The Dead Kennedys

Abbie Hoffman never rocked out like this

Strongest album: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Must to avoid: Bedtime for Democracy

Led by the outspoken rabble rouser Jello Biafra (who once ran for mayor of San Francisco and performed surprisingly well), the Dead Kennedys are one of the punk's most influential bands. However, their influence has nothing to do with their music. The Kennedys were important because they almost single handedly turned a generation of mohawked teenagers on to radical left-wing politics. To this day, most punks get their political views from those old Dead Kennedys records. In other words, the Dead Kennedys did as much to shape punk style and attitude as Richard Hell did when he ripped up his T-shirt and wore safety pins. The Kennedys raised punk to a higher level of intelligence, taking kids away from fashionably stupid nihilism and making them actually think about the world and society. It's too bad that far too many punks aren't able to understand or articulate the Kennedy's beliefs beyond "Republicans suck, man!". But as far as the Kennedys' actual music is concerned.... Well, they were a punk band from the days in which musical incompetence was a badge of honor. Guitarist East Bay Ray brought an interesting surf influence into punk - they were a California punk band, after all, though ultimately surf punk was done much better by Agent Orange and the Descendents/All collective. Jello Biafra was a pretty good political propagandist, but he didn't know when to shut up and make a point concisely: his words overflow unmusically as if he's making a speech instead of singing rock'n'roll lyrics (which are supposed to scan musically), getting in the way of the melody, the musical backing, and everything else. I'm as plugged in to the sloppy three-chord garage aesthetic as much as anyone, but in the Kennedy's case their unmusicality really did hurt their music. Too often their music was just plain annoying, which may have been intentional but doesn't make their music any easier to listen to. However, they did have their moments, mostly early on in their career, and a handful of some of the most powerful political statements put on vinyl. Their incredible hyperactive energy could sometimes run right over any musical inadequencies they had. It goes without saying that you ought to go out and purchase the complete works of the Clash before touching the Kennedys if you care for political punk, or if it's radical left-wing politics, read Noam Chomsky or somebody. However, the Kennedys did manage to write a handful of undeniable punk classics, and there's one killer album to compile out of the Kennedys' ouvre. Unfortunately, that hasn't been done, so in lieu of a greatest hits package, there are the original albums.

Hey, ho, we're off to see "an ordinary website dedicated to the best band in the whole fucking world". Well. Now isn't that special?

Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980) ****

This is the primo platter of de la Kennedys - even if you hate the band, you can't deny that quite a bit of this is undeniably powerful, and it has historical importance to boot as one of the first albums of that species Americanus Genericus "Hardcore". Now, we all know that hardcore punk sucks big time because 90% of the bands playing it sound like third-rate Minor Threat, but this doesn't - it's far from generic. Sure, some of it's annoying and tough to listen to (which was part of the point), but what it has that 90% of modern punks don't have is GREAT MELODIES. Yep, and even hooks, too, for one nifty little package. Unlike latter day Kennedys, the songs don't swoosh by indistinguishably in a monochromatic blur. No, the Kennedys are trying to be creative musically, throwing in quavery rockabilly quiffs and a surfy twang on top of their Ramones-inspired punk (though they are too amateurish to try a slow song, "Let's Lynch The Landlord"). In terms of consistent song quality the album's all over the place, which is a quasi-polite way of saying that several of these songs suck. But this is the album that has "Holiday In Cambodia", the Kennedys' best-ever song, and "California Uber Alles", the Kennedys' second best song, and "Kill the Poor", the Kennedys' third best song, and maybe a couple of numbers that are their fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh best songs, too. So, in other words, this album has the best Dead Kennedys songs on it. Now, well into my review, I get to the lyrics. You do realize that Jello is being sarcastic about killing children and poor people and landlords and Cambodians, don't you? I find it ironic that the Kennedys put down Jerry Brown and his Zen fascists, because as anyone who paid attention during the 1992 elections remembers, Brown ran as a very Jello Biafra-like candidate - it's almost as if Jerry Brown was being controlled by Jello's mind. Hmmm....

