FULL CIRCLE Once upon a time, at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, the Dead Kennedys blew the Clash off the stage. I think it was early spring 1980. I didn’t pay much attention to dates in those days, but I remember this much I was there.
On that night the DKs delivered their fat, funny broadsides with a joyous abandon that few bands of the era could match. Vocalist Jello Biafra who finished his set drenched in sweat and wearing only his underwear’s elastic waistband was simply inspired. The group was tight as a drum, and their material most of which appeared on Fresh Fruits for Rotting Vegetables (Alternative Tentacles, 1980) was first-rate. Songs such as "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Über Alles" were politically sharp and lifted by the group’s sarcastic humor which is to say the band delivered a hilarious, politically pointed good time.
The Clash never got cozy with their American audience. That evening they were self-conscious and too obviously under control burdened by political points rather than delivering them. The band’s hard-edged working classoriented politics, which evolved into complex internationalism, was hard for many to access. For comparison, try finding music by the Bay Area’s Dils, whose somewhat dry, hunt-and-peck rhetoric was as close to a domestic analogue as the Clash spawned.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Today Joe Strummer’s dead, Topper Headon looks dead, the DKs minus Biafra are an oldies act, and Biafra is an outspoken spoken word artist who, on his latest three-CD opus, In the Grip of Official Treason, compares DK guitarist East Bay Ray to deposed California governor Gray Davis.
Still, the Clash’s music holds up as does Biafra’s delight with the absurdities of America’s hypocrisies. Our safe American homes don’t feel quite so secure, and bad news keeps leaking through cracks in the wall, which makes checking in with the Clash and Biafra relevant. The former’s somewhat vestigial but still cool Singles Box (Sony) was released late last year (there are so many discs that you could drop a few behind, say, a CD case and not miss ’em for a month or three). The compilation is simply superb, especially because it revives much of the band’s preLondon Calling material.
Nearly 30 years down the road, the Clash’s material has aged little. Perhaps the band just wanted fame, and the principals were as ignorant as the rest of us. Julien Temple’s recent documentary about Strummer, The Future Is Unwritten, undercuts that premise. But even the most cynical punks tended to clam up when it came to the Clash. To say the band wasn’t about albums before and after 1979’s fabulous London Calling (Sony) is a cop-out. Combat Rock (Sony, 1982) was a fully realized and wildly popular triumph, as much as three-disc Sandinista (Sony, 1981) was kind of a soporific mess. Nevertheless, punk rock for aesthetic and financial reasons wasn’t primarily about making albums.
Which means that hearing the Clash’s singles, along with the B-sides, as streamlined things unto themselves places a person right in step with what mattered from the only band that mattered. Just give a listen to "White Riot" or their simply brilliant cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s "I Fought the Law."
Do you have to own this collection? Well, if you’ve got most of the band’s material, you can pass. This one might be best appreciated by fiends, collectors, and the idle rich. Yet it’s amazing how satisfying this music is, and not as a nostalgic exercise in golden protest. The Clash, born in defiant reaction against the musical mainstream, never made peace with it, their major-label contract and midcareer success notwithstanding. Their music delivers.
After all these years and at this awfully nervous moment in history it’s also a good time to consider Biafra’s new spoken word collection, a seriously timely 210-plus minutes of sardonic, smart, and occasionally funny political commentary. When he exited the DKs, Biafra drifted away from music as the principal vehicle for his wit and insight. Although he never moved far from punk, his work today seems to follow in the footsteps of social critics such as Paul Krassner.
On Grip (Alternative Tentacles), which consists of live material from various performances, Biafra offers uncommon observations about common household pests such as George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the wars on Iraq and on terror, and other familiar American vulgarities. Careening through a club while the Dead Kennedys were playing doesn’t, in most respects, share much with sitting down and listening to Biafra tear into the fabric of imperial America. What hasn’t changed, however, are the drive and acerbic wit that Biafra brings to the stage then and now. *
Jello Biafra MCs the celebration of Dirk Dirksen’s life, with SF Mutant All Stars, the Contractions, White Trash Debutantes, No Alternative, and others
June 8, 8 p.m., $25
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF