Jello Biafra (His real name is Eric Boucher) : Vocals
Klaus Fluoride: Bass guitar, vocals
East Bay Ray: Guitar, echoplex
D. H. Pilegro: Drums, vocals
On Fresh Fruit and other early recordings:
Bruce Slesinger (AKA Ted): Drums
Formed San Francisco 1978; disbanded, late 1986
"Isn't a Dead Kennedys concert on 22 November [anniversary of JFK's assassination] in rather bad taste?"
"Of course. But the assassinations weren't too tasteful either." East Bay Ray interviewed in 1979 by the Vancouver Sun.
US punk band which formed a crucial part of the burgeoning American hardcore punk scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moving to San Francisco after a succession of menial jobs and a half-hearted attempt to pursue an acting career, vocalist Jello Biafra (real name Eric Boucher), answered an advert placed in a music paper by guitarist East Bay Ray. The two were joined by bassist Klaus Fluoride, drummer Bruce Slesinger (aka Ted) and a second guitarist known to posterity simply as 6025. The latter departed in March 1979 whilst Slesinger was replaced in mid-1981 by D.H. Peligro.
In 1978 the full impact of British punk had yet to be felt in America, mainly because the sheer size of the country was such an obstacle for groups with limited financial backing. The Damned had toured in early 77 and The Sex Pistols followed at the end of the year only to implode after a gig at the San Francisco Winterland - with Biafra apparently a witness to the spectacle. Fired by this experience and that of a visit to Britain at the height of punk in 1977, Biafra determined to help create an equivalent American scene. He was not alone; others, who were to become equally as well known, felt a similar urge and the underground culture which these pioneers nurtured was, from the start, radically different from that which developed in Britain. American punk was free from the more ludicrous dictates which restricted many aspects of British punk; there were, for example, few bondage trousers and kilts to be seen at American gigs.
After a brief rehearsal period the Dead Kennedys played their first gig in July 1978; the tension and provocation between band and audience that night set the standard for what was to follow. Initially, the Kennedys' music was a fairly faithful blueprint of orthodox British punk rock, all beefy guitar sound, rumbling bass and enthusiastically-whacked drums. Yet from the start there was obviously more to them than this; there was a musical ability in the band, who were quite clearly playing within themselves, and a depth to the lyrics which raised the group well above the average tub-thumping punk outfit.
Biafra's main lyrical concerns were political and his polemical broadsides attacked any number of easy, but nonetheless deserving targets - big business skulduggery, the American Government under the lunatic control [?] of Ronald Reagan, atrocities perpetrated by the Klan and the feeble-minded response to these problems of American liberals. Dripping with knowing sarcasm, early songs such as "Let's Lynch The Landlord", "I Kill Children", "Chemical Warfare" and "Funland at The Beach" satirised and lampooned the twin elements of extreme violence and extreme conservatism which characterise much of American life. What saved these musical indictments of American society from collapsing under their own ambitious weight was the acute sense of humour which underpinned them and the extraordinary way in which Biafra sang - a unique tremulous roar which none has ever come close to imitating. Also important was the fact that the band were not afraid to back up their political opinions with concerted action. Most memorable among various pranks which were pulled was Biafra's run for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979; he came in fourth, forcing the two main candidates into a runoff.
Obviously, the Dead Kennedys' fundamental raison d'Ítre along with their name was designed to offend many people deeply, and so it proved as, to the delight of the band, they quickly attracted the attention of a number of far-right politico-religious groups. The band's problems with these self-appointed moral guardians were compounded by a relationship with the US authorities which was always confrontational; the norm at most DKs' gigs was an aggressive police presence that indiscriminately targeted audience and band. Such high-profile controversies had the predictable effect of scaring the wits out of major record companies, none of whom would go near the band; their only option was to release records in punk's time-honoured DIY fashion.
The American branch of the Kennedys' own label, Alternative Tentacles, had been set up in 1979, but the British arm was not established until a few years later. In the meantime a string of singles appeared in the early 80s released through the independent labels Fast and Cherry Red. "California ‹ber Alles" (October 1979) was the first - a blistering attack on the Governor of California, Jerry Brown. "Holiday in Cambodia" (June 1980) followed and is perhaps the band's definitive moment; a perfect mix of hilarious yuppie-baiting lyrics and evil-sounding music, it remained a permanent fixture in the top ten of John Peel's Festive Fifty for many years. "Kill The Poor" (October 1980) and "Too Drunk to Fuck" (May 1981) completed a quartet of singles which easily bears comparison with the most important early punk records.
