Dead Kennedys released four studio albums and one EP before disbanding in 1986. Since the band's dissolution, vocalist Jello Biafra has continued to collaborate and record with other artists. In 2001, the band reformed without Biafra, who had been in an acrimonious legal dispute with the remaining members over royalties.
Dead Kennedys formed in June 1978 in San Francisco, California, when East Bay Ray (Raymond Pepperell) advertised for bandmates in the newspaper The Recycler, after seeing a ska-punk show atMabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. The original band lineup consisted of Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher) on vocals, East Bay Ray on guitar, Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) on bass, and Ted (Bruce Slesinger) on drums and percussion. This lineup recorded their first demos. In early to mid July, the band recruited 6025 (Carlos Cadona) as a rhythm guitarist. Their first show was on July 19, 1978, at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, California.
Dead Kennedys played numerous shows at local venues afterwards. Due to the provocative name of the band, they sometimes played under pseudonyms, including "The DK's", "The Sharks", "The Creamsicles" and "The Pink Twinkies". The band's real name generated controversy. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in November 1978, "Just when you think tastelessness has reached its nadir, along comes a punk rock group called The Dead Kennedys, which will play at Mabuhay Gardens on Nov. 22, the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination." Despite mounting protests, the owner of Mabuhay declared, "I can't cancel them NOW—there's a contract. Not, apparently, the kind of contract some people have in mind." However, despite popular belief, the name was not meant to insult the Kennedy family, but according to Biafra, "to bring attention to the end of the American Dream".
6025 left the band in March 1979 under somewhat unclear circumstances, generally considered to be musical differences. In June, the band released their first single, "California Über Alles", on Biafra and East Bay Ray's independent label, Alternative Tentacles. The band followed with a well-received East Coast tour.
On March 25, 1980, Dead Kennedys were invited to perform at the Bay Area Music Awards in San Francisco to major record label artists to give the event some "new wave credibility", in the words of the organizers. The day of the performance was spent practicing the song they were asked to play, the underground hit, "California Über Alles". The band became the talking point of the ceremony when after about 15 seconds into the song, Biafra stopped the band—in a manner reminiscent of Elvis Costello's Saturday Night Live appearance—and said, "Hold it! We've gotta prove that we're adults now. We're not a punk rock band, we're a new wave band."
The band, who all wore white shirts with a big, black S painted on the front, pulled black ties from around the backs of their necks to form a dollar sign, then started playing a new song titled "Pull My Strings", a barbed, satirical attack on the ethics of the mainstream music industry, which contained the lyrics, "Is my cock big enough, is my brain small enough, for you to make me a star?". The song also referenced The Knack's song "My Sharona". "Pull My Strings" was never recorded for a studio release, though the performance at the Bay Area Music Awards, which was the only time the song was ever performed, was released on the band's compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.
In early 1980, they recorded and released the single "Holiday in Cambodia". Later that year, the band released their debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. The album reached number 33 on the UK Albums Chart. In January 1981, Ted announced that he wanted to leave to pursue a career in architecture and would help look for a replacement. He played his last concert in February 1981. His replacement was D.H. Peligro(Darren Henley).
Around the same time, East Bay Ray had tried to pressure the rest of the band to sign to the major record label Polydor Records; Biafra stated that he was prepared to leave the group if the rest of the band wanted to sign to the label, though East Bay Ray asserts that he recommended against signing with Polydor. Polydor decided not to sign the band after they learned that Dead Kennedys' next single was to be entitled "Too Drunk to Fuck".
When "Too Drunk to Fuck" came out in May 1981, the song caused much controversy in the UK as the BBC feared the single would reach the Top 30; this would require a mention of the song on Top of the Pops. It was never played although it was called "'Too Drunk' by the Kennedys" by presenter Tony Blackburn.
