The first thing to say is that this was described upon release as an EP, which should technically disqualify it from this list. However, the record clocks in at almost 44 minutes, which however you arrange the nomenclature, is a long player by any accepted yardstick. So, it qualifies as far as I’m concerned.
That’s good because while I love all three of the albums I have already told you about, this is easily the one that you’d bring out if you were trying to have a party. What I mean to say is that I can imagine some of you getting bored listening to a drunk Alice Cooper croon, or watch minute nine creep up on a jazz noodle by Sun Ra, or find Mark E Smith’s voice just a little too reminiscent of a northern pub bore going on about Preston North End’s glory years, but I can’t imagine any of you not thinking the title and opening track here, “The Power of Lard”, rocks the almighty out of anything.
Some background: Lard was the label given to a side project of both Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, a legendary band that had just broken up over the pressure induced by extended legal proceedings surrounding their 1985 album “Frankenchrist”, and Al Jourgenson, the lead singer of the industrial band Ministry. The meeting of Jello and Ministry could have been a disaster but instead results in something so brilliant it’s amazing more wasn’t made of the whole thing. It didn’t work commercially, which might have something to do with that.
“The Power of Lard” begins with just drums and vocals. Over a pounding, mid-tempo beat, Jello tells us what lard is. Amongst other things, lard “is the tapeworm in the bottle of cheap tequila that comes alive at night and sneaks up and bites your nipple”. A distorted yet funky bass line enters before it changes tempo and over a kick drum and a different, more threatening bass riff, Jello tells us “nowadays most of us need someone to run our personal lives”. He details everything that goes with this problem before diagnosing the solution: “What we need is lard.”
The song then turns into thrash metal with a distinct Ministry flavour to it. Lyrically from here, Jello just lets rip, displaying a playfulness not on show for a very long time previous to this release. “Every time I take a crap, it’s a cosmic experience”, “Next time we have sex, just pretend that I’m Ed Meese”, “Pity the poor trainer in the stable when the racehorse farts”, and possibly my very favourite, “Ever hear about the guy in New York whose dick fell off in the bath after he shot it full of coke?”. Part of the fun of the song is just how rocking the whole thing is; another part of it is the fact that it happens to be Jello Biafra throwing these random lyrics at us.
The Dead Kennedys started as a hardcore punk band with a strange affinity for surf music as well as lyrics that were both political and highly satirical. Their signature tune is “Holiday in Cambodia”, a song which imagines a bored yuppie handling the Killing Fields. It’s both funny and terrifying in a way that only the Dead Kennedys managed to be within rock music. They were the most Kafkaesque band ever in the true sense of the word.
Yet as time went on, the Dead Kennedys’ politics became much more overt, less playfully presented, and by the end, just straight up in your face. It was a sort of left-wing anarchism, with hints of libertarianism just to confuse things a lot. It was anti-corporate, yet also anti-government. Anti-religion, yet anti-soulless consumerism. Which kind of made them anti a lot of stuff and not for a great deal. As their albums wore on, the politics became presented in a more and more po-faced fashion.
All of this made “The Power of Lard” such a breath of fresh air in 1989 – it was nice to listen to Jello having fun again.
I should mention that while “The Power of Lard” is one of the ten greatest songs ever recorded, the rest of the “EP” is a bit trickier to digest. The second track is called “Hellfudge”, the tale of a corrupt Christian fundamentalist preacher who experiments with his deviant sexuality in Louisiana. It’s less fun than it sounds. I never used to like this one much back in the day; now, the fuzzy, sleazy riff actually does it for me, as does the thing that used to irk me, namely that it sounds like a late-period Dead Kennedys outtake.
Then comes “Time to Melt”. “The Power of Lard” only contains three songs, despite being, as mentioned at the top, around 44 minutes long. Most of that length is taken up with the third and final number, a very, very strange, half an hour (!!) long dirge that is like nothing else I’ve ever heard by anyone. This is the song on the album (sorry, “EP”) that sounds most like Ministry – having said that, they would never have put out anything as blatantly uncommercial as “Time to Melt”.
Don’t worry about the guitar noise at the start – it only goes on for 90 seconds, which I appreciate is a long time but still quite a ways short of half an hour at least. Then the main riff kicks in, with the sub riffs filling in space all around it. You have to sort of tune in for them after a while. Every once in a while, Jello comes in several octaves lower than we’re used to hearing him to speak sing something like “My body’s weary and full of holes” or “Pee wee golf balls roll by my face”. It’s the kind of thing you’ll only ever listen to once in a blue moon, but it’s invaluable to have in your collection; particularly great if you’re waiting for a delayed flight or something equally stressful and annoying. This will tune you right out of reality.
Lard had some follow up albums, but none are a patch on this one. The rest sound much more like Ministry with Jello Biafra singing, which while not without its charms, isn’t the mind-blowing experience of this baby. They also revisit the politics of late period Dead Kennedys, which I find a bit depressing. Mostly because it reminds me that the left have not only managed not to travel very far ahead in the last three decades, they have collectively gone backwards. Back then the line went: Soviet communism is awful, so let’s move on; we need to find a way to combine social democracy with classical liberalism. How do we do that? Then the Berlin Wall fell and a new form of centre-leftism took hold, one that lost all pretensions to utopianism and made things simple: capitalism and indeed, corporatism is almost certainly here to stay. We can use the tax system to ameliorate the worst of things for the poorest while providing the middle classes great public services in return for the higher tax bands. Eventually, this fell apart – now, the left aren’t even at the point they were in the late 1980s, realising that communism was a terrible thing. An idea like “fully automated luxury communism” would have seemed laughably stupid to anyone on the left, never mind of any other political persuasion, in 1988.
At least we have “The Power of Lard” as an island away from all of that. Despite being riddled with dated pop cultural references, the album seems oddly timeless.
Next time: I will surprise you, so no hints! Except to say I really will try and do the “effect on politics and society” thing for real in the final segment! Perhaps at least!