In God We Trust Inc. (1981) **1/2

The best part about this record is the cover: Jesus nailed to a dollar, which says all that needs to be said about organized religion. The second best part is "Nazi Punks Fuck Off", a much needed rebuke to the skinhead Aryan idiots who were at the time beginning to infiltrate the punk scene. The third best part (if you have the cassette version) is that the second side is blank, and the Kennedys instruct you to tape whatever you like to piss off big record companies. As for the rest.... the Kennedys play a mite too fast, thereby blurring any musicality the songs might have, and knocking out the melodies until it all sounds the same. Sure, the lyrics are pretty good, but what's the point if you can't grasp a syllable without a lyric sheet? "Dog Bite" is a funny little sing-song, and the remake of "California Uber Alles", "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now", takes smart and accurate aim at Reagan (tangent time: Ever heard of the curse of Tippecanoe? Every president elected in a year that ends with a 0 - 1860, 1960, 1980, etc. - has died in office, because of the curse of an Indian tribe wiped out by William Henry Harrison, elected 1840. However, Reagan didn't die, thereby breaking the curse: the curse to America was that Reagan was allowed to live and ruin the country). The Kennedys do a punk rip through "Rawhide", undoubtedly inspired by The Blues Brothers version, which unfortunately shows a very unlikable aspect of Biafra's personality: for a well-meaning liberal who preaches toleration, he's pretty intolerant of certain people - the typical "racism is the fault of ignorant rednecks" hypocrisy. I'm speaking of the terrible fake Texas accent Jello attempts. Now (tongue firmly in cheek) I've got nothing against Texans, except that they're uncultured, insufferably arrogant (bigger is better, and we've got the biggest), and like the monologue goes in Blood Simple, in Texas nobody looks out for each other, it's every man for his greedy oil-grubbing excessively-capitalistic self. But fer damn sure I'll stand up for Texans against some bigoted Yankee who gets all his news about the world outside of San Francisco and rock'n'roll clubs from The Nation. Not that there's anything wrong with The Nation.

P.S. In case you didn't get it, the above rant was irony - and it displays about the same amount of humor and tolerance as Biafra's rants.

Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982) ***1/2

This is where the Kennedys change their sound a little bit, edging themselves away from thrash-punk to a more three-dimensional sound. This is entirely in part to East Bay Ray's new style of guitar playing, which brings its heavy surf influence to the fore. That said, the Kennedys' new sound isn't entirely a pleasant thing, as they sound tinny and sacrifice a bit of their power for an-all-around thinner, more plastic-y attack. However, no song the Kennedys ever did was as gloriously melodic as "Moon Over Marin", which borders on power pop (!). As usual, the songs are hit-and-miss; for every stroke like "Terminal Preppie" (dig those horns!) there's the annoying "Trust Your Mechanic". Jello tackles a lot of political topics again with a lot of passion and insight but virtually no focus, and with every album he gets wordier and wordier - which is not a good thing, because his rants get in the way of the music. Actually, I like the longer epics on side two than the shorter material on side one; "Riot" (not as good as Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn," but more sensible), "Bleed For Me", and "I Am Owl" (Kenneth Starr's theme song) are among the Kennedys' best. At least this time out the hits outfire the duds.

P.S. Hey, I just noticed this the other day. I read this interview with Biafra in which he discussed his method of songwriting. To generate song ideas, he flips on some record at random and switches it off after a half minute or so, and then goes and rips off that little part of the song. He switches the record off fairly quickly so that he only takes off on a riff or a bit of a melody, and doesn't rip off the entire song. If you know anything about songwriting at all, then you realize it's a highly plagiaristic form by nature anyway (how many rock'n'roll songs are based on the exact same elemental chord progressions?) and I thought that Biafra's method was actually kind of neat. So, anyway, I was thinking about that the next time I played this record. Well, I did find at least one lifted part that I can readily identify. You know when Biafra declaims, "Anytime," in "Bleed For Me"? It appears that he lifted that bit off of a song on Joy Division's Substance in which Ian Curtis uses "Anytime," with exactly the same exhortational phrasing. Okay, I realize that I am guilty of being extremely trivial in my pinpointing, but I thought it was kind of interesting (to me, at least, and I'm sure any one of you can now listen to Dead Kennedys records and play the "hey, Jello is using this minute part that I heard on a Minutemen record that came out a year before!" game). By the way, did you realize that 60% of all Rolling Stones songs employ the exact same chord progressions handled several decades earlier by people like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson? Did you realize that 2/3 of all country songs are based on the same melody? That most punk bands write all their songs on the same two chords? Really! You don't say....