After Peligro joined the band, the extended play In God We Trust, Inc. (1981) saw them move toward a more aggressive hardcore/thrash sound. In addition to the EP's controversial artwork depicting a gold Christ figure on a cross of dollar bills, the lyrics contained Biafra's most biting social and political commentary yet, and songs such as "Moral Majority", "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" and "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now" placed Dead Kennedys as the spokesmen of social protest, while "Dog Bite", a cover version of Rawhide and various joke introductions showed a much more whimsical side. In 1982, they released their second studio album, Plastic Surgery Disasters. The album's cover features a withered starving African child's hand being held and dwarfed by a white man's hand, a picture that had won the World Press Photo award in 1980, taken in Karamoja district in Uganda by Mike Wells.
The band's music had evolved considerably in a short time, moving away from hardcore formulae toward a more innovative jazz-informed style, featuring musicianship and dynamics far beyond other bands in the genre (thus effectively removing the music from that genre). By now the group had become a de facto political force, pitting itself against rising elements of American social and political life such as the religious right, Ronald Reagan and the idle rich. The band continued touring all over the United States, as well as Europe and Australia, and gained a large underground following. While they continued to play live shows during 1983 and 1984, they took a break from releasing new records to concentrate on theAlternative Tentacles record label, which would become synonymous with DIY alternative culture. The band continued to write and perform new material during this time, which would appear on their next album (some of these early performances can be seen in the DMPO's on Broadwayvideo, originally released by Dirk Dirksen and later reissued on Rhino).
The release of the album Frankenchrist in 1985 showed the band had grown in musical proficiency and lyrical maturity. While there were still a number of loud/fast songs, much of the music featured an eclectic mix of instruments including trumpets and synthesizers. Around this time Klaus Flouride released the similarly experimental solo EP Cha Cha Cha With Mr. Flouride. Lyrically, the band continued their trademark social commentary, with songs such as "MTV Get Off The Air" and "Jock-O-Rama (Invasion of the Beef Patrol)" poking fun at mainstream America.
However, the controversy that erupted over H.R. Giger's "Penis Landscape", included as an insert with the album, dwarfed the notoriety of its music. The artwork caused a furor with the newly formed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). In December 1985 a teenage girl purchased the album at the Wherehouse Records store in Los Angeles County. The girl's mother wrote letters of complaint to the California Attorney General and to Los Angeles prosecutors. In 1986 members of the band, along with other parties involved in the distribution of Frankenchrist, were charged criminally with distribution of harmful matter to minors. The store where the teen actually purchased the album was never named in the lawsuit. The criminal charges focused on an illustration by H.R. Giger, titled "Work 219: Landscape XX" (also known as Penis Landscape). Included as a poster with the album, Penis Landscape depicts nine copulating penises and vaginas.
Members of the band and others in the chain of distribution were charged with violating the California Penal Code on a misdemeanor charge carrying a maximum penalty of up to a year in county jail and a base fine of up to $2,000. Biafra says that during this time government agents invaded and searched his home. The prosecution tried to present the poster to the jury in isolation for consideration as obscene material, but Judge Susan Isacoff ruled that the poster must be considered along with the music and lyrics. The charges against three of the original defendants, Ruth Schwartz (owner of Mordam Records), Steve Boudreau (a distributor involved in supplying Frankenchrist to the Los Angeles Wherehouse store), and Salvatore Alberti (owner of the factory where the record was pressed), were dismissed for lack of evidence.
In August 1987, the case went to the jury with two remaining defendants: Jello Biafra and Michael Bonanno (former Alternative Tentacles label manager). However, the criminal trial ended with a hung jury, split 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal. District Attorneys Michael Guarino and Ira Riener made a motion for a retrial which was denied by Judge Isacoff, Superior Court Judge for the County of Los Angeles. The album, however, was banned from many record stores nationwide.
Jello Biafra brought up the court case after the break-up of the band on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Biafra was on the show with Tipper Gore as part of a panel discussion on the issues of "controversial music lyrics" and censorship.
