Today, on the nation’s birthday, what would be more appropriate than a shout out to the best rock band this country’s ever produced? In the forty-plus years since the Dead Kennedys released their debut album, pretty much all of frontman Jello Biafra‘s dire dystopic scenarios have been facilitated by digital technology in the hands of fascists. Seriously – does anybody really think “trace and track” has the slightest thing to do with public health?
What happened to the DKs was an embarrassment to this nation. Hounded by the right wing, they were put on trial on obscenity charges for including world-famous artist H.R. Giger‘s painting Penis Landscape as a poster along with their classic 1985 Frankenchrist lp. The judge in charge eventually dismisssed the case, but by then the damage was done: the band were broke and their career was over. To add insult to injury, Biafra’s bandmates later sued him for control of the group’s recorded output…and won. Biafra, undeterred, has gone on to lead numerous projects while running his improbably successful label, Alternative Tentacles Records and releasing several prophetic spoken-word albums as well.
Last year, a trio of field recordings of DKs concerts were issued as a triple live album streaming at Spotify. The first, Skateboard Party, a 1983 recording immediately predating the band’s Plastic Surgery Disasters album, was widely available on vinyl in the 80s. The Paradiso album is slightly earlier vintage, from close to the low point of the group’s career, such that there was one. The last of the three, The Farm is peak-era DKs, packed with Frankenchrist material. Obviously, the band never originally intended to release any of these, but even as they dodge stage-divers and battle sonic issues, they are a force of nature.
Although the recording quality has been digitally tweaked, it’s obvious that Skateboard Party was made with a walkman recorder that couldn’t handle the show volume. The set list is a mixed bag. The early part of is all hardcore punk material that’s so fast it’s impossible to figure out what Biafra is saying – other than his priceless between-song banter. East Bay Ray’s trebly, reverb-drenched guitar-torturing is every bit as evil as on the Plastic Surgery Disasters recordings, especially the creepy Trust Your Mechanic, a prophetic assessment of what Big Pharma would do as the Reaganites demolished government oversight.
The rhythm section snaps and crackles, bassist Klaus Flouride higher in the mix as the show goes on. Biafra’s call for audience requests is spot-on, if you know their songs. What a hilariously woke band these guys were! Biafra addresses police brutality in the spy movie-ish Police Truck; reminds that political prisoners exist here at home as well in places like Russia; and pokes merciless fun at phony outdoorsmen, tv preachers and every right wing authoritarian within earshot.
Hardcore didn’t suit this band either lyrically or politically – since so many of those bands were Reaganites or even neo-Nazis – and the Paradiso set has some of that as well. But it also has a menacingly psychedelic take of I Am the Owl, a painfully acute look at deep-state and agent provocateur evil, which the band revisit a little later with similar results in the anti-violence anthem Riot. Ray’s nails-down-the-blackboard guitar on this concert’s version of Police Truck is savage even by this band’s standards. And Bleed For Me has taken on more macabre resonance in the time since Dick Cheney and his sympathizers legalized torture in the name of blood-for-oil.
Drummer DH Peligro’s mom introduces the band for the Farm set: it sounds like a monitor mix and is the best of the three recordings. The quasi-ghoulabilly anti-vigilante tune Goons of Hazzard is a strong opener. This Could Be Anywhere, a searing portrait of suburban atomization, has only gained relevance in the past few months; this version is unexpectedly short. Soup Is Good Food is especially ghoulish; the surreal A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch connects the dots between cultural imperialism and far more lethal kinds.
Both the excoriating noise of Forest Fire and the drifting, corrosive sarcasm of Moon Over Marin remind how eclectic the band’s sound had grown by the mid-80s. They thumb their nose at macho redneck culture again with Jock-O-Rama, and little later, in MTV Get Off the Air, they give the finger to the decade’s biggest mass-media music influencer.
The three albums also contain also multiple takes of several DKs classics including the chromatically searing anti-imperialist broadside Holiday in Cambodia – which Pepsi once tried to license for a commercial! – and the immortal Too Drunk to Fuck, which became the #1 single of the year in Finland.
How ironic that the greatest punk rock band of all time would be American.