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Dead Kennedys

Dead Kennedys

Fact Sheet

Musical genre:Punk, Rock  
Country  USA
Years active1978-
The Dead Kennedys were a punk rock band from San Francisco, California. Their songs attacked assumptions of the political left and right with mordant humor. Their music mixed the arty elements of English punk with the energy of the American punk scene. Lead singer Jello Biafra was also responsible for releasing many other punk and alternative bands on his Alternative Tentacles label.

The Dead Kennedys formed in San Francisco in June 1978. They consisted of Biafra on vocals, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Fluoride, and drummer Ted (Bruce Slesinger). They played numerous shows at local venues, and in June of 1979, they released their first single, California Über Alles, on Alternative Tentacles. They followed with an east-coast tour, where they found a stagnant scene, which they attributed to the lack of all-ages venues. Their intense live show was a shock to the subdued East Coast music crowd.

In fall 1980, the Dead Kennedys released their first LP, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. (Soon after, drummer Ted was replaced with D.H. Peligro.) Throughout the 1980s, they toured all over the United States as well as Europe, gaining a large following in the underground music scene. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. (1981) and album Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982) showed a development in musical style, and their music became a deadly political force, attacking targets like the religious right and Ronald Reagan with fierce sarcasm. Frequent diatribes criticizing their own punk movement express a quality that is unique to Dead Kennedys (and especially frontman Jello Biafra), in that their expressions of rage are ultimately meant to be constructive.

The release of the album Frankenchrist (Alternative Tentacles; Virus 45) in 1985 caused a fervor with the newly formed PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), and in 1986, the Dead Kennedys were brought to trial for "distribution of harmful matter to minors". During this time, Biafra says, government agents invaded and searched his home in a possibly illegal attempt to frighten him. The band members were each faced with up to a year in jail and a $2000 fine. In 1987, the charges were dropped after a three-week trial. The album, however, was banned from many record stores nationwide. Biafra's second spoken word release, 1989's High Priest of Harmful Matter describes the facts of the trial and his experiences and insights concerning it. The term "harmful matter" has become a buzzword of sorts at the Alternative Tentacles record company. One of their slogans, which is regularly printed on the 'B' side of vinyl releases is "Harmful Matter since 1979!" and the term can be heard in the lyrics of other Alternative Tentacles artists' music, such as the song "Lynch Me" by Christian Lunch.

After the release of Bedtime for Democracy in late 1986, the band called it quits. Biafra went on to become a highly active political force, appearing on numerous television shows and releasing a number of spoken-word albums.

In 1979, frontman Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco. He came in fourth out of ten candidates, beating several mainstream republican and democratic candidates. This is attributed to his unorthodox and absurd, but strangely compelling platform, which included a vow to make empty buildings available to squatters, a proposal to set up a system of bribery to handle building and liquor licenses, banning the use of motor vehicles inside city limits (the city was in the grips of a pollution crisis at the time), and holding auctions for high-ranking city government positions. This was one of the first acts of a long and distinguished career of social activism that was populist, affecting and humorous. He returned to the election business when he ran for president of the United States in 2000, seeking to be the Green Party candidate. He lost the nomination to Ralph Nader, however, and gracefully stepped down, hoping Nader could challenge George W. Bush more effectively than he could.

For the last few years, former band members have been involved in a vigorous legal wrangle over the use of Dead Kennedys songs in advertising. Biafra was brought to court over failure to pay royalties and failure to promote the Dead Kennedys albums, and in 2001, the entire Dead Kennedys catalog (minus Fresh Fruit) was turned over to the Decay Label. The rest of the band began a "reunion" tour under the name of "DK Kennedys", replacing Biafra with Brandon Cruz. Many hardcore fans were outraged by the tour, partly because they did not make it clear that they would be playing without Biafra, but much more for selling the ideals that the band once stood for. Jello Biafra states, "In my opinion, this is The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. They have a right to play cover versions of Dead Kennedys songs. Everyone does. But I feel really badly for all the people paying ticket prices, reported to be as high as $25, thinking it's the real Dead Kennedys, and wind up getting stuck with the world's greediest karaoke band."

Biafra maintains that he did not deny them royalties, and in addition, he claims that he is not receiving any royalties on the Decay releases, on which his contributions are not mentioned anymore.

An overview of their career may be found on the compilation Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, which features the infamous singles "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Über Alles."