In addition to the obscenity lawsuit and being ignored by the mainstream media (MTV and most radio stations gave such groups scant notice, not to mention airplay), the band became increasingly disillusioned with the underground scene as well. The hardcore scene, which had been a haven for free-thinking intellectuals and downtrodden nonconformists, was attracting a more violent audience that imposed an increasing level of brutality on other concertgoers and began to alienate many of the bands and individuals who had helped pioneer the movement in the early 1980s. In earlier years the band had criticized neo-Nazi skinheads for trying to ruin the punk scene, but just as big a problem was the popularity of increasingly macho hardcore bands, which brought the group (and their genre) an audience that had little to do with the ideas/ideals they stood for. In January 1986, frustrated and alienated from their own scene, the Dead Kennedys decided to break up to pursue other interests and played their last concert on February 21. The band continued to work on songs, with Biafra penning songs such as "Chickenshit Conformist" and "Anarchy for Sale", which articulated their feelings about the "dumbing down" of punk rock.
During the summer they recorded these songs for their final album, Bedtime for Democracy, which was released in November. The artwork, depicting a defaced Statue of Liberty overrun with Nazis, media, opportunists, Klan members, corrupt government officials, and religious zombies, echoed the idea that neither America itself or the punk scene were safe havens anymore for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". The album contains a number of fast/short songs interspersed with jazz ("D.M.S.O."), spoken word ("A Commercial") and psychedelia ("Cesspools In Eden"). The lyrical focus is more introspective and earnest ("Where Do Ya Draw The Line?"), with an anti-war, anti-violence ("Rambozo The Clown") bent, moving away from the violent imagery of their early records, while remaining as subversive as ever ("I Spy", "D.M.S.O."). In December, the band announced their split. Biafra went on to speak about his political beliefs on numerous television shows and he released a number of spoken-word albums. Ray, Flouride, and Peligro also went on to solo careers.
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In the late 1990s, former band members discovered problems with the amount of payments which each band member had received from their record label Alternative Tentacles. Former band members claimed that Jello Biafra had conspired to pay lower royalty rates to the band members. Although both sides agreed that the failure to pay these royalties was an accounting mistake, they were upset that Biafra failed to inform the band of the mistake after he and his co-workers discovered it.
Biafra claims that their lawyers had told him only to correspond through lawyers and not directly with the band, as the conflict over payment had apparently arisen before the accounting mistake was discovered. Both sides claim they attempted to resolve the matter without legal action, but the ultimately complicated legal dispute (involving royalties, publishing rights, and a number of other issues) soon led to the courts, where Biafra was found liable for the royalties after the jury determined that he had committed fraud and malice, and was ordered to pay damages of nearly $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members.
Malice was defined for the jury as "conduct which is intended to cause injury or despicable conduct which is carried with a willful and conscious disregard for the rights of others". Biafra's appeal was denied; he had to pay the outstanding royalties and punitive damages, and was forced to hand over the rights to the majority of Dead Kennedys' back catalogue to the Decay Music partnership.
The jury and judges also noted, in their words, that Biafra “lacked credibility” on the song-writing issue and found from evidence presented by both sides that the song-writing credits were due to the entire band, using a clause in the band's written partnership giving a small share of every Dead Kennedys song royalty directly to the band partnership.
Biafra had received sole songwriting credit for most Dead Kennedys songs on all released albums for the last 20 years or so without complaints from the band, though a minority of songs had given credit to certain group members or the entire band as a whole, indicating a system designed to reflect the primary composers rather than a regimented system like the Jagger/Richards partnership; today, most Kennedys reissues list the songwriters as "Biafra, Dead Kennedys", indicating Biafra's lyrical contributions—which the band doesn't dispute, or else simply as "Dead Kennedys"). Ray, Flouride and Peligro found new distribution through another label, Manifesto Records.
