Simon Price on pop : Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine : If you missed punk’s first two waves, it’s back - and it’s fracking furious
What a difference an apostrophe makes. Punks in Camden Lock. Any year you choose, from 1986.
Loitering, punk-and-disorderly, around the footpath in green mohicans, charging tourists a fiver a photo, a postcard travesty of anything punk ever meant.
Punk’s in Camden Lock. Grey of hair, 55 years old but bringing an invigorating injection of life to this cobbled reliquary, Jello Biafra is a true hero of the movement that wanted no more of those, any more. There were, of course, many places and sub-cultures for whom punk wasn’t a magnesium flashpoint catalysing countless new ideas, but an ongoing faith to be upheld in the face of change. Punk didn’t even reach my hometown of Barry until 1978, when it was all but dead in London, and it did so in a literalist, bowdlerised form. The same applied to slow-moving swathes of the USA, but with more productive results. There, second-wave punk begat the hardcore scene, which in turn begat grunge.
The shining lights of the second wave were Dead Kennedys, whose popularity owed something to the value of a great logo, but far more to the incendiary thrills of their 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. The San Francisco band’s serrated surf-punk riffs, a sound once described as “spy music on meth”, was the vehicle for a hectoring, hair-raising voice which, like Public Enemy’s Chuck D half a decade later, engendered a sense of alertness for the coming conflict.
That voice belonged to Eric Reed Boucher, aka Jello Biafra. It hasn’t left him. His current band, Guantanamo School of Medicine, contains fellow hardcore veterans such as bassist Andrew Weiss (Rollins Band/Pigface), guitarist Ralph Spight (Victims Family) and drummer Paul Della Pelle (Helios Creed), and deliver equally invigorating punk rock kicks, whether on their own White People And The Damage Done album or on Dead Kennedys classics “California Uber Alles”, the joyously cathartic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, and the gleefully puerile “Too Drunk To Fuck”.
Biafra’s politics may have modified since 1980 – he’s now affiliated to the Green Party, but they haven’t softened in the slightest. The first thing you see, on entering the venue, is a Free Bradley Manning stall. A cosy punk nostalgia trip this ain’t.
Every between-song interlude expands into a stand-up lecture. If his targets sometimes seem like low-hanging fruit or fish in a barrel, it’s invariably because they’re the correct ones : celebrity worship, oil-powered imperialism, the tax-evading super-rich, state surveillance, fracking. It’s strange hearing an American punk icon speaking about Balcombe, till recently a sleepy stop on my slow train back to Brighton.
He has his critics, notably the other Dead Kennedys – “idiots” with whom he’s endured protracted legal battles. But there’s a reason why, checking my notebook on the way home, I realise I’ve written the word “inspiring” not once but twice.
It must be galling for Natasha Khan to know that every time she brings out a Bat For Lashes (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London ****) record, the same old comparisons – Bjork, Kate Bush – will rear their heads. Perhaps that’s why she’s ditched the outlandish stage wear and steps out wearing a sober black evening gown which draws wolf whistles from, pleasingly, her female fans.
More galling to the outsider is the fact that, despite its deserved Novello nomination, her beautiful 2012 single “Laura”, co-written with Lana Del Rey collaborator Justin Parker and dedicated to Little Nell (of Rocky Horror fame) was only put at number 144 in the charts by the British public. In the flesh it’s a spellbinding cocktail of emotional sustenance and supportiveness ; a succour punch.
The Reading and Leeds festivals bring headliners Green Day, Eminem and Biffy Clyro to Little John’s Farm, Reading, and Bramham Park, Leeds (Fri, Sat, Sun), and the Odd Futures/OFWGKTA duo Earlwolf – aka Tyler The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt – bring their off-kilter hip hop to Koko, London (Wed).