Graded on a Curve: Killdozer,
Uncompromising
War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Named not after Marvin Heemeyer’s modified bulldozer of destruction but rather a 1944 short story by Theodore Sturgeon, Madison, Wisconsin’s Killdozer had more in common with the latter. During their 10-year existence (1984–1994) the mighty Killdozer ground exceedingly slow across the noise rock landscape flattening everything in their path, winning the adoration of people who go in for entertaining tales of human depravity set to the high-volume din of construction machinery. Marvin Heemeyer would have been proud.

Killdozer were fronted by little-guy-with-the voice-of-a-foghorn Michael Gerald, whose lyrics could only be filed under the category of Wisconsin Gothic. In “Hamburger Martyr” a guy murders a fry cook after declaring “I could make a better hamburger with my asshole; “The Puppy” is about a sausage factory worker who sets fire to the balls of a guy who called his girlfriend a whore. And the rank “New Pants and Shirt” opens with the lines “Enter the forty-nine gates of uncleanliness!/Said she, pushing up her skirt/I held my breath against her fetidness/As I gazed upon the swinish flirt.” It doesn’t help any that he’s talking about his mom.

Comic tales like these, combined with the band’s knack for killdozering other people’s songs–1989’s For Ladies Only is a covers LP, and the band recorded versions of everything from Neil Diamond’s “I Am, I Said” to Robert Palmer’s “Your Mother Should Have Told You”—have given people the impression that Killdozer were cynical wise guys who took nothing seriously. But on 1994’s Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Gerald employs his mordant wit and withing sarcasm to deliver a scathing indictment of the human cost of America’s rapacious capitalism. Killdozer’s real war wasn’t against art—it was against a heartless ethos that places the profit margin above the lives of ordinary Americans.

Take the pulverizing “Final Market,” which is told from the perspective of a homeless guy reduced to scraping up quarters selling junk on the street but “ain’t got shit to show for it.” He mentions a coming revolution but knows it isn’t coming–he’s just another casualty of the free market. On the damning “Turkey Shoot” Gerald takes aim at American militarism, denouncing our use of Caterpillar tractors to crush fleeing Iraqi troops and singing, “Thanks to the finest men in America/We were graced with air superiority/Look there goes one of our flyboys, now/Bull’s eye on a [baby] formula factory.”

“Enemy of the People” is told from the perspective of the owner of a small hardware store who’s watched his business and the main street of his hometown destroyed by the arrival of a Walmart store. Promises of improved quality of life turn out to be lies, and once proud citizens are reduced to working for low wages at the very place that destroyed their livelihoods. At song’s end the narrator damns Walmart owner Sam Walton and screams “You can’t trust a man from Arkansas!”

“Das Kapital” is a straight-up Marxist condemnation of the capitalist system as told by a poor man who asserts “Capitalism created poverty/Your free enterprise put me in this poverty/And in a capitalist society/Crime is the last vestige of liberty.” He turns this credo and attempts to rob a a store only to be killed by a cop who couldn’t even be bothered to put down his doughnut. On “Earl Scheib” Gerald delivers a sarcastic eulogy of the late low-cost auto repainting and collision repair magnate whose motto was “Work hard, be on time, and don’t worry about how much you make.” A real friend of the workingman, our Earl.

“Working Hard, or Hardly Working” is a humorous but serious commentary on wage slavery told by a guy trapped in a dead-end job who lives to get variously blitzed, wasted, fried, wrecked, buzzed, and “shit-fucking-faced out of my fucking head” on weekends.

As for LP highlight “Knuckles the Dog Who Helps People” it’s a side-splitting parody of such socialist child martyr ballads such a“Song of Pavlik Morozov.” only in this case the child is a greyhound saved from the glue factory by a blind wheelchair-bound boy. Knuckles shows his humanitarian side by offering solace to the elderly abandoned by their children in nursing homes, and ultimately sacrifices his life by throwing himself in front of a bullet directed at his savior. (Why anyone would want to kill the boy is part of the fun.) At song’s end the blind boy sings, “Brought down by an assassin’s bullet that was meant for me/Knuckles the dog who helps people now you are forever free.”

Not every song on Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is of deep social import. “Peach Pie” is a Black Sabbath heavy and cliche-ridden love song, and as usual Gerald comes across as the least romantic man on the planet. Killdozer also does a killer version of Black Oak Arkansas’ “Hot & Nasty,” on which Gerald parodies Jim Dandy Mangrum’s lewd crowing to wonderful effect.

I don’t know what to say about the up-tempo (at least by Killdozer standards) “Grandam Smith Said a Curious Thing” other than that her basic message is “You’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a shit” and appears to lack a moral compass. As in she sings, “Do whatever you want to the girl/I will stay right here and sit.” Beat that, Flannery O’Connor.

On stand-out track “The Pig Was Cool” a seventies dude keeps running into cops who turn out to be groovy people. The period touches and scenarios are a hoot, and include “Jammin’ to Foghat on my 8-track/With a case of malt liquor and a bong in back/From out of nowhere came the man in blue/I thought we were busted, but the pig was cool.” And then there’s this, which is funny enough to quote in full:

“We were at the Journey show
The first three songs, we were hangin’ low
Then the band played “Wheel in the Sky”
Me and my babes started getting high

The dude next to me said, “Gimme a hit”
So I passed him a joint I already lit
Well, I saw his badge, I thought, “This is it”
But he just said to me, “Man, this is good shit!”

Few would compare the smart ass Michael Gerald to Woody Guthrie, but he is, surprisingly enough, a bona fide protest singer. He once told me. “You write about what you know, and what I know are idiots.” On Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (as well on songs on other albums) he adds heartless capitalists and corporate con artists to the list. Killdozer were more than just rock music’s best Swiftian satirists and greatest steam plow–they actually cared. They cared a lot.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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