Punk Lives On in the Dead Kennedys

If you’re old enough to remember punk, then you’ll almost certainly remember the Dead Kennedys. Even if you missed punk the first time round, you’ve still probably heard of the band, as many of today’s politically-inclined punk bands cite the Kennedys as a major influence. In either case, there’s good news for you this weekend as the Dead Kennedys are back on tour after a break of 16 years.

The first thing fans will notice at Saturday’s show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz is the absence of singer Jello Biafra. Biafra has been estranged from the group since the other members sued him for unpaid royalties and licensing rights. In his place is Brandon Cruz, formerly of punk band Dr. Know and the television series “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” The rest of the band is all original – founder East Bay Ray on guitar, Klaus Fluoride on bass and D. H. Peligro on drums.

The Dead Kennedys began in 1978 as the result of an ad placed in a San Francisco music paper by Ray. Biafra responded, and soon the band was fully formed. The band played its first gig in San
Francisco’s North Beach area, at a Filipino restaurant named Mabuhay Gardens. The “Fab Mab,” as it was otherwise known, was a home to local punk bands, and the Dead Kennedys soon gained a sizeablefollowing around the Bay Area.

In 1979, the band recorded its first single, “California Uber Alles,” an attack on the then-governor of California, Jerry Brown. This was followed in 1980 by “Holiday in Cambodia,” which is considered one of punk’s classic songs and is possibly the band’s defining moment.

The Kennedys’ music caught on too in Britain, the birthplace of punk rock. The album “Fresh Fruit
for Rotting Vegetables” was awarded a Gold Record by the Britishcmusic industry and the band had a Top 40 hit with a single that couldcnot even be played on the radiocbecause of its lyrics The band went on to tour worldwide.

The Dead Kennedys were no strangers to controversy. In 1979, Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco as a prank, on a free beer platform. Surprisingly, he came in fourth. The band’s lyrics often attracted comment, especially from right-wing, politico-religious groups, and in 1985, the album “Frankenchrist,” with its accompanying poster, “Penis Landscape” by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, saw the band in court on a string of charges leveled by various bodies. Shortly after the court case, which was dismissed, the group recorded its final album, “Bedtime for Democracy” and disbanded in March 1986.

Now, 16 years later, the Dead Kennedys are on the road again. According to Ray “We all agreed not to carry it on, but the thing about punk rock is, it’s against having a set of rules, and here we are.”

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, November 21, 2002

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