Frankenchrist (1985) **1/2

After a lengthy hiatus, the Kennedys return a different sounding, and less compelling, band. They pretty much abandon punk for the most part on this disc, which takes kind of a swampy psycho-rock approach. Only 10 songs, none of which are short, and a couple of which pass the five minute mark. While I appreciate the Kennedys branching out and trying to be musical for a change, the sad fact is that these guys don't even remotely have the chops to pull this surf-jazzy stuff off at all. It's one thing to be sloppy and annoying when you're playing fast punk (I mean, it's actually part of the point), but if you're going to slow down and stretch your songs out.... well, let's just say that the Kennedys good be a little bit tighter. Admittedly, "This Could Be Nowhere (This Could Be Anywhere)" has a good chorus, and is easily the album's highlight, and "At My Job" is a great novelty number. But the Kennedys' problems are laid bare in "Stars and Stripes of Corruption", which isn't even music, it's simply an endless speech by Jello. Jello's self-righteous idiocy gets downright ridiculous when he talks about how football is corrupting our youth. Look, Jello, nobody likes a Puritan. Look in the mirror and you'll see a reflection of the very holier-than-thou intolerance that you put down when it comes from the Right.

Reader Comments

Michael Rohm,

Nice enough reviews, but you totally missed the mark at one point - Jello never said "football is corrupting our youth". He said that jock mentality is truly stupid and was criticizing those who condone and support such mentality. In the wake of the Littleton shootings, we see how true this is indeed.

The star quarterback is irreversably cripped for the rest of his life (and this does happen in schools across the country) and all the coach says is, "What a football player! What a man!" That sort of mentality is truly stupid, and sadly, all too real.

Bedtime For Democracy (1986) **

Bedtime for the Dead Kennedys. The band broke up after this release because of an insane lawsuit against the inclusion of a piece of artwork enclosed in Frankenchrist - a canvas of penises, I believe (I've never seen it). Apparently free speech isn't worth much when you say something that offends somebody, and Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles was bankrupted by lawyers' fees. With 21 songs, the Kennedys cover a lot of ground lyrically on this album, tackling macho insecurity, pollution, Reaganomics, Rambo, the major label conspiracy against good music, etc. The best song is "Chickenshit Conformist", about how punk rock sucks nowadays because everyone's playing doctronaire hardcore without any ingenuity. The Kennedys' case would have been made a lot better if they themselves weren't playing by-the-numbers hardcore throughout the entire album. All the songs basically sound the same as the Kennedys play faster than they ever have, turning it all into a big blur. After a dozen listens or so you can actually tell the songs apart; you only know that "Take This Job and Shove It" is the country classic because it says so on the credits. The best parts aren't musical at all - the comedic spoken word bits in between "tunes": "USA for South Africa"; "There was on Ozzy record on the stereo...."

Reader Comments

Ruth Draper,

I read your review on the Dead Kennedys. I don't get what your problem with good old hard core punk is. Bedtime for Democracy is a fine album. Im not saying that their other albums aren't good but if you've got such a big problem with their fast songs you should stop listening to punk and start listening to that alternative crap.


Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death (1987) ***1/2

This compilation collects odds and ends from the Kennedys' career, and is surprisingly listenable. The slowed down remakes of "California Uber Alles" and "Holiday In Cambodia" are worth hearing, even if they're not quite as good as the originals. It kicks off with the classic 1981 single, "Too Drunk To Fuck", which actually scraped the British Top 40! And you know what, for once Biafra's Puritanism makes perfect sense: heck, the way to stop kids from drinking is to tell'em the harsh truth - the next day you've got zits and fart a lot. Forget death statistics, zits and farting are what teenagers are really concerned about. The spoken word number, "Kinky Sex Makes The World Go Round" is utterly hilarious - and scary. Go get'em boys, those stupid art rockers need the dose of "Short Songs" you give Rick Wakeman. However, the attack on new wavers is asinine, and shows that Biafra and the crew were always more interested in propaganda than music. I mean, come on, isn't there a hint of jealousy in the "My Sharona" parody - certainly the Kennedys never came up with a song quite as catchy. Sorry, but new wave was always better than punk or disco, because it took the best elements of both. I mean, if Biafra was attacking the Culture Club or Duran Duran, that's one thing, but if he meant by New Wave Elvis Costello or Prince, then that's another matter altogether.

Reader Comments

Carol Weeks,

All in all, a solid summary of DK's output over the years. Musicianship was never an issue with DK, because they didn't really have much musical talent. I think, however, at times you are guilty of taking Jello a little too seriously. Jello was always an agit-prop type so it seems almost superfluous to criticize him for his dogmas, particularly when you realize he wrote most of those songs before he was 25. Fortunately, he hasn't deteriorated into a Henry Rollins, "I wanna be a star and show everyone how artistic and multi-talented I am with my bogus poetry and stupid rants" type. One other thing---I think you overlooked what a great punk snarling voice Jello had on those records. He was clearly an angry young man.

