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Dead Kennedys – 10 of the best

1. California Über Alles
The debate over what exactly constitutes “punk” is a long and thorny one. Is it a sound ? An attitude ? Sitting squarely across it are California’s Dead Kennedys, a band punk enough to feature in Rolling Stone’s 40 greatest punk albums but who employed elements of surf guitar, jazz, poetry and even bolero across four studio albums of biting wit, fury and pristine pop songs. Thiss debut single exemplifies their complicated musical relationship with punk. Singer Jello Biafra’s lyrics – a blistering attack on the then governor of California, Jerry Brown (who returned to the post in 2011), which reference the now-unused first stanza of the German national anthem – and Klaus Flouride’s ominous bass riff are typical of the 1979 punk scene into which the song was released. And yet other elements of California Über Alles shy away from the stereotypes of punk rock. Bruce Slesinger’s drums combines a bolero rhythm with militaristic rolls – guitarist East Bay Ray called the song “our Wagnerian piece with a bolero rhythm” – while the opening guitar lines have shades of the gothic surf-rock style that Ray brought to the group.

2. Holiday in Cambodia
California Über Alles was followed a year later by Holiday in Cambodia, a masterclass in atmospherics. The opening 20 seconds of rattling bass and sparse, echoing guitar create a mood of musical paranoia that ratchets up several notches with the introduction of the drums, playing a frantic discoesque beat, and a guitar riff that brings to mind Dick Dale playing on as the Titanic slips under the water. The lyrics, meanwhile, are among Biafra’s best, a vicious dissection of the stereotypical college student who has “been to school for a year or two and you know you’ve seen it all”. But what might be most striking about Holiday in Cambodia is how many ideas it packs into its brief running time. In the 3min 43sec single version the song includes two intros, two verses, two rousing choruses, an eerie bridge, a guitar solo, an escalating middle eight and a final chorus, each brilliantly tarred with an air of creeping menace. It’s like all of the good bits of most punk bands compressed into three and a half minutes. The album version adds an ambient guitar intro for good measure, extending the running time to 4min 38sec.

3. Pull My Strings
Dead Kennedys made an almost instant commercial impact in the UK, and in 1981 a deal from Polydor was in the offing, only for Biafra to threaten to quit the band if they signed to a major. Maybe Polydor should have known better : the group’s distinctive attitude towards the music industry was already in evidence in 1980, when they were invited to perform at the Bay Area music awards in San Francisco. The idea, according to the event’s organisers – who probably hadn’t been playing sufficiently close attention to the band’s modus operandi – was to give the event some “new wave credibility”. Sure enough, Dead Kennedys started playing California Über Alles as expected, only for Biafra to stop the song 15 seconds in to proclaim : “We’ve gotta prove that we’re adults now. We’re not a punk rock band, we’re a new wave band.” Dead Kennedys then launched into Pull My Strings, a song written for the occasion, in which they rail against the music industry : “Is my cock big enough, / Is my brain small enough / For you to make me a star ?”, ending with a pointed musical nod to the Knack’s new wave anthem My Sharona. Point made, the band would never perform the song again, although the awards version would turn up on Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, a 1987 compilation that rounded up their non-album songs.

4. Too Drunk to Fuck
If you looked closely around British secondary schools in the 1980s and 90s, you’d be likely to find Dead Kennedys’ distinctive “DK” logo scratched somewhere. They may never have had the volcanic cultural impact of the Sex Pistols or the Clash but Dead Kennedys remained a hugely important cult band in the decades after their demise. Part of that was down to the catchiness of their songs, which combine massive shout-along choruses with guitar riffs the milkman could whistle. But if we’re being honest, a large part of the band’s enduring appeal to the average adolescent is that their songs can be incredibly rude. Indeed, for all the biting social satire of a song such as Kill the Poor – the band’s third single and a No 49 UK hit – Dead Kennedys’ best-known song is probably the single that followed it in May 1981 : Too Drunk to Fuck. It reached No 36 in the British charts – apparently the first Top 40 single to feature the world “fuck” in the title – prompting predictable panic at Radio 1, in record stores and among Top of the Pops producers. It seems characteristic of Biafra that he reserved his most straightforwardly filthy lyric – in which the narrator drinks 16 beers, starts a fight, rolls down the stairs, then finds himself too “sick, soft, gooey and cold” to perform in bed – for what is one of the band’s most brilliantly pop moments, home to both a masterly, surf-inspired ear worm of a guitar riff and a chirpy key change.

5. The Prey
If Too Drunk to Fuck was an example of Dead Kennedys’ sly sense of humour, then its B-side, The Prey, showed a darker, more experimental side to the band. The Kennedys experiment with jazz and noir atmospherics – all wandering bass lines, cymbal splashes and minimal, sharpened guitars – on top of which Biafra relates a darkly poetical tale of a late-night assault, his words crawling lecherously over Flouride’s bass. The result is like the more literary side of the Doors, tainted with a hint of goth. The Prey may be an outlier in the band’s catalogue but it is not without precedent : Night of the Living Rednecks, improvised live at a 1979 concert after East Bay Ray broke a guitar string, sees Biafra tell a tale of being accosted by “jocks in this bright blue pickup” over a meandering jazz backing.

