Biafra, Ray, Flouride and Peligro
"Is my cock big enough?
Is my brain small enough
For you to make me a star?
Give me a toot and I'll sell you my soul.
Pull my strings and I'll go far!"
—"Pull My Strings"
The Dead Kennedys were an important Hardcore Punk
band from San Francisco
, who became famous for aggressive songs and socially conscious, satirical lyrics.
The band were formed in 1978 with guitarist East Bay Ray (also known as "Ray Valium"), vocalist Jello Biafra, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer 6025. 6025 switched to second guitar but left soon after, and Ted was recruited as drummer instead.note
Their first single, "California Über Alles", was released in June 1979 on their Alternative Tentacles label. It was the song that established
their hallmarks: Ray's psycho-surf punk riffs, Biafra's biting, sarcastic lyrics (parodying California
governor Jerry Brown
as a hippie fascist) and a rejection of the Strictly Formula
loud-fast-short structure of hardcore punk. During their tour in support, they were invited to perform at the Bay Area Music Awards on 25 March 1980. In typical subversive fashion, the band started "California Über Alles" but stopped quickly and instead played the scathing "Pull My Strings", an attack on the music industry's practices.
The same year, Jello Biafra ran for Mayor of San Francisco on a campaign that mixed serious proposals (banning cars within city limits in response to severe pollution problems, allowing neighbourhoods to elect police officers, legalizing squatting in vacant buildings) with outlandish ones (forcing businessmen to wear clown suits, erecting statues of Dan White so the parks department could sell eggs and tomatoes for people to throw at them, hiring unemployed workers as panhandlers in wealthy neighbourhoods), and using the commercial slogan "There's always room for Jello". He finished third with 3,79% of the votes
. As he shared the ballot with a Drag Queen
candidate named Sister Boom Boom, the San Franciscan authorities responded by passing a law requiring all mayoral candidates in San Francisco to use their real names.
Dead Kennedys' first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
, was released in 1980, containing the famous songs "Kill the Poor
" and "Holiday in Cambodia
", plus a cover of Elvis Presley
's "Viva Las Vegas". The album was a moderate chart success in the UK, boosted by the band's performances there. In May 1981 they issued the single "Too Drunk to Fuck", which reached #31 on the UK charts, giving radio programmers some headaches in the process.
Soon afterwards, Ted left the band and was replaced by D.H. Peligro, who was showcased on the In God We Trust, Inc.
EP from the same year, which was an all-out hardcore/thrash punk release, containing the songs "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!", which attacked nazi punks
, and "Religious Vomit" and "Moral Majority", which lambasted the right-wing US government at the time. Their next album, 1982's Plastic Surgery Disasters
showed an evolution in the band's sound to include Surf Rock
, Psychedelic Rock
(it was advertised as "putting the pain back in psychedelic music") and spaghetti western influences. Famous songs from the period include "Bleed for Me", "Halloween" and "Moon Over Marin", their almost-but-not-quite-ballad about the ravages of pollution.
This evolution continued on 1985's Frankenchrist
, which showcased more extended pieces, horns and synthesizers. High points included the industrial "At My Job", the multipart "Stars and Stripes of Corruption", the organized sports parody "Jock-O-Rama" and the timely "M.T.V. - Get off the Air". The band got in trouble for including H. R. Giger
's "Penis Landscape" as a poster with the LP, and were charged with distributing harmful matter to minors. The case ended in a hung jury
and was dismissed, but it was a Pyrrhic Victory
, as the cost of the trial drove the band and Alternative Tentacles to near bankruptcy despite donations and support from their fanbase and other PMRC-persecuted musicians like Frank Zappa
. Exhausted, the band broke up in 1986 after releasing their last album Bedtime for Democracy
, a 48-minute final tour de force
employing many musical styles and their expected thought-provoking lyrics, which included several songs expressing disillusionment with the state of the punk scene ("Anarchy for Sale", "Chickenshit Conformist"). One compilation of early singles and lost tracks, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death
, was released in 1987, and the bandmembers went their own way afterward.
In the late 1990s, the band members got caught up in a complicated royalty dispute, and led to a 1998 fraud trial which stripped Jello Biafra of his rights to the back catalogue and gave them to the other members instead (he lost two further appeals and was forced to pay damages). This burned the bridges between Biafra and Ray, Flouride and Peligro thoroughly, worsened by the others inviting Biafra to reunite the Dead Kennedys, which he refused on moral principles. Dead Kennedys albums were reissued on Manifesto Records and tour dates were announced after the court victory, with Brandon Cruz
replacing Jello Biafra. (Cruz, a Former Child Star
, turned out to be the first in a series of Replacement Scrappys
—the new DK's have had five
lead singers so far.) This incarnation has been severely criticized for betraying Dead Kennedys' anti-corporate ideals
and touring without their most important member. Lately, the group's official site has reported that both Flouride and Peligro are leaving due to health issues, leaving Ray the sole original member.
