You may not know this and probably wouldn't have guessed it, but Pete used to be a lot more outspoken politically than he is now. He's still got thoughts and opinions on these matters, but keeps them mostly to himself and certainly avoids sharing them online a lot, which is why you wouldn't guess it. When I met him, however, it was a big thing for him and I suspect this was fueled mostly by the influence of his musical heroes. At the time he was listening to a LOT of Subhumans, the Clash, Sex Pistols, and Dead Kennedys.
Before I met him I had general knowledge of DK. The big two, "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Uber Alles," but nothing beyond those. As with many artists that appear on this list, I got into Dead Kennedys because of frequent appearances on mix tapes Pete would make for me. As someone who has always been pretty opinionated politically, the unapologetic this-is-how-it-is brashness of the Dead Kennedys REALLY appealed to me as I explored their catalog when I was 18 and 19.
My favorite album of theirs is their debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which includes the aforementioned two tracks for which DK is generally best known. It's not just the two smash hit singles, that album is fun as fuck. One of my recent favorites, which I put on to blow off steam if I get too mad about stuff is the first track, "Kill the Poor," applicable to our times for pretty obvious reasons. Most of the album is pretty good for this, even if some of the subject matter didn't age well or was actually never really relevant outside of Jello Biafra's head (I still struggle most notably with "Well Paid Scientist").
Pete's favorite has always been their second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, a distinction I respect. I think the first two* are inarguably their best. Plastic Surgery Disasters, while still pretty infectious is less lovable than Fresh Fruit, but also includes "Moon Over Marin," by far my favorite DK song.
*In God We Trust Inc. is technically their second release, but I think of it as in the same bucket as Plastic because the CD we have lumps them together and In God We Trust is just an EP.
I mentioned in my tangentially related post on Marvin Gaye that I like songs about the environment (which is true, but I think I generally like songs about weird topics). "Moon" is very obviously about the environment, but the take on it is not entirely clear. It is, like a lot of DK songs, painfully specific. I love the Bay Area in spite of myself. Last time we visited, we actually stayed in Sausalito (adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County), which is fucking beautiful even if it's so rich, it staying there is like engaging in wealthy person cosplay (see also this). It was honestly a pretty unpleasant experience because the roads are tiny and at a greater-than 45 degree slope, there's no street parking, and because of the hills you can't walk anywhere.
What's more, it's populated with arguably the biggest assholesbon the West Coast. This piece is part of the in-joke of the song, but it's applicable beyond Marin County and the insanely rich people who privately own swaths of the coastline. What I've always taken from this song is that the wealthy love to *enjoy* the environment, even if sacrificing in order to take care of it is not a priority. And it seems that the perspective in the song is almost like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water. "The crowded future stings my eyes, I still find time to exercise in a uniform with two white stripes." I'm aware of the problems but focused on personal health and maintenance, spending money on overpriced tracksuits.
This track presents an exceptionally rare side of Jello--his vulnerable one. The vocal performance is his best. He sounds sad. He's usually mad. The guitar work is equally emotional. East Bay Ray's guitar almost seems to commiserate with the subject of the song as well as the listener. It's just all very sad. So is climate change. This song was written before we were fully aware of the current, hair-on-fire issues that put our very lives at risk. This was back when hippies were the only ones who cared and overpopulation and litter were the biggest concerns. Very ahead-of-its time. I don't imagine many punks were wringing their hands about ocean pollution at the time.
For a long time I turned on Jello and the Dead Kennedys but to be fair to me they've been very difficult to like in the past two decades. Jello's post-DK output had for a while been dominated by his spoken word albums and performances. He started out so well! No More Cocoons is fabulously entertaining. If you've never heard "Names for Bands," please fix that. Eventually, the spoken word pieces devolved into long-form lectures about the State of Things. He was never wrong about stuff for the most part, but being right and proving his point got in the way of delivery and they were no longer entertaining.
As long as I live, I will never forgive him for that one performance at Cleveland State University back in December of 2001**. We drove from Columbus on a weeknight to hear him speak. We didn't get dinner because we were late. The room was poorly ventilated so someone opened a window near me, making the space in my immediate vicinity freezing cold. I had to teach the next day. The fucking guy talked for THREE HOURS and none of it was interesting. The local anecdotes peppered in were all slightly off. I think the Cleveland Browns' owner had died earlier that week and Jello made mention of him as if he were still alive. Most of what he discussed were statistics, which of course are relevant and important, but not entertaining at all. It was like we were in school. We left after 3 hours, before he finished.
**Or was it Case Western in November? Doesn't matter.
Then of course there's the dispute between he and his former bandmates in DK, the details of which I don't recall and about which don't even feel moved to refresh my memory because fuck all of them. If memory serves, I generally felt like the other members of DK had a legitimate argument but they squandered that deference by going on that joke of a reunion junket with Brandon Cruz, the fucking kid from the Courtship of Eddie's Father on vocals.
The combination of factors and my own maturation slightly soured me on listening to DK for a solid 15 years. The aforementioned specificity that dogs Jello's litany of complaints throughout their discography got on my nerves. Also, seemed petty at times? "Terminal Preppie?" Eh. "Trust Your Mechanic?" Why? It seemed like he would sometimes take aim at people who should be his friends. It may have been edgy in 1982 for a leftist to criticize rioters, but as we've seen recently, Fox News doesn't really need Jello's help, here.
As with other artists who share some of these tendencies (Bad Religion comes immediately to mind), the Trump administration has rekindled the angry and indignant music fan in me and I've found it a relief to put them on occasionally. When the state of Georgia recently took steps to ignore the guidance of public health experts and moved forward with reopening early on in the pandemic (seems like years ago now), I put on Fresh Fruit. Pete was concerned that I'd do this voluntarily. Rightfully so.