Sunday, August 9, 2015

punk - Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years

2014
204 pages

With all of the punk literature coming out in recent years and with all of the band histories and bios, there’s been nothing about Dead Kennedys until 2014. Now there are two books about the band’s debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; there's a 2015 book in the 33/3 series and this one that started as liner notes for the album’s 2009 25th anniversary commemorate reissue. I’m happy about this because Dead Kennedys were, and still are, my favorite of the American hardcore punk bands. When I was in my mid to late teens I listened mostly to electronic music when a friend gave me a cassette mix of songs from Dead Kennedy’s Plastic Surgery Disasters and Lard’s Pure Chewing Satisfaction. I didn’t mind Lard, DK singer Jello Biafra’s industrial rock collaboration with Al Jourgensen, but I by far preferred the Dead Kennedys songs. A short time later I purchased Frankenchrist on cassette during the same trip to Spinables (now Vertigo Records, a record store in Ottawa) that I also picked up the Kevin Martin curated compilation Macro Dub Infection II. Not long after that I had most of the DK discography.  Now that I have a particular interest in books about counterculture I find myself reading books about bands and musicians whose work I have no interest in so I find the publication of books about the Dead Kennedys to be a happy occasion.

The book itself has a tight focus on the band’s formation and earliest performances through to the recording and release of their first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, with a detailed discussion of each individual song. The book’s content is largely derived of interviews conducted with each band member and, as is well known, the majority of the band is in a long war over the band’s legacy with their former lead singer and songwriter, Jello Biafra. They hate each other and the things they disagree over in this book are the things I heard them fighting about when I first heard about their disputes: songwriting credits. Unfortunately these arguments make up a lot of this book’s content. Biafra, of course, has been able to continue his career in music without calling himself the Dead Kennedys, and anything his ex-bandmates say about Biafra’s ability to write a song has to be balanced against that. Like most Punk icons, Biafra’s talent for songwriting has waned over a 30 year period, but some of his collaborations from the early post DK years, the recordings with DOA and NoMeansNo especially, were top-notch. Even though his recent work might not stand with the classics, they can be considered “good”. My point is, the attribution of all those Dead Kennedys songs is contested territory, and this book is a battleground, but at least we can observe Biafra’s career as a songwriter beyond the Dead Kennedys legacy.

There’s more to the book than the arguments between old friends and the history of how they came to be. There’s also a lot of history of the practical business end of investing in, recording, manufacturing, promoting, and distributing the album. Ogg’s book includes some photos of the band that I haven’t seen anywhere else as well as some original artwork by Winston Smith, the great photomontage artist who produced a lot of album artwork for Biafra’s recordings and designed the iconic DK logo. The book ends with a series of statements from rockers and other types about how important Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is to them, confirming the album’s status as a cannonical punk album. The one thing I was looking for but never found was the meaning of the album’s title. Maybe I skimmed over such a discussion but I find that after reading the book I still don’t know what Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables means. Anyways, I hope there are more books about Dead Kennedys are in the works out there. I just found out that DH Peligro, the drummer for the Dead Kennedys for most of their original run, published a book in 2013 so maybe there are more DK related books than I thought.

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