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DEAD KENNEDYS
A concise History For Consumers Everywhere (by Gregg Turkington)

Dead Kennedys were one of the most popular and important American hardcore punk bands of the 1980's, and in their nine year history stirred up a good deal of controversy through their overtly political songs and actions. The 1986-87 trial of lead singer Jello Biafra for allegedly distributing pornography (a poster by artist H.R. Giger that was included in the band's Frankenchrist LP) brought worldwide attention to the band and the issue of censorship, but unfortunately also helped lead to their demise.

Dead Kennedys (usually written without a "The") formed in July 1978 in San Francisco, with the lineup of Biafra, vocals; Klaus Fluoride, bass; East Bay Ray, guitar; and Bruce Slesinger (a.k.a. Ted), drums. Biafra (real name Eric Boucher), came out to California from his hometown of Boulder, Colorado to attend U.C. Santa Cruz, but ended up quitting school and moving up to San Francisco after being immediately impressed by the early San Francisco punk scene. Biafra was attracted not only to the energy, but to the politics and "cultural terrorism" that bands such as Negative Trend brought to their music. One of the first people Biafra met in San Francisco was Will Shatter of Negative Trend ( and later of the infamous Flipper), who told Biafra, "Hey, you should be in a band. I've been playing bass for only three days and I'm in a band."

The Dead Kennedys premiered at Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach section which served as a home to punk bands for nearly ten years. It wasn't too long before the band gained a considerable following around San Francisco. Live, DKs were a combination of chaos and theatrics, with Biafra's political monologues appearing between nearly every song. Musically, the band could be described as a cross between the Sex Pistols and the Ventures.

In 1979 the Dead Kennedys received further attention when Jello Biafra ran for the mayor of San Francisco. Running with his campaign slogan "There's always room for Jello, " he finished fourth out of a field of ten, with over 6,000 votes. Supervisor Quentin Kopp quickly had a law enacted to ban people from running for mayor using "funny names."

That year the DKs first single was released. California Über Alles, written to California governor Jerry Brown and what Biafra called his brand of "Zen fascism," became an underground "hit," and subsequently received British release on Fast Records. Unfortunately, this song was just the first of many DK titles to be misinterpreted, and California Über Alles became a popular slogan of young fascists. A later single Kill the Poor, was also interpreted literally, and drew some real nasties to Dead Kennedys shows, especially yin foreign countries, where the sarcasm of the song was not picked up in translation.

Due to the success of California Über Alles, Dead Kennedys were invited to perform at the Bammies, the Grammies of San Francisco, which Biafra describes as San Francisco's "backslapping circus banquet." During dress rehearsal, DKs ran through their current hit, but when got onstage, they treated the audience ( full of music industry bigwigs and mainstream rock acts such as Journey) to a scathing attack of the music industry, in a song called "Pull My Strings" composed especially for the occasion. The prank was a good one, and Dead Kennedys were not invited back.

A European tour and the release of the classic Holiday in Cambodia single furthered the DKs reputation. Their debut LP, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was released in 1980 by IRS in the U.S. and Cherry Red in England. The first pressings on IRS came in a orange cover. As Biafra puts it, "Without telling us, the ruined the cover, saying 'Oh, duh, it would make it different from the import.' Yeah, inferior to the import, change it now!" They did, back to the black and white cover the band submitted.

Fresh Fruit was chock full of witty Dead Kennedys songs, including the hilarious, "Stealing People's Mail, ""Forward to Death" (written by the departed 6025), "I Kill Children" (again, some people misinterpreted this one), a cover of Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas" with new lyrics, and the A-sides of their first singles. The back cover featured a found photo of a depressing-looking lounge band (a Dead Kennedys logo has been spliced on their drum set and skulls and crossbones onto their instruments). Somehow, a member of the long-gone lounge band came across the DKs LP and sued the band for using the photo without permission; consequently, the LP was issued with the heads of the band members cut off. When this didn't satisfy the lounge band, the photo disappeared altogether.

Cherry Red, which owned UK and European rights to Fresh Fruit, issued a red vinyl version of the LP, as well as licensing it out to dozens of small foreign labels. When asked which ones, Biafra was able to name most from these from memory. He warns, however, that many of the imported copies floating around these days are pirates.

"Anything that comes in this country with 'Made in Italy' 'Made in Spain' or 'Made in Portugal' on it is a pirate pressing... Plastic Surgery Disasters, In God We Trust, Inc. and Fresh Fruit were licensed either to Base Records or Artisan in Italy, and as far as I know those companies have since gone out of business. somebody still has some of the master parts, ad has gone ahead and Xeroxed the covers, and put out Clorox-bottle quality pressings, which are slipped over to a cut-out distributor, the same one who was busted for bootlegging the Apple records catalog in 1976, who then sells these for less than we can sell our own records in our own country... and then stores that are too snooty to deal independent distributors buy them from them, then jack it up to an import price and rip off our people. None of the inserts come with them. As far as I know, all the money's going to the underworld, from the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian pressings." Buyer beware!

Fresh Fruit has only recently been reissued, on Biafra's own Alternative Tentacles label; before that, the pirate pressings were often the only one available. (The DKs had had a bad experience with IRS, and Fresh Fruit was the only LP which the group could not retain the rights to. The other albums were all issued by Alternative Tentacles, and remain in print.)

In 1981 the Too Drunk to Fuck single was issued, complete with a peel-off sticker in the front to cover up with "offensive" title. The single charted in the UK, despite a BBB ban. Weirdly enough, the song became among college frat boys in the U.S., who often shoed up at the DKs shows. Punks sometimes resented the Kennedys for attracting these outsiders to their shows, but the DKs made up for it by going out of their way to support the real punk scene by forcing promoters to book unusual underground bands as openers, and insisting that the bands get paid reasonably well.


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