This dispute was hotly contested by all concerned who felt passionately for their cause, and the case caused minor waves within punk circles. Biafra claims that guitarist East Bay Ray had long expressed displeasure with Alternative Tentacles and with the amount of money he received from them, thus the original incentive for the discovery of the back payments. It was found out that Alternative Tentacles was paying Dead Kennedys less per CD than all the other bands, including Biafra himself, and not informing his other bandmates, which was the fraud. Biafra accused the band of wanting to license the famous Dead Kennedys song "Holiday in Cambodia" for use in a Levi's jeans commercial, which the band denied.
Biafra apparently pushed this issue in court, although there was no hard evidence and the jurors were apparently unconcerned with corporate use of independently produced political music. Biafra would later complain that the jury was not sympathetic toward underground music and punk culture. The song never appeared in a Levi's commercial, although in interviews Biafra described the situation surrounding the commercial in detail and was able to give specifics about the advertisement, including the name of the advertising agency that had created the commercial's script.
Biafra's former bandmates maintain that they sued because of Jello Biafra's deliberate withholding of money, though when pressed they have acknowledged that the payment was an accounting mistake, but insist that Biafra was wrong in failing to inform the band directly. Details about this issue remain scarce. The band also maintains that the Levi's story was completely fictitious and invented by Biafra to discredit them. Ultimately, these issues have led to a souring of relationships with the erstwhile bandmates, who still have not resolved their personal differences as of 2012.
Matters were stirred up even further when the three bandmates invited Jello Biafra to "bury the hatchet" in the form of a band reunion. Jello Biafra felt it was unprofessional because no one contacted him directly. In addition, Biafra was disdainful of the reunion, and having long expressed his disdain for nostalgia and rock reunion/oldies tours in particular, argued that the whole affair was motivated by greed.
Several DVDs, re-issues, and live albums have been released since the departure of Biafra most recently on Manifesto Records. According to Biafra, the live albums are "cash-ins" on Dead Kennedys' name and his music. Biafra also accused the releases of the new live material of having poor sound quality. Furthermore he has stated he is not receiving any royalties from the sale of any Manifesto Records releases. Consequently, he has discouraged fans from buying any Dead Kennedy reissues. The other band members denied Biafra's accusations regarding the live releases, and have defended the mixes as an effort of hard work. Biafra dismissed the new group as "the world's greediest karaoke band." Nevertheless, in 2003, Klaus Flouride said of performances without the band's former frontman: "There hasn't been a show yet that people didn't really like."
Biafra further criticized them for advertising shows using his own image taken from the original 1980s incarnation of the band, which he labeled as false advertising. He attacked the reformed Dead Kennedys in a song called "Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)", which appears on his second collaboration with sludge metal band The Melvins, Sieg Howdy!.
Biafra told an audience at a speaking gig in Trenton, New Jersey, that the remaining Dead Kennedys have licensed their single "Too Drunk to Fuck" to be used in a rape scene in a Robert Rodriguez movie. The reference is to a lounge cover of the song, recorded by the band Nouvelle Vague, played during a scene in the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse, although no rape takes place, and in fact the would-be rapist is killed by the would-be victim. The scene in Planet Terror has would-be rapist, "Rapist No. 1" (Quentin Tarantino) order one-legged stripper "Cherry Darlin" (Rose McGowan) to get up off the floor and dance. At this point Tarantino hits play on a cassette recorder and Nouvelle Vague's cover of "Too Drunk To Fuck" plays.
Jello, clearly disapproving of the situation, later wrote, "This is their lowest point since Levi's… This goes against everything the Dead Kennedys stands for in spades… The terrified woman later 'wins' by killing Tarantino, but that excuse does not rescue this at all. I wrote every note of that song and this is not what it was meant for…. Some people will do anything for money. I can't help but think back to how prudish Klaus Flouride was when he objected to H.R. Giger's painting on the "Frankenchrist" (sic) poster, saying he couldn't bear to show it to his parents. I'd sure love to be a fly on the wall when he tries to explain putting a song in a rape scene for money to his teenage daughter… The deal was pushed through by a new business manager the other three hired."
