Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Cover Artwork)

Dead Kennedys

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

Alternative Tentacles

I feel a lot of pressure writing this review, because I know that, no matter what I say, I won’t be able to do Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables justice. The bottom line is, this album is truly extraordinary, and, first and foremost, if you haven’t heard it by now, you are due for one hell of a ride. This riveting debut full length would solidify Dead Kennedys as the landmark punk act they are known as today, and, while they would go on to release an arguably flawless discography afterwards (let’s all mutually agree to not acknowledge “MP3s Get Off The Web”), none of their later output would ever quite top the catchy, high energy brutalism of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.

To say that Fresh Fruit starts strong is a serious understatement. The peppy fun attitude of “Kill the Poor” set the stage for the rest of the album with it’s biting satirical take on politics and social issues, as Jello played the role of an aristocratic figure who gleefully vocalizes his excitement to wipe the entire working class with a neutron bomb. By portraying a ridiculous and over top caricature of the upper class, Jello was able to, quite ingeniously, highlight a legitimate social disconnect between economic classes.

“Looking Forward to Death” didn’t have the explosiveness or anthemic feel to overtake “Kill the Poor” as an opener, but it definitely does a better job of giving the album somewhat of an overall thesis, or a look into the mind of the madman, if you will. It’s over quick, but does it’s job well. Instrumentally, “Forward to Death” was also a pretty great early display of the technical ability of this iteration of Dead Kennedys. While the guitar parts aren’t anything too special, “Forward to Death” saw some of the best drum fills across Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and the most satisfying bass slide ever recorded.

“When You Get Drafted” is where Jello first introduced the record's recurring portrayal of reality as a dystopia. The lyrics delved into the politicalized incentivization of war in modern times. Even though, “When You Get Drafted” was written over a quarter century ago, its message remains hauntingly applicable to modern times. That goes for most of the songs off of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; many of these tracks were centered thematically around issues that were specific enough to be explored thoroughly, but so entrenched in the American way of life, that they could maintain relevance for generations to come. While, “When You Get Drafted” was based around the major entity that is the military industrial complex, its chorus took a more emotional and individualized approach as Fluoride frantically screamed the title lyrics repeatedly, giving the track that apprehensive edge.

“Let’s Lynch the Landlord” is another banger of a track, though it’s not quite as lyrically nuanced as the rest of the album. Still, this is one of the catchiest and most recognizable tunes that Dead Kennedys ever recorded and it served as a nice buffer between two of the record’s most high-octane tracks.

This is immediately followed by what very well may be my favorite moment of the entire album: “Drug Me”. I love absolutely everything about this song. Right from the get go, “Drug Me” launches into an infectious energy that relentlessly bashed listeners over the head until its release into an organ-driven pre chorus that works surprisingly well for a hardcore track. Jello’s quivering yelps during the chorus only added to the beautiful intensity that this track was able to develop, solidifying “Drug Me” as one of the greatest hardcore tracks ever recorded.

“Your Emotions” is one of the more straightforward cuts on the record, but it’s not to be overlooked. Jello’s lyrics were on point and delivered with laser sharp timing to contrast the high speed slurring of its predecessor. But the real star of the show is its banger chorus; it’s incredibly simple but catchy as hell.

“Chemical Warfare” initiates of a four song streak of major highlights for Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. The aforementioned track is based around an infectious surf guitar lick for the majority of its run time, but really sets itself apart in the bridge when it takes a left turn into “Sobre Las Olas”, then breaks down into a wall of absolute chaos, complete with frantic screams and squealing pigs, before bursting back in for one final triumphant chorus. It's quite the finale to side one.

Amazingly, Dead Kennedys managed to outdo themselves with the opener to side two by dropping one of their biggest singles of all time: “California Uber Alles”. What can I say about “California Uber Alles” that hasn't been said already? This single became instrumental in the band’s career, not just because of the wild success of the original single, but because its lyrical versatility allowed for the song to follow Dead Kennedys throughout the various political climates of their career(s). The song was originally set around sitting governor of California, Jerry Brown, with some not-so-subtle allusions to Nazi Germany, but also explored larger, overarching themes such as mindless conformity and complacency with corruption. As the band progressed through subsequent administrations, this iconic single became somewhat of a protest song chameleon, molding itself through subtle alterations to concern the likes of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and just about every other political figure since its release. Musically, “California Uber Alles” shreds constantly. From that instantly recognizable opening drum part to the chorus’ quivering chant to the slowly intensifying build of the bridge, it’s the dynamic structure and the that all of these qualitatively sound pieces fit so perfectly into that made “California Uber Alles” pop.

