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Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables The Early Years

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Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years

Alex Ogg © 2014

This edition © 2014 PM Press

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be transmitted by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-60486-489-2

LCCN: 2013956920

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

PM Press

P.O. Box 23912

Oakland, CA 94623

Book design by Russ Bestley •

Front cover design by John Yates •

DK Photographs (where specified) © Ruby Ray, Mick McGee

Fallout magazine © Winston Smith •

Printed in the USA by the Employee Owners of Thomson-Shore in Dexter, Michigan


The author would like to dedicate this book to Dawn Nichola Wrench – ‘Never TDTF’

He also thanks the staff and students at Brittons and in particular 10ad/en1 for contract-checking and 8OGG, his day job treasures.

Jello’s support for this project was crucial in seeing it finally reach print, but the author also acknowledges the contributions made by his fellow band members when the project existed in a different guise. The author would also like to thank his favourite collage artist, Winston Smith, for his support and involvement in this project. Others who were vital to the development of the book included all those interviewed, and special thanks to Russ Bestley (design), Roger Sabin, Vanessa Demaude and Josef Loderer (for advice and encouragement), Helen Donlon (his fab literary agent), Mick McGee and Ruby Ray (for photos). Thanks also to DK record and memorabilia specialists Tony Raven, Mason Bermingham, Andrew Kenrick, Iain Scatterty, Vaughan Wyn Roberts, Darren Hardcastle, Kevin Shepherd and Rich Hassall for rare record cover details and images, and to Jay Allen Sanford of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics. Vasilia Dimitrova brought her illustration skills to bear to highlight an essential part of the story, and thanks to Allan Kausch for initial editing and feedback, together with early gig flyers and information, and Gregory Nipper for an extremely detailed final edit. Thanks too to co-publishers Kristiina in Finland, Craig and Ramsey in America, Joachim in Germany, Maria in Brazil, David in the dear old UK and anyone who’s been forgotten!


Prequel: When Ya Get Drafted

Chapter 1: So You’ve Been to School for a Year or Two

Chapter 2: In a Desperate Mind, Little Gardens Grow

Chapter 3: You Will Jog for the Master Race

Chapter 4: Are You Believin’ the Morning Papers?

Chapter 5: Anyone Can Be King for a Day

Chapter 6: Efficiency and Progress Is Ours Once More

Chapter 7: Don’t Forget to Pack a Wife

All You Ever Do Is Complain, Yeah?


Yakety Yak

Grafic Anarchy

Book jacket collages by Winston Smith, 2013.


When Ya Get Drafted

Some of the interview material collated herein was originally commissioned as the basis for the projected sleeve notes to the twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. The fact that said endeavour was derailed by wrangling among former members will come as no great surprise to longstanding observers of Dead Kennedys. The maxim is that history is dictated by the winners, whether said victory be defined by court case, fiscal arm-twisting, media access or variations on those themes. Efforts to maintain authorial independence on the project were undermined by warring factions competing over the narrative and in the end the sleeve notes were withdrawn. Or rather just tossed aside. The final stumbling block was a single sentence, which is retained in this book (you’ll struggle to spot it though, it’s astonishingly innocuous). It got very messy and at times deeply unpleasant. But it represents subject matter I was always committed to returning to. And it’s taken to the thirtieth anniversary, and beyond, to sort it all out.

It was a salutary lesson in how deep some feuds run, and yet I maintain that it was a tragic denouement to a job well worth undertaking. Informed readers will doubtless be aware how much the reputation of the band has been tarnished over recent years. To borrow San Francisco Chronicle writer James Sullivan’s analogy, any metaphysical statue the city might have erected in the band’s honour just got covered in seagull poop. Yet a great band they truly were. I am not alone in ranking Fresh Fruit as one of the most important albums to emerge from punk, one of only a handful that genuinely transcended genre – stretching musical and lyrical conventions while making a point, or several dozen, and jabbing funny bones the world over. This is an effort to restore its standing. Or hose off some of the guano.

In fact, the history of this project extends even deeper than the sleeve-note debacle. In 1991 I was editing a British music magazine to which someone submitted an article on the band. I was very keen to publish, and sent it off to Dead Kennedys’ singer Jello Biafra for evaluation and scrutiny. When he eventually replied there were over a hundred written amendments – he wasn’t too taken by the writer. He wasn’t all that impressed, either, when he discovered said magazine’s publisher had bootlegged DKs records in the past – a fact I was blissfully unaware of at the time. In the event the magazine disappeared down the tubes. In effect, then, what you are reading has spent two decades in gestation. That sounds overly grand; I’ve applied myself to the odd job in between.

Our correspondence continued, albeit sporadically, over the course of two decades. Thereafter I was commissioned to submit an article on the band for another music magazine, and a similar process of writing and revision was embarked upon. Unfortunately, at that precise moment the legal shenanigans between the former band-mates erupted and the piece was lost in the shuffle. Another few years rolled by and in 2005 I was asked to write the aforementioned sleeve notes. I was thrilled, naively thinking I could get around entrenched positions by playing fair and being transparent to all parties. I spent about a month working with the former members on new interviews and got some great material. Then it got to the nitty gritty and pretty soon I was trying to mediate various issues, showing each party the other’s replies and attempting to reconcile what could broadly, and generously, be described as competing takes on history.

The opposing parties by this point had diluted to Biafra versus guitarist East Bay Ray, which again will not be a surprising revelation to those who know something of the band’s internal politics. Klaus Flouride (bass) very much follows Ray’s lead in inter-band affairs and Ted, in charmingly typical drummer-like fashion, seemed completely bemused as to why anyone would wish to bother. I was pretty close to coming round to his way of thinking by the end.

Petty just doesn’t cover it. The ten drafts wound up running to over sixty-four thousand words; we had space for five thousand. At one stage an employee at Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys’ record label subsequently administered by Biafra) complained that I’d single-handedly broken their printer. There was a lengthy telephone debate on whether to allow a band member the use of the personal rather than collective pronoun. As part of my increasingly desperate attempts at appeasement, I ended up totting up quote allocations to prove that everyone’s thoughts were evenly accounted for.1 If the men in white coats had knocked at my door at this stage, I would have gone quietly. The absolute nadir was when one band member – not Biafra – accused me of being the cause of his bad back. Over a transatlantic phone call. Repeatedly.

In the end it ran something like this. Biafra will chide and cajole and do his utmost to persuade you of the veracity of his interpretation of events. Then he will concede that you have the right to call it as you see it as a writer. Ray will chide and cajole and do his utmost to persuade you of the veracity of his interpretation of events. And then he will call his lawyer. The curse of the Kennedys? I must admit I am finalising the current manuscript with more than vague apprehension. What else could possibly go wrong?

For all that, I still adore the record. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables is not London Calling. It is not Never Mind The Bollocks, nor is it The Ramones. To me, it is superior to that lauded trio, mainly because of the lyrical and musical intelligence that underpins it, which utterly captivated and compelled back in 1980, scarily three decades ago. I could support this doubtless hysterical contention by pointing out that it regularly features in greatest punk album polls voted for by the people (though it should be noted that the people are a stupid bunch, by and large, as Sid Vicious once set out in rather more florid terms). The album’s afterlife is such an extraordinary achievement for a band who had practically zero radio play and only released records on independent labels – no EMI, CBS or Warners for them. They not only existed outside of the mainstream but were, as V. Vale of Search And Destroy fanzine noted, the first band of their stature to turn on and attack the music industry itself. The DKs set so much in motion. They were integral to the formulation of an alternative American network that allowed bands on the first rung of the ladder to tour outside of their own backyard. They were instrumental in supporting the concept of all-ages shows and spurned the advances of corporate rock promoters and industry lapdogs. They legitimised the whole notion of an American punk band working successfully in the UK and Europe while disseminating the true horror of their native country’s foreign policies; effectively serving as anti-ambassadors on their travels.

The record label they established, the still-thriving Alternative Tentacles, boasts as challenging a back-catalogue of musical extremity to service dysfunctional listening tastes as you could possibly desire. And the gallery of crooked politicians, charlatan preachers and corporate crocodiles they managed to provoke over the course of their career is unparalleled. How much are they part of the DNA of both punk and popular music? Although it’s not scientific, Jack Black’s School of Rock blackboard traces a straight line that runs Pistols-Ramones-Clash-Dead Kennedys. Biafra will have a right wobbly when I use that as justification. I’m a bit wobbly myself.

The aforementioned triumvirate – Pistols, Clash, Ramones – has collectively had more than a hundred books published in their name. The DKs have never been written about at length, or celebrated accordingly, despite Fresh Fruit selling over a quarter of a million records in Europe alone. Their own fault, really. They never progressed to make a rock ‘n’ roll record – conventional rock criticism continuing to hold that the punk genus is something intrinsically juvenile; at the very best a chrysalis stage. They also fell out spectacularly, meaning people tend to tread warily around demonstrably litigious elements in this story. And, in many ways, what they put on the record was more intractably violent towards public and critical perception. “Sure, I wanted the band to last,” says Biafra. “But some of the best bands are the ones that go out of their way to shock and annoy people, and not just pander and please.” Here’s a story that gives credence to that statement.

Fresh Fruit arrived at a juncture when critics and opinion leaders had distanced themselves from punk, claiming primacy in its discovery but disdain of its subsequent trajectory – the school of thinking that suggests art is ruined at the moment it is consumed by more than a small cultural elite. The UK had three specialist music papers demanding a steady stream of flavours of the week. By the turn of the decade New Romanticism was the latest bag for the style-conscious, heavy metal was being readmitted to polite society for those bereft of such concerns, and punk was widely regarded as a victim of infant mortality. But an evolution was underway and a corrective overdue. For many who believed that the movement was more than a showy outcrop of the unhindered continuum of rock ‘n’ roll, Fresh Fruit confirmed punk’s potential to stand for something beyond the trappings of fashion and faux rebellion.

The debate over punk etymology, whether it originated in CBGB’s or St Martin’s College of Art, is effectively asinine, but it’s unarguable that by the late ’70s the UK had shaped the discourse. By the turn of the ’80s, however, Brit-punk was beginning to run on empty. Subject matter and stylistic form were contracting. Crass had politicised punk in a sharp rebuttal of The Clash, who had moved on to starry lights and stadiums, and the imploding Pistols. As Biafra himself notes, “Crass were trying to get punks to think and act beyond punk, that feeling good about buying an album called Sandinista did nothing to actually help anyone in Nicaragua.” But for all their intelligence and sincerity, Crass were too abrasive, too austere to make a record of similar weight. Punk, at least in the UK, had become woefully po-faced and worthy; simply too obvious. As Al Spicer would write, when their debut record ‘California Über Alles’ was first spun by John Peel, “it sounded like nothing the British punk scene had heard before and was as refreshing and welcome as the bugle sound of the cavalry coming to the rescue.”

Fresh Fruit offered a perfect hybrid of humour and polemic strapped to a musical chassis that was as tetchy and inventive as Biafra’s withering broadsides. Those lyrics, cruel in their precision, were revelatory. But it wouldn’t have worked if the underlying sonics were not such an uproarious rush, the paraffin to Biafra’s naked flame. And if we can set aside the bickerfest for a fleeting moment, we can remember what a cool, funny, savage little record Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables was.

… at the Mabuhay 1978. Audience after Crime’s set – Biafra, Bruce Conner and Mindaugis Bagdon in the front row. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Avengers, live at the Mabuhay 1977. Penelope Houston, Greg Ingraham and Danny Furious. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Chapter 1

So You’ve Been to School for a Year or Two

It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world. (Oscar Wilde)

It’s the Amerikan in me that makes me watch the blood Runnin’ out of the bullet hole in his head (The Avengers’ ‘The American In Me’, referencing JFK’s assassination)

San Francisco was a natural crucible for punk. For years it had been synonymous with liberal thought, with vocal gay rights, feminist and ecological lobbies, and in the ’60s became a magnet to the Beats and base camp for the Summer of Love. It also had the working class districts one would associate with a port town. A haven, then, for weirdos, hippies and eccentrics, as well as more rational left-leaning thinkers, it was natural that, after New York, and alongside its Californian neighbour Los Angeles, it rejoiced in the punk ethos of difference. It was, after all, at the city’s Winterland Ballroom that the Sex Pistols played their final show, not so much passing the baton as dropping it where they stood. Or, in Sid’s case, fell over. “In San Francisco,” notes singer Jello Biafra, “a lot of the prime movers of all the different things in the arts over the years came from people who came there from somewhere else. It’s not like London or New York, where a lot of the people grew up there. It’s a city where people are drawn from all over the country, and even the world, to chase their dream and find some freedom to try to see what they can become.” A city that Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane once succinctly described as “Forty-nine square miles surrounded by reality”. Any reference to the latter band in a book about Dead Kennedys might provoke bewilderment, but the lineage back to the ’60s was clear. The band itself was explicit. “We were trying to restore what the hippies believed in,” guitarist East Bay Ray would state, “tolerance for experimentation, the do-it-yourself thing and the questioning of authority.” “And,” adds Biafra, “insurrection, direct action and good old-fashioned pranks.”

If the city offered opportunity for innumerable square pegs, Frisco’s traditional celebration of outsiders was also readily simpatico with punk values; the discarding of status built on appearance, wealth or career advancement. “Unlike London,” Biafra points out, “San Francisco had no Carnaby Street or King’s Road. Punk fashion throughout California was 98% DIY, straight out of charity shops. Look at old pictures of the Weirdos and The Dickies! Even the Hollywood punks got their gear from Salvation Army.” Instead, San Franciscan punk made personal eccentricities a positive and baited the pomposity of those who would assume authority over others. Above all it fetishised individuality, personal creativity and self-expression. Mutual support and collaboration were key elements. One of punk’s myths was that its year zero culture was effectively a big bang – an instant grow-bag with everyone at each other’s throats – when in truth it scooped up those already disaffected and desperately waiting for something to happen, something the misfits and mis-shapes could belong to.

When Ray put up an advert (‘guitarist wants to start punk or new wave band’) in Aquarius Records, reprinted in San Francisco’s BAM newspaper, he had a singular intention. He wanted to have the best such band in San Francisco. Which may not sound such a lofty ambition, but by the time the ad was placed in 1978, the city had already midwifed a hugely diverse punk generation.

Front-runners Crime and The Nuns delivered attitudinal, primal rock ‘n’ roll and to this day dispute the honour of being the city’s first punk band. Crime, who initially eschewed the punk tag, would take the stage dressed as cops, or in fedoras or tuxedos, play turbo-charged Stooges-like punk-blues at deafening volume with a sense of melodrama that recalled Kiss as much as MC5. They legendarily told Seymour Stein that he needed to get the Ramones a haircut. The Nuns, led by Jennifer Miro and featuring future alt-country star Alejandro Escovedo, were no less a force – the visual equivalent of Marlene Dietrich fronting the Dead Boys and for some time the movement’s biggest live draw. They were the first San Francisco punk band to play an ‘official’ gig at the scene epicentre Mabuhay Gardens and the first to be courted by the majors, though in the end they elected to sign with Howie Klein’s 415 when a deal with Columbia fell through. It was a harbinger of the fate that would befall all of the city’s pioneering punk bands.

The Avengers, who alongside The Nuns supported the Pistols at Winterland, had a keen instinct for taut melody as well as aggression. With singer Penelope Houston as impossibly cool, photogenic lead, they led the second wave, but cruelly never got to release an album despite having material sufficient for three. Their peers included the highly theatrical, populous Mutants, who played alongside The Cramps at the State Mental Asylum in Napa, causing consternation among guards attempting to differentiate between performer and audience. The Dils, led by the Kinman brothers, had relocated from San Diego and established a class-themed political consciousness that would later be refined in the region’s punk bible/ pre-internet punk networking compass Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll. The swaggering Sleepers from Palo Alto, featuring Crime’s original drummer Rickie Williams on vocals, a registered schizophrenic trailer-park live wire, referenced The Stooges but also mined SF’s psychedelic (musical and pharmaceutical) hinterland, and were the Germs’ Darby Crash’s favourite band.

