BANNED MEDIA MONTH #11: Frankenchrist, by Dead Kennedys (1985)

Type of Media: Music Album

It was the mid-80s and rock and roll was once again being blamed for the decay of society. A group of politicians' wives, most notably Tipper Gore (wife of Al Gore), had founded the Parents Music Resource Center to try to get labels put on music albums with violent, drug-positive, or sexual themes. In September of 1985 the US Senate held a hearing in which members of the PMRC squared off against rock musicians Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snyder, with one side making the case that detailed content warning labels were necessary to protect children, and the other saying that the government had no place judging the morality of art. Eventually the RIAA capitulated to the PMRC and placed a generic "parental advisory" on many records. The PMRC had won, but they weren't yet satisfied.

A month later, in October, celebrated hardcore punk outfit Dead Kennedys released their third album, Frankenchrist. With a sound that added American Southwestern inflections and progressive influences to the Dead Kennedys' surf-tinged hardcore style, along with detailed and pointed social commentary courtesy of frontman Jello Biafra, it's an album that drew the band away from its roots and made for a slightly more involved listen than most punk records. However, it's still very much a Dead Kennedys album and fits well into their identity.

Opening track Soup is Good Food starts with guitarist East Bay Ray laying down a kooky, off-kilter lick that comes to form the base of the song and fit into his echoing surf rock sound. Biafra assumes the identity of a company man gleefully telling a factory worker that he's being replaced with a machine. He's always been a vocalist who acts just as much as he sings, and this song has him at peak theatrics, cackling as he revels in how much misery he can inflict on his workers. Two songs later This Could Be Anywhere has Biafra more dour, describing a creeping suburban sprawl that homogenizes communities, leaving strip malls, xenophobia, and gang violence in its wake. Drummer D.H. Peligro taps out a fierce beat, adding little flairs and smacking his kit around like he's been told to just keep time but keeps bubbling over with raw energy.

M.T.V. - Get Off the Air is probably the closest the Dead Kennedys come to the sound of their previous album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, starting with Biafra lampooning cheesy video DJs and then transforming into a hard-driving screed against that most hated of music channels. However, it then transforms again and slows down, adding a Latin horn. At My Job experiments with industrial-sounding electronica before going into the final song of the album, Stars and Stripes of Corruption. It's this song that really highlights one of the main differences between Frankenchrist and most other hardcore punk albums: song length. 

Other than the breakneck second track Hellnation, every song on Frankenchrist is at least 3 1/2 minutes long. Stars and Stripes alone stretches past six minutes, nearly a lifetime in punk years. In it Biafra calls out everything he thinks is bringing America down, particularly corruption in Washington, and lays out the changes in thinking and policy that he thinks will fix the problem (like taxing religion). It's quite abnormal for a punk song, even lacking a chorus in favor of rhymeless verses. Maybe it's because of mold-breaking songs like Stars and Stripes that Frankenchrist is an album that would later get buried in favor of its two predecessors. 

At the time of its release, though, it experienced a huge surge in popularity. Sadly this largely wasn't due to the music, but thanks to a poster. Hidden behind the cover, the album came with a poster of H.R. Giger's painting Work 219: Landscape XX, otherwise known as Penis Landscape. It features rows of copulating genitals, and to Jello Biafra it was a great metaphor for Americans constantly, systematically screwing each other over. 

To attorneys for the state of California, though, it was distributing harmful material to minors, and they opened a file on Biafra and his record label Alternative Tentacles. The PMRC noticed this and jumped on it as an opportunity to get a criminal conviction that would both further their agenda against rock music and send a warning to musicians by crushing an independent music label. They urged the state attorneys in California to prosecute, and several months later Jello Biafra woke to police raiding his home looking for copies of the record with the poster. Biafra and the general manager of his record label Michael Bonanno were arrested and became the first people in American history prosecuted over an album.

During the trial the prosecution labeled the poster as pornography and tried to get the album's lyrics omitted as evidence from the trial, saying they were unimportant. The judge disagreed though, and after presenting the judge and jury with Frankenchrist's lyrics the defense was able to argue that Landscape XX was art by virtue of working as an extension of the album's themes. At the end of the trial Biafra and Bonanno were acquitted by a hung jury, split 7-5 in favor of the defense.

Unfortunately it was a Pyrrhic victory. Though the PMRC had failed in its plan to use the court system to silence rock music, the stress of the trial broke up the Dead Kennedys and nearly bankrupted Alternative Tentacles. Some stores wouldn't carry any Dead Kennedys records for fear of getting sued. Still, the band had made their stand. They had lived up to Biafra's lyrics on Stars and Stripes of Corruption: "I'm glad I live in a place where I can say the things I do without being taken out and shot, so I'm on guard against the goons trying to take my rights away."

If you're a Dead Kennedys fan and have only heard their first two albums, I definitely recommend you give Frankenchrist a listen as its almost on par with them. If you haven't listened to Dead Kennedys at all, you should because they're one of the best punk bands to come out of the 80s; start with their first album and work your way up to this one. And if you're more interested in the details of the trial, try to find Jello Biafra's second spoken word album High Priest of Harmful Matter, which gives the story from his point of view.