Since the shuttering of San Franciscan political punk provocateurs Dead Kennedys in the late ’80s, Jello Biafra (the onetime Eric Boucher of Boulder, Colorado) has continued to ply his prankster-cum-missionary trade with spoken-word records and numerous intriguing musical collaborations. Until he was set upon by skinheads and seriously injured in the fabled East Bay 924 Gilman club in May ’94, the often-embattled Biafra was busily and enthusiastically proving that even old punks can change their musical stripes without endangering their synergistic sense of humor and outrage. (The subsequent legal debacle with his former bandmates is another matter.)
The political satire of No More Cocoons was recorded at college appearances, radio interviews and readings. Biafra has found his ideal medium here, and this is as sharp, funny and informative as any Dead Kennedys record. Biafra applies his acerbic wit, endless outrage, abundant intelligence and theatricality to a variety of concerns, making the record highly worthwhile and grimly amusing. Those old enough to remember Lenny Bruce or even Mort Sahl in his prime may consider this topical comedy in the grand tradition; younger listeners may find it a fruitful inkling of what Biafra was singing about in the DKs.
As someone whose outspoken opinions and actions are enough to bring down the legal wrath of the land’s moral guardians, it’s convenient that Biafra owns an independent label on which to rebut his accusers. Following his 1987 acquittal for “distribution of harmful matter to minors” (a case resulting from a piece of H.R. Giger artwork reproduced and included in the DKs’ Frankenchrist), Biafra spewed out two-disc High Priest of Harmful Matter. In addition to a typically intelligent and amusing 1988 lecture on the general topic of contemporary censorship, Biafra offers an absurdist post-mortem and detailed account of the events that began on April 15, 1986, when police raided his San Francisco apartment.
On I Blow Minds for a Living, recorded on tour in late ’90 and early ’91, he rants merrily about then-president George Bush, censorship, petroleum politics and the Gulf War, censorship, his actual mayoral campaign, censorship, pot, censorship and another one of his favorite topics, censorship. Good, angry fun, dripping sarcasm through a sharpened point. Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police, arising from several 1994 appearances, fills an attention-testing three CDs with further lectures on (no points for this one) censorship, retailers’ suppression, anti-gay amendments and the like. In addition, Biafra offers a serio-comic wish list for the future and a resonantly entertaining news-driven reminiscence of his curious childhood. Other than its daunting length, the set’s major flaw is the cloddish editing, which inserts brief, jarringly different-sounding bits.
To Lard, one of his continuing side projects, Biafra contributes a voice, label and sense of humor. That gets matched up to pounding, semi-industrialized rock by Ministry guitarist Al Jourgensen, bassist Paul Barker and drummer Jeff Ward. A casual and exciting bit of supergrouping, The Power of Lard (a three-song 12-inch) demonstrates the fun potential in this seemingly unlikely alliance. The Last Temptation of Reid, an excellent full-length album (with no duplication from the single), standardizes the concept, resolving itself into a more-or-less even blend of the Dead Kennedys and Ministry. (And is thus equally recommendable to fans of both.) Loopy topical lyrics lighten the driving music’s dominance-and-submission power; a martial-beat cover of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” merrily confirms the project’s open-ended aesthetic.
Around the same time as Lard was getting in gear, Biafra starred in and performed on the soundtrack of Terminal City Ricochet. The 1989 Canadian film’s soundtrack contains tracks by assorted Alternative Tentacles bands as well as Biafra’s musical collaborations with D.O.A., NoMeansNo and Keith LeBlanc. As a side effect, he took a step toward resuming his musical career with Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, a roaring rock record that puts his trademark whiny vocals and songs to D.O.A.’s meat-and-cojones guitar power. Through a half-dozen numbers like “Wish I Was in El Salvador,” “Attack of the Peacekeepers” and the epic “Full Metal Jackoff,” Last Scream proudly re-hoists the DK flag in all but name.
