mixed in a beautiful sound. The first verses of the song also gave me chills, as Jello sang about the displacement of workers due to displacement, followed by the callous indifference of a profit-driven, technocrat society. Naming the song after the advertising slogan for Campbell’s Soup was also brilliant. In so many ways, the Dead Kennedys embodied satire and critique at its best.

Frankenchrist is a very dark, ominous record. As was expected of the Dead Kennedys, the lyrics illuminate the absurdity of U.S. society, the exploitation and imperialism associated with capitalism, and the alienation and loneliness experienced by individuals. But on this record, the lyrics and music seemed to carry added weight. The slower songs, in comparison to earlier records, brought out the nuance within the music. As a listener, I was confronted with the seriousness in a different and effective way. “This Could Be Anywhere (This Could Be Everywhere)” still makes be shutter. “A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch” and “Chicken Farm” helped me make global connections as a young kid. “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” remains one of the great punk rock songs, presenting a critique that sadly remains just as relevant today.

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