Formed in San Francisco in early 1978, the Dead Kennedys became American public enemy number one right from the start. A creation of Jello Biafra (real name Eric Reed Boucher), the band were primarily a vehicle for his raging, razor-sharp satire of America and everything it stood for.
Major labels steered well clear of the band, leaving Biafra and co to form their own label – the legendary Alternative Tentacles – and to release their own debut 45, California Über Alles in late 1979.
A scathing critique of California governor Jerry Brown, the record introduced the singer’s near-hysterical vocal undulations set against a pulverising punk/hardcore musical backdrop. The record sold like hot cakes.
Also in 1979, Biafra stood in the elections for Mayor of San Francisco. He came 4th.
The 1980 follow-up, Holiday In Cambodia, remains the Dead Kennedys most viciously realised moment, a dark, twisting diatribe on American middle-class liberal trendies.
Later in 1980, the group released their debut album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables – an unexpected Top 40 entry in Britain – which contained the aforementioned 45s, plus perennial favourites Let’s Lynch The Landlord, Drug Me and the forthcoming UK hit, Kill The Poor.
The album also offered a glimpse of Biafra’s twisted sense of humour on such surreal tracks as Stealing People’s Mail and Viva Las Vegas.
In 1981, drummer D H (real name Darren) Peligro replaced Ted (Bruce Slesinger), making his debut on the bluntly-titled Too Drunk To Fuck, the only UK Top 40 charting single in musical history (up to that point) to utilise the “F” word.
The band then released a 10″ mini-set, In God We Trust Inc (1981) with highlights being the self-explanatory Nazi Punks Fuck Off and a deadpan version of the Rawhide theme. In 1982 the group released their second album proper, Plastic Surgery Disasters, featuring the singles Bleed For Me and Halloween.
Spending the ensuing few years touring, the Dead Kennedys resurfaced in 1985 with Frankenchrist, an album that finally saw Biafra’s upstanding enemies closing in due to the albums free “penis landscape” poster by Swiss artist HR Giger, depicting nine copulating penises.
The artwork ran afoul of the Parents Music Resource Center, founded the previous year by Tipper Gore who, aged 37 and married to liberal politician Al Gore, did not seem an obvious proponent of censorship.
Although Biafra and his troupe were tried in court for “distributing harmful material to minors”, the case was subsequently thrown out after the jury deadlocked 7-5 in favour of acquitting them. The court swiftly denied motions for a retrial, sparing all concerned from the risk of fines or jail time.
Unfortunately, the cost of the trial effectively put the band out of business, and the band’s poignantly-titled finale, Bedtime For Democracy, was issued late in 1986.
The ever-prolific Biafra went on to protest against his treatment on spoken-word boxed sets No More Cocoons (1987) and The High Priest Of Harmful Matter (1989).
He subsequently collaborated with a wide range of hardcore acts such as DOA, No Means No and Tumor Circus, although it was with Lard that he really came into his own.
A late 80s mini set, The Power Of Lard, preceded a full-length album, The Last Temptation Of Lard, a minor UK hit early in 1990.
On 7 May 1994 Jello Biafra was attacked and seriously injured by a group of young men at Gilman Street, a punk club in Berkeley, California. One of Biafra’s legs was broken and he suffered extensive damage to the ligaments of one knee, as well as superficial head wounds.
East Bay Ray
Bruce ‘Ted’ Slesinger
D H (Darren) Peligro