Jello Biafra went on to become a spoken word performer and political activist, sometimes also collaborating with other bands (Sepultura
- Jello Biafra - vocals, lyrics
- East Bay Ray - guitar
- Klaus Flouride - bass
- 6025 - drums, percussion, guitar (left 1979)
- Ted - drums, percussion (1979-1981)
- D.H. Peligro - drums, percussion (1981-1986)
- 1980 - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
- 1981 - In God We Trust, Inc. EP
- 1982 - Plastic Surgery Disasters
- 1985 - Frankenchrist
- 1986 - Bedtime for Democracy
- 1987 - Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death
Dead Kennedys are the Trope Namers for the following tropes:
"Fresh Tropes for Rotting Indexes":
- Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: "Too Drunk To Fuck"
- Anti Police Song: "Police Truck", about a group of cops joyfully indulging themselves in Police Brutality. Anti-Police themes also show up in "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" and "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"
- Assimilation Academy: Mentioned in "Your Emotions", "Stealing Peoples' Mail", "Hyperactive Child", "Advice from Christmas Past", "Jock-O-Rama", "Insight", "Life Sentence"... Biafra doesn't really have a good opinion of schools.
- The Band Minus the Face: The group's controversial attempts to continue without Jello Biafra.
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: "Pull My Strings" (mixed with Crowning Moment Of Awesome). Also "Holiday In Cambodia"'s skewering of pretentious, insensitive liberals.
- Black Comedy: Jello's stage name, which juxtaposes the name of a cheap, mass-produced dessert with the infamous Biafran Civil War, one of the more publicised cases of mass starvation in Africa.
- Break the Haughty: "Holiday in Cambodia" basically boils down to: "annoying pretentious liberal who thinks he knows it all? Send him to the Khmer Rouge, that should solve it!".
- Concept Album: Frankenchrist was one, at least according to the web site for Biafra's 2013 album White People and the Damage Done.
- The Cover Changes The Meaning:
- "Viva Las Vegas". They even changed the lyrics to heighten the effect.
- Also true for "I Fought the Law", which they rewrote to denounce Dan White getting off for killing Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
- Cult: "Jock-O-Rama" compares high school football to one.
- Dead Baby Comedy : "Funland at the Beach", and, more obviously, "I Kill Children".
I kill children. I like to see them die.
I kill children. I make their mommies cry.
- Digital Piracy Is Evil: Subverted with the cassette version of In God We Trust, Inc., which had a B-side bearing the label, "Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help."
- As a measure of how the reunited, Jello-less DK betrayed their original ideals, at one of their shows in 2010 they played a rewritten version of "MTV - Get Off The Air" named "MP3 Get Off the Web". Fans were pissed.
- On the flip-side, Alternative Tentacles claims Jello's personal feelings are mixed. (More specifically, he supports piracy of music released on major labels but does not support piracy of indie labels' material, unless his feelings have changed in the past few years).
- Driven to Suicide: The protagonist of "Straight A's", who is pressured by his parents to excel academically and is only sought by classmates if they want to learn what will be on the test, while laughing at his misery otherwise.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: Early songs like "Forward to Death" and "Dead End" (neither written by Biafra) espouse a black nihilism and despair that's at odds with angry but decidedly pro-active stance of the vast majority of their songs.
- The Empire: How the DKs view America. Hell, Biafra even outright calls it "an evil empire" in "Stars and Stripes of Corruption", and ends the song with "I think I love it more than you/I care enough to fight!".
- Godwin's Law:
- The band invoked this trope with their first single, 1979's "California Uber Alles", which denounced the Golden State's then-Governor Jerry Brown and his hippie followers as "Zen fascists". The second half of the song fantasizes about Brown's regime killing "uncool" people with "organic poison gas". In an interview during Brown's successful 2010 campaign to be re-elected as Governor, Biafra said that "I realized early on that maybe I'd misfired and exaggerated".
- The song was later rewritten as "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now", with Ronald Reagan as the new target. Later, Jello (accompanied by the Melvins) did a third version criticizing yet another California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- Some other Dead Kennedys songs, such as "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" and "Let's Lynch the Landlord" also contain comparisons to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.
- "Triumph of the Swill" mocks mindless "cock-rock metal heroes" and their fans with a comparison to Leni Riefenstahl.