The insanely confrontational Negative Trend probably held the upper hand, however, in terms of envelope-pushing. In one of his last acts as manager of the ‘real’ Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren had asked them to headline above his charges at Winterland after enquiring as to the identity of the ‘worst’ band in the area. Original vocalist Rozz Rezabek left at the age of seventeen, the Bay Area’s very own Iggy having burnt himself out physically. He had famously completed a show with a broken arm at the Iguana Studios before an indifferent Sandy Pearlman, renowned for producing Blue Öyster Cult but having just worked on The Clash’s second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Indeed, he had not merely broken his arm, but actually gone to hospital then returned to the gig to break it again in a different place. Biafra unsuccessfully auditioned for the vacant spot. So too did Bruce Loose, who would eventually find a berth in fellow Negative Trend survivor Will Shatter’s subsequent band, Flipper.

Dead Kennedys would arrive as part of a third wave spearheaded by The Offs, who blended buzz-saw guitar and Velvet Underground-styled drone-noise with dub bass. Incidentally this author does not claim to have been a witness to any of these bands. Fortuitously, Joe Rees at Target Video shot them all, providing the most comprehensive audio and visual catalogue of an emerging movement that any Johnny Latecomer could wish to access.

The shock of hearing Dead Kennedys therefore, at least outside San Francisco, has to be reconciled to this unique context. What made ‘California Über Alles’ and ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ sound more jarring, sarcastic and musically spiteful than the offspring of Lydon and Strummer was the result of a scene largely sealed from outside gaze in which the impetus to outdo, outperform and out-out was abroad. Not only had the city embraced punk, it had accelerated the process of personalising it.

All those storied groups, however, were forced to survive without any kind of infrastructure at a time when recording and independently releasing records remained a pipe dream. It was against this firmament of fast-evolving creative dissidence, and logistical obstacles, that any new San Franciscan punk band would have to measure itself.

Already a seasoned musician who had grown up on his dad’s Duke Ellington collection, Ray, the band’s sole Bay Area native, was inspired by Scotty Moore’s guitar playing on Elvis’s early records as well as Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. It was seeing the latter band play at Winterland in October 1970 as a twelve-year-old that convinced him to pick up a guitar. Later, he got into the Ohio Players when ’70s rock started to chase its own tail. He was immediately excited by the arrival of the Ramones and the first English punk records he heard.2 Ray had a caveat in reference to potential respondents to his advert. In defiance of prevailing notions, he wanted everyone to be not just proficient or capable, but individually excellent.

Raymond Pepperell, to use Ray’s birth name, has a mathematics degree. “I graduated from University of California, Berkeley. So I have a right brain and a left brain. I forget which is which! I really respond to music, though, non-intellectually.” His parents were both politically active. “They were involved in the civil rights movement, fighting block-busting in the ’50s and ’60s – people would put a black family in a block of white people, then buy up all the white houses cheap. And redlining insurance neighbourhoods [the practice of hiking insurance costs in predominantly black areas]. My parents were fighting that, too. My parents were definitely activists and liberals, particularly in civil rights. I know I got dragged to one or two protest meetings. My dad was even on the school board for a while. He worked at a corporation and wore a suit and tie, but was doing this stuff. Both mom and dad dressed strait-laced. But they weren’t. My mom used to listen to Pete Seeger in The Weavers. And Frank Sinatra! Guilty pleasure!”

He was already an experienced if unfulfilled musician. “I only had six months of guitar lessons, and the teacher wasn’t showing me what I wanted to know, so I mostly learned from records. In high school I played with friends and my brother played drums. That was in the suburbs of California [Castro Valley], still in the East Bay. I went to college and stopped playing. When I got out of college, I was playing in a bar band at the time, making $100 a week. I thought, I can live off this! So I was working three or four nights a week. It wasn’t satisfying, but it was educational.” The one document of this time is his contribution to the Bay Area showband Cruisin’, who cut one single, ‘Vicky’s Hickey’, which the band sold at shows through the mid-’70s. They even had alternate Beatles and Beach Boys sets, complete with swimming trunks.

By the time 1978 swung around, he had begun to notice punk stirring. “I’d heard of the Sex Pistols and Ramones, and I was listening to them. Then I went to see the Weirdos at the Mabuhay [Gardens]. One of the ways I like to test music is if the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. That happened when I saw the Weirdos live. ‘Ah, this is what I want to do.’ I was in the area having dinner and I wandered in and talked to them.” Thereafter he put his plan in motion, but was determined that his new band’s musicianship should be spurred rather than tethered by the punk breakout. Instinctively he rejected the ‘two chords and the truth’ mantra of UK punk. “Originally, when I put up the advertisements for the band, one of the images of punk was that you shouldn’t be able to play your instrument, which is a bit of a myth. When I put the ad in, I said I wanted to start a punk band, but people had to be able to play.”

The first respondent to the Aquarius advert was Eric Boucher, soon to be known to the world as Jello Biafra; a nom de plume chosen at random from a notebook after originally billing himself as Occupant.3 “When I put the ads up I was dealing with different people,” Ray continues. “Talking on the phone, then meeting with them and playing with them. I was working with someone else and Biafra at the same time, writing songs together. The other guy showed up an hour late. And that was it. I said, ‘I’ve been waiting here an hour. Thank you very much. Bye.’ They were both talented. But everyone in DKs had that craftsman work ethic, about showing up on time. This won’t get anywhere [otherwise]. It’s about commitment.”

Biafra had grown up in Boulder, Colorado, the son of a librarian mother and a psychiatric social worker father who also wrote poetry. Both endorsed Martin Luther King’s advocacy of passive resistance. Authority figures, notably a sixth-grade teacher who would daily profess what a good man Richard Nixon was, collided against an embryonic political consciousness forged by the anti-war demonstrations Eric could observe taking place at Colorado University from his elementary school window. As a consequence he immersed himself in the prevalent hippy culture, with its attendant stand against the Vietnam War and advocacy of environmentalism, civil rights and free love, but he later became horrified by its slide into exploitative practices and self-satisfaction. Realising how manipulative this community had become was fundamental to his worldview: “Seeing many hippies turn their backs on their ideals and evolve into what is now called New Age and Yuppies”. He sought refuge instead in pranks and music. A shit-stirrer was born. Or rather, as Biafra prefers to have it, referencing Abbie Hoffman (‘Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers’), the proud tradition of American shit-stirringdom had a new inductee.

While his family preferred classical music, the first records he possessed were by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf, Christmas gifts both, followed by a couple of Led Zeppelin albums and the Woodstock soundtrack. “Blue Öyster Cult are significant,” he adds, “because their Tyranny and Mutation was the first one I ever bought without first hearing the songs on the radio. I was fed up with radio by age thirteen, in 1971, so I started buying records whose covers looked cool, especially since that first one really hit the spot. My big later interests also included The Stooges, Pink Fairies, 13th Floor Elevators, Hawkwind, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath and, believe it or not, Sparks, because their lyrics and songs were so demented, especially the Indiscreet album.”

Many of these initial purchases were through local store Trade-A-Tape, nearby his high school. Faithfully dedicated to servicing country-rock to local residents, the proprietors would throw anything they regarded as slightly weird into a free box outside the store. Later he was fortunate enough to discover the original Wax Trax store in Denver, run by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, who later moved the shop to Chicago and set up the famed record label of the same name. “All of a sudden, I noticed this window and it had old Yardbirds records in it, and a John Denver record nailed onto the door, nails through his eyes and blood pouring out … and I figured, aha, this is the place for me.”

MC5 were also an important addition to his growing musical consciousness. “What got me clued into them was the music critic of The Denver Post. His name was Jared Johnson. He did capsule reviews of albums every week. Boy, did he go off on albums he didn’t like. He said that Paul Simon and the Bee Gees were the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but he ranted and raved against Alice Cooper and said that Black Sabbath was almost as bad as MC5. So I immediately went out and started looking for MC5 albums the next day.” He found two of them for 25 cents at Trade-A-Tape.

Despite a propensity for mentally warehousing large tracts of information and a fascination with printed and visual media (which would later manifest itself in the collage art that would accompany Dead Kennedys records) music singularly inspired Biafra’s love of words. “Music lyrics are almost my entire literary background,” he confirms. “This seems to shock and annoy a hell of a lot of people, although Allen Ginsberg thought it was great and perfectly valid. At the very least, it helps me overcome my intellectual upbringing to hopefully better communicate to other people raised on music lyrics who don’t really like to read.”

