It took a while, but in the Dead Kennedys, America finally produced a powerful, self-righteously moral band to match the fury (if not the solid musical appeal) of the Sex Pistols. Led by audacious and inimitable singer Jello Biafra (Eric Boucher; who once ran — and received a substantial number of votes — for mayor of San Francisco, the band’s base), the DKs combined blunt and sardonic discussions of touchy issues with crushing, high-speed guitar and drums. Generally acknowledged as prime pioneers of American hardcore, the Kennedys were hugely influential, not only by setting a style, sensibility and commendable standards, but with their productive Alternative Tentacles label and active support for grassroots rock activity. Biafra’s legal confrontation over the poster included in Frankenchrist effectively ended the band, but left a powerful anti-censorship legacy for others to uphold.
Despite a few weak songs, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is explosive and gripping (also controversial — a borrowed photo used on the back cover led to some funny but unpleasant legal trouble). Jello’s political sarcasm erupts on “Kill the Poor” and “California Über Alles,” offering a funny but chilling condemnation of then-governor Jerry Brown and “zen fascists” in the latter. The bracing and tightly focused “Holiday in Cambodia” echoes the Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” and became a DKs standard. In typically unsubtle broadside fashion, Jello nails another popular target with “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.” (When the album was re-released in 2002, the musicians in the back cover photo had lost their heads.)
In eight brief songs (one of which is the memorable scene-parsing battle cry, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”), In God We Trust, Inc. offers additional valid statements about the religious right. But the music is stripped of dynamics and reduced to routine hyperactive punk; scrap the record and keep the lyric sheet.
Heralded by a typically gut-wrenching cover image, Plastic Surgery Disasters enlarges the band’s musical blend to include more three-dimensionality while retaining all the rock energy. Songs like “Terminal Preppie,” “Winnebago Warrior,” “Trust Your Mechanic” and “Well Paid Scientist” mix humor and activism in pointed and intelligent observations on social absurdity. (The two-decades-on CD also contains the complete In God We Trust, Inc. for a total of 22 songs.)
The DKs stopped recording for several years while the members (including guitarist East Bay Ray [Peperrell] and the band’s second drummer, D.H. Peligro [Darren Henley]) worked on outside projects. Bassist Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) was the busiest, producing other bands for release on Alternative Tentacles and recording his own one-man seven-song mini-album, Cha Cha Cha With Mr. Flouride. Displaying not the slightest trace of political consciousness, Klaus lets down his hair on a straight rock’n’billy (with a guest drummer and pianist) love ode, “My Linda.” Elsewhere, he laments a serious social problem, “Dead Prairie Dogs,” and takes an amusing cowboy jaunt with “Ghost Riders.” The simple music — mostly guitars and cheap-sounding electronics — is lighthearted and goofy, showing more spirit than originality, but cute nonetheless. And the cover is great. (The bulk of Flouride’s second album, Because I Say So, is devoted to atmospheric instrumental soundtrack music corrupted by assorted streams of noise that wander in and out of the mix. The diverse vocal songs are likewise a mixed blessing: while “Keep on Walking” is a politely Beatlesque piano ballad, Norman Greenbaum’s “Charlies Friends” gets a twisted acoustic country interpretation, and “Dominating Baby” copies, with acknowledgment, Leon Redbone. “Bus Thru the Barrier,” meanwhile, is a sloppy mash that repeats the same meaningless couplet ad nauseum, pausing only for two blitzed out fuzz guitar solos. The CD adds three bonus tracks. He and Ray have lately been playing three-guitar instrumentals in a band they call Jumbo Shrimp.)
In early 1985, the Kennedys returned with Frankenchrist, which generally repeats the psycho-punk of Plastic Surgery Disasters. There are some bad tracks with forced, awkward lyrics, but the LP does contain two of the DKs’ finest moments: “MTV — Get Off the Air” and “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” one of the most powerful political statements ever committed to vinyl. Instead of just bellyaching about problems (a common habit of politico-punks), Biafra offers possibilities for constructive change, demonstrating real American patriotism as opposed to jingoist commie-bashing.
With 21 strong cuts and an eight-page clip-art newspaper, Bedtime for Democracy ended the band’s recording career on a high note. A full-tilt platform of deserving targets — including working poverty, Reagan, toxic waste, macho attitudes and conformity — are decimated with energetic, well-played music and Biafra’s unique quiver of a voice. The knowing cover of “Take This Job and Shove It” that leads off the album is also good for a chuckle.
In mid-’86, Biafra and others were charged by California authorities with “distribution of harmful matter to minors” — i.e., a reproduction of H.R. Giger’s Landscape #20 as a poster included in Frankenchrist. More than a year later, the case — which might have led to a jail term — ended in a mistrial. The charges were dismissed, but the Dead Kennedys had had it.
The final chapter in the original saga was Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, a posthumous career recap, which contains 15 examples of the DKs’ best work (hits, live performances and obscurities), a two-song flexi-disc (“Buzzbomb From Pasadena” and “Night of the Living Rednecks” — both added to the cassette and CD editions) and a final newsprint art/lyric book. Essential.
Flash forward to 1998. In one of the most dismaying legal chapters in the history of punk, Biafra’s three former bandmates severed their relationship from Alternative Tentacles and sued him, complaining that the label (which Biafra had acquired sole ownership of and had been operating since the band’s demise) had intentionally defrauded them of royalties over a 10-year period and failed to promote their albums. After an ugly volley of accusations that went against every ideal of punk, the trio prevailed in court in 2000 and was awarded damages, a judgment which Biafra appealed. The misery continues.
Meanwhile, with former child star Brandon Cruz (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father), who also has his own band, Dr. Know, installed as their singer, the Dead Kennedys returned to action in 2001, touring extensively and arranging for the reissue of their back catalog on a different label. So far, however, the only new release to appear from the group since the ’80s is an archival concert disc assembled from four prime-time California shows and mixed by East Bay Ray, who wisely resisted the temptation to bury Biafra in the sizzling and, in spots, surprisingly musical, assault. What a great band they were.