Jello Biafra was one of the guys who started the San Francisco punk band the Dead Kennedys in 1978. They were one of the first punk bands in the US to write politically-themed songs, using their music as a reflection of society's ills and excesses. Among the first punk bands to incorporate humor, they were known for holding a satirical mirror to the popular music of the time, and they were a major influence on hardcore & punk bands that followed. The Dead Kennedys disbanded during an obscenity trial which took issue with a poster included in their 1986 album Frankenchrist.
Biafra is the owner and co-founder of the influential independent label Alternative Tentacles, which he created in 1979 when major labels wouldn't sign the Dead Kennedys because they were too controversial. Since the demise of the band, Biafra has released several spoken-word albums and performed in numerous projects including two albums with the Melvins. Recently, he started a new band.
I saw Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine Friday, March 26, at the Trocadero in Philadelphia. They were on tour supporting their first album, The Audacity of Hype. The night opened with New Brunswick locals Mirrors & Wires, who have been garnering attention with their psychedelic instrumental surf rock, and recently played with Joe Jack Talcum of the Dead Milkmen. Mirrors & Wires is Patrick Clark on guitar and Theremin, Ian T. on drums, John Slover on piano/synth and Josh Firedaddy filling in on bass. The show started early, at 7:30 PM. As the first band on the night's bill, they played songs including Chiaroscuro, PharmofLove, and Disasternoon to a slowly building crowd, but by the time their short set ended, they had built up an appreciative audience. The Troc runs an unusually tight (and strict) ship, so we didn't wait long for Common Enemy to appear. They were very noisy, and I took most of their set to locate some replacement earplugs, and to familiarize myself with the many rules of the Trocadero.
The venue opened in 1870 as the Arch Street Opera House, and it’s the only 19th century Victorian theater still in operation in the US, according to the venue's website. Their all-ages shows end by 11 PM, so they kept the evening moving along at a brisk pace, while the mildly surly (but can you really blame them?) event staff kept the young 'uns out of the beer garden, the beer off the floor, and the fans off the stage (mostly).
The next band, Witch Hunt, features sisters Janine and Nicole Enriquez, on bass and guitar respectively, Rob Fitzpatrick on guitar and drummer Vince Klopfenstein. Originally from New Jersey but now based in Philadelphia, Witch Hunt is currently on tour with Jello Biafra. (Ian from Mirror's & Wires remembered Witch Hunt used to play in his basement years ago.) Witch Hunt plays hardcore/progressive punk rock, with male and female vocals on songs about mostly political topics, including prominently the war in Iraq. This was especially apropos as representatives from Iraq Veterans Against the War were tabling in the lobby. Between songs, Janine made some remarks on the plight of the Palestinian people. When she mentioned how they are consistently portrayed as terrorists in the media, someone from the crowd shouted, "Because they are!" to which she politely replied, "Well, I can talk to you about that after the show," and went on to suggest that if you were getting bombed regularly, you'd be pretty mad, too. And then they played a song about it. Because of their hardcore vocal stylings, it was hard to make out a lot of the words, but they got a good reaction from the crowd, which managed, after a few tries, to work up a pretty decent circle pit toward the end of the set. Political themes were readily apparent throughout the evening (as you might expect from a show headlined by a band called the Guantanamo School of Medicine...).
Jello Biafra has been known for his politics since he ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 at the age of 21 and came in fourth on the strength of a platform that was by turns radically liberal and absurdist. That’s a pretty good description of his music and his grass-roots, free speech, Green Party, anti-war leanings, which were on display full-throttle at the show.
The Guantanamo School of Medicine includes some impressive musical pedigrees, including two New Jersey natives, Andy and Jon Weiss. Andy, who performs barefoot, plays with Ween and was the original bassist for the Rollins Band and his brother Jon, on drums, has played with Sharkbait and Horsey. Ralph Spight and Hawaiian native Kimo Ball both played for Freak Accident, and both play guitar.
Biafra came on stage in a white lab coat and surgical gloves covered in red paint (or something similar). With more costume changes than Whoopi Goldberg at the Oscars, he later took off the coat to reveal a long-sleeved American flag shirt, under which he had a black Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirt, and finally he just went shirtless. He occasionally stopped to talk about the issues raised in the next song: veterans issues, the prison-industrial complex, his disappointment in President Obama (whom he did not vote for), torture, U.S. war criminals, gentrification and his opposition to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. He advocated for Iraq Veterans Against the War and noted the resurgence of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and his own father, “a Korean War vet against all wars”. (Biafra mentioned he wasn’t allowed to play with guns, and joked that his father wasn’t even too keen on his son appearing in a GWAR movie.) The band played a few Dead Kennedys favorites, including “Holiday in Cambodia” and “California Über Alles”, but the crowd was visibly enthusiastic about the new material as well (Victory Stinks, Panic Land, Three Strikes, Straight Thru Shopping, Dot Com Monte Carlo), and the pit was energetic.
Interesting difference between this show and many others I’ve been to over the last few years: the crowd did not look like a sea of cell phones. Someone would take out a camera or phone every once in a while for a picture, but the audience was not spending its time at the show prepping the facebook update they were planning to post directly afterwards. It was nice to see people at a show actually just enjoying being at a show.
One of the best things about going to the punk rock show is the variety of people and the relative harmony with which they usually get along. One woman, who would not have looked at all out of place at the fourth grade PTA meeting, was standing right up next to the pit, clearly having an awesome time and not at all fazed by the giant dudes flying past her. She was about Jello Biafra’s age; I was imagining her at a show in 1983 looking exactly like the girl standing next to her, with the spiked hair, black skinny-jeans and Dead Kennedys t-shirt.
At the end of the show, Biafra exhorted the audience to, “put down your texting machines and get louder, wilder, nastier and weirder” in the service of the things they believed in, and not just sit around waiting. “If we don’t do it, who the f*** will?” They played an encore and then, with a lovely curtsy, Mr. Biafra was gone.