While still in Boulder he roadied for Colorado’s first punk band, The Ravers. They would subsequently relocate to New York and eventually had a 1984 hit with ’88 Lines About 44 Women’ for RCA under new name, The Nails. Irony fans will note that the A&R link was Bruce Harris, the man credited with finally convincing Epic to release The Clash’s debut album in America and invoking the epithet ‘The only band that matters’. However, Biafra’s first noteworthy musical venture was The Healers. They specialised in “real scary music” and did some tentative recording but never played live. “We never rehearsed,” confirms Biafra, “it was me and John Greenway and sometimes others banging on instruments we couldn’t play when our parents weren’t home. It was all improvised.”

Sensing the winds of change overseas, a trip to England in the summer of 1977 saw Biafra check out the local punk scene. He was able to attend shows by The Count Bishops and Little Bob Story, and caught an early Wire gig supporting The Saints (he was so impressed by the latter he had them sign a copy of I’m Stranded). On his return he enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz that autumn to study Drama and the History of Paraguay – simply because they were the only classes left on offer (he’d tried to get into film school but didn’t make the cut). Inspired by repeat spins of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’ – he had been amongst the first residents of Boulder to possess a copy – he cut off his hippy hair, placed it inside a Ziploc bag and nailed the spurned locks to his dorm door. “That was just inspiration because I felt the hippy thing had run its course. They weren’t causing enough of the right kind of trouble anymore. As soon as the hair went off, all of a sudden I felt dangerous again from the way people reacted. The bag of hair still exists! I’ve got it somewhere. I found it a while back!”

About ten weeks was all he could stomach in a campus environment of “pathetic Deadheads with rich parents”. He dropped out before completing his first semester, returning to Boulder to subsist by washing soiled laundry at a nursing home, which presented his very own One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest moment. “A fascinating journey into hell”, not least because he was appalled at the practices of some orderlies who traded in watches and other effects stolen from the unfortunate inmates.

When San Francisco became his final port of call he was primed to embrace the first West Coast American bands such as the Germs, Dils, Sleepers and particularly the Screamers. “When I moved back out, it took two days to get there. I happened to arrive on the night that The Nuns and Negative Trend were playing.” Enthused, he put into action previously frustrated plans to start a new band by responding to Ray’s advert. After all, one of the first people he’d met in San Francisco was Negative Trend’s Will Shatter. “Hey, you should be in a band,” he informed Biafra. “I’ve been playing bass for only three days and I’m in a band.”

The next respondent, after Biafra and Ray had kicked the band idea around for a month or so, was Klaus Flouride, aka Geoffrey Lyall. Like Ray he was a time-served musician, having played in bands around New York and Boston for several years. In his native Detroit, he would regularly tape shows by some of that city’s legendary performers. “I had actually recorded early on people like MC5, early Stooges etc. at the Grande Ballroom,” he says. “They were fairly crude tapes, but pretty good.” However, his entire cassette collection was stolen from his basement during a blackout. “I’m sure they took it to a pawn shop and the guy gave them four bucks for the whole thing. The tapes, whoever got them, they probably erased them and put their Fleetwood Mac collection on it. But I definitely got to see a lot of that stuff fairly close up. And got to examine it.”

He was first drawn to music when his brother and sister started buying him records in the mid-’50s. “I saw Buddy Holly on TV. I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. And I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and all that stuff. But it was Buddy Holly that made me ask my parents to get me a guitar for Christmas. I figured they’d get me a Stratocaster. That’s what he was playing. And they got me this big old Stellar acoustic from Sears. And it had a neck on it like a horse’s leg, and I was a little eight-year-old kid. And my fingers couldn’t even fit around the neck. The guitar teacher got very frustrated, and told my parents I’d never play.”

He started his own pirate radio station in Detroit before moving to Boston, where he studied communications. “I had pirate radio stations in Detroit in ’65/’66, and in Boston from ’71 to ’74. In Detroit it was WKMA for ‘Kiss My Ass’. Basically, we got bothered a whole bunch of times in Detroit, so we moved over to Canada, where the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] couldn’t touch us, and the Canadian Board of Broadcasting didn’t care one way or the other, because we weren’t jamming anybody. And we’d get these letters entirely in red from the FCC. But we knew they couldn’t do a thing. In Boston it was WOMB – the station with immaculate reception! I was on Beacon Hill, so I had good range up the Charles River – MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Harvard, Boston University; all those people on the river, in the dorms. When it started out in Detroit we were playing everything from Lenny Bruce to early Mothers to stuff like Iggy Pop. By the end of that station’s existence we had some MC5 and stuff like that. It was before freeform radio really happened out here. The transmitter came because we knew this guy who was a science freak. And he said, ‘Oh, I can build a transmitter.’ And he did! The first one was a World War II field radio that had a monster tube in the middle of it. It was supposed to broadcast in the short wave area. He just knocked it down to the AM band. But we had to turn it off ten minutes in every hour because it would overheat. Then he built us a better one from scratch. Then when we moved to Canada he built a 1,000-watt transmitter. But I don’t have that one. That was left in Detroit with one of the other guys who ran the station with me.”

At the same time, he began playing in bands. “When I first started playing in Boston, it was cover bands. Then there was this guy Billy Squier, who played in Tom Swift And His Electric Grandma. He and I got together and had this group called Magic Terry & The Universe. It was inspired by things like MC5 and The Stooges and was involved in the Warhol scene. Terry was a very charismatic front-person who did not sing; he spoke everything. We had one gig, playing with Ten Years After. We were a Velvet Underground kind of group, and kids were there mostly to see a guy play very fast guitar. [Terry] had this song called ‘Of America And The Entire Western World’. It was a seven-minute song he played eight different characters in. And towards the end of the set, Terry mooned the kids. We were supposed to be playing three or four days but got booted off after the first night. The story that came back to New York was ‘banned in Boston’ and everyone got excited. But then it fizzled out. Both the record companies that were excited about it said, ‘We’re not ready for you yet, we’ll sign you in a year. Get the stuff together.’ We couldn’t hold out for a year. We were nineteen-year-olds and didn’t want to wait that long.” At one point Jim Morrison got Magic Terry a meeting with The Doors’ management team, but Terry was considered, even by that interlocutor’s standards, too volatile.

“When that broke up I started playing R&B and blues stuff. That’s what basically I did for ten years, playing in house blues bands. When blues masters came through they’d use our bands. Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker – people like that would use us. Some people would practice, others would assume that we’d know their stuff. But we had our own side bands, R&B-type bands. And it would get to the point where it would be a bunch of white guys challenging black guys to see who could drink more. I got tired of that. So I decided to check out California to see if it was different. I came out to visit in the Christmas of ’76.” The temperature was in the high ’70s. “A little drizzle, that’s all. It turns out it was an incredible warm snap in San Francisco. I didn’t know that. I thought, that’s just what California is like. I went back to Boston and I was driving a cab at that point. We had some amazing snowstorms in Boston, which was really good for cabs because people would constantly flag you down from one stop to the next. You’d get ten bucks for taking someone half a mile. Then they’d tip you another three and there was someone else frantically flagging you down. So I made enough to buy a van and move out to San Francisco in May 1977.”

It was while driving cabs he first heard about punk. “I got the first Ramones album for 50 cents. I took it home, played it and laughed at it. I thought it was kinda funny, but amateurish, and I pooh-poohed it. But then I woke up the next morning with those tunes still running through my head. And I thought, ah, that’s curious, that it just needled its way into my brain that quickly. So I got to San Francisco. I was working as a temp, going out on Fridays for drinks with people. One of the places we’d go to was the Mabuhay. The first band I saw there that made an impression on me was The Zeros. They’d been based in San Diego and moved up to San Francisco. The people I was with were laughing at the whole thing, like – what a joke! I sat there thinking, this is intense. This is what rock ‘n’ roll used to be about when I was a kid. It was like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and all that stuff that scared my parents when we watched it on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Jerry Lee Lewis came on, my mother let out a sigh of relief, cos the guy looked like a classical musician sitting down at the piano. He sat down and then started playing. He plays a little wild, then he stood up and he threw his hair forward, and his whole hair comes flying out. My mom just said, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was just glued to the television. And that’s the kind of thing that I would say punk rock was doing again, whereas anything else going on in rock ‘n’ roll in the mid to late ’70s was not doing that.”