Kudos for your hard work.


Actually in Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, they took all the songs from their now rare singles and put them on there. I think all the singles songs are on there, except for the Kill the Poor single version.

Dave Wagner,

hey there, brian - How's ya doing? This note started out as a response to your Dead Kennedys reviews, but in my coffee deficient state of mind it's taken on a life of its own. Just let the cards fall where they...uh, land.

I find it endlessly funny that so many internet rock critics take themselves so seriously. After all, isn't rock criticism bullshit? I, probably as much as anyone, understand the appeal - it's awfully fun to write about music, if you love it - but it's not like the critic's doing a great service to humanity. You, and all music critics, are just music fans, telling other (presumably) music fans what you like or don't like. It doesn't get any more complicated than that. What makes rock criticism so useless is that music is utterly subjective. You can't be wrong about something you like. Thus, the only real purpose of being a rock critic to tell people that if you like "A", you'll like "B", or conversely, if you don't like "A", you're probably not going to like "B", either. You seem to understand this in your site introduction, but somewhere along the way I think you lost your train to Savannah. But we're getting off track. Anyway, you're right - Mark Prindle doesn't analyze, and that's precisely what makes him a more credible critic than you or anyone else on the internet. He realizes that no third party opinion can project the happiness that honestly enjoying a record can, and he's never claimed to represent anything more than himself (as opposed to most critics, who seem to believe there's some kind of mystical higher truth in a subjective medium). Besides, most of what you see as "analyses" is trying to pigeonhole musicians into preconceived formulas and paradigms. This probably reads a lot harsher than I meant it to. If you enjoy analyzing the shit out of a record - if that makes you happy - that's great. I'm just saying I'd rather read "The Overspent American" than read another pissy, humorless review (again, I'm not targeting you specifically - though you do have your moments). But hey, this is just me talkin' - you probably shouldn't take me too seriously. Hell, don't take anyone too seriously.

As for the Kennedys, I've never understood why critics always called them sloppy, because they've always sounded really tight to me. Maybe most critics don't get the minimalism inherent in hardcore, where the chords BECOME the riffs, etc.., or maybe it's just that most critics aren't musicians. Regardless, I don't think it's fair to call Jello a puritan - he's just criticizing mindsets and institutions, not telling them how to act (as much I often disagree with Jello, he may have a point with "Jock O Rama" - as Woodstock '99 shows us, SOMETHING is fucked in our culture. Maybe it's growing up in a society where competition is such a big deal). I don't think he subscribes to the "rednecks=racism" theory, unless using a campy Texan accent is automatically a blanket condemnation of rednecks. The rants are, at most, just his opinion anyway, and he's kidding more times than he's not (for future reference, irony's a whole lot funnier WHEN YOU DON'T EXPLAIN THAT YOU'RE KIDDING ABOUT THREE OR FOUR TIMES!).

It's one thing if you like New Wave better than Punk or Disco, but to say that New Wave is inherently better than both because it combines elements from the two is a bit like saying that Green Day is inherently superior to both the Beatles and the Ramones, or that Hootie & the Blowfish has something over both CCR and REM. If that's what you're saying, I understand, but I don't think it is. I kind of doubt the Kennedys were even a little jealous of "Sharona". As much as I love "Sharona" for the pop classic it is, the Kennedys wrote dozens of songs as catchy, which in itself is not a concept that holds a whole lot of mules' milk for me (I mean, the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody" is one of the catchiest songs I've heard in my life, but that doesn't mean I think it's gangbusters). Every once and awhile you seem like an open-minded guy and all, but when you write things like "'Stars and Stripes' isn't even music", or that there's no musicality in the songs on "In God We Trust", well, you might as well be speaking Arabic or something. Don't assume that songs that don't fit in a preconceived pop formula aren't "music" - it's a lot less fun that way.

Hell, what's the point here, anyway? Is it trying to convince you to see things my way? I doubt it - I don't think for a second an email will change your mind about anything. Am I just trying to kill time before Kids In The Hall comes on? Maybe, but I could have eaten lunch, too. Hmmm. Probably a combination of the two. I guess I don't like elitism, I don't like Neil Young, and it annoys the Psychedelic Furs out of me when people say overrated every other sentence. I don't know, sometimes it sounds like you don't even like music as a medium all that much. Y'know?

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