Saturday, September 2, 2023

Melting like an ice cream bar

Why Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck" is a perfect rock and roll song

Searching for "perfection" in rock and roll is a fool's errand, a contradiction in terms. Among the qualities of the greatest rock and roll is its threat to collapse in the next measure, the half-real fear that the instruments might leap from the players' hands and run amok, finally held together by a band or an artist by some combination of nerve, skill, and luck, a magic trick unveiled nightly on stages large and small. I could try and argue here about "the perfection in imperfection," but I'd bore myself and you. Instead, consider Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck," a 1981 single that ranks as among the most perfect of rock and roll songs because it embodies, in under three minutes, just about every overheated fear that the first generations of rock and rollers raised in their shocked listeners. 

I can't remember precisely when or where I first heard the song. (Certainly not on the radio. I was out of range of WMUC, the station at University Maryland, where I'd have a show a few years later, if one or more of their DJs had the nerve to play it.) I bought the import 12" on Cherry Red Records on a whim, I think at Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, Maryland, shortly after it was released. (I picked up the "Kill The Poor" single around this time, too.) I both really wanted to hear and was afraid to hear the song, and like so much punk rock, everything about the record both scared and thrilled me: the band's name, the audacity of the song title, the odd, striking graphics on the sleeve, the almost audible sound of a door opening into a room I wasn't supposed to enter but felt dragged into, where kids looked a lot different than the preps at my high school.

By 1981 I was drinking. A year away from having drivers' licenses, my buddies and I would hang out at the Country Boy market on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, working up the nerve to ask someone to buy us beer, which we'd hurry into the woods near Good Counsel High School as the football game played in the distance and we got fucked up in the nearness. We'd drink in the woods behind Kemp Mill Park, hysterically losing track of what was the Cutty Sark and what was the Cragmont orange-soda chaser. (My head hurts writing this.) Once I wrapped my ten-speed bike around a tree on Arcola Avenue less than a mile from my house, discovered by my older brother who was sent out by my worried mom to find me. So I knew already both the irresistible temptations and the queasy dangers of drinking, one of the reasons the title "Too Drunk To Fuck" felt familiar yet also something I wanted to keep at arm's length.

The infamy of "Too Drunk To Fuck" hovers over the song as an eternal cloud. Fantastically, the Cherry Red 12" I bought hit #36 on the U.K. singles chart (listed therein, decorously and mysteriously, and lamely, as "To Drunk To"). As I recall the head-lifting experience of listening to the song as a teeanger, privately, in the security of my family's suburban home, so do many others. "When I first heard Dead Kennedys’ 'Too Drunk to Fuck,' I thought, 'This is great! Someone using the F-word in a song'," wrote Rusty Pistachio in the foreword to Rich Balling's Revolution on Canvas, Volume 1: Poetry from the Indie Music Scene.

I remember slam dancing around my government-subsidized apartment punching holes in the walls. It was the next best thing to saying, “fuck you” to your boss, your teachers, hell, even to your parents. At the time I didn’t even know the complete meaning of the song, I was hooked on the fact that the catchy chorus kept repeating the word fuck (it wasn’t your average pop radio love song). On closer inspection, I became more aware of the sarcasm and irony in the lyrics. It was a frat boy chant denouncing stereotypical frat boy behavior. I had a Punk Rock epiphany.

"Too Drunk To Fuck" is fairly secure in the pantheon of those filthy songs you were warned about, a tradition stretching back to the 1950s. In Reagan America many were rolling their eyes at the notion of such gate-keeping, but authoritative censoring, from your parents or from your Congressperson, feels fairly embedded in the human condition, and the song became ammo in the hands of teens. In his 2003 novel Two To Go Nick Earls describes the song's transgressive glamour at a high school where the conservative administration feels school dances "were a privilege, not a right." "Imagine trying to raise a rights argument at school," the narrator glumly remarks. "The right not to be tracked by searchlight when outside at school dances, for instance."

Try it and you’d be told what you were always told.... And the next [dance] would always be hanging on a thread, waiting for “one person to spoil it for everyone.” That was something that happened often at school. I think we lost the privilege of inviting St. Margaret’s girls for a while, because one person had spoiled it for everyone by getting the DJ to play the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck” when parents were turning up to take their daughters home.

It was referred to at the following school assembly as “that song” and, no, it wasn’t anything to laugh about. We were told that, too.

My relationship with the song was mostly private. I wasn't a punk, and didn't court the scene; as I've written about before I was a self-described poor-man's Mod with little interest in what I felt was the strident politicizing and wretched anti-cheer of punk. But I bought "Too Drunk To Fuck" and "Kill The Poor" driven by an urge to peer into the maelstrom of a world I wasn't at all comfortable in but which I intuitively felt might teach me a thing or two. Anyway I needn't have worried about the dark pull of "Too Drunk To Fuck"; it was—is—a blast. East Bay Ray's opening guitar riff gives the impression of a downed power line, throwing off a shower of sparks. You should keep your distance, but you can't, or you won't. Bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D. H. Peligro approach the scene warily, before leaping in, Flouride doubling Ray's metallic leads and Peligro anchoring things from falling over. 

But the singer's already sixteen beers in as the song starts, so this'll be over quickly; Jello Biafra sounds like a demented afternoon cartoon character, which only exaggerates the foolishness. He's rolling down the stairs, to which the super-charged riffs are a comic soundtrack, joking about shooting out truck tires with someone's gun—it's that kind of party. But the story's main attraction is upstairs, in bed, and it ain't happening. He's a mess, he can't get it up, she's bawling "like the baby in Eraserhead." She blows him, but things gp downhill fast (his gentle suggestion to her: "Take out your fuckin' retainer, put it in your purse"). Disaster. The only saving grace is that he'll never see her again, and wouldn't remember her if he did.

The band's performance is electrifying, wire-tight. Among the hilarious East Bay Ray-led sonic touches in this comic opera are a riffing, sixteen-bar bridge that gives the impression of the singer trying to heroically rally against all odds, a key modulation later, just before he wearily admits "I'm about to drop," and the repeated, mock-dramatic chord ascension near the the song's close (at the line, "It's all I need right now, oh, baby") dramatically disclosing that the singer's now got...diarrhea. The song ends infamously with the graphic sounds of someone puking all over the floor. The Genius lyrics site politely describes this moment of audio vérité as "Ooh, gah!"

"Well, 'Too Drunk to Fuck'…how political is that?" winked East Bay Ray in Billboard a few years back. "They weren’t all political—you’ve got to keep some humor."


All of which is to say that "Too Drunk To Fuck" is perfect—it's funny, fun, scary, gross, shocking, mean, generous, bitchy, cartoonish, sarcastic, satiric, and nervy, and it rocks like hell, borrowing from Link Wray/surf/garage riffology of the '60s, graphic and jaded decadence of the '70s, and heavy-lidded irony of the '80's, amping and speeding it all up. 

Photo of Jello Biafra, April 1981 via Michael Grecco Productions Inc. MGP, Inc.

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