Shortly afterwards he chanced across Ray’s ad in Bay Area Musician. “BAM was a magazine to fill up the void so there was somebody to stroke bands on the local Jefferson Starship kind of level. It ignored punk. I was looking through the back of that and there was a guy looking to form a punk band. And it said ‘East Bay – which was the part of the Bay Area that Ray lives in – Ray.’ And because I’d only been in San Francisco for a while and wasn’t familiar with the terms, I wasn’t sure if his name was East Bay or Ray or East Bay Ray. So I played it safe and called him Ray when we spoke on the phone. I told him that story about a year later and that’s when he settled on East Bay Ray. On the ‘California Über Alles’ single, he’s Ray Valium.”

He made his way over to Ray’s garage for the first practice session. “The first thing he [Ray] asked was, ‘Can you play “Peggy Sue”?’ I had that one right down, it was one of the first things I learned on guitar. It was close to a regular punk progression. Ray wanted to play something that had that kind of sound without being a Ramones song that you’d memorised – ‘Let’s not go to the garage and play ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’. Let’s go to the garage and see if you can play the roots of ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’.” I remember a phone conversation where I was mentioning The Residents and Devo influence. Most of the other people were just saying Sex Pistols and Ramones. It just showed that we had a drive to make it sound like something that would stand out and not just be generic-sounding.”

And so began Dead Kennedys. Even today the sight of their name can send the uninitiated into a fit of apoplexy. It was chosen to symbolise “the end of the American dream and the beginning of the decline and fall of the American Empire,” a myth most exquisitely enshrined in the fate of the Kennedy clan. To most Americans its invocation was, and remains, an act of sacrilege. Rather than playing to punk consensus, it was additionally a specific affront to the mainstream liberals of the Democratic Party. A good start then.

That moniker came from Biafra – in a roundabout way. Given that his ability to coin band names is legendary (documented on his No More Cocoons spoken word album), it is somewhat surprising that its original source was a third party. Or rather, perhaps, parties. “It was suggested by two friends at the same party,” remembers Biafra, “one of whom was a guy called Rick Stott.” Stott, later the DKs’ lawyer, had worked the counter at Trade-A-Tape, managed The Ravers and would later join the staff at Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll radio show, prior to its fanzine incarnation. “The other one was Radio Pete [aka Mark Bliesener, future New York Rocker contributor and editor of Rocky Mountain Musical Express, who subsequently managed Lyle Lovett, Alan Parsons and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band]. The funny part is – only a few years ago did Rick Stott tell me that he suggested that as a great band name after reading about another band called Dead Kennedys in Cleveland! Then our Dead Kennedys starts. Ray Farrell, who later ran SST Records and was hired by Geffen, was working at a record store called Rather Ripped in Berkeley and said, ‘Yeah, you guys are getting all this great press in Cleveland.’ And I thought, ‘What?’ I picked up an issue of Cle, the fanzine that Pere Ubu and the rest were covered in, and looked at it and realised that it was a completely different band. Had I known that there was another band of that name already, I would never have used it.” In fact, the Cleveland Dead Kennedys had swiftly changed their name after they discovered the name was something of an impediment to getting live bookings.

Dead Kennedys ‘Hard Rock’ comic, originally published by Revolutionary Comics. Reproduced by kind permission of Jay Allen Sanford of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics. This issue, according to Sanford, was written “by a woman who at the time was a Sociology professor at DePaul University, where she used our comics in her courses!” Words by Deena Dasein, artwork by Joe Paradise.

In fact, Bliesener has a much clearer recollection of the provenance of what Jon Savage would acknowledge as “the definitive punk name”. “Rick actually came up with Gang of Four – before there was a Gang of Four!” Bliesener recalls. [Gang of Four was actually a name coincidentally suggested by Biafra.] “I had been toting the name around to some other bands as well. Word had gotten around. In about 1974 I had moved from Chicago to a cabin with no water, and my girlfriend was staying with me and had a teddy bear she called ‘Ted Kennedy’, in honour of the senator. Just out of that came the notion one night when we were sitting around, ‘Ted Kennedy – Ted Kennedy – Dead Kennedy’. What a great name for a band! It just kind of lay there. I have kept a running band name list forever. I’ve either been in or worked with bands my whole life. This just went on the list. Eventually I moved back to Colorado from Los Angeles, where I was playing with ? and the Mysterians. In 1976. In July, just after I’d moved in, I was doing some recording for fun, with the Dead Kennedys name in mind. I wrote a couple of songs, one was ‘(Just) A Patsy’, after Lee Harvey Oswald’s famous line, and another one, ‘Jackie’s Song’. I recorded those for the bicentennial in 1976.4 At that time, everyone in Colorado who appreciated Mott, the Dolls, the Velvets, The Stooges, Phil Spector, Pistols, The Damned, The Clash – we all ran into one another. I had a PA system, which I hired out for like $50 a time. One was The Ravers [whose drummer, Al Leis, would later audition for the Dead Kennedys after Ted departed] and hanging around that band was Eric and a kid named Joseph Pope [later behind the Rocky Mountain Low compilation and bass player of SST band Angst]. I remember we were all so passionate, that feeling that if we didn’t seize control and get some three-chord rock out there it would disappear and become a museum piece. I ended up going to Eric’s parents’ house to his boyhood bedroom and brought my cassette recorder – I was taping singles he’d brought back from the UK. We couldn’t get them here yet; Cortinas, Vibrators, X-Ray Spex, I think. I was just taping off his record player, and probably preaching the gospel of Phil Spector. I recall saying to him, ‘I have the greatest name for a band that nobody could ever use.’ It just lay there. I was totally surprised when I heard about that first Dead Kennedys show in 1978. How cool! Someone actually used that name!”

Biafra had to employ a little subterfuge to get his own way, however. “When I suggested Dead Kennedys, Ray and Klaus objected so strongly I knew I was onto something. So I told The Dils, Negative Trend and others that Dead Kennedys was our name, and Ray and Klaus couldn’t get rid of it!” They immediately started writing songs together, but their memories of the methodology vary wildly. “I had one of those $10 cassette recorders,” Ray states. “Different songs were written different ways, but he [Biafra] would say his words into the cassette and I’d record them, and find some chord changes later, or something would happen right then. Then later I gave him cassettes with guitar riffs, melody lines and chords. He would rummage through his booklet of lyrics and find one that fit. Another way that songs would happen would be that we were jamming together and record it. Which is how ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ came about.”

This is not how Biafra recollects the development of the songs at all, although ‘Cambodia’ is an exception. He is adamant that the concepts for the vast majority of songs were his, and they were not only lyrics, but came with his ideas on the riffs and music that should accompany them. “I never once handed Ray any lyrics to make into a song,” he maintains. “The only time I ever did that with anybody was the one time with Carlos.” Carlos Cadona, aka 6025, was the band’s temporary second guitarist, whom everyone in the band seems to refer to affectionately as ‘eccentric’. “I was hanging around with Carlos,” Biafra continues, “and we both liked really weird music and were hot to be in a band. Then his band Mailman broke up. So I said, ‘Why not just join our band?’” Ray remembers 6025 as someone they know from local shows. “He played guitar, so we started playing with him. He added that Captain Beefheart/Frank Zappa overtone to things.”

Biafra didn’t, at this stage, have much in the bank in the way of lyrics. “I actually had very little. I was new to the whole thing. It sort of occurred to me late in the game that if I was going to be in a band, it would help to have songs. If I wanted good lyrics, I was going to have to write them myself. It became a case of trial and error. At first it was mainly me walking in with complete songs – I’d play them single-string on a guitar to show them to Ray – then later Ray brought in one of his own, ‘Your Emotions’. The very first time I met Ray, I went over there with my guitar, and showed him the song that became ‘Kepone Factory’ [later released on In God We Trust, Inc.], originally called ‘Kepone Kids’. Originally it was the more clichéd title, ‘Kepone Kids’. The second one I brought in was a song we never released, called ‘Kidnap’.” The latter concerned the case of Patty Hearst, who served time for aiding and abetting her kidnappers, self-styled left-wing guerrillas the SLA, in an armed robbery. “The lyrics were printed in Search And Destroy, but we didn’t save the song and put it on Fresh Fruit. I think I wrote that after I got to San Francisco. The third song was ‘California Über Alles’. That was one of the few that, rather than have the music in my head, I actually blundered into the verse-riff while playing around with my room-mate’s bass one night. The other parts came later.” The original draft of ‘California’ had been written with old Boulder friend John Greenway, who actually performed the song alongside Biafra as part of The Healers. Greenway wrote the words after listening (voluntarily or otherwise) to Biafra’s discourse on state governor Jerry Brown.5 The chorus, with Biafra’s distinctive vibrato/warble, once dubbed a ‘human theremin’, was inspired by Japanese Kabuki music. “Although the timing of the chorus seemed perfectly logical to me, it took the other guys a month to get the timing right. It’s not in any conventional sheet music timing or anything. I don’t worry about that, I just make the stuff up.”

