Dead Kennedys - Biography
One doubts we’ll see another band like The Dead Kennedys any time soon. In their prime, under the charge of vocalist Jello Biafra, they raged against the proverbial machine and ultimately got their hands slapped by the federal government in the form of obscenity charges. Fast, loud and cantankerous from the start, they eventually became more experimental and nuanced in both their sound and politic expression. In the early eighties there may not have been a better punk band in the world, and then it all came crashing down. In their case it wasn’t because of drugs and booze, but rather due to the pressures of federal indictments and infighting.
The band formed in June 1978 in San Francisco. Originally the band consisted of Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher) on vocals, East Bay Ray (Raymond Pepperell) on guitar, Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) on bass, and 6025 (Carlos Cadona) on drums. 6025 was soon replaced by Bruce Slesinger but taken on as a second guitarist, a position that was something of a rarity in a punk band at the time.
The first problem The Dead Kennedys faced was their name, it tended to shock and upset people. Of course, this was sort of the point but nonetheless it caused the band problems when it came to booking gigs. So in the beginning, they played under pseudonyms including such gems as “The Creamsicles” and “The Pink Twinkies.” The name “The Dead Kennedys” seems to have been chosen by the band to convey the death of idealism in America following the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and not to mock their deaths. Whatever the reason, their sensational moniker garnered significant attention from both the mainstream and the underground press.
Another bit of free press came when Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in the fall of ‘79. The idea of running apparently came to him on a whim. Once accepted onto the ballot, however, Biafra made a semi-serious run at it. He campaigned under the slogan, “There’s always room for Jello;” an advertising slogan borrowed from Jello snack foods. Biafra eventually finished fourth in a field of ten, coming in behind Sister Boom-Boom, a transvestite drag queen who finished third.
In June of ‘79 The Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Über Alles,” an early example of the band’s sophisticated and sarcastic political views. The song imagines the then-governor of California, Jerry Brown, as hippy-fascist dictator of America- an America where kids are forced at gunpoint to meditate in school. Thoughthe band was decidedly left-wing, they often saved their best lyrical shots for centrist Democrats and limousine liberals.
In 1980, the producers of the Bay Area Music Awards decided they needed a New Wave band to perform in order to give the show credibility. Someone decided it would be a smart idea to invite The Dead Kennedys to perform. The band showed up wearing white shirts adorned with a large black “S.” Asked to perform “ California Über Alles,” the band (after a staged false start) rotated neckties which had been hidden behind their backs so that the “S”s now looked like dollar signs. They then debuted a new song entitled “Pull My Strings,” in which they moved like puppets, attacked the ethics of the music industry, and changed the chorus of the Knack’s “My Sharona” to “my payola.” The performance never made it onto a studio album and was never performed again though it later made it onto their compilation album Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death (Alternative Tentacles-1987).
In the spring of 1980 they put out the single “Holiday In Cambodia,” a barbed look at privileged exoticists who back up their talk with words and pretension, not action. It instantaneously became a punk rock anthem; one of those songs non-punks even heard in between Styx and Air Supply tracks. Both “Über Alles” and “Holiday” were included on their first album Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980-I.R.S.). The album did well in Britain, reaching 33 on the albums chart but it suffered from a lack of airplay in America. At about this time, Slesinger left the band and was replaced by D.H. Peligro (Darren Henley).
Their next single, “Too Drunk To Fuck” mocked over-the-top booze-fuelled stupidity. It was banned from radio play by Radio 1 because of the profanity in the title and yet it still reached the Top 40 in the UK. Many listeners seemed to miss the fact that it was yet another of Jello Biafra’s sarcastic lyrics sung satirically from the point of view of a moron and took it merely as a celebration of drunken idiocy, which may have something to do with its popularity.
Their next release featured more politically-themed music coupled with tighter, faster playing due, in large part, to the addition of Peligro on drums. 1981’s EP In God We Trust Inc (Alternative Tentacles) cemented the band’s reputation as the thinking person’s punk band- the one that most eloquently critiqued the greed and corruption of the Reagan years. On “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the band attacked right-wing skinheads, Nazis, and other dolts who went to gigs hunting for violence. On “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now” they skewered Reagan for what they saw as his warmongering and sleaze. On “Rawhide” they unleashed a kick-ass cover of the original. In 1982 they released Plastic Surgery Disasters (Alternative Tentacles) and began touring across the United States, Europe, and Australia.
