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Originally released at the turn of the Reagan years, Dead Kennedys’ incendiary debut Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is a certifiable American punk rock classic – no question. The San Francisco band’s flame-throwing combo of savage, yet tuneful, riffology, hardcore aggression and warbler Jello Biafra’s witheringly sarcastic lyrics set a new scene for hundreds of punk rockers to come. There’s no point in re-litigating the quality of singalong satires like “Kill the Poor” and “I Kill Children” or wild-eyed blasters like “Stealing People’s Mail” and “Forward to Death,” not to mention the all-time classic punk anthems “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Chemical Warfare” and “California Über Alles.” Fans of punk and its descendants don’t need to be reminded of the album’s power.
That said, the 2022 mix isn’t aimed at the veterans, but at newcomers used to a different sonic quality than a LP recorded in 1980 on a $6000 budget can provide. Thus the usual tactic for keeping a classic album updated for modern times: the remix. The DKs take the challenge one step further by hiring producer and mixer Chris Lord-Alge to work with the original tapes. Lord-Alge (and his brother Tom) usually take on high-budget projects, multi-platinum rock bands, and anything that needs to sound like a million bucks in order to stand out on the radio. Lord-Alge’s clients have included Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Goo Goo Dolls and Madonna, as well as chart-seekers like the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Afghan Whigs, D*A*D, and even Youssou N’Dour. Sometimes it works, bringing a new audial clarity to the tracks, and sometimes it doesn’t, applying a thick coat of gloss in an attempt to make something sound palatable to the least-fringy audience.
Fortunately for the DKs, here it works. Apparently a longtime fan of the band, Lord-Alge clearly didn’t want to mess with the integrity of the original performances – everything still sounds raw and untamed, with tones and balance intact. Biafra’s amphetamine preacher vocals still sound barely on the verge of intelligibility, and East Bay Ray’s surf rocker from hell guitar still buzzes like a trebly beehive hit by a stray baseball. But Lord-Alge does indeed improve the balance – the tracks breathe, even if it’s like a boxer on the ropes, and keep the impact of the performances on the edge of brutality without giving them the near-metal sound so many remixers apply to old punk and proto-punk records in an attempt to help them compete in the loudness wars.
Mind you, it’s all a matter of taste – plenty of diehards won’t accept anything that messes with their memories of a hard-won punk paradigm, and given the internal dissension within the band’s original lineup, it’s unclear how much input everybody had or if the ostracized Biafra would approve. Indeed, the label seems to be hedging its bets by keeping the original mix in print. But one doesn’t need much of an open mind to realize that 2022’s Fresh Fruit sounds like it always has, just sharper, and is still a faithful representation of a remarkable time and place in the revered punk canon. Play it for your nieces and nephews with confidence.
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