America Needs a Definitive History of Dead Kennedys… And Here’s Why It Won’t Happen

I pledge to laugh
At the Flag
Of the United States of America
And to the lies for which it stands
One nation
Under big business
With liberty and justice only for those who can afford it

In 1985, Dead Kennedys visited Atlanta’s independent radio station, WRFG, and their frontman, Jello Biafra, opened the interview by reciting this vicious lampoon of the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a typical moment for DK, the San Francisco punk band that took on Reagan’s America with raging, sophisticated musicianship and lyrics that were equal parts Jonathan Swift and Abbie Hoffman. At the time, their critiques of rapacious capitalism, American imperialism (at home and abroad), and stultifying materialism could sound radical, exaggerated, maybe even far-fetched. How many Americans in 1985 felt angry enough to call the Washington Monument “a great eternal Klansman”? But back then, America had yet to see the Iraq War, the Crash of 2008, or the Ferguson riots, much less the presidency of Donald Trump. But, as the famous saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Dead Kennedys in 1980: Klaus Flouride, Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, and Ted

America needs a definitive history of Dead Kennedys, and not just because they were an influential punk band. It’s not even because they gleefully jabbed at the status quo of ‘80s bourgeois society. Yes, this was a band that outraged Tipper Gore, was prosecuted for distributing harmful material to minors, and apparently drove Francis Ford Coppola to physical violence.[1] Indeed, before they split up in 1986, DK was good at pissing off everyone, even other punks. But this is not why they are important to our time. Dead Kennedys matter today because, if we don’t now live in the world they described, we at least live in peril of it.

If that sounds far-fetched, just take a look at their lyrics. Anyone who’s read an article about plastic waste polluting the oceans can identify with “Moon Over Marin”, a song that describes an environment so toxic that you have to wear a gasmask to the beach. Years before the Exxon Valdez, Biafra sang, “another tanker’s hit the rocks/abandoned to spill out its guts.”

Biafra’s style of satire often took the point of view of the figures he targeted, and his targets can look awfully familiar. Take, for example, “The Great Wall”, where he argues that fear of immigration (“There’s too many people in your world/and refugees are expensive”) goes hand in hand with racially-motivated urban decay (“We’d rather pay for riot squads/than pump your ghetto back to life”).

And don’t get Jello Biafra started on police brutality. Two DK songs, both inspired by true events, focus on violent abuse of police authority. “Police Truck” tells the disturbing story of officers who rape prostitutes. Biafra drew inspiration from events that transpired around San Francisco in the late 1970s, but the song just as easily recalls the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma cop convicted of raping thirteen women in 2016.[2] A spoof of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law” explicitly references the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, but Biafra’s line, “You can get away with murder if you got a badge”, may resonate with anyone who was disturbed by the death of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, or any other unarmed African-Americans killed by the police.

Any good study of the past resonates with the present, and a history of Dead Kennedys could possibly illuminate some continuities between the our current time and the time in which DK came of age. Were the seeds of Trumpism planted in the age of Reagan? After all, Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Mississippi with a speech about states’ rights. Then again, one can argue that Trumpism can be traced to the GOP’s adoption of the Southern Strategy in the wake of the Civil Rights Acts, or even earlier. Either way, DK’s interpretation of their own era might offer some clues.

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DK Live in 1982, with drummer, D.H. Peligro

The good news is that some histories do exist. Michael Stewart Foley’s contribution to the 33 ⅓ Series does a fine job situating the historical and local context of DK’s first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Alex Ogg also successfully chronicles the creation of the same album, as well as giving a pretty detailed account of the formation of the band. Gimme Something Better, an oral history of Bay Area punk, offers a brief account of how Jello Biafra was prosecuted for distributing harmful materials to minors. The same book also touches on the bitter feud and litigation that marred DK’s legacy.

It is also worth mentioning that Dead Kennedys are, sort of, still around. Despite officially breaking up in 1986, various incarnations of the band have been touring since 2001. Biafra has nothing to do with this enterprise, so the vocal slot has been filled by a rotating cast of ersatz frontmen. Jello Biafra still performs with his own band, and regularly posts political commentary on YouTube.