“I Kill Children” may come off as just pointlessly gruesome, but everything on this record is precisely placed to support the larger the rest of the tracklist, and, as ridiculous as the concept of this track may be, it does an excellent job of establishing Jello as an anti hero. I’ve always loved the stop and go structure of this song as well. Every instrumental break effectivity provides emphasis on Jello's subsequent vocal solos, before roaring back into another explosive half minute of power. Mix that addictive energy with a controversial subject matter and it’s not hard to see why this single lead Dead Kennedys to acquire so much notability.

“Stealing People's Mail” is a seriously overlooked moment on this record. Lyrically, it's pretty inane and sophomoric, but the bluegrassish guitar passages accenting its chorus alongside the breakneck vocal deliveries really add a lot of flare and gave this track a real nice punch. The keyboard used for these embellishments subtly accents the verses which gave the production on "Stealing People's Mail" a bit more depth. Because of some of these interesting artistic choices, “Stealing People’s Mail” has even gone so far as to rotate in and out as my favorite Dead Kennedys song.

Conversely, “Funland at the Beach” used to be my least favorite song on the album, just because I didn't feel like it really added all too much to the record, but I’ve definitely come around on this one, especially after reading into the lyrics. Within the context of this record, the track is, comparatively, pretty musically unremarkable on the surface, but it was Jello’s hilariously gruesome storytelling that made this song work. Like “I Kill Children”, “Funland at the Beach” details, quite joyfully, the massacre of a considerable number children, but by focusing on a specific event, “Funland at the Beach” was able to delve deeper into the dark comedy of the circumstances.

“Ill in the Head” may be the most compositionally interesting and definitely the most compositionally intricate song in the tracklist. The track sports a math rock structure, with its angular guitar passage breaking up the verses. While “Ill in the Head” is mainly a moment that shines instrumentally, this is also one of the most lyrically intriguing songs Dead Kennedys ever penned and it’s one of the few not written by Jello. 6025 wrote the track about his experience with schizophrenia and the melodic and lyrical structures of the track are meant to emulate his condition. While somewhat buried towards the end of album, “Ill in the Head” is a serious highlight of Fresh Fruit.

And now we arrive at the iconic “Holiday in Cambodia”. Any song that starts with 30 seconds of build up better be with the wait and Holiday in Cambodia is worth it a million times over. I've always loved this song from a compositional standpoint, but, like “Funland at the Beach”, I never really paid the lyrics all too much attention. This is one of the most unique and insightful takes on the disconnect between developed and undeveloped countries ever put to music. Jello used “Holiday in Cambodia” to explore pseudo solidarity and the warped way we casually reference the lives of people under the oppression of dictators like Pol Pot to delegitimize the struggles of those around us without actually making any effort to actually combat said oppression. Every line of the song was perfectly crafted to concisely convey Jello's astute observations on the matter. I could write an entire review about the intricacies of this single alone and what makes it so great aside from its influence and historical status, but “Holiday in Cambodia”, like most of the rest of this album, works just as well on a surface level as it does in a more cognitive listening experience. And that, to me, is truly the sign of a great album.

But while “Holiday in Cambodia” does have a finale-like quality to it and somewhat of a closer-esc spirit, there is one more song in the tracklisting and that is the “cover” of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas”. I've always seen this as more of a fun little bonus track to round out the record than a spiritual closer, but the gritty modifications that Jello made on these lyrics allowed room for just a few more subtle political hot takes.

And that's Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in a nutshell. I'm sure I could talk all day about this record and everything l love about, but the album speaks for itself. Whether you're new to Dead Kennedys or you're a seasoned listener, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is always due another listen. I honestly can’t think of an album more deserved of its legendary status.