Dead Kennedys : Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables : The Early Years – Alex Ogg (PM Press)
This book has been a long time in the making so I was relieved when a copy finally dropped through my letterbox courtesy of Turnaround Publishing. The latest offering from Alex Ogg, whom Pop Matters recently referred to as ‘the veteran punk chronicler’, is the latest in what now amounts to a pretty impressive and eclectic body of work which details his musings on all things musical from hip-hop to Radiohead. This new two hundred and sixteen page account is an extremely interesting, well balanced and long overdue account of the story of one of punk’s most important bands.
I read the book cover to cover in a couple of sittings last month however rather like the ‘listening experience’ with new music, I like to give the ‘reading experience’ adequate time to gestate so I have time for reflection before committing my thoughts to paper. This hiatus also offers a brief window to survey what other people have to say and to date pretty much all the reviews have been extremely positive, with the book scoring a straight five star rating on amazon. No work however is without its flaws but before diving into these let me first add some much needed context in terms of the book’s timing, its layout and format and the impression it left on me as the reader.
In terms of content the book’s primary focus is solely on ‘the early years’ of the band so be aware that it is only a partial story which, aside from the internal warfare continually seeping through, the stories of the releases and recordings pretty much ends with the departure of Ted and the arrival of D.H. Peligro. One consequence of this is that although the book does cover Plastic Surgery Disasters which was released in 1982, the book is very much preoccupied with the impact and reactions surrounding the creation and release of Fresh Fruit in 1980. The main narrative consists of a brief prequel and then seven subsequent chapters (each of which is entitled by relevant DK lyrics, ‘you will jog for the master race’ or ‘efficiency and progress is ours once more’ and subtitled with quirky or curious quotations such as Lou Reed’s ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless its mine’). These chapters are supplemented by a brief reflective piece from both Ray and Biafra on the thirty plus year old legacy of ‘Fresh Fruit’, some well detailed and quite revealing endnotes, a Yakety-Yak section of quotations from people as ridiculously diverse as yours truly and Elijah Wood and a short piece entitled ‘Grafic Anarchy’ by Ogg’s co-conspirator and fellow academic Russ Bestley.
From the outset Ogg does a very good job of sketching out how the band emerged and came together in serendipitous fashion, broadly as a result of their gravitation to the city of San Francisco and Ray’s timely placement of an advert for musicians in a local record store. I must confess, probably like a lot of DKs aficionados, I knew far less about the back histories of Ray, Klaus, Bruce (Ted) and Carlos (6025) than I do of Geoffrey Boucher (Jello Biafra). Learning about Ray’s qualifications in mathematics, his politically active parents and seasoned musicianship along with Klaus’ work on pirate radio, his ten years working as a blues musician and his defining moment at a Zeros concert when he was seduced into a realisation that ‘this is what rock’n’roll used to be like’ was absolutely great. The referencing of Zappa’s ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps’ and the anecdotal coverage of their contact with various industry people and contemporaries such as The Avengers, Nuns, Crime, Mutants and Dils positions Dead Kennedys as a fortuitous coming-together of ‘initially’ like-minded people within a burgeoning DIY scene. With some interesting commentary on the quirkier and artier side of San Francisco as an ideal place for such a communion, their story reads as part of a continuation of the critical bursts of energy and excitement that emerged from the garage scene of the 60s.
When all these fragments are neatly woven into the fabric of their early gigs, the press hysterics over their cultural hand grenade of a name (which incidentally meant they sometimes had to sneak under the radar and appear as The Creamsicles and Pink Tweenies), the many interesting vignettes related to Biafra’s ‘olympic-standard sarcasm’ and on-stage theatricalities coupled with Ray’s use of the flattened fifth or ‘devil’s interval’ makes it all amount to a good read.
As champions of punk DIY it is perhaps a little ironic that partial testimony to the band’s enduring influence is provided courtesy of a ‘press release’. This actually reminds us that Dead Kennedys notoriety was achieved with almost zero radio-play, without the assistance of a major label and largely from coverage in the underground / DIY press. It is also fair to claim that the band not only existed outside the mainstream but were arguably the first band of their stature to actually turn on and attack the music industry itself, which they did in their own inimitably, acerbic way.
