Dead Kennedys formed in July 1978 in San Francisco, with the lineup of Jello Biafra, vocals; Klaus Fluoride, bass; East Bay Ray, guitar; and Bruce Slesinger (a.k.a. Ted), drums. Biafra (real name Eric Boucher), came out to California from his hometown of Boulder, Colorado to attend U.C. Santa Cruz, but ended up quitting school and moving up to San Francisco after being immediately impressed by the early San Francisco punk scene. Biafra was attracted not only to the energy, but to the politics and "cultural terrorism" that bands such as Negative Trend brought to their music. One of the first people Biafra met in San Francisco was Will Shatter of Negative Trend ( and later of the infamous Flipper), who told Biafra, "Hey, you should be in a band. I've been playing bass for only three days and I'm in a band."

The Dead Kennedys premiered at Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach section which served as a home to punk bands for nearly ten years. It wasn't too long before the band gained a considerable following around San Francisco. Live, DKs were a combination of chaos and theatrics, with Biafra's political monologues appearing between nearly every song. Musically, the band could be described as a cross between the Sex Pistols and the Ventures.

In 1979 the Dead Kennedys received further attention when Jello Biafra ran for the mayor of San Francisco. Running with his campaign slogan "There's always room for Jello, " he finished fourth out of a field of ten, with over 6,000 votes. Supervisor Quentin Kopp quickly had a law enacted to ban people from running for mayor using "funny names."

That year the DKs first single was released. California Über Alles, written to California governor Jerry Brown " became an underground "hit" . Unfortunately, this song was just the first of many DK titles to be misinterpreted, and California Über Alles became a popular slogan of young fascists. A later single Kill the Poor, was also interpreted literally, and drew some real nasties to Dead Kennedys shows, especially in foreign countries, where the sarcasm of the song was not picked up in translation.

Due to the success of California Über Alles, Dead Kennedys were invited to perform at the Bammies, the Grammies of San Francisco, which Biafra describes as San Francisco's "backslapping circus banquet." During dress rehearsal, DKs ran through their current hit, but when got onstage, they treated the audience ( full of music industry bigwigs and mainstream rock acts such as Journey) to a scathing attack of the music industry, in a song called "Pull My Strings" composed especially for the occasion. The prank was a good one, and Dead Kennedys were not invited back.

A European tour and the release of the classic Holiday in Cambodia single furthered the DKs reputation. Their debut LP, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was released in 1980 by IRS in the U.S. and Cherry Red in England. The first pressings on IRS came in a orange cover. As Biafra puts it, "Without telling us, the ruined the cover, saying 'Oh, duh, it would make it different from the import.' Yeah, inferior to the import, change it now!" They did, back to the black and white cover the band submitted.

Fresh Fruit was chock full of witty Dead Kennedys songs, including the hilarious, "Stealing People's Mail, ""Forward to Death" (written by the departed 6025), "I Kill Children" (again, some people misinterpreted this one), a cover of Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas" with new lyrics, and the A-sides of their first singles. The back cover featured a found photo of a depressing-looking lounge band (a Dead Kennedys logo has been spliced on their drum set and skulls and crossbones onto their instruments). Somehow, a member of the long-gone lounge band came across the DKs LP and sued the band for using the photo without permission; consequently, the LP was issued with the heads of the band members cut off. When this didn't satisfy the lounge band, the photo disappeared altogether.

Cherry Red, which owned UK and European rights to Fresh Fruit , issued a red vinyl version of the LP, as well as licensing it out to dozens of small foreign labels. When asked which ones, Biafra was able to name most from these from memory. He warns, however, that many of the imported copies floating around these days are pirates. Fresh Fruit has only recently been reissued, on Biafra's own Alternative Tentacles label; before that, the pirate pressings were often the only one available. (The DKs had had a bad experience with IRS, and Fresh Fruit was the only LP which the group could not retain the rights to. The other albums were all issued by Alternative Tentacles, and remain in print.)

In 1981 the Too Drunk to Fuck single was issued, complete with a peel-off sticker in the front to cover up with "offensive" title. The single charted in the UK, despite a BBB ban. Weirdly enough, the song became among college frat boys in the U.S., who often shoed up at the DKs shows. Punks sometimes resented the Kennedys for attracting these outsiders to their shows, but the DKs made up for it by going out of their way to support the real punk scene by forcing promoters to book unusual underground bands as openers, and insisting that the bands get paid reasonably well.

Let Them Eat Jellybeans , a compilation LP put together by Biafra, was released around this time. Jellybeans served as an introduction for many to punk and underground music, featuring such bands as Black Flag , Flipper , Circle Jerks , the Bad Brains , Voice Farm , and the Dead Kennedys themselves.

After a change of drummers ( Slesinger left, Darren "D.H." Peligro joined), the DKs released a 12" EP titled In God We Trust Inc. Most of the eight songs included dealt with corruption and fascism in organized religion, and the record became a target of the religious right, which featured Christ on a crucifix made of dollars.

Musically, In God We Trust Inc. was a bit of a departure for DKs . Most of the songs included were of the thrash variety of punk - incredibly fast, short songs. The EP included a wild cover of "Rawhide," and a version of "California Über Alles" updated to cover the election of Ronald Reagan. Also included was "Nazi Punks Fuck Off."