The reformed Dead Kennedys followed their court victory by announcing a number of tour dates, releasing reissues of all Dead Kennedys albums (except Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, to which they did not have the rights until 2005), releasing several new archival concert DVDs, and licensing several songs to The Manchurian Candidate remake and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. East Bay Ray claims he received a fax from Alternative Tentacles purporting Biafra approved the licensing for the game, which Biafra denies happening.
The band claims on their website that they still pay close attention to an anti-corporate ideology, despite performing on September 5, 2003 at a festival in Turkey that was sponsored by Coca-Cola, noting that they have since pulled out of a show in Los Angeles when they found that it was being sponsored by Coors. However, Biafra claims the above mentioned licensing deals prove otherwise. Some have found difficulty reconciling this claim when Biafra also licensed to major corporations, approving with the other band members use of Dead Kennedys’ songs in major studio film releases such as Neighbors, Freddy Got Fingered, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In 2001, Ray, Peligro, and Flouride chose former Dr. Know singer Brandon Cruz to replace Biafra on vocals. The band played under the name "DK Kennedys" for a few concerts, but later reverted to "Dead Kennedys" permanently. They played across the continental United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and Russia. Brandon Cruz left the band in May 2003 and was replaced by Jeff Penalty. The band has released two live albums of archival performances on Manifesto Records: Mutiny on the Bay, compiled from various live shows including a recording from their last show with Biafra in 1986, and Live at the Deaf Club, a recording of a 1979 performance at the Deaf Club in San Francisco which was greeted with more enthusiasm.
On October 9, 2007, a best of album titled Milking the Sacred Cow was released. It includes two previously unreleased live versions of "Soup Is Good Food" and "Jock-O-Rama", originally found on Frankenchrist.
Jeff Penalty left the band in March 2008 in what he describes as a "not amicable split." He was replaced by former Wynona Riders singer Ron "Skip" Greer. D.H. also left the band to "take some personal time off". He was replaced for a tour by Translator drummer Dave Scheff.
On August 21, 2008, the band announced an extended break from touring due to the health-related issues of Flouride and Peligro. They stated their plans to collaborate on new projects. The band performed a gig in Santa Rosa, California in June 2009, with Peligro returning to the drum kit.
In August 2010, the Dead Kennedys announced plans for a short East Coast tour. The lineup assembled for this tour contained East Bay Ray, Peligro, Greer, and bassist Greg Reeves replacing Flouride, who was taking "personal time off" from the band. The tour dates included performances in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine and Hawaii.
Dead Kennedys had world tours in 2013 and in 2014, the latter mostly in North American cities.
The band has played a reworked version of their song "MTV Get Off the Air", re-titled "MP3 Get Off the Web", with lyrics criticizing music piracy during their October 16, 2010, concert at the Rock and Roll Hotel inWashington, D.C..
The original logo was created by Winston Smith. He later contributed artwork for the covers of In God We Trust, Inc., Plastic Surgery Disasters, Frankenchrist, Bedtime for Democracy, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the back cover of the "Kill the Poor" single and the Alternative Tentacles logo. When asked about the "DK" logo in an interview, Jello Biafra explained, "...I wanted to make sure it was something simple and easy to spray-paint so people would graffiti it all over the place, and then I showed it to Winston Smith. He played around with it, came back with a bunch of designs that had the circle and slightly 3-D looking letters and he had ones with different patterns behind it. I liked the one with bricks, but ultimately I thought simple red behind it was the boldest and the best."
Dead Kennedys were noted for the harshness of their lyrics, which generally combined biting Juvenalian social satire while expressing a staunchly left-wing view of contemporary America. Unlike other leftist punk bands who use more direct sloganeering, Dead Kennedys' lyrics were often snide. For example, "Holiday in Cambodia" is a multi-layered satire targeting both yuppies and Cambodia's recently deposed Khmer Rouge regime.