The Dead Kennedys are kind of an obvious go-to in times of socio-political strife (witness my last post, a track that is also all over social media these days, for relatively obvious reasons). But beyond the band’s venomous spleen-venting and agitprop sloganeering, the DK’s don’t seem to get nearly enough credit. Hear me out.
In addition to their genuinely hilarious (pitch) black humor and fabled ex-frontman Jello Biafra’s willfully histrionic vocal delivery, the musicianship at play was neck-snappingly taut. Even at their most stripped-down circa In God We Trust, Inc., the DK’s were way more musically sophisticated than most of the hardcore ensembles they’d go onto inspire. The contributions of guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and powerhouse drummer D.H. Peligro (who joined after their seminal debut LP, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables) seem like sorely under-praised components of the band’s legacy and lore.
My first introduction to the music of the Dead Kennedys came via an airing of their single “Too Drunk to Fuck” in the student commons of my high school at some point during my freshman year in 1981. Emanating out of the “senior section” (a slim quarter of the basement-level, wood-paneled cafeteria), I heard the signature strains of East Bay Ray’s spidery surf-rock riff, but even then – I knew there was something wrong with it. My hunch was correct. The gent spinning the vinyl single, a guy named Christian, if memory serves, was playing the 45 at the wrong speed, presumably either to try to decipher the lyrics or because the song – at the time – was played at a faster tempo than the layperson’s ears might have been used to (although the Bad Brains would shortly change all that). I was instantly intrigued.
The single in question, while still a goddamn classic, isn’t really totally indicative of the band’s strengths. In the by-then-already-kinda-tired vein of “shocking” punk song titles (i.e. “Beat on the Brat,” “White Riot,” “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog,” etc.), “Too Drunk to Fuck” might initially give the impression that the Dead Kennedys were just a gaggle of inebriated, potty-mouthed nihilists, when the truth of the matter was far more complex. No slack-jawed Sid Vicious-acolytes they, the Dead Kennedys actually had smarts, conviction, points to make and – in mouthpiece Jello Biafra – a helluva lot to say. Less a lothario’s lament than a withering indictment of vacuous frat-party culture, “Too Drunk to Fuck” still arguably belies the band’s real intentions by seeming like a prurient gag for those who don’t bother to scratch the surface.
I picked up both the “Too Drunk..” single and the LP that preceded it, the afore-cited Fresh Fruit…, in short order, my investments made all the more rock-solid by first hearing the seismic Alternative Tentacles compilation, Let The Eat Jellybeans around the same time, courtesy of my forward-listening comrade, Brad. The crucial contribution from the Dead Kennedys on that record was the single that came to define them, for many, that being the afore-cited “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”
Later albums by the band, specifically Frankenchrist and their swan-song, Bedtime for Democracy, both had great moments on them, but didn’t come near to approaching the brilliance of their earlier records (including their second proper LP, Plastic Surgery Disasters). To my mind, between their inception and the release of Plastic Surgery.. in 1982, they were firing on all cylinders.
Y’know, I started writing this when things were calmer, and then news of Barcelona broke and more post-Charlottesville think pieces rolled out and then Trump opened his big fucking mouth again and now everything seems like a giant waste of time. I was originally going to delve into chapter and verse about the brilliance of each track on Fresh Fruit..., but ... no one needs me to do that.
Bottom line: Listen to this album. It could change the way you look at the world. It did for me. Incidentally, the quote that titles this post was harvested from the Dk’s Wikipedia page with regards to the band’s controvertial name.
However, despite popular belief, the name was not meant to insult the Kennedy family, but according to Biafra, "to bring attention to the end of the American Dream"