Dead Kennedys - Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death
Record Label: Alternative Tentacles
Release Date: June 1987
If anyone out there can name an 80's punk rock band more influential than the Dead Kennedys, they’re either talking about The Clash or lying. Active from 1978 to 1986, the East Bay punk band may not have had the sales of more mainstream groups like The Clash or the Sex Pistols, but for almost a decade they wrote anthems challenging the status quo and inspiring a generation of fans to get off their asses and make a difference. The 1987 compilation Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death is a perfect snapshot of this legendary band doing what they do best.
The compilation starts off with “Police Truck,” a surf-rock song about police brutality that highlights both vocalist Jello Biafra’s strong political ideals and East Bay Ray’s psychedelic guitar lines, the latter of which sometimes come across as a punk version of the Batman TV theme song. This surf-guitar pattern combined with lyrics like “Tonight's the night that we got the truck / We're going downtown, gonna beat up drunks / Your turn to drive, I'll bring the beer / It's the late, late shift, no one to fear,” summarizes what the Dead Kennedys are all about: political statements you can dance to. This formula is expanded upon in other songs such as “The Man with the Dogs,” a twisted cover of “I Fought The Law,” and of course, “Holiday in Cambodia,” concerning the Vietnam War. "Holiday in Cambodia" is one of the band’s most infamous songs, with Biafra describing the plight of a Vietnamese teenager: “You’ll work harder with a gun in your back / For a bowl of rice a day / Slave for soldiers 'til you starve / Then your head is skewered on a stake.” Although the war had been over for several years before the song was released, the imagery offered up by Biafra is powerful and timeless. Also present here is “California Uber Alles,” a song railing against California governor Jerry Brown and what the band saw as his totalitarian ideals. The opening bass line and drum beat to this song are among one of the most powerful in the history of modern music, featuring an aggressive, militaristic sound. “Too Drunk to Fuck,” one of the band’s most controversial songs, tones down the political messages to simply be as entertaining as possible. The song talks about a drunken one night stand in which the character in question is so drunk that he can barely stay conscious to have sex with a random stranger. Frat boys everywhere can likely relate to the lyrics “I’m about to drop / My head’s a mess / The only salvation is I’ll never see you again.”
In addition to many of the band’s well-known tracks, there are also many rare gems on Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. The most notable of these is a live performance of the otherwise unreleased “Pull My Strings.” During the song, Biafra attacks the music industry and their scouting techniques, singing “Is my cock big enough, is my brain small enough / For you to make me a star? / Give me a toot, I’ll sell you my soul / Pull my strings and I’ll go far,” before East Bay Ray launches into one of the most impressive guitar solos you will ever hear from a punk rock band. It also features biting lyrics such as, “You’ll pay ten bucks to see me / On a fifteen foot high stage / Fat as bouncers beat the shit / Out of kids who try to dance,” taking pot shots at bands who choose the roads of fame and fortune that separate them from their fans. It’s a shame that “Pull My Strings” doesn’t hold the same notoriety as “California Uber Alles” or “Holiday in Cambodia”; the statements made in the song are equally as strong and entertaining as any other in the band’s catalog. Another rarity is “A Boy and His Lawnmower,” one of a very few songs on the album that dabble into pure hardcore. The song’s blistering tempo and staccato vocals would make it seem right at home on the 1981’s In God We Trust, Inc EP. “Night of the Living Rednecks” isn’t a song at all, it a live recording of Biafra telling the audience a story while East Bay Ray fixes his broken guitar. To avoid any spoilers, the story is very entertaining and gives a glimpse into Biafra’s future career as a spoken word artist.
Despite the overwhelming amount of standout tracks present on Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the compilation still has its setbacks. At seventeen tracks, with a few songs that could be considered filler, it is not an album that will keep the casual listener’s attention for more than a few full spins. “Saturday Night Holocaust” and “Straight A’s” fit in to this category perfectly; they aren’t unlistenable by any means, but when compared some of the stand-out tracks, they fall flat. Also, “Buzzbomb from Pasadena” is simply the song “Buzzbomb” from Plastic Surgery Disasters, sung with Biafra doing an impression of an old lady. Usually, this would warrant a hidden track on an album at best, but here it is considered part of the official tracklisting. These songs aside, most of the songs present are either well written or simply mind-blowing. Even the most casual Dead Kennedys fan will be listening to this disc time and time again if just to hear “Police Truck” and “California Uber Alles.” For anyone who has yet to get into this legendary band, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death is a great place to start.
First, a couple nitpicks: "Holiday in Cambodia" is actually about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's Cambodian genocide, not the Vietnam War. It isn't called "Holiday in Vietnam," after all. Unlike the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide was still happening (or had just ended) when "Holiday in Cambodia" was originally released on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, making the song all the more provocative. And though frat boys are likely to identify with "Too Drunk to Fuck," the song is mocking that lifestyle instead of embracing it. Those two nitpicks aside, this is a good collection of rarities, although it is missing the alternate version of "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" from the Let Them Eat Jellybeans compilation. And I'm glad you praised "A Child and His Lawnmower," one of the most underrated DK songs.