Published in Red Mist, 12th August 2011
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine live in London
As we were watching Jello Biafra advocating “non-violent direct action” from the stage of the O2 Academy in Islington, only a couple of miles up the road members of Tottenham’s impoverished community made their frustration felt by rioting and setting the local police station on fire. Two days previously, the 29-year old Mark Duggan, father of five, had been shot by the police. It was the LA riots all over again, with the rightwing papers predictably pouncing on the opportunistic looting that ensued rather than on the murder of the presumed ‘gangster’.
Back in 1982, Biafra dealt with this issue when recording the song ‘Riot‘ as part of the Dead Kennedys’ lyrical and musical peak that was their album Plastic Surgery Disaster. Perceptive as ever, the track acknowledged the great rush that a violent release of accumulated anger gives you, while at the same time warning that spontaneous rioting would only “play right into their [the state’s] hands”. Tonight, after over thirty years of politically aware punk, hardcore, and spoken word, Biafra took the stage with his new band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, to seamlessly continue his mission: play faster and harder than most while attempting to raise the crowd’s political awareness in a sharp and engaging fashion.
Biafra himself might not have approved of the “Jello, Jello!” chants that heralded the band’s entrance, but even this author must admit to have felt somewhat starstruck. Here was a man who had cut through the more or less studied idiocy that characterised a lot of hardcore punk in the 1980s. When playing with the thuggish Exploited at the height of their popularity, he had the guts to address the assembled faithful, the ‘Exploited Barmy Army’, with the words: “The Exploited think they hate the police, but I think the Exploited are the police!”. But the great thing about him was that that he did not give a damn about the trendy left’s anti-’rockism’ either. In the 90s, he came out with lines such as “My new project Lard is meant to show the alternative rock wimps how it’s done properly”.
He is still showing them how it’s done properly, if only in terms of sheer power. Gone are the days when he brought something new to the table with every project: from his collaboration with proto-math-core legends Nomeansno through to his album with redneck renegade Mojo Nixon, Biafra was always good for a surprise, even if that willingness to experiment earned him a kicking from idiot punks on occasion [i]. The latter would have no ideological issues with the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which comes off like a cross between Dead Kennedys – effect-laden surf guitars and all – and a less robo-core version of Lard.
The opening tune ‘John Dillinger’ was new but sounded instantly familiar, as if it were a distinct teenagehood favourite of mine. Surprising was only the fact that Biafra chose to reprise plenty of actual Dead Kennedys classics, which would have been unfathomable some 15 years ago. No doubt he did the same at the Rebellion 2011 festival in Blackpool a couple of days later, where he was part of the kind of punk nostalgia package that he used to despise. Tonight’s audience, however, couldn’t have been more grateful and, as befits the less atavistic end of the hardcore spectrum, thanked it with enthusiastic but considerate mind-the-twiglets slam dancing.
At 15, I thought the Dead Kennedys were the height of political radicalism. Tonight, I was astonished how comparatively tame and Naomi-Kleinish Jello’s stage banter was. A Green Party activist, Jello is not only morelaissez-faire than most punks will remember, but also profoundly American in his nostalgia for a non-corporate early capitalism. The pioneer mythology that he and many of his contemporaries adhere to found expression not least in the 1980s explosion of DIY hardcore labels such as Black Flag’s SST Records and Jello’s own Alternative Tentacles. The fact the Levi’s corporation ended up using ’Holiday in Cambodia’ to advertise their sweatshop products did not dispel his beliefs in a ‘pure’ petty capitalism any more than his former bandmates dragging him to court over royalties.
“Anarchy sounds good to me, but then again who’d fix the sewers”, sang Jello as early as 1986 in the DKs song ‘Where Do Ya Draw The Line’, and tonight he drew the line at “radical activists who wear ideological blinders”, i.e. those to the left of himself and the likes of UK Uncut, whose virtues he extolled not once but twice during the gig. Biafra’s liberal finger-wagging would be pardonable if he didn’t come out with pompously presented yet wholly banal observations elsewhere. A topical number titled ‘New Feudalism’ raised awareness of the ‘novel’ phenomenon of globalisation, which readers might remember from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. “Nations are now corporate colonies”, the hardcore veteran howled to the backdrop of his raging troupe. “This isn’t capitalism”, he offered furthermore, “it’s feudalism”. Er… not really, Jello. You ought to take off your ideological blinders and read some Lenin.[ii]
Like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, Jello Biafra is searching for the real America – an America whose free market doesn’t make people slaves. One wants to remind him of his own song ‘Nostalgia For An Age That Never Existed‘. For although he spent the best part of the last decade recording songs against the ‘war on terror’, Biafra is still reluctant to connect the dots and consistently denounce the economic system that necessitates such policies in the first place. Instead, he tilts at mere pieces of the puzzle, with personal greed, racism, war-mongering Republicans, and evil corporations featuring prominently in his work. He may have abandoned the hope he had initially placed in ‘Mr Hopey Changey’[iii] – hence the excellent album title The Audacity of Hype – but at times, Jello’s brand of radical liberalism still makes him look like an ass. “Try not to work for corporations”, the punk star asked us from the stage of the O2 owned venue. Tell that to the McDonald’s staff next door.
At his best, the man still possesses a sharpness that remains unsurpassed in punk rock, and – let’s be honest – we yet have to see a Marxist artist who matches his dark sense of humour. The latest Guantanamos release,Enhanced Methods Of Questoning, might suffer from largely giving us just what we would expect from Biafra, but it does hit home with ‘Metamorphosis Exploration On Deviation Street Jam’, a psychedelic Turbonegro-meets-The Doors ego trip on par with ‘Full Metal Jackoff’.
The same goes for ‘I Won’t Give Up’, the extended outro which drew to a close a show so engaging, we hadn’t even thought about topping up our depleted pints after the first song. A subdued, personal number to wave your lighters to, it was the closest that Biafra had ever come to a Bruce Springsteen moment: all man of the people, he encouraged us to persist with whatever struggle we had chosen; to give up, as he repeated ad infinitum, was “not an option”. Biafra’s universal message seemed to go out to the people of Tottenham as much as to us commies, and our hearts thus warmed we descended into the night.
[i] as happened on 7th May1994 at Berkeley’s famous Gilman Street punk club
[ii] V.I. Lenin: Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism (1917)
[iii] In an open letter he wrote to Obama some three years ago, Biafra lamented that “it hurts so much more when the guy we all wish we could hang out with when we see him on TV turns around and backs the wrong position on something important”.