- Green Aesop: "Moon Over Marin" and "Cesspools in Eden". They leave out the actual aesop, but their descriptions of the effects of destroying the environment make the message pretty clear.
- Growing Up Sucks: With a twist in "Life Sentence": growing up sucks if you abandon your ideals and only care about your career.
- I Am the Noun: Two examples: the original song "I Am the Owl", and the Cover Version of "I Fought the Law" (which ends "I am the law, so I won!").
- I'm a Humanitarian: "Dear Abby".
- Intentionally Awkward Title: Jello says that they chose the band name to symbolise the death of the American Dream.
- Interrupted Suicide: A sinister version (It Makes Sense in Context) of this trope can be found in the final verse of "Soup Is Good Food".
- In Love with Your Carnage: All but implied in "Kinky Sex Makes the World Go Round".
- Kill the Poor: Besides the Trope Namer, it's also implied in "The Great Wall", "Shrink" and "Saturday Night Holocaust".
- Last Note Nightmare:
- "I can almost taste your dandruff as I reach out for your face and I STRIKE!", which abruptly closes the "someone creepy is following you on the street late at night" narrative "The Prey".
- Not to mention the screeching, coughing fit at the end of "Chemical Warfare", which depicts rich people at a country club getting gassed to death.
- Or the puking into the toilet bowl at the end of "Too Drunk to Fuck".
- Life of the Party and Wild Teen Party: Hilariously parodied in "Too Drunk to Fuck".
- List Song: Especially their hardcore punk rants.
- Loners Are Freaks: Subverted, played straight, and inverted in "Insight". The song portrays its loner protagonist as an insightful person who recognizes the pointlessness of his peers' social pursuits ("what he sees escapes our sight"), but also as a potentially disturbed kid who talks to himself and sets his papers on fire. Meanwhile, the more social kids who narrate the song seem bizarrely fixated on him ("Why doesn't he want tons of friends? WHY DOESN'T HE WANT TONS OF FRIENDS??") and beat him up when he laughs at them.
- The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: "Anarchy For Sale" is about this phenomenon.
- Mighty Whitey: "Hop With the Jet Set".
- Miniscule Rocking: "A Child and His Lawnmower" (0:54) and the Lampshade Hanging "Short Songs" (0:20). The latter even gets a funny lampshade at the start:
Rick Wakeman, eat your heart out!
- Moral Guardians: Defeated by the band in a Pyrrhic Victory.
- Motor Mouth: Jello's breakneck delivery of the anti-consumerist rant "Drug Me".
- Police Brutality: "Police Truck", as well as "Goons Of Hazzard" and a passing mention in "Riot".
- Protest Song: Virtually their entire body of work.
- Ripped from the Headlines: "A Child and His Lawnmower" is based on a news story where a man in Sacramento, California shot his lawnmower for not functioning.
- To Dr. Seuss in "Holiday in Cambodia". ("You're a Star-Bellied Sneetch, you suck them like a leech, you want everyone to act like you.")
- "Too Drunk to Fuck" has one to David Lynch, with the line "You bawl like the baby in Eraserhead!".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Most of the band's output sticks to cynically lambasting the problems of society, but they have some songs and lyrics that, despite the presentation, are more idealistic, landing them somewhere in the middle. "Stars and Stripes of Corruption", for instance, combines a long tirade against jingoism, xenophobia, disastrous foreign policy and "the blind Me Generation" with verses like "We can start by not lying so much/And treating other people like dirt/It's easy not to base our lives/On how much we can scam" and "Look around, we're all people/Who needs countries anyway?".
- Stage Names: All bandmembers.
- Standard Snippet: The bridge of "Chemical Warfare" uses one from the waltz "Over the Waves" for the sake of Lyrical Dissonance. It's immedizately followed by the Last Note Nightmare mentioned above.
- Straight Edge: "Drug Me" satirizes drug users as excessively conformist and afraid of thinking.
- Stepford Smiler: Some of their songs mock people who act like this, like "Terminal Preppie", "Well Paid Scientist", "Your Emotions", "Trust Your Mechanic", "The Man with the Dogs", "Life Sentence" and "Halloween".
- Stepford Suburbia: "This Could Be Anywhere".
- Take That: Boatloads. About nine out of every ten songs they wrote, if not more.
- Taking You with Me: "Gone With My Wind".
- Three Chords and the Truth: Subverted. Their songs are more complex and satirical than most punk bands' are, though they have many of the same Protest Song themes.
- Torture Technician: The Villain Protagonist of "Bleed for Me".
- You Are Number Six: From "At My Job": "Your time card says your name's Joe/But we'll call you 6-3-0".