The Over/Under: The Dead Kennedys

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They were one of the funniest, most consistently interesting bands to emerge from California’s first-generation hardcore scene. And yet the Dead Kennedys’ post-breakup renown languishes unfairly in this era of remastered discographies and outtake-choked bonus discs. As hardcore bands go, the DKs had a decent run, much longer than many of their contemporaries. The band formed in 1978 and released its first single, the classic “California Über Alles,” the following year. Jello Biafra, the singer and to many fans the DKs’ public face, ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, finishing fourth in the election. The band’s self-founded/self-operated label, Alternative Tentacles, released a series of brainy, often bizarre records by acts that flowed wide even of punk’s often conformist mainstream, a frequent target of the DKs’ snide humor. A punishing obscenity trial related to a poster included with 1985’s Frankenchrist, followed by subsequent internal tensions among the band members (which resulted in an ugly lawsuit), blew the DKs apart in 1987. The Dead Kennedys left behind four albums, an odds-and-sods collection and a handful of EPs and singles as their full legacy. But that slender output includes some of the most creative and disturbing—and often hysterical—punk music ever recorded. Of course, it also contains some misfires, so let us now praise (and bury) the Dead Kennedys. Here’s hoping for the double-disc re-release of 1980’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables soon.

:: The Five Most Overrated Dead Kennedys Songs
1. “When Ya Get Drafted” (1980)

For a whole generation of young punks, Reagan was Nixon redux, though Reagan was more sinister. Like Nixon, he seemed to offer permission for some Americans to give vent to their fear and hatred of whole swaths of others—young, black, poor, queer, leftist—but unlike Nixon, Reagan was a shrewd, camera-ready media hound, and his pronouncements always seemed more menacing as a result. Biafra found a great foil in Reagan, but when Biafra unloaded freely on the Great Communicator, the results were sometimes as overblown and exaggerated as anything coming out of any White House press conference. “When Ya Get Drafted” depicts an America where military power is either sold out to, or deployed to support, the nation’s economic interests. A prescient song, in its way—recall the U.S.’s mid-’80s Central American romp and the Iran-Contra fiasco—but Biafra swings the paintbrush wide and long on this number, and it ends up sounding less prescient than paranoid. To paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, paranoids get in trouble because they keep putting themselves in paranoid situations; this track is among the shrillest, most strident and alarmist songs in the DKs’ output, and it trades wholly in high-verbal doomsterism. The Dead Kennedys would gradually become subtler and more interesting, but here, they’re still working out the juvenile pessimism.

2. “Riot” (1982)
And speaking of great big brushstrokes: “Riot” is, despite its high esteem among fans and its six-minute length (an epic scope when compared to most statements-of-punk-purpose), little more than a great big EZ-anarchist wank, and most of its lyrics are straight out of ninth-period study-hall flapdoodle: “Rioting!/The unbeatable high!/Adrenaline shoots your nerves to the sky!” Ostensibly, the song is about how rioting plays directly into the desires of the powers that be, who always outnumber and outgun protesters; putting a rock through a shop window, while a very satisfying act of its kind, can’t effect practical change. Practically, however, the song’s substance is totally eclipsed by its style, which always elicited a rather different response from the crowd. That spiffy chorus, in which all the words go by quickly except for “riot,” gets missed in the happy destructo-shuffle. The DKs must have thought it worked, since they continued playing “Riot” up until their final live shows, while the masses slammed and stomped and mimicked rioting in front of the stage. I dig the line “Tomorrow you’re homeless/Tonight it’s a blast” as much as anyone, but on the level of content vs. form, “Riot” is the “Born In The USA” of hardcore punk. Part of me can’t believe I just wrote that, but I’m standing by it. Oh, well. I’m in the phone book, if you want to come throw a Molotov cocktail through my window or something.

3. “Chickenshit Conformist” (1986)
I yield to no one in my admiration of Bedtime For Democracy, which I rank with the finest punk albums of all time. And one of the DKs’ many admirable qualities was a fondness for taking aim at the violence and vacuity of punk audiences themselves. But, my gawd, what a heavy-handed piece of work is “Chickenshit Conformist”: preachy, judgmental, presumptuous and condescending, with Biafra cocking a snook all over the crowd. The DKs had mined similar territory to better effect with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” which boasted a clearer, more deserving target, as well as a better riff. Biafra’s spoken-word shows about free speech and local politics had by this point begun to show in the lyrics, which here read less like songs than polemic. As it stands, “Chickenshit Conformist” is less a statement about individuality than a mass finger-point. And it misses its own implications, as most heavy-handed political statements do. It always reminded me of that Jules Feiffer cartoon from the ’60s, the one where the punch line goes, “What I wouldn’t give to be a non-conformist like all those others.”

4. “Too Drunk To Fuck” (1981)
Collected on 1987 post-breakup compilation Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death, “Too Drunk To Fuck” often turns out to be the one DKs song that even people who’ve never heard anything else by the band have encountered on at least one occasion. And here’s a little piece of punk trivia: “Too Drunk” actually charted in England (it made it to number 31) and was the first U.K. top-40 track to contain the word “fuck” in the title. It’s since been heard on television dramas and, as covered by French band Nouvelle Vague, in the film Grindhouse. What’s that? You’ve never heard it? Well, after you’ve read the title, you’ve pretty much got the gist. This is as close to a novelty record as the DKs ever got. It’s not a bad joke the first time you hear it, but it doesn’t hold up as much more.

