Though I was born in the 80’s, I can’t really say I lived through them. That is, I couldn’t until I heard Full Metal Jackoff by Jello Biafra with D.O.A.!
From the moment the guitars chug in, you are instantly transported smack dab into the midst of Reagan-Era America. The song just has that sound. It’s the sound of every ruff & tuff 80’s action movie. Every earnest mullet, every leather jacket worn with fingerless gloves, every toothpick held in the corner of the mouth. It is the sound of jet fighters taking off from aircraft carriers bound for Grenada. It is the sound of grainy news footage playing on rabbit eared TV sets in wood-paneled living rooms. It is the sound of Wall Street businessmen stuffing fistfuls of money into their briefcases.
Biafra sets the scene brilliantly. He narrates tale from a mobile crack lab circling the nation’s capital. Both the War on Drugs and the Crack Epidemic are in full swing, and Biafra is gleefully exacerbating the problem. The chorus conjures an indelible image –
On the Washington DC beltway
Around and around I go
In a black van with no windows
And a chimney puffing smoke
Biafra continues to rant with bitter and passionate irony from the vantage point of the oppressor. He builds a tangled web of corruption and conspiracy that extends all the way from drug-blighted neighborhoods to the oval office. For their part, D.O.A. keep up the energy throughout the song’s fourteen minutes, varying the instrumental parts to create tension, variation and buttress Biafra’s many emotional crescendos.
The breadth of the song is fascinating. It’s an exhaustive retrospective of many of the things that made the 80’s such a putrid slide toward totalitarianism. Biafra does not focus only on the War on Drugs. He also covers the Iran-Contra scandal and the misplaced adulation of Oliver North (“Ollie for president, he’ll get things done!”), the racist nature of the War on Drugs (“You see a black face, you see a crackhead, you see a black face, you see Willie Horton with a knife”), the Prison Industrial Complex, CIA atrocities in Central and South America, Neo-Nazi Bootboys and the ultimate question – if you were disappeared in the night, would your neighbors even care?
So what makes this long diatribe so interesting? The pervasive atmosphere and roiling passion of it all. It’s a complete reversal of the bland and unquestioning patriotism, gun violence and gee-whiz-that’s-cool military fetishism one would usually associate with this kind of chugging schlock-and-roll. Biafra turns the façade around, revealing the human and moral costs of Reagan’s glossy campaign to return to a misremembered 1950’s glory era. A shining city on a hill where everyone who is not a White American Christian Capitalist has no voice, and receives no human consideration in the face of massive militarization and authoritarianism, both at home and abroad (“Embrace the Red, White and Blue Reich!”).
The War on Drugs is still going strong, and now we have a Global War on Terror. The same old abuses of power and politics have taken on new faces. It’s kind of a downer to see how little progress we have made. Jello Biafra has released more albums since “Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors” built around the same formats, and very similar humanitarian critiques. Biafra has had only to switch out the faceplates of the injustice. Instead of singing about the crack conspiracies and Iran Contra, he sings about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, WMDs and Afghanistan. This should make us sad and ashamed. Despite the veneer of progress and Hope that has graced our national politics in recent years, there is still an ongoing and very bloody appeasement to those demanding that our standard of living should remain artificially high, no matter the cost in lives around both domestically and around the globe.