Ray is pretty animated in disputing this. “Here’s the problem: when there’s stuff that I do, it’s always the band. When there’s stuff that Biafra does, it’s always himself. That’s how Biafra spins things. He won’t give credit to anybody else in the band. Everybody in the band was like that, I feel – we all worked to make the songs as good as possible. The problem is that he says this, this and this. And the other people, if they don’t put something equally in, it looks like he’s doing it all. Biafra’s much more comfortable talking about himself than Klaus or myself are. We’re much more laidback, low-key people. He’s a lead singer! Lead singers speak in ‘I’ a lot. Klaus really was instrumental in the songwriting, but he won’t take credit for it. Every time Biafra says ‘his’, Klaus and I is what he’s talking about. I have a balance issue on that one … because we all really worked to make the songs.”

Biafra insists that beyond these early efforts, he never had a booklet of lyrics to rummage through. “To this day, I never finish anything unless I’m going to use it. There were cassettes with his riffs on it that he [Ray] gave me later. Those riffs are sprinkled into the songs on [subsequent Dead Kennedys albums] Plastic Surgery Disasters and Frankenchrist. A little bit on Bedtime For Democracy. They are all credited accordingly. At least they were before they lied and changed all the songwriting credits. But Fresh Fruit, the original credits, most of the songs were written by me. If I hadn’t brought them in, arranged and all, they would not exist. They did not dispute those original credits for twenty years.”

What all those early songs did have, right from the outset, was lashings of sarcasm. “I think humour can be a powerful weapon. Why else was Charlie Chaplin run out of the United States during the Red Scare and McCarthy era?”

Mutants play Napa State Mental Hospital 1978. Brendan, Sue, Fritz, Sally, Charlie and John Mutant. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Search And Destroy Headquarters 1977. Vale’s apartment in North Beach. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Chapter 2

In a Desperate Mind, Little Gardens Grow

Shut Up You Animals Dirk Dirksen (1937–2006), ringmaster of the circus of the creatively inspired and willfully deranged, presided as Pope of Punk over nightly excursions into living theater on the premises 1974–1984 at Ness Aquino’s Mabuhay Gardens, previously a Filipino supper club. He opened the lid on society’s garbage can of new talent to look for truth and beauty that gave rise to San Francisco’s counter-culture music scene. (Plaque commemorating Dirk Dirksen)

Say goodnight, Dirk! You can say what you want, but how many people have been willing to put up with you, and us, for seven or eight years? (On-stage dedication by Biafra to Dirksen, recorded on the introduction to ‘Police Truck’ on the bootleg Never Been On MTV)

Dead Kennedys made their live debut on a bill headed by The Offs at Ness Aquino’s Mabuhay Gardens. Sandwiched between a row of strip joints and booked by Dirk Dirksen, the venue is held in similar esteem to New York’s CBGB’s, London’s Roxy and LA’s Masque as one of the key formative locales in punk history.

“If you were in a band in 1975 or 1976,” Jeff Raphael of The Nuns would tell James Stark in his book Punk ’77, “you had to be in what the ‘local scene’ was at that time or there was nowhere to play. That’s why we started the Mabuhay. There was nowhere for anybody to go. We had to create our own place to hang out, so that’s what we did. Before Mabuhay, I never hung out in clubs because there wasn’t a club scene. With the Mabuhay, you just went there. You didn’t care who was playing, because you went to hang out.”

Dirksen, a former tour manager for Ray Charles and The Doors, was renowned for baiting his audiences to ‘amp’ gigs prior to performance, his faithful pooch Dummy tucked under his arm as he traded insults with bands. He claimed to have had his nose broken several times as a result and in one incident Michael Kowalski, ‘mentor’ of U.X.A., smashed his cash register and snapped his glasses. Dirksen eventually let him back in the club after U.X.A. singer and girlfriend De De Droit negotiated a deal whereby the cost of his glasses would be recouped from Kowalski’s social security cheque. “Dirk told me he insulted all the bands as a way of treating everyone equally and not playing favourites,” Biafra confirms, who also credits him with being the impetus behind all-ages shows. “I was never carded when I went to punk shows in London as a nineteen-year-old in ’77. The key in San Francisco was Dirk. All Mabuhay shows were all-ages.” As a consequence an atmosphere somewhere between camaraderie and confrontation prevailed at the ‘Fab Mab’.

“They had a meeting every month where representatives of each band were supposed to go down and dicker with Dirk Dirksen about who wanted a gig,” recalls Biafra, “who could play with whom, etc. It was more of a free-for-all than negotiation. I was a pretty low man on the totem pole, because we’d never played and no-one had actually seen us. I was already a known guy on the scene, though. I pogo-danced a little wilder than most, which annoyed some people, but … Sometimes I would jump off the front of the stage while another band was playing. Not a true stage dive, cos the stage wasn’t high enough. Part of what drew people to see us the first time was – oh, this guy has a band now. Let’s see what this is!” A view confirmed by local photographer Ruby Ray. “I do remember that we were all wondering what Biafra would do as we (the other hardcore) had seen him around at all the shows. He did sleep on our living room floor for a few months when he ran for mayor.”

Biafra as the local nutter? “Yeah. Considered the local nutter, especially by The Dils and The Nuns. Unfortunately, two important bands broke up right before we debuted. So it was fortunate for us, but not for a very good reason, because we’d lost The Sleepers, one of my all-time favourite bands, as well as U.X.A. So people were hungry for a new band. Plus, the scene was thriving but quite small, so people would get bored if they saw the same band with everybody they knew in them time after time and nobody came up with anything new. What especially made it different from later punk underground scenes, and especially the above ground scenes of today; the pressure was not on every band to sound the same and please the audience and cater to their expectations. The pressure was on every band to sound different, to offer something fresh. If you completely fucked with people, Metallic KO or Negative Trend-style, so much the better.”

Dirksen requested a bio and a glossy photo. “Since at the time we didn’t have a drummer,” Biafra continues, “we borrowed Carlos and he posed as the drummer.” To this day, Carlos/6025 is routinely credited as the band’s first percussionist, doubtless due to that first promotional photograph. “Dirk Dirksen did all the booking and promotion at the club,” explains Ray. “He made it what it was. He said he needed an 8 x 10 glossy. He was trying to train us a bit on the business side of the music biz.”

“All Dirk would hand me was a gig opening for an eccentric metal band,” Biafra continues, “Magister Ludi, and a poppy new wave band, the Beans. Carlos and I were shaking our heads over that one. ‘Oh, shit, we all have to start somewhere, but why this?’ So I went back to Billy Hawk [guitarist] of The Offs and begged him to give us a better show. And so he put us on one of The Offs’ shows as a fourth band. Usually there were only three. But that was a much better slot because it was us, and Negative Trend, and another band called DV8 before The Offs played. The Offs rescued us from probably having to battle another six months to get seen by the right people.”

They’d already tried out various drummers, including one, the pseudonymous Rol Numb, who appeared on the practice tape that Ray recorded in order to secure the Mabuhay gig. “We had one drummer that came dressed in a bondage harness,” Ray recalls. Presumably he’d read about UK punk fashion. “No, he might have actually been into it! He had really long hair, but he had this ‘special’ water. He was kind of an organic bondage dude.” Biafra can’t recall anyone auditioning in bondage harness, “but the long-haired guy [Rol Gjano aka Gene ‘Geno’ Rhymer] had a swastika pendant. The trivia part is that he played in a band before called Loose Gravel. They have a bit of a name because it was the band Mike Wilhelm did after The Charlatans, before he joined the Flamin’ Groovies. Then he later called up Ray and complained about me, wanting Ray to kick me out because he thought I was a redneck! The sad part is, he was a really good drummer. But he really didn’t get us. Never saw him in another band.”