With that test successfully fluttering in the Canadian rock breeze, Biafra was off and running. He teamed with high-pressure British Columbia prog/thrash jokers NoMeansNo for The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, a dense explosion of political punk vehemence. Returning to the quivering vocal frequencies of the Dead Kennedys, Biafra paces the racing music slam for slam. Except for the evenly paced and horn-charged “Bruce’s Diary,” the eight songs whiz by in a hypertense blur of topical aggression. Typically, Biafra overloads his shopping cart with brightly packaged issues — bio-engineering (“Sharks in the Gene Pool”), urban decay (“Chew”), hypocrisy (“The Myth Is Real — Let’s Eat”), space junk (the title track) — but he also displays a more humane side here. Despite a spot of structural anxiety, “Ride the Flume” actually enthuses about an amusement park attraction (and quotes the “George of the Jungle” theme).
The groaning, moaning grub-soaking crud of Tumor Circus finds Biafra slinging demi-melodic gutter poetry like a revved-up Nick Cave in a group made up of San Francisco’s Steel Pole Bath Tub and guitarist Charlie Tolnay of Australia’s King Snake Roost. Over a godawful racket that provides a horrific rock analogue to the delirium tremens, a suitably loose-sounding Biafra roars lengthy texts of news headlines (“Take Me Back or I’ll Drown Our Dog”), secret societies (“Hazing for Success”), metaphoric illness (“Swine Flu”) and metaphoric pinball (“Fireball”). “Meathook Up My Rectum” pulls out a gamut of things that get him mad. A load of filthy rubbish — and one of the best things Biafra has ever done. At the other end of the spectrum, the pointlessly stupid Jello Biafra With Plainfield is essentially Beavis and Butt-head make a record. Guitarist Smelly Mustafa, bassist Cooties and drummer Edward Gein (ha-ha) thrash away sloppily as Biafra (or a simulacrum) and Smelly engage in crude, offensive and boring low-rent sketch comedy for 19 unendurable minutes. (Alternative Tentacles and others claim that Jello Biafra With Plainfield is a hoax. Although the CD bears all the indications and trademarks of a legitimate release on Biafra’s own label — down to the copyright information, PO box and otherwise unused VIRUS 132 stock number — and features the voice of a person who repeatedly identifies himself, and sounds quite convincing in spots, as Jello, the label claims Biafra was not a party to the recording or release of the record.)
In a surprirsing stylistic detour, Biafra then married himself into Mojo Nixon’s loopy clan, the Toadliquors, for a lusciously lurid roots-rock romp. The duo previewed their joint album with a topical single of “Will the Fetus Be Aborted?” (a parody of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”); the CD EP also contains a second album track, the non-LP “Lost World” and an unrelated country spoof by Eugene Chadbourne and Evan Johns.
Biafra hardly has the voice or style for the rustic music on Prairie Home Invasion, but it doesn’t matter. Whether updating Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” ripping meet-the-new-boss sellout bands in “Buy My Snake Oil,” deflating cultural illusions in “Nostalgia for an Age That Never Existed” or trotting out that irreverent standby, “Plastic Jesus,” JB makes Mojo’s bud-guzzling country honk work for him with cavalier aplomb. For his part, king dick Nixon is moved to serious current events concern in “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster,” although his other spotlight numbers are the more typical “Let’s Go Burn Ole Nashville Down” and “Are You Drinkin’ With Me Jesus,” an inebriated howler he co-wrote for the Beat Farmers, which dares the deity: “I know you can walk on water/But can you walk on this much beer?”
The Witch Trials was an early Biafra studio one-off, recorded in England and shrouded in mystery. With DK guitarist East Bay Ray, Sound vocalist Adrian Borland and California’s Christian Lunch providing the uncredited backing — an atmospheric drone on one side, jarring unpleasantness on the other — Biafra recites two dramatic tales of mayhem and chants two more pieces of madness that exhibit his characteristic venom and wit.