6. Halloween
Dead Kennedys followed their 1980 debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, with the In God We Trust, Inc EP in December 1981. It was a frenetic, frantic EP, which paid tribute both to the emerging hardcore punk scene and the skills of their new drummer, DH Peligro, packing eight songs into 14 frenzied minutes. In God We Trust, Inc – the height of the band’s experiments in thrash – was followed by an album that may be their most melodic, Plastic Surgery Disasters. Halloween, the band’s seventh and final single, is typical of Disasters’ pointed melodicism, sporting a dumb-as-rocks guitar riff worthy of the Sex Pistols, singalong bass lines and about three choruses. It is an oddly inspirational song, too. Biafra’s lyrics call for people to break free of social mores in their everyday lives, rather than just on the titular holiday, ending with a call to “take your social regulations and shove ’em up your ass” so rousing it could wake the dead.

7. Moon Over Marin
A good percentage of rock bands would have hung their careers on a song like Moon Over Marin, the closing track on Plastic Surgery Disasters. It’s the kind of classic rock song that reverberates throughout the ages, a mixture of one of East Bay Ray’s very best guitar riffs, a stirring, melancholic-yet-defiant chorus and wonderfully evocative lyrics about environmental disaster (“Another tanker’s hit the rocks / Abandoned to spill out its guts … Oh, shimmering moonlight sheen upon / The waves and water clogged with oil / White gases steam up from the soil”). In fact, Moon Over Marin has been called “as close as DKs ever came to a ballad” and – for all the song’s chugging Pretty Vacantesque guitar verses – you can see why : it is a genuinely beautiful song, capable of bringing a tear to the eye. For Dead Kennedys, though, it wasn’t even a single, something that speaks to the discord brewing within the band. “Most of the band and our record label at the time wanted to release this as a single ; it would have made a great one,” East Bay Ray said in 2015. “But Biafra was concerned about having a song that I wrote be bigger than something he was more involved in – so he didn’t let that happen.”

8. Soup Is Good Food
Dead Kennedys’ collective morale was hardly helped by the furore over their next album, 1985’s Frankenchrist. Lyrically, Frankenchrist continued the band’s forthright tone, but this time it wasn’t the band’s songs getting them in trouble : it was the album’s packaging, which included a poster of HR Giger’s Penis Landscape, depicting rows of penises and vulvae. (Biafra apparently wanted the picture as the album cover, although the rest of the band vetoed this.) Biafra was brought to trial, accused of distributing harmful matter to minors and, while he was not convicted, the band’s Alternative Tentacles label was almost bankrupted. The legal row understandably overshadowed the music on Frankenchrist, which, although it saw Dead Kennedys introduce trumpet, synths and even a “12-string electric bellzouki” to the mix, was not one of the band’s strongest albums. That said, its opening song Soup Is Good Food demands a place on any round up of the band’s best work, thanks to Biafra’s brilliantly sardonic vocal, a massive, dumb chorus and East Bay Ray’s pointillist guitar, which teeters on the verge of going out of tune at any moment.

9. Cesspools in Eden
By 1986, Dead Kennedys weren’t just sick of the mainstream music industry, they were also disillusioned with the hardcore scene, which they felt had become increasingly conformist. By the time the band went into the studio to record their final album, Bedtime for Democracy, they had already played their last gig, and they announced their split soon after the album’s release. It is curious, then, that Bedtime for Democracy saw the band steer closer than ever to the hardcore template of breakneck riffs, tumbling drums and barked vocals, with little of the musical experimentation that had marked their previous albums. Against this background, Cesspools in Eden felt – somewhat ironically given the song’s environmental concerns – like a breath of fresh air, a pause for thought among the hardcore lurch : six minutes of doom-laden guitar chords, sleazy riffs and even a brilliant guitar solo from East Bay Ray, whose contribution lifts the song way above the album’s pedestrian grind, even if the production is too 80s rock for some tastes.

10. Short Songs
After Dead Kennedys split in 1986, relations remained – at least on the surface – workable among the former members, with compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death released in June 1987 through Alternative Tentacles. In the late 90s, however, a feud emerged between Biafra and the other members of the group, who claimed to have been underpaid by Alternative Tentacles, then under Biafra’s control. That led to a series of lawsuits, with the singer eventually forced to pay damages to the rest of the band. Relationships between the two sides have been sour ever since. So lets remember Dead Kennedys another way, with Short Songs, probably the silliest track in the band’s catalogue and a reminder of better days. Written by 6025 (AKA Carlos Cadona), the band’s second guitarist from July 1978 to March 1979, it originally appeared on Can You Hear Me ? Music from the Deaf Club, a 1981 compilation of live recordings from the San Francisco club of the same name. It’s a ridiculous yet strangely logical extension of punk’s obsession with musical back-to-basics. It lasts barely 20 seconds yet manages to pack both winning riff and call-and-response vocal into its sparse running time, coming over like the Ramones high on ice cream in Disneyland.

Source : The Guardian du 16/11/16 par Ben Cardew


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