5. “Terminal Preppie” (1982)
See, a preppie was … oh, to hell with it. Suffice it to say that “Terminal Preppie” dates very, very badly. This is another of Biafra’s too easy, set-‘em-up-knock-em-down satirical jabs, and even in its own day, it was a little hoary. Consider that the now-forgotten The Official Preppy Handbook had hit the “humor” shelves in bookstores a full two years before Plastic Surgery Disasters came out, and tell me Biafra wasn’t way behind the curve on this one.

:: The Five Most Underrated Dead Kennedys Songs
1. “Funland At The Beach” (1980)
It’s understandably hidden among the riches on debut album Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, which also boasts “California Über Alles,” “Holiday In Cambodia,” “Chemical Warfare” and “Kill The Poor.” But “Funland At The Beach,” one of the shorter songs on the record, is also one of its funniest sick jokes, a calm report of the fallout from midnight sabotage at an amusement park. No one could let the air out of a party balloon like the DKs: “Crushed little kids/Crushed little kids/Crushed little kids adorn the boardwalk.” And unlike “I Kill Children” (which is equally sick, but a little, er, mean-spirited), “Funland At The Beach” plays like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of a seaside weekend: a sort of Six Flags Over Hell.

2. “Halloween” (1982)
“So it’s Halloween/And ya feel like dancin’,” begins the DKs’ best song about appearance vs. reality. “Halloween” treats of a basic punk premise: the simultaneous attraction to and terror of standing out in a crowd. But its spooky metaphor deepens it into an investigation of the creepy seduction of hiding in a garish costume, as a way of suppressing desires you don’t quite want to admit to. As a song about social pressure and the mass mind, its investigation of why a person might want to conform in the first place puts it leagues ahead of a song like “Chickenshit Conformist”: “You’re dressed up like a clown/Puttin’ on your act/It’s the only time of year/You’ll ever admit that.” Despite a tacked-on moral at the end of the song (“Take your social regulations/Shove them up your ass”), “Halloween” is one of the DKs’ cleverest and most rewarding moments.

3. “Where Do Ya Draw The Line?” (1986)
Some would cast their vote for “The Stars And Stripes Of Corruption” from Frankenchrist, but in my book, “Where Do Ya Draw The Line?” is the Dead Kennedys’ high point. Once again, Biafra indexes the limitations and missteps of anarchist-punk orthodoxy. Here, however, he questions not the crowd, but himself: “Anarchy sounds good to me/Then someone asks, ‘Who’d fix the sewers?’/’Would the rednecks just play king of the neighborhood?’” This is the voice of a punk who’s moved from early-stage lockstep thought to somber self-examination. Like much of the material on Bedtime For Democracy, its lyrics read in places like an unedited political tract. But instead of being clumsy and verbose, “Where Do Ya Draw The Line?” sounds like a man confronting his younger, snotnosed self and grappling with hard personal and political questions as a result. I can’t think of many songs from the hardcore-punk canon that chart that progression in clearer, more honest terms.

4. “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now” (1981)
Let this be said for the DKs: Long before punk began to ape itself, the band aped its own infamy on the In God We Trust, Inc. EP with “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now,” a retooling of “California Über Alles” with newly elected Reagan standing in place of California governor Jerry Brown, the song’s original target. Over a subdued arrangement, with spot-on jazz licks from guitarist East Bay Ray, Biafra works an imaginary crowd like a greasy lounge act, underscoring the phony, booze-doped cabaret that American politics has become: “Last call for alcohol/Last call for freedom of speech.” The first pass at the chorus is a Vegas-y, loosed-necktie, finger-popping arrangement. But then the second verse hits, and the DKs attack the change with sudden, terrifying energy, snarling and snapping their way through this verse and chorus with even more venom than the original. “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now” is as clever and funny as anything the DKs ever recorded, but it doesn’t sacrifice a moment of urgency or power. As a result, it’s a great balance of the band’s two most formidable powers.

5. “Night Of The Living Rednecks” (1987)
Originally included as a flexi-disc with the vinyl release of Give Me Convenience, “Night Of The Living Rednecks” is a one-time improvised performance that just happened to get caught on tape by an audience member at a DK show in Oregon. As the band comes out of “Chemical Warfare,” East Bay Ray’s guitar goes dead, and the band has to pause while he fixes it. After a bit of stage patter, bassist Klaus Flouride begins to play a loping boho run, then the drums kick in, then Biafra begins telling a story about being accosted on the street by “a bunch of fuckheads” in a pickup truck on the occasion of the band’s last Oregon visit. Without giving away the details, while it’s totally unlike anything else in the band’s catalog, “Night Of The Living Rednecks” is a distillation of everything that made Dead Kennedys unique among their fellow punkers: self-deprecating humor, an intuitive feel for narrative timing, musical talent that ran the gamut from thrash to surf and a theatricality that made their live appearances as much performance art as punk shows. It’s the kind of moment that no band that travels with a guitar tech could ever pull off, and it underscores the most humanist assumption of the punk movement: that even a technical fuckup can become a strength, if you’re not afraid to use your own life as raw material for art.

—Eric Waggoner

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