Young kids: If you ever want to get into the Dead Kennedys, you only need to pick up their first two full-lengths, the IN GOD WE TRUST INC. EP, the GIVE ME CONVIENCE compilation and, if you’re a big fan, the LIVE AT THE DEATH CLUB release. Pretend that the band broke up in 1986 and that the divisive nature of the split caused all the members to quit playing music whatsoever (unless you’re a fan of the Jello Biafra/Al Jourgensen LARD releases. That’s forgivable.)
Jello Biafra has gone on record in regards to the Dead Kennedy’s origin, expressing a desire to make a musical experience that took the spookshow theatrics of Alice Cooper but substituted the terrors of the political world, mad scientists drugging your water supply and corporate bottom lines for the vampires and zombies.
The Dead Kennedys are a band I associate with sunshine. The first time I heard them was working a summer job, one that afforded a cheap radio I could play to pass the lulls in business. When the local radio station, during its 80’s-flashback-lunchhour, played “Holiday In Cambodia,” it was the end for me.
Looking back, the thought that a commercial radio station would play a Dead Kennedys song in a program that highlighted “Take on Me” and Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” is astounding. Reality is, by all means, ludicrous.
I picked up FRESH FRUIT FOR THE ROTTING VEGETABLES a few days after hearing that song. The guitar sound was different from anything that was on the radio station and I wanted to hear more. Some have said that Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray was influenced by surf music. Don’t know where, but I read somewhere he had been a fan of The Shadows and the Fireballs (though somewhere else, he’s quoted as not being an avid surf music fan, that the influence only comes from growing up in California.)
“Moon Over Marin” is probably the closest that the Dead Kennedys got to a surf song. The solo in “Holiday in Cambodia” is also similar to what one might hear on a Ventures release. But “Moon Over Marin,” I tell you: great song. It’s one that has yet to be covered properly, though I think Siniestro Total’s rendition off of REGRESSO is as close as it’s going to get for me.
PLASTIC SURGERY DISASTERS is the scariest the Dead Kennedys got in terms of their sound. Songs like “Dead End, “Bleed For Me, “I Am The Owl” are just sinister sounding pieces of music, where “Government Flu” and “Well Paid Scientist” are frantic, panic and paranoid stricken screeds that tapped into the problems the group saw with the world of Reagan’s America. There’s a few songs on GIVE ME CONVENIENCE… that amp up the fear but start to finish, I think PLASTIC SURGERY DISASTERS is the band’s best work, second to the IN GOD WE TRUST INC EP and their first release.
The problem with FRANKENCHRIST, the band’s third album, is that every song is about two minutes too long. Like many of the 80’s hardcore punk bands, it was about the time that most of the bands of that time got just bored with playing the same style of two minute, face-punch type of songs. Black Flag, SSD, Bad Brains and Minor Threat grew up, got old or/and broke up around that time. FRANKENCHRIST’s slower and longer song structure reflects this trend.
The band would actually revert back to the short song structure on their final full-length album, BEDTIME FOR DEMOCRACY. Out of twenty-one songs, only three are more than 2m30s long. But the album sounds hollow. The CD might be the problem, since odds are it was a remaster. Perhaps a vinyl playing would make BEDTIME… sound less plastic and empty. But it could have just been that the band was on the verge of collapse when they made it.
BEDTIME… has a few songs that are nice but it’s largely forgettable to me. In fact, one of my friends “borrowed” the CD a few years left and I haven’t bothered to replace it. I should and I’d like to but it’s a low priority. I kind of consider it and FRANKENCHRIST to be the superfluous runoff of a band that, musically, hit a stage of perfection. This was the “everything is downhill from here” stage.
The self-destruction of the Dead Kennedys and the resulting lawsuits and fights that followed remains one of the biggest tragedies in punk rock (that doesn’t involve someone dying.) It’s documented elsewhere and the differing sides are both untrustworthy. It’s always funny, in a sad and twisted way, when a band that rages against the evils of capitalism breaks down because someone in the band wants to get paid better.
The band was successful in writing some music about the horrors of the real world that still stand up today. It’s sad that when Biafra shouts about war in Afghanistan, it applies today despite that he was singing about it thirty years ago. The socio-economic and religious political concerns, if you skew that way, are still prevalent.
It’s good to get out of the spooky once in a while and observe some of the real monsters that exist. I know that during these economical problems and strife, escapism is more attractive. Being reminded how horrible life sucks and sometimes, I can’t fault a person for wanting to get away from that. I do it, time to time.
Escaping means that there’s no going back. I think we can’t escape to a world where our problems don’t exist, where we trade unemployment for vampires, industrial pollution for H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters. As much as we write about monsters, suspense and creatures of all sorts, we here at Gravedigger’s Local 16 recognize that there are plenty of real horrors that exist. Murder. Rape. Theft. Racism. Institutional oppression.
These are things that the Dead Kennedys sang about in a way to combat them, to use music, a common method of escapism, to keep the masses from falling asleep and remaining complacent. It’s a shame how they ended, but the Dead Kennedys, at a time, were there to tell us that the real monsters awaited us outside of the theater when the movie ended.