With the search becoming more frantic, enter Ted, aka Bruce Slesinger, a graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute of Architecture and the final piece in the jigsaw. “I’d just moved out here from the east.” Ted recalls. “I had a job here working in an architect’s office, just doing drafting and that sort of thing. I came to San Francisco and put my name up on a bulletin board looking for other musicians. I get a call from Klaus. Was I interested in joining Dead Kennedys, or at least coming round for a try-out? Since I hadn’t heard from anybody else, I said OK.”

Like the other musicians in the band, Ted brought experience to bear. “I first started playing drums when I was around twelve. I would play in the band and the school orchestra. Then my parents bought me a used drum set. I played that for a while and really got into it. Then I started playing with friends. I played once in the Café Wha? in New York, which was a club in the Village. I wasn’t serious about it when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was just fun with friends, that’s all.”

He’d actually spotted Ray’s ad previously in Aquarius Records, but passed. “Yeah, the ad said ‘Dead Kennedys – looking for drummer’. It was in a local record store. I saw this name and thought, I’m not going to call them with that name. Then I put my own ad up. Then Klaus called me! It turned out better. At that time there were a lot of really terrible bands, people looking to play with other musicians. A lot of people were just starting up. Anyone who could play two chords was trying to form a band at the time. I was pleasantly surprised when I got to their audition and I thought Ray and Klaus were great musicians.”

The appreciation was mutual. “He was the first person who rushed us on one of the songs,” says Klaus, “everyone else was dragging. Bruce actually rushed us ahead of the beat. So I just handed him a beer and said, ‘Do you wanna be in the group?’ And he said sure, and that was that. So then we practised five days a week or something to get ready for that show.” Ted’s recall of that first meeting is similar. “I think it was at Ray’s house, the first audition. They said to me afterwards, ‘You’re the first drummer who can keep up with us. Are you interested in playing next week? We have a gig.’” What did Ted make of the songs? “They just seemed very quick. They were decent enough, and it was fun just to play.” Ray’s primary emotion was relief. “Bruce only joined a week before the show. But luckily, he’s a very talented drummer! We were auditioning different drummers in my garage. I still only live a block from where it all started. The garage has been torn down unfortunately. So we rehearsed there, but once we got a drummer the neighbours started noticing. We had to move.” Carlos, aka 6025, had been inducted into the band just before, as a guitarist, and had the same five days’ grace prior to their live debut.

Dead Kennedys duly made their debut at Mabuhay Gardens on 19 July 1978. With the growing popularity of the ‘Fab Mab’, San Francisco had its first settled venue for punk acts. A big part of the reason was because its food licence allowed under-21s to attend. It worked something like this; the venue was indeed a restaurant until about 11pm, at which time the patrons would be kicked out and a very different crowd ushered in. Three hours of music and drinking would ensue. “The reason punk scenes didn’t start as early in a lot of American cities,” notes Biafra, “is because there weren’t all-ages venues. So it was more like a bar band playing Fleetwood Mac covers, four sets a night, for the burnt-out adults. That was all local music was allowed to be. Including in my hometown, where it was country-rock instead, and everyone wanted to be the next Eagles.”

The show proved to all concerned that they were on to something. “It [the Mabuhay] was as big as you could get in San Francisco,” recalls Ray, “because Blondie had played there back in the day, stuff like that. The thing I remember is that we didn’t have a complete set, we had a 20-minute set. But we were so excited we played that 20-minute set in 15 minutes!” Klaus, too, was blown away. “We even got an encore as an opening band and there were a lot of other bands on the bill. So we had to go out and repeat ‘Rawhide’ or something like that, because we didn’t have anything else.” Biafra reckons the set was over in just 11 minutes, and the encore was ‘Man With The Dogs’, which hadn’t been part of the main set. “It was really wild, a lot of fun,” enthuses Ted. “We immediately got a great reception. It was very encouraging and we got a high coming off stage. We did play real fast and we got a great response. The band just immediately took off from that point, it was pretty exciting.”

They played regularly thereafter in San Francisco, though the notoriety of their name necessitated some variance in billing; The Creamsicles and Pink Twinkies were two flags of convenience, though, contrary to reports elsewhere, they were never known as The Sharks. “They were used once each to play high school dances incognito,” Biafra recalls. “First one worked, second one didn’t. The Sharks was what Ray wanted to call the band itself!” The aforementioned Creamsicles show, organised at Moraga High School as a Christmas dance under the flag of the Whittler’s Club, a sanctioned but inactive fraternity, ended up as a sneak punk rock bill with Sudden Fun and The Zeros supporting. “The image that remains,” stated John Marr later of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll in San Francisco punk oral history Gimme Something Better, “is the band playing their music while Biafra is being dragged around in the back of the cafeteria. It was great fun.”

Their third show at the Mabuhay resulted in a mass of broken furniture and a lecture from Dirksen about ‘violating the theatre of illusion’. At a show at Project One (aka The Pit) the hippy commune living there objected to the audience who turned out to see the DKs, Mutants and KGB. Promoter Paul ‘Rat’ Bakovich would subsequently move his operations to 330 Grove Street and continue; but The Pit gig is notable for hosting the first public enactment of ‘The Biafra’. Anyone who has seen the vocalist live will know he likes to ‘act out’ his creations; physically inhabiting the personas of power-drunk preachers, corrupt businessmen and politicians. ‘The Biafra’ saw audience members clamber on stage and attempt to imitate same, like a rowdy, tongue-in-cheek chorus line.

The name inevitably continued to cause complications. Among those to balk at their disrespect for America’s leading family was Pulitzer Prize-winning news columnist Herb Caen. In 1978 he wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “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 November 22, the fifteenth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Despite mounting protests, the owner of Mabuhay says ‘I can’t cancel them NOW – there’s a contract.’ Not, apparently, the kind of contract some people have in mind.” Of course, not for the last time in the band’s history, the hysterics of the press simply furthered their cause. The Mabuhay received several bomb threats and there was a fire truck stationed ominously outside on the night – but the venue was packed. As Biafra put it, “Every weird mind around crawled out of the woodwork to see us.”

The reality was that Dirksen did originally cancel the band, but only in order to book a show by jazz legends Sun Ra. “But then Herb Caen complained, so he had to bring us back!” chortles Biafra. “Sun Ra played first, then the door charge was dropped and we played. The reaction of the black Muslims from the Sun Ra audience in their bow ties trying to flee the room as fast as possible was priceless. Sun Ra liked us, though!”

Search And Destroy was the estimable San Franciscan punk digest founded by V. Vale, who had formerly worked alongside poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights bookshop – the model on which Geoff Travis founded Rough Trade in the UK. When he announced his decision to start a punk fanzine in Christmas 1976, both Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg helped out with finance. Search And Destroy ran the first major profile of the band in September 1978, under a fake San Francisco Chronicle strap-line. Alongside lyrics and photos of the original five-piece line-up, the group presented a list of influences including The Stooges, Silver Apples, Mick Farren, Hawkwind, Beefheart, Red Krayola and John Cooper Clarke, as well as contemporary peers F-Word, The Deadbeats and Half Japanese. In the interview Biafra set an admirable precedent by addressing any number of political topics with band promotion lagging a poor second.

Gladhand, 1978. Biafra often acted like a politician, the audience’s reaction was paramount. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

The Girls’ Bathroom at the Mab, 1978. Sally Webster from the Mutants, and everyone hung out there. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Dead Kennedys’ first recording sessions were undertaken at San Francisco’s long established Different Fur Studios under the sponsorship of Bruce Conner, a respected artist from the beat era who also took photos for Search And Destroy. His 1965 art film, Report, featured recurring footage of JFK’s motorcade and had been played, without the band’s consent, as the backdrop to their Mabuhay Gardens show on the anniversary of his assassination. “All of a sudden he wanted to be a producer,” Ted remembers. “He paid for some sessions that we did at this very good recording studio called Different Fur. Between Biafra and Bruce, they never really saw eye to eye. It was slightly over-produced and didn’t really capture the essence of the band, and the recording went nowhere.” According to Klaus, the results were “incredibly slow versions, in retrospect”. Biafra adds: “Yeah, they were slower, hardcore hadn’t hit yet. I listened to them a few years later, and I thought they were cool. They reminded me of Joy Division.”

