Punk rock band
Actions speak louder than words. The band name alone indicated the intention of punk rock group Dead Kennedys’ music. Infamous for their shocking methods of expressing liberal political views, the Dead Kennedys plastered a place for themselves in the hall of fame for 1980s punk. However, the Dead Kennedys may have impacted society of the 1980s more by their behavior than their music. Steve Knopper from Music-Hound Rock summarized the Dead Kennedys’ impression upon culture by stating, “The Dead Kennedys, purposely provocative with their name, album covers, and titles … were more influential for what they did than how they sounded.” Starting by sadistically naming themselves after a family considered royalty by many Americans, the Dead Kennedys jammed their nine-year career as a band with outrageous stage antics, controversial songwriting, poignant album releases, and surprising community service. Dead Kennedys was the forum for political expressions against conservative politics, the religious right, and many social injustices. The group broke through barriers which helped form their legendary status in the underground punk scene of the 1980s. Their legacy inspired many other groups such as The Adolescents, Bad Brains, Henry Rollins, and Megadeth.
Members include Jello Biafra (born Eric Boucher), vocals; Klaus Fluoride, bass; East Bay Ray, guitar; and Darren H. Peligro (member from 1981-87), drums; and Bruce “Ted” Slesinger (member from 1978-81), drums.
Group formed in 1978 in San Francisco, CA; recorded several singles in 1979 and 1980; debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980; formed Alternative Tentacles Records in 1981; released In God We Trust… and Plastic Surgery Disasters, 1982; Frankenchrist, with controversial poster insert released in 1985; Bedtime for Democracy released, 1986; posthumous compilation, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, released 1987.
Addresses: Record company —Alternative Tentacles Records, P.O. Box 419092, San Francisco, CA 94141-9092.
Jello Biafra (born Eric Boucher), moved from Boulder, Colorado to attend college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Shows by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones set fire to the furnace within Biafra which fueled groundbreaking accomplishments in the punk music community. The energy and politics of the San Francisco punk scene impressed Biafra. According to an account from the group’s record label web page, “After seeing early performances of The Saints and Wire, among others in London that summer, Biafra discovered that the early San Francisco punk scene (Avengers, Dils, Zeros, etc.) was far more raw and primal than anything he had seen so far.”
The Dead Kennedys formed in San Francisco in July 1978 after Biafra answered an ad in a music paper placed by East Bay Ray. Klaus Fluoride joined Biafra and Ray to play bass, a second guitarist, named 6025 joined. Bruce Slesinger (a.k.a. Ted) pounded out the beat on drums. Boucher chose a name which signified glaring social injustices which his own country was involved in during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jello reflected the disgusting western consumerism his culture was thriving on while Biafra referred to the desperate republic in Africa whose struggle for independence was crushed through a food blockade by British and United States governments.
It began in San Francisco’s North Beach area in July 1978. Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant which was a spot for punk music for close to a decade, was the location of the Dead Kennedys’ first gig. Dead Kennedys performances were chaotic and full of theatrics, with Biafra’s political lessons thrown at the crowd throughout the set. Police often showed up at shows because of the group’s antics. Not surprisingly, the band’s conduct chased away mainstream record labels. They played in the Bay Area for the first couple of years, gaining a faithful underground following. A tour in Britain in late 1980 established the Dead Kennedys as a prominent band in the underground scene, as well as attracted Sex Pistols and Clash fans.
The Dead Kennedys’ initial offering was similar to British punk rock in that it featured, according to Andy Lewis from the Rough Guide to Rock, “all beefy guitar, rumbling bass, and enthusiastically whacked bass.” Lyrical content of the songs separated Dead Kennedys’ art from other punk rock groups. Scathing sarcasm about issues such as corporate deception, racism, and policies of the Reagan administration made up the majority of the odes. “California Uber Alles,” written about then-California governor Jerry Brown, was the first single released by the Dead Kennedys and rose to the top of punk playlists in 1979, becoming popular enough for release in Britain on Fast Records. The Dead Kennedy song titles were often brash if taken literally, which caused commotion in their overseas listeners where the sarcasm sometimes failed to carry over in translation. Several conservative and religious groups were outraged by the music and actions of the liberal band. Notorius titles such as “Let’s Lynch The Landlord,” “Kill The Poor,” “Nazi Punks F*** Off!” and “Too Drunk To F***,” caught many people’s attention.
The Dead Kennedys’ notorious behavior was epitomized at the Bammies, which were the Grammies of San Francisco. The band was invited to play in front of a crowd which included music industry executives and mainstream groups. Instead of playing their hit “California Uber Alles,” Dead Kennedys surprised the audience with a freshly written song attacking the music industry called “Pull My Strings.” Biafra served his local community by entering the mayoral race of San Francisco in 1979. He ran under the humorous motto, “There’s always room for Jello.” Surprising many, he finished fourth out of ten with 6,000 votes.
