It is quite a disconcerting fact, for readers of a certain age, to realise that it is more than 30 years since the breakup of the Dead Kennedys. Since that time Jello Biafra has engaged with a variety of projects, including Lard and NoMeansNo amongst others, as well as a prolific spoken and written word catalogue. Apparently the Guantanamo School of Medicine project was motivated by Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday party concert at Warfield in San Francisco where Jello decided it was time to form a band of his own for his own 50th birthday party. After “The Audacity of Hope” in 2009 we now have another opportunity to listen and learn from the master of candour on their latest release “White Man and the Damage Done”. One look at the album cover and title will be a relief to long term fans of Jello’s aesthetic.
This assortment opens with a fanfare of tightly produced vigour in “John Dillinger”, which features a frenzied guitar riff that is not only exhilarating enough to bring a smile to the face, but unforgettable enough to fix that smile there. The vocals are dementedly earnest and delivered with the trademark styling that we all know, hopefully, and love so well. “The Brown Lipstick Parade” is equally calculated to be heard and stick into some corner of the imagination to be brought out when the listener needs reminding of certain political truths. Lines such as “We are the Illumi-Nazis, You’re the food chain we devour, laughing all the way to China, Giving you the golden shower”, are vintage Biafra and should be considered carefully and with tongue in cheek.
“Road Rage” is reminiscent of the Dead Kennedy’s “Buzzbomb from Pasadena” with Biafra adopting an almost farcical vocal which helps draw the listener in to the lyrical content and underlying message. “Mid-East Peace Process” has a furious momentum which feels as if it could collapse at any moment but is reined in with precision, whilst “Hollywood Goof Disease” is characterised by a gorgeously vintage surf guitar sound that fans of Biafra’s earlier work will be contented with.
For the listener in the right frame of mind, the title track “White People and the Damage Done” will bring tears of nostalgia and elation, and possibly cause the most belligerent old fan to secretly air guitar along, whereas “Burgers of Wrath” is a slice of insurgent electric country. The album closes with four remixes including a brass version of “The Brown Lipstick Parade” and a version of “Crapture” which develops, as the title suggests, into a “Flight F.I.N.A.L Space Blast Extension”.
In his book “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs” Dorian Lynskey argues there are good reasons why protest songs are regarded with suspicion, “While detractors dismiss all examples as didactic, crass or plain boring, enthusiasts are prone to acting as if virtuous intent suspends the usual standards of music quality…” With an album of protest songs such as “White People and the Damage Done” we, it seems, have quality music with a message that is never tactless or dull, but entertaining and inspiring. As Lynskey goes on to examine, protest music was never meant to change the world, but it does have the ability to change perspectives. “White People and the Damage Done” will, hopefully, go some way to achieving this.