The Dead Kennedys

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The Dead Kennedys

Singer Jello Biafra's politically confrontational lyrics lived up to the provocative billing of his group's name: the Dead Kennedys. Biafra's equal-opportunity outrage reproached a wide collection of targets: callow corporations, the Reagan Administration, the Moral Majority, then-California Governor Jerry Brown, feeble liberals, punk rockers with fascist leanings, and MTV. When asked if playing a concert on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination wasn't distasteful, guitarist East Bay Ray responded that the assassination wasn't in particularly good taste either. Generally acknowledged as pioneers in the American hardcore scene, which was centered in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the Dead Kennedys' faster variant of punk never fully matched the fury in Biafra's lyrics. By the mid-1980s, in the midst of a political backlash against rock music, Biafra, the group, and its record label became the targets of a misguided obscenity trial. The Dead Kennedys' case was a forewarning of future prosecutions against musicians and record retailers.

The Dead Kennedys' 1981 debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was released on the group's own label, Alternative Tentacles, and featured the political sarcasm that became the group's strength. The album's opening track, "Kill the Poor," is a Swiftian proposal about the neutron bomb. "California Uber Alles" imagines Jerry Brown's "Zen Fascist" state: "Your kids will meditate in school … You will jog for the master race … Mellow out or you will pay." During the same year, the Dead Kennedys' released In God We Trust, Inc., which attacked corporate religion's self-righteousness in the age of televangelism. Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982) ridiculed personal identifications such as the preppy, the car enthusiast, and the RV tourist. Frankenchrist, the group's first release after a three-year break, was an uneven mixture of scathing commentary and didacticism.

However one felt about his vitriol, Biafra's political carpings often included some sort of constructive solution. For Biafra, merely pointing out the shortcomings in American society was not an answer: "You fear freedom /'Cos you hate responsibility," he sang in 1985's "Stars and Stripes of Corruption." Even Michael Guarino, the Los Angeles deputy city attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted the band, was forced to acknowledge the band's social commitment, commenting in the Washington Post that, "midway through the trial we realized that the lyrics … were in many ways socially responsible, very anti-drug and pro-individual." Biafra's fourth-place run for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 showed that 6600 people had been equally discontented with the establishment and that Biafra's level of political involvement ran deeper than mere complaint. Although his campaign was farcical at times—Biafra's platform suggested that all downtown businessmen wear clown suits—there were serious proposals from the candidate whose slogan was, "There's always room for Jello." For example, Biafra's platform called for neighborhood elections of police officers long before the Rodney King beating compelled urban leaders to demand that local police departments hold themselves more accountable.

Ultimately, the Dead Kennedys' attacks on the status quo didn't provoke authorities so much as the H. R. Giger "Landscape #20" poster in Frankenchrist did. Commonly referred to as "Penis Landscape," the poster's artwork depicted an endless series of alternating rows of copulating penises and anuses. Biafra decided that the poster merited inclusion for its depiction of everyone getting screwed by everyone else. A Los Angeles parent filed a complaint in 1986, and police raided Biafra's San Francisco apartment, Alternative Tentacles' headquarters, and the label's distributor. Police confiscated copies of Frankenchrist and the Giger poster, charging the Dead Kennedys with "distribution of harmful matter to minors."

The year 1985 had marked the beginning of a national backlash against rock music that had lasting effects. The Parents Music Resource Center, a political action group cofounded by Tipper Gore, held congressional hearings on rock music lyrics. The hearings focused on rap and heavy metal music, but the ensuing publicity questioned rock lyrics in monolithic terms. In 1986, the PMRC succeeded in pressuring the Recording Industry Association of America to voluntarily include warning stickers ("Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics") on albums. A series of First Amendment disputes was under way as rock and rap artists faced obscenity charges, and retailers who sold stickered albums to minors faced fines and imprisonment.

Biafra soundly contended that the group's political views, and the limited resources of their independent record company, made them an expedient target. The band found support from other underground musicians who performed benefit concerts to augment the band's defense fund. Pre-trial wrangling pushed the trial's length to a year and a half, and with that, the Dead Kennedys were effectively finished. In 1987, the case was dismissed, due to a hung jury that leaned toward acquittal. His band finished, Biafra became a spoken word performer, recording No More Cocoons (1987), a collection of political satire in the tradition of Lenny Bruce. Biafra recounted the trial in 1989's High Priest of Harmful Matter—Tales from the Trial.

The history of censorship in rock and roll reverts back to Elvis Presley's first television appearance, when cameras cut off his performance at the waist. New to this history are politically organized forces of censorship. Large superstores, like Wal-Mart, by threatening not to sell albums that have warning labels, have compelled artists to change lyrics or artwork. These gains by the anti-rock forces made the Dead Kennedys' legal victory a crucial one; the case was an invaluable blueprint for rap groups with incendiary lyrics or sexually explicit lyrics, like 2 Live Crew, who faced prosecution in the late 1980s.

—Daryl Umberger

Further Reading:

Kester, Marian. Dead Kennedys: The Unauthorized Version. SanFrancisco, Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1983.

Segal, David. "Jello Biafra: The Surreal Deal. The Life and Times of an Artist Provocateur; Or, How a Dead Kennedy Got $2.2 Million in Debt." Washington Post. May 4, 1997, G01.

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The Dead Kennedys

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