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980 by IRS and Cherry Red in England was the Dead Kennedys’ debut album. Revealing the taboo nature of their music, their record label web page stated, “That’s why Faulty Products was started…as a branch of IRS, because originally Fresh Fruit... was supposed to go out through A&M, but A&M wouldn’t touch it, so they created an American arm of the very appropriately named Faulty Products.” Fresh Fruit contained humor and sarcasm in A-sides of their first singles, in a cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas,” and in new material such as “Forward to Death” and “I Kill Children.” It was the only album the group did not own the rights to, thus allowing many pirate copies to appear. Other albums were recorded on the group’s own label, Alternative Tentacles, and are still in print. Ted left the band after Fresh Fruit... was released and was replaced by drummer Darren H. Peligro.
Music listeners caught on when “Too Drunk to F***,” a single released in 1981, saw surprising popularity at home and abroad. In the United States it became a favorite among the fraternities on various campuses and in the United Kingdom it made the top 40 list despite being banned from airplay.
The band’s disgust with popular religion was expressed in a 1982 EP, In God We Trust, Inc., with songs that described organized religion as corrupt and fascist. The music was thrash punk—very fast and short songs. Meanwhile, the group’s label, Alternative Tentacles, continued to grow and penetrated the music scene with classic releases by D.O.A., T.S.O.L., and in the United Kingdom, 7 Seconds, Bad Brains and Husker Du.
Plastic Surgery Disasters, released in late 1982, showcased an expansion of the Dead Kennedys’ musical repertoire, which even included a piece by Fluoride on the clarinet. The album included a song on anti-pollution which was probably closest to a ballad that a Dead Kennedys song reached. After Plastic Surgery Disasters was released, the group took a hiatus, which allowed Alternative Tentacles to fluorish and establish itself as a cornerstone in the underground music scene in the United States.
Frankenchrist, released in 1985, was perhaps the band’s most notorious release of their career, which ultimately pointed the group toward a breakup. It included a poster of European artist H.R. Giger’s “Landscape #XX: Where We Are Coming From.” It portrayed a landscape of genitalia in explicit positions. Biafra stated that the poster was merely an expression of the ugliness of a consumer-oriented society, but many did not find it humorous. The label even included a sticker that read: “WARNING: The inside foldout to this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger that some people may find shocking, repulsive or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way.”
Biafra was prosecuted for distributing pornography to minors during 1986-1987 and the legal saga lead to the demise of the band. Biafra established the No More Censorship Defense Fund, which along with helping with the legal fees in the Frankenchrist case, made available copies of articles dealing with censorship and plans to help others who were being harassed. The case against Biafra was eventually dismissed after a 7-5 jury vote of acquittal. However, the group had disbanded before the release of their final album, Bedtime for Democracy, which came out in 1986. Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death was released as a compliation in 1987.
All of the members remained active musically after the Dead Kennedys broke up. Among many spoken word projects, Biafra put out music in collaboration with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of Ministry under the title of Lard. Ray joined Algerian Cheika Rimitti on an album and formed a band called Candyass. Klaus Fluoride released several solo albums, while D.H. Peligro formed a band named after himself. Fluoride and Ray also played in an instrumental surf band called Jumbo Shrimp.
Biafra embarked on spoken word tours speaking about censorship and opposing the PMRC, against the Persian Gulf War, conservative political and social agendas among other topics. He felt the repercussions of his outspoken nature in 1994 when his leg was broken in an attack by a group of skinheads at the East Bay 924 Gilman club in San Francisco. The cause of the attack was allegedly because he was considered a sellout. Biafra continued his activism when he ran for United States President in 2000 under the Green Party.
A vicious legal battle was launched by Ray, Peligro, and Fluoride in October of 1998. Dissatisfied with the results of handshake agreements from the past, the three members charged Biafra with underpaying them royalties. They sued to part with Alternative Tentacles and take their master recordings with them. The issue was due for trial in May 2000. Those antics were enough to shock even diehard fans.
A jury in San Francisco ruled on May 19,2000, that Biafra underpaid the rest of the band and failed to promote the group’s back catalog. The other three Dead Kennedys were awarded $200,000 in actual damages and $20,000 in punitive damages. In a countersuit Biafra filed against Ray, the jury found Ray guilty of mismanaging their partnership. Ray had to pay Biafra $5,000.
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, IRS Records, 1980.
In God We Trust, Inc., EP, Alternative Tentacles, 1982.
Plastic Surgery Disasters, Alternative Tentacles, 1982.
Frankenchrist, Alternative Tentacles, 1985.
Bedtime for Democracy, Alternative Tentacles, 1986.
Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, Alternative Tentacles, 1987.
MusicHound Rock, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A. editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Spin, February, 2000, pp. 73-78.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 17, 2000).
The Rough Guide to Rock, http://www.roughguides.com (April 17, 2000).
"Dead Kennedys." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dead-kennedys
"Dead Kennedys." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dead-kennedys
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