“It was a dream came true that fell out of the sky,” laments Biafra, “but turned out to be not what we thought it would be. Bruce Conner decided he wanted to start producing bands. And he picked us and got a deal where he’d trade art to [studio owner and electronic musician] Patrick Gleason of Different Fur in exchange for giving studio time. We thought things were sounding pretty good. But then Conner did a very different mix of ‘California Über Alles’ while we weren’t there that sounds far more like Devo than Dead Kennedys. We didn’t like that. He said it was a producer’s right to interpret a band any way he wishes. We didn’t agree, so then he got all mad at our mix, and said he wouldn’t let any of the stuff come out.” To this day it still hasn’t.

Bootlegs confirm that at this stage Dead Kennedys’ repertoire lacked the bite, spite and particularly the pace of the finished models. But illicitly circulated tapes of the band’s demos offer worthy investigations into the development of the song cycle that led to Fresh Fruit. The origin of those recordings has long been held a mystery, though Ray has a theory that the source may be a recording studio that was next door to a rehearsal room they used. Biafra isn’t having that. “Why does Ray make up these stupid stories? He recorded the ’78 Demos himself on a high-quality cassette machine in March ’79! We called it ‘Carlos’s Last Stand’ because it was his last practice before he left the band and we wanted to get everything we knew on tape for posterity. Then we played the Deaf Club gig and he was gone.”

Certainly sound quality would indicate, as opposed to the Different Fur recordings, that the ’78 Demos were rehearsal sessions never intended for public scrutiny. And yet they offer up a series of clues and footnotes. ‘Forward to Death’ features an almost conventional rock guitar solo at its close. ‘California Über Alles’ is structurally similar to the familiar version though, as on the take of ‘Kill The Poor’, the vocals sound as if Biafra is on the verge of a hernia. While ‘Your Emotions’ features an extended outro, the ‘effects damage’ that turned up on the intro to the album version of ’Holiday In Cambodia’ is present, if lacking in the sullen menace. On this and several other takes the vocals are almost whispered or talk-sung rather than employing the stridency one usually equates with Biafra. The lyrics on ‘Cambodia’ are different, too; the section of the couplet ‘bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold’ is herein swapped for a less visceral, less contentious, ‘blacks’ (live bootlegs confirm that this was the preferred vernacular at early shows). There are also slightly altered lyrics to ‘I Kill Children’, though it’s the one song, alongside the cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’, that comes close to replicating the urgency of its Fresh Fruit incarnation.

Of the unreleased songs, ‘B-Flag’ (as it is mistakenly labelled) is an early version of ‘Kepone Factory’. ‘Take Down’ offers a standard punk riff with Biafra conducting as deranged cheerleader, while ‘Cold Fish’ is the nearest the band would come to straight Ramones pastiche (by way of Johnny Moped). But the real surprises are ‘Undercover’, aka ‘Dreadlocks Of The Suburbs’, a tongue-in-cheek flirtation with reggae, and a weird, loopy, avant-jazz instrumental, ‘Psychopath’, which reveals, and revels in, 6025’s debt to Beefheart. “‘Psychopath’ is actually ‘Mexican Monster Babies’, states Biafra. “Which is also a Healers song. I pulled it after Carlos quit and John Greenway asked me not to use any more Healers songs. So I didn’t.”

However, Carlos’s time with the band was coming to an end. He would leave after a final show at the Deaf Club on 3 March 1979 (the set was retrospectively released in 2004 as Live At The Deaf Club). He would return to play a guest role on Fresh Fruit.

Flyer for Dead Kennedys at the Deaf Club, 3 March 1979.

Flyer for Dead Kennedys, Controllers and Young Adults, Saturday 25 November 1979 at Aitos, Berkeley CA.

Portions of the collage poster given away with Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, designed by Jello Biafra.

Chapter 3

You Will Jog for the Master Race

California is a queer place – in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific.

It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort. (D.H. Lawrence)

After the frustrations of the Different Fur sessions, the band repaired to a local studio to prepare its debut single. The key problem was the means of distribution. There were few A&R men falling over themselves to sign a band of their type, never mind one with such a cultural hand grenade of a name. “There weren’t any deals to be had,” relates Biafra. “The major labels had pulled the plug on their relationship with punk in early 1978, breaking the hearts of many of the key bands at the time who thought they were going to be signed. Everybody from the Weirdos and Screamers in LA to the Avengers, Nuns, Crime, Dils etc. in San Francisco.” In fact, the odd unconsummated dalliance aside, no major label obliged an American punk band’s dance card between The Dickies in 1978 (A&M) and Hüsker Dü (Warners) in 1985; and even then, only after Hüsker Dü’s sound had changed substantially. Punk was ‘over’, apparently, though no-one had told Dead Kennedys, or more particularly, Biafra. “It wasn’t over. It was one of those times that hits any musician every once in a while. You either play because you like to play, or you don’t play at all. You don’t play to get signed. You don’t play to get big or famous, you play because you want to play. When I moved out to San Francisco, my goal was, as a record collector, to get my name on one 7-inch single. And be able to tell my grandkids I actually saw bands like The Dils and the Avengers and the Ramones in clubs before they were playing stadiums.”

The band responded by setting up its own label, under the now familiar name Alternative Tentacles. There were few other options – contrary to some reports, there were no expressions of interest from major labels in the band until Fresh Fruit had sold so well in Britain. By this time the independent scene in the UK was well established, with Rough Trade, Chiswick, Beggars Banquet and others leading the charge – but that was not the case in America. The first punk-era independent in San Francisco had opened. But Aquarius owner Chris Knab and promoter Howie Klein’s 415 Records had financial ties to promoter Bill Graham, almost universally despised by punks, which would soon be co-opted by Columbia in any case. After initial releases by The Nuns and Mutants, it turned away from punk to concentrate on ‘new wave’ acts, notably Romeo Void. “Howie Klein, with Sire Records, he’s the one promoting new wave/skinny tie bands,” remembers Ray. “But he was anti-punk. And he was against us at the beginning. He wanted to promote the skinny tie/’My Sharona’-type band and bands like Blondie. Don’t get me wrong, Blondie were a great band. I’m not saying new wave is bad. But Howie Klein thought punk would never go anywhere in the States, and we need to promote new wave. Now, he acts like he was there helping us out all the time – oh, the hypocrisy! But he was telling us to tone our music down and make it more new wave. Now, he’s saying, he was there, supporting us 100%.” Biafra has a more charitable view of Klein. “He did not hate punk, he was desperate to find his own Clash. But The Dils rejected him so he settled for the Red Rockers. Industry guy, yes, but it was he who got Sire to release [Ice-T’s rap-metal fusion act] Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’ and got Warners to let Ministry make Land Of Rape And Honey. He is also one of the few industry insiders to publicly picket [former Washington wife and censorship campaigner] Tipper Gore. He’s still an activist.”

Subterranean Records, started by Mike Fox and Steve Tupper, would subsequently help fill the void and specifically gave licence to San Franciscan punk bands. But a whole swathe of great music was lost in the interim. “How I wish I could have had a label two years earlier,” Biafra laments, “and put out all the great albums waiting to happen in the San Francisco area. The Avengers could have made at least three, and my favourite band of all, the Screamers [based in Los Angeles], never even made a record at all!”

‘California Über Alles’ was released in June 1979 and was an entirely homespun creation. “We did the ‘California Über Alles’ single by ourselves,” Ray recalls. “I remember shipping it off to Texas and having it shipped back to our house. Ted [who designed the original cover] and I sold it out of the back of our cars.” After selling out of initial quantities, it was re-released by Optional. ‘California Über Alles’ was framed around the spectre of Governor Jerry Brown’s ascent. Brown was an ambitious politician with an ostensibly left-leaning agenda, including advocacy of ‘Buddhist economics’. Biafra originally considered him as dangerous as Nixon, “only less likely to make dumb mistakes”. The song’s lyric ‘Big bro’ on white horse is near’ was paraphrased directly from one of his speeches: ‘What the American people are looking for is a man on a big white horse.’ Which made a good fit with the song’s self-evident Orwellian references (and, in retrospect, with the punk community’s anguish over the major label versus independent issue). Revealingly, Brown’s early career was sponsored by David