Recollections of such visceral sentiment are refreshing when it now seems that the most prized utility for modernity’s musical icons (I am thinking here of the TV commercials featuring the likes of John Lydon, Iggy Pop and Snoop Doggy Dog) is creating some ‘hip connection’ with various consumer products in the pay of the advertising industry.
That this book is long overdue is also brought into sharper focus by Ogg’s observation that ‘the triumvirate of the Pistols, Clash and Ramones’ have had over a hundred books published in their names. As for Dead Kennedys, to my knowledge, there has only been one previous title, ‘Marian Kester’s ‘Dead Kennedys -The Unauthorised Version’, which I elected not to investigate based on a glut of awful reviews and learning that even the band wished it hadn’t been released. Whilst any new material on punk / DIY culture is welcomed in these pages, Dead Kennedys in my opinion are in many ways a far more worthwhile and interesting proposition in which to indulge our interest than many of these other bands. For starters as this is the first properly researched book, its relatively fresh-fruited subject matter christens Ogg’s work with the hallmark of originality. His book also rebalances the history to some extent because as certain sections of the mainstream music press have periodically fawned over these higher profile bands, Dead Kennedys for their part were often either totally ignored or casually relegated to the background. Whilst this treatment might have been unfair at the same time this absence is also quite enlightening, because as a consequence of what Ogg describes as hard-work and discipline, or what could be redefined as a sublime mixture of dark humour, pranksterism and innovative song-writing, the band demonstrate how it is possible to become both high profile (in a very clever way) and become mired in controversies of your own making, right from the very start.
Looking back Ogg’s account makes it hard for even the most cynical industry-wonk to deny that Dead Kennedys and its colourful cast of characters, boasts an interesting and extremely controversial history. Before we even consider the music (although none of this would have happened without it) this rich history includes a lineage of law-suits, a San Franciscan mayoral election campaign and the famous PMRC spat which propelled Biafra onto international daytime TV courtesy of his appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. This all makes for thought-provoking reading but one other key dynamic within the ongoing saga is the very public fall out between the band members which has been raging on and off from the late 90s. Much of the debate surrounding this has amounted to little more than non-truths and partisan condemnations, depending which version of the truth you choose to subscribe to, which have tended to appear as posts on web-forums and message boards. This book is however the first attempt to provide some better informed and first-hand insight into this spider’s web of intrigue, however although Ogg by no means untangles this web he certainly addresses it, which in itself is an important first step.
Although the book runs out at two hundred and sixteen pages the worded content is surprisingly small (in fact quantitatively a minor portion of the book) and the bulk of the pages are filled with illustrations of gig posters, record sleeves, liner notes, images of record labels, visual montages and band photographs. The visual anarchy of the Winston Smith creations remains a big part of how Dead Kennedys communicated their unique brand of wit and wisdom, in fact perhaps the nearest equivalent to what Gee Vaucher achieved as a visual signature for Crass. That said certain chapters only contain between seven and nine pages of text and surprisingly the introductory chapter only clocks in at fourteen pages. I am unsure whether or not this was a deliberate move however the reader in me would have liked the balanced tipped towards more narrative detail.
Being familiar with the band’s material I often found my attention being drawn more closely toward little idiosyncrasies and curious factoids, which for me made this such an enjoyable read. For instance I was intrigued to learn that the band name was not altogether their own invention, in fact far from it, and how another band from Cleveland had originally shied away from using the name ‘Dead Kennedys’ as it was an impediment to getting bookings. Through hearsay and connections (largely Rick Stott and Radio Pete) Ogg recounts amusingly how Biafra, who loved the potential outrage adopting the name would surely generate knew he was onto something, when ‘Ray and Klaus objected so strongly’ to the idea. Further little punk factoids emerge about how the manifesto for the mayoral campaign of 1979 was scribbled on the back of a napkin at a Pere Ubu gig and Rick Stott (who incidentally managed The Ravers who went on to become The Nails having a minor hit single with ’88 Lines about 44 Women’, which I bought on the strength of a single play on the John Peel show) joined the staff at MRR Radio and would later actually become the DK’s lawyer. Phew, even more things I didn’t know, it’s a smaller and more inter-connected world than I sometimes care to imagine.
One minor personal revelation was an explanation of why there is such an enormous gulf in the recording quality between Fresh Fruit and the first two singles ‘California Uber Alles’ and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’. It appears that a glaring error occurred with the early pressings of Fresh Fruit whereby the whole of the bass and bottom end disappeared so consequently the releases have a very muffled and tinny sound. Until now it always puzzled me why the two singles on the other hand should exude such clarity and sonic depth. The details on the recording process and varying explanations regarding musicianship, song creation and studio experience offer insight not only into the personalities of the band members but also key figures such as Geza-X whose attention to detail during the mixing process helped create that distinctive DK sound.
The ‘elephant in the room’ however within this book is the subplot which rankles throughout, namely the very public fall-out between the Biafra and Ray / Klaus camp. Ogg describes the whole situation as ‘messy and deeply unpleasant’ and reveals that even his conciliatory attempts to be totally transparent to both sides, even to the extent of whether or not a certain band member could use the personal or collective pronoun, were continually scuppered and a source of deep antagonism. Based on reading between the lines, and as many will know that is often where an alternative and sometimes better version of the truth lies, it is worth mentioning this ongoing feud for a number of reasons.
Firstly although Ogg makes light of the impossibility of trying to play the role of ‘Dead Kennedys Truth and Reconciliation Committee’ and sneaks a few apologies into the endnotes about not tackling the dispute head on, his frustrations can’t help but seep through. As early as page two he mentions Ray’s penchants for ‘calling his lawyer’ and constantly accusing Biafra of putting a ‘spin on everything’ which seems to create a very large thorn in Ray’s side. An example of this is explained in chapter six where Ogg reveals how Biafra’s praise for Carlos’ capability as a ‘musical genius’, reflecting his ability to play almost flawless on the first take on both guitars and drums, was not received too well by Ray. I couldn’t help smiling at his description of Ray’s reaction as being akin to ‘coughing up a huge emotional fur-ball’ owing to the fact that Biafra had reserved this plaudit for Carlos and failed to automatically extend it to any other band members . In the interests of balance Ogg does however suggests that at times Biafra is ‘less than gracious’ in his treatment of his ex-band members whom he lambasts as ‘greed addled clowns’ and ‘the greediest karaoke band in the world’.
Secondly after learning a lot more about the backgrounds and orientations of Klaus and Ray (we probably all already know a lot about Biafra) they do all seem to be pretty switched on politically, Ogg for instance mentions Ray’s extremely pragmatic attitude towards politics. On a personal level therefore this whole circus of show-trials, law-suits and internecine back-biting comes as a bit surprising which makes me feel there is a lot more to this story than this book reveals. I am obviously speculating here but the mention of lawyers, rather like PR people and advertising executives, instantly makes me a little nervous, so possibly there are certain restrictions on authorial independence – who knows, maybe I should ask Mr Ogg ?
Thirdly it is a pity that what should have been a labour of love created by a long-term fan and experienced writer, turned out to be an exercise in political brinksmanship and negotiating shark infested waters. Rather than being an opportunity to create a flowing narrative that would critically reflect on the band’s contribution to music and DIY culture, I feel a sense of disempowerment and fatigue as a lot of what should have emerged has been so overshadowed by internal politics.
From the closing pages it appears that Ogg is relieved that this particular book-writing journey has run its course, commenting that it will have to be some other ‘poor bastard’ who picks up the story where he leaves off. Leaving these obvious frustrations aside, the author has produced a balanced and well-reasoned account of the band’s early years. In the sections where there is sufficient text and storyline to get one’s teeth into, the pages just seem to turn themselves, which speaks volumes about Ogg’s ability as a writer. Andy Higgins
(PM Press, P.O. Box 23912, Oakland, CA 94623, pmpress.org)
Distributed by Turnaround Publishing
Andy Higgins is a writer on politics, punk and football from Blackpool, North-West England.
Contact Details : firstname.lastname@example.org Web : www.jsntgm.com
Home of justsaynotogovernmentmusic records, Blackpool Rox II zine, he also sings and plays guitar a bit.