Yet the band's first album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (September 1980), is a badly flawed record; totally inadequate production managed to drain virtually all of the power, if not the conviction, from an otherwise excellent set of songs. Had it been handled properly the album would unquestionably have been one of the best punk albums ever recorded; as it was the record fails to convince entirely. Despite this fact, a UK tour in late 1980 firmly established the band as a figurehead for an audience by then long-deprived of The Pistols and affronted by the alleged `sell-out' of The Clash. Biafra also took this opportunity to introduce British audiences to the novel concept of stage-diving, commonplace now but unknown back then.
On each of the band's three visits to the UK a series of eloquent interviews were given to the music press demonstrating that sharp minds lay behind an art form that was intentionally crude and brutal. That crudity and brutality was taken to new extremes with the release of In God We Trust Inc. (December 1981), an eight track EP the sheer speed an bludgeoning power of which left most reviewers nonplussed and contemporaries trailing. Certainly, the inept bumblings offered by most of the UK's punk bands at this time could not compare. In fact, the focus of articulate and intelligent hardcore was switching to the US; Black Flag, Minor Threat, MDC and Husker Du among many others were busy carving out their own highly individual signatures on the hardcore monolith and to this day the US has remained its most fertile breeding ground.
There was a lengthy wait for the Kennedys' second album. Plastic Surgery Disasters (November 1982), is a vast improvement on Fresh Fruit and is the band's finest collection of songs; the savage wit and political satire remained to the fore, but the music, whilst retaining its energy, also included such unexpected moments as Fluoride playing the clarinet. The band continued to gig in the US and also toured Australia and New Zealand, but the years 1983-85 saw something of a hiatus with regard to the UK.
This was finally broken with the release of Frankenchrist (December 1985), an LP which was indirectly responsible for the eventual fragmentation of the band. It is a far more conventional record in a musical sense than the band's previous efforts; more melodic, but, after five years of Reagan's rule, almost frantic in its sense of desperation at the political direction in which America was moving.
Frankenchrist also proved that the group's talent to annoy remained as great as ever; included with the album was the now-notorious poster "Penis Landscape" by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Detailing several rows of copulating genitalia, it inevitably attracted the attention of the Californian judicial authorities who in April 1986 launched a legal offensive against the band which ultimately disintegrated under the pressure. As well as having his flat torn apart by the SFPD, Biafra was charged with `Distributing Harmful Matter to Minors'; if convicted he faced a year in jail and a $2000 fine. Added to this were a number of other `nuisance' lawsuits (including one from the Shriners, a Masonic-like group, who appeared on the record cover). Biafra resolved to make a stand against this politically-motivated intimidation on the basis of the First Amendment which guarantees every American citizen the right to free speech.
Astonishingly, given the long and drawn-out nature of the affair, the band was able to take a break from the legal siege to release Bedtime For Democracy (December 1986), but their creative relationship had clearly run out of steam. Despite having its moments it is a flatly produced record and sounds anachronistic and thin on musical ideas; Biafra later admitted that he had taken the opportunity deliberately to exhaust this particular side of his songwriting.
Finally, in August 1987 Biafra and four other co-defendants were acquitted by a Judge who overruled a deadlocked jury and declared a mistrial. The whole ugly affair, which apart from a few honourable exceptions had seen a disgraceful lack of support from most of the music business, had broken the Dead Kennedys but ultimately it has led Biafra into a whole new range of projects; these include numerous spoken word performances, musical collaborations with DOA, NoMeansNo, Mojo Nixon, and most effectively as Lard with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of Ministry. Klaus Fluoride has released a couple of idiosyncratic, downright bizarre LPs whilst East Bay Ray has a recording project entitled Scrapyard; D.H. Peligro has recently re-emerged with a new band and album simply called Peligro.
A final compilation of Dead Kennedys material - Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (June 1987) - was released and is a good summary of some of the band's early recordings as offering several miscellaneous oddities. The Dead Kennedys had been a crucial stimulant to the US punk scene in its infancy; that scene has had important reverberations down to the present day and for the that reason alone the DKs' place in musical history is assured.
Click Here to return to my Main Page