For the next two years the band toured and put most of their remaining energy into their label, Alternative Tentacles, which they hoped would provide an alternative to the commercial driven schlock they found most pop culture to be. The label signed such eclectic acts as the Butthole Surfers, D.O.A., and Seven Seconds among others. Despite all the band-related drama over the years the label exists to this day.
In 1985 the band released perhaps their most musically proficient album. Frankenchrist (Alternative Tentacles) was a jazzy, psychedelic departure from their previous works. Yet, the Kennedys still managed to exhibit humor and political insight in songs like “MTV Get Off The Air” and “Jock-O-Rama,” both shots at mainstream mediocrity. Mainstream America however, was about to strike back.
The band had decided to include some poster art with Frankenchrist, a work by H.R. Geiger known as Work 219: Landscape XX, which depicted, of all things, nine penises penetrating vaginas. With this, they seemingly gave bluenose groups like the newly formed Parents Music Resource Center all the ammunition they would need. Soon, the mother of a girl who had purchased the album wrote a letter to the attorney general for the state of California.
In 1986 the State of California brought criminal charges against the Dead Kennedys and others involved in the distribution of Frankenchrist, making them liable for up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. The prosecution essentially portrayed all involved as left-wing deviates that wanted to corrupt the minds of the youth. Eventually the charges were dropped against everyone but Biafra and Michael Bonanno, a former Alternative Tentacles manager. The trial ended in a hung jury with the majority favoring acquittal. District attorney Ira Reiner thought he had a case he that could help him further his future political goals and made a motion for retrial but was rebuffed by Superior Court Judge Isacoff.
The album was banned from many records stores and the Dead Kennedys never really recovered. To Biafra, it reinforced his sense of paranoia and disillusion. At the same time he began to feel that the underground scene was becoming devoid of anything nuanced or interesting to say. Many punk shows had morphed merely into places for blitzed morons to slam dance and fight. Ideas and intellect were starting to leave the arena and the Dead Kennedys were preparing to follow.
By this point the band no longer had it in them and they played their last show together on February 21st, 1986. Later that year they put out their last studio album, Bedtime For Democracy (Alternative Tentacles) which is something of a wonderful mess of a record. It ranges from the spoken word “A Commercial” to songs more reminiscent of their older work such as “Chickenshit Conformist” which bemoaned punk’s dilution into trendiness. Band members then went their separate ways. Biafra putt out spoken word albums while Ray, Fluoride, and Peligro went on to pursue solo careers.
The relationship between Biafra and the other members of the band grew from bad to worse over the years. A dispute over back royalties led to the other members suing Biafra in the late 90’s. An purported accounting error led to the band being paid far less than they should have been, and the band grew incensed when they learned that Biafra had known about it and not informed them directly. Biafra claimed that he had been advised by his lawyers to handle the details through them.
It subsequently got rather ugly and sordid. The news that Alternative Tentacles was paying the former members of The Dead Kennedys less in royalties than the other bands on the roster caused consternation in the punk community. Biafra alleged, in return, that his former bandmates wanted to license “Holiday In Cambodia” for a Dockers commercial- a rumor which was denied by the other members. In the end, Biafra was found guilty of fraud and malice for which he was forced to pay damages nearing $200,000.
Not surprisingly when the idea of a band reunion came up, Biafra was rather cool to the idea. Not only had he not ended his beef with the rest of the band, but he despised the very idea of money-and-nostalgia-motivated reunion shows on principal. The band did re-form, albeit with ex-child actor Brandon Cruz in place of Biafra. The band has since released several live albums of somewhat dubious quality, with the best entitled Live At The Deaf Club (Manifesto 2004), a 1979 recording of a gig in San Francisco. On October 9th, 2007, they released a best-of album entitled Milking The Sacred Cow (Manifesto) whose main enticement is the inclusion of live versions of “Soup Is Good Food” and “Jock-O-Rama.” In 2003 Cruz left the band and was replaced by singer Jeff Penalty who left in 2008. They still tour with Floride and Ray the only remaining original members. Ron 'Skip' Greer now sings for the band.
In many ways the Dead Kennedys are symbolic of where the entire punk and hardcore movements went in America with early brilliance fading into squabbles. Simultaneously, the early hopefulness is replaced by nostalgia and mediocrity, ironically two things to which punks were supposedly opposed from the outset. Still, to put on a DK album like Fresh Fruit is to enter a less cynical time, where change-through-music in some ways seemed possible. The Dead Kennedys mattered then and on some level they still do.