But there is still much more to study, and hopefully learn. Foley started a work that is essentially unfinished. His book on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables places the album, and the band, in the context of post-Watergate despair and the volatile politics of late-70s San Francisco. What, though, is the specific context of DK’s second full-length album, Plastic Surgery Disasters? What events inspired songs like “Riot” and “Government Flu”? The specific context of their third album, Frankenchrist, with the epic “Stars and Stripes of Corruption”, would also be worth examining.

 

In April 1986, police officers raided Jello Biafra’s home in San Francisco and charged him with distributing harmful material to minors. The ‘harmful material’ in question was a poster by artist H.R. Giger, titled “Penis Landscape”, which came folded in the sleeve of the DK album Frankenchrist. The case went to trial, where a deadlocked jury caused the charges to be dropped.

The state of California’s attack on Biafra is consistent with anti-obscenity campaigns of the 1980s, where government prosecutors would tie businesses up with litigation and multiple charges. These offices had more financial resources; if they couldn’t win a case, their opponents were still likely to go bankrupt.[3] A detailed account of the Biafra trial could not only shed light on this aspect of the Reagan era, but could possibly tell us something about the culture wars of the present.

If a definitive history of Dead Kennedys could be enlightening, or at least damn interesting, the bad news is that such a study is unlikely to happen. Alex Ogg tried to work with the band to write sleeve notes for the 25th anniversary reissue of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and couldn’t complete the project. In his words, Ogg’s efforts were “undermined by warring factions competing over the narrative.”[4] The warring factions are Jello Biafra on one side, and guitarist East Bay Ray and the rest of the band on the other. Ogg’s experience went something like this:

Biafra will chide and cajole and do the utmost to persuade you of the veracity of his interpretation of events. Then he will concede that you have the right to call it as you see it as a writer. Ray will chide and cajole and do the utmost to persuade you of the veracity of his interpretation of events. And then he will call his lawyer.[5]

Why such a contentious atmosphere? In short, they hate each other. And the worst of it goes back to 2000, when DK got embroiled in a nasty, acrimonious lawsuit.

That was the year that East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro sued Biafra for underpayment of royalties. In typical fashion, Biafra did not go down without a fight. Singling out Ray, he called the suit “a twisted revenge fantasy by a washed-up bitter old rocker.”[6] A judge ruled in favor of Ray, Flouride, and Peligro, but the whole affair left everyone unhappy. James Sullivan, who covered the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle, said: “The whole thing just felt icky, like taking notes while an old married couple bickered over pension checks. But the irony—old punk values shriveled up and tossed aside—was just too absurd for words.”[7]

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DK in 2012: Peligro, vocalist Ron “Skip” Greer, Flouride, East Bay Ray

That a band who made their name attacking corporate greed and mindless consumerism would impale their legacy on such a capitalist cliche as an ugly lawsuit is, indeed, absurd. Or maybe not. Just as the Beatles’ “Revolution” became fodder for a Nike commercial in 1987, one could easily conclude that the gluttonous logic of capitalism eventually consumes everything in its path.

That’s a very depressing thought, so it’s better to conclude things in another way.

With Biafra, the political is personal, so it is arguably very difficult for him not to take conflicts over his life’s work personally. The acrimony of the suit doesn’t make his lyrics any less relevant to our own time, either. Nor does it make DK’s music any less engaging.  What it does say is that people who rage against injustice are, in the end, only human. If Biafra and the rest of DK are flawed, the work they did is no less inspiring. Maybe that is what can ultimately be learned from a deeper study of Dead Kennedys. Either way, it’s worth closing on some of their most hopeful thoughts, from “Stars and Stripes of Corruption”:

No one will do it for us
We’ll just have to fix ourselves
Honesty ain’t all that hard
Just put Rambo back inside your pants
Causing trouble for the system is much more fun!

References

[1] Michael Stewart Foley, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables: 33 ⅓ (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), p. 103. Coppola allegedly elbowed DK’s drummer, Ted, after the band performed a song titled “Pull My Strings” at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards. Apparently the critically acclaimed film director was not pleased by a song that mocked new wave music and big-business record labels.

[2] Foley, p. 107.

[3] Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), p. 190.

[4] Alex Ogg, Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables – The Early Years (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), p. 1.

[5] Ogg, p. 2.

[6] RJ Smith, “Punk Rock on Trial,” Spin, February 2000, p. 74.

[7] Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 93.

Author: Will Greer

I am an aspiring student in public history, an avid history lover, and make a mean chicken-fried steak.

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