Driving in Hoppers Crossing, a Thursday afternoon. August 2011
I didn’t know what I was hearing. What is this amazing, new to my ears, sound that I was being assaulted with? Moments ago there was the silence of my car radio being off and now unusual guitars, strange vocals and political lyrics were booming out of my speakers. At that point everything changed and I knew nothing would be the same. This marked my introduction not only to Jello Biafra and co. but to punk as a genre.
And I loved it.
For the decade prior to this moment I had been almost exclusively a metalhead. Pantera, Megadeth, Sepultura, Lamb of God; these were my bands of choice. As far as I was aware nothing else could hold a candle to it. It represented who I was: my frustrations and issues could be exorcised with ease by having a harmless vent to Pantera’s Mouth for War or Sepultura’s Refuse/Resist. I still love those bands and still listen to them regularly, but you need more than one music genre in your life. Limiting your musical range is tantamount to mental self-abuse.
Some good friends of mine are right into punk music. They have been for as long as I have known them. They would talk about The Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers, Black Flag, Dropkick Murphys and Dead Kennedys with the same frequency that I would talk about Slayer and countless others. I would listen with half an ear, certain that metal and punk were like oil and water.
Earlier in 2011 I became aware of the manic genius of Henry Rollins, thanks to one of those friends who lent me one of Rollins’ spoken word CDs, and it was amazing, revelatoryn its coverage of politics and society. Rollins was a born-storyteller. I needed more. The same friend told me that Jello Biafra, the lead singer of Dead Kennedys, would be doing a rare spoken-word gig as part of the Melbourne Festival and asked if I wanted to come along.
I didn’t want to go to the show ignorant, plus I had heard enough praise for the band from my friends, so I stopped by my local JB Hi Fi in Hoppers Crossing to see what they had. Thumbing through the punk/hardcore section I found what I was looking for: Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. After looking through the track listing and making up my mind I strolled up to the counter and paid 20-odd dollars for the disc.
Driving home from JB Hi Fi I skipped through the tracks until I found the one title I had heard spoken by my friends countless times before: Holiday in Cambodia. My ears were confronted by a satanic warbling bass and screeching guitars. This was an evil Beach Boys! The music had a strong groove to it that sent shivers down my spine. It felt rushed and slow-paced at the same time. This was unreal. Jello Biafra’s pitched and squeaky voice was bizarre and ridiculous but it suited the mania of the lyrics:
So you’ve been to school for a year or two and you know you’ve seen it all.
That opening line floored me. It cut right through the B.S. and put me in my place, I was now going to give this song my full attention. The rest of the song covers the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and how young western university students (namely American) don’t know much about the wider world and have it pretty easy compared to Cambodians who were suffering massacres and cruel oppression under Pol Pot’s regime. When the song ended my ears were truly open for the first time in a long time. Later I drove to my friend’s home and burst into his house wanting to talk about what I had just experienced. He laughed and recommended who to listen to next.
Three years later my taste for punk has not diminished. That day I realised that I can still listen to metal and that I don’t need to be a music fascist and devote myself to only one genre. I learnt a valuable lesson that day: to experience the best in life you have to be prepared to leave your comfort zone in the rear-view mirror.
© Nick Cowling. Nick is an emerging writer based out of Melbourne. In his down-time he consumes heroic amounts of film, music, and television.