"Nazi Punks Fuck Off" was also released as a 7-inch single by Subterranean Records, which was originally set to release In God We Trust . The single was uniquely packaged in a plastic baggie with the lyrics printed first on mylar inserts, and later on the bag itself. A cloth armband with an anti-Nazi symbol was included.

Plastic Surgery Disasters was released in 1982. This featured the singles Bleed for Me and Halloween and attacks on everything from preppies to mechanics to "Winnebago Warriors." It also included "Moon Over Marin," as close as DKs ever came to a ballad, although the anti-pollution lyrics are not the sort that Frank Sinatra will be crooning anytime soon. As always, DKs stuffed the album cover with interesting reading matter, this time a large booklet of lyrics and collages by Biafra and his artistic collaborator Winston Smith .Plastic Surgery Disasters marked the end of the alliance between Alternative Tentacles and Faulty Products. The "bankruptcy" (don't believe it) of Faulty Products cost the band (and many small labels distributed by Faulty) lots of money and delayed the release of many Alternative Tentacles records. Biafra took it as a sign that he should put out the records himself, and after a brief manufacturing and distribution deal with Subterranean, during which the world was introduced to the Butthole Surfers via their first ever release, ATR finally became independent.
Rumors had it that an LP to be called Cancer Cures Everything was coming soon , but after a long hiatus, the Frankenchrist album was released,. Considered by Biafra to be the DKs shining moment ( although fans don't usually agree), Frankenchrist was the LP that got the band in the biggest trouble of its career. It wasn't the music however, that got the band in hot water( and with songs like "MTV get off the air" and "Stars and Stripes of Corruption," the music wasn't certainly endearing the band to everybody in the world), it was a poster that was included free with the album.

Biafra stumbled upon a reproduction of a painting by European artist H.R. Giger titled "Landscape No. 20: Where We Are Coming From." The painting, which features dismembered, ugly genitals copulating in what looks like sludge, had been reproduced in many books and magazines over the years, and Biafra secured the rights to include it as part of the Frankenchrist package. About the painting, Biafra says "I began to realize, 'My god, we have met the enemy and it is us, this is what we do to each other every day in consumer-oriented society. Wait a minute, this is what we're talking about on a lot of the Frankenchrist songs.' I thought the Giger painting would be a great way to drive home the point, even if some people in high positions of power with no sense of humor didn't seem to understand."

When a San Fernando Valley mother complained that her 13- year old daughter had purchased the record as a gift for her 11-year old brother (at a Wherehouse Records outlet in a large mall), the LA City Attorney's Office decided to prosecute the case. Deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, the prosecutor in the case, admitted they chose to prosecute the DKs because it would be a "cost-effective" way to send a message to other musicians, record companies and fans. Guarino had been considering prosecuting several other groups when this case came along, and he thought he could win this one. The first Biafra heard of all this was when he was awakened from his sleep one morning by the sound of his window being broken and several police officers invading his house, supposedly to seize the "evidence." ( No one bothered to knock.) They took numerous personal effects, including his address book, as well as a few copies of Frankenchrist and the business ledgers of Alternative Tentacles, making it impossible to conduct business for a while.

Charged in the case were Biafra, and four others, including the 67-year old man whose company pressed the Frankenchrist disc. Biafra and the others decided to fight the charges of distributing harmful matter to minors, and set up the No More Censorship Defense Fund , which along with helping with the legal fees in the Frankenchrist case, makes available copies of articles dealing with censorship and plans to help others who are being harassed

Finally, after months of delay, during which Biafra's time was taxed enough that he had no time to work on his music, the case went to trial. After a week-long trial in which witnesses such as Greil Marcus testified on the group's behalf, and a respected art teacher attempted to show how the poster was an integral part of the Frankenchrist package, the jury came out deadlocked (7-5 in favor of acquittal), and the judge dismissed the case.

In the midst of all the hullabaloo , the Dead Kennedys had broken up. Bedtime for Democracy , their final album, came out in late 1986, and was unfortunately a major disappointment. During the final year of virtual purgatory waiting for the Frankenchrist trial, Biafra embarked on a couple of short solo tours, speaking on the issue of censorship among, many, many other things. These spoken-word performances were issued on the No More Cocoons double album in 1988. He also recently assembled a fantastic collection of the DKs early singles and lost tracks, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death . The package included a bonus flexi disc, the tracks of which were also included in the cassette and CD versions.

East Bay Ray , who sparked the breakup of the band when he announced he was leaving, went on to form the) band the Kage , with female vocalist Bana Witt. Klaus Fluoride continues to produce exciting local bands such as Whipping Boy and Tragic Mulatto , and to release his own bizarre solo discs, including Because I Say So . He's currently playing with the Muskrats . Darren Peligro played guitar and sang in the Jungle Studs , a truly exciting mix of pop, soul and punk, and is now with the Red Hot Chili Peppers . According to Biafra, original drummer Slesinger is now a San Francisco architect, and 6025 is working on his goal to become the "Captain Beefheart of gospel music."

Biography from Alternative Tentacles

 

 

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