The Dead Kennedys. They’re the most ‘punk’ punk band of all time. They represent the highest standard in which all other punk bands should be judged. As a band, as a force, they were political, righteous, and always willing to fight for their beliefs. What a lot of people didn’t get (and still don’t) is that Dead Kennedys are…absolutely hilarious. From their lyrics to their mordant (sometimes ridiculous) album cover art, they seemed to take everything seriously except themselves. Jello Biafra’s ‘singing’ voice sounded like a really fabulous elephant being strangled by his own tail. Nothing about the Dead Kennedys was passive. Everything about the group fought against conformity, the mainstream. They managed to attain a form of success on their own terms, as successful as a band named ‘Dead Kennedys’ can be. I have a theory that bad taste is just another expression of punk. Bad taste is many things, but mostly, it’s an assault on the mainstream view of acceptability. Frankenchrist this idea is taken to an ultimate but logical conclusion. The cover art is perfect for this record. Ridiculous, silly, yet absolutely real.
Frankenchrist is a Dead Kennedys album for the MTV age, which doesn’t mean to say Jello Biafra was seeking to be accommodated into the mainstream. His style polemic was far too extreme for that to ever happen. But a few years after the band’s most ambitious work to date (‘Plastic Surgery Disasters’), perhaps even they themselves recognised it was time to change things slightly, or at least the limitations of their early hardcore sound in spreading their baleful brilliance. As a result, Frankenchrist was their biggest sounding record to date. It was also the product of musical experimentation within the band. The catchy guitar riffs remained. The demented schizoid vocals were there too. Yet the lustrous and layered production didn’t detract from the messages on the album, the most consistent of which seemed to be WE ARE ALL BEING FUCKED BY THE SYSTEM, which is the most punk credo imaginable. Yes, Frankenchrist still contained all of the fury and fervour found in each previous Dead Kennedys record. It still said FUCK YOU to all the corrupt politicians and numerous assorted assholes throughout America. They were Jello Biafra’s targets. Also: The moral majority. Jocks. Rednecks. And also…MTV. Yes, the fledgeling network was firmly in Jello’s sights and he didn’t stop biting until he drew blood in the scabrous MTV (Get Off The Air).
Doing his best impersonation of an MTV producer, sounding suitably peppy and overly enthusiastic, Jello attacks the channel for destroying the imagination of listeners. Now I love MTV. I still want my MTV. But the days of girl group records filling their grooves with motorcycle revs and church bells were long gone. Listeners didn’t need to imagine. They could simply watch and consume. Cyndi looks quirky. Those graphics look neat. Oh, what nice hair Kip Winger has!
There’s horror at high school in Jock-O-Rama where football players are praised at the expense of academic students. Soup Is Good Food (also an advertising slogan for Campbell’s Soup) mixes downbeat sentiment with a guitar riff that makes you think of Batman and Robin running down the street on their way to take out a dastardly villain. Then there’s The Stars And Stripes Of Corruption, a song that effectively serves as the album’s thematic anchor; it tears down everything you’ve been led to believe about America, decrying any idea of it as being ‘Land of the Free’. It might be the most important song in the back catalogue of Dead Kennedys and Jello’s masterpiece.
The album was a hit. Yet it also started the decline of the band. Because of a free poster that came with Frankenchrist (via H.R. Giger), the band were taken to court and an obscenity trial took place. Jello appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss the controversy. It was a rare occasion of the underground smashing into the mainstream.
By all accounts, Jello Biafra’s marriage didn’t survive the legal case. The band’s label barely recovered. One album later and the band disbanded until the inevitable reunion. What? A reunion? Yes! Because reunions are punk. If Johnny Rotten can do it, so can Jello Biafra and Dead Kennedys. And they did.
Frankenchrist. The most controversial album the band released. An album that sparked an uproar because of a free poster. Due to this fiasco, many people might have missed the content of the album itself. A shame, because far more than just a poster and a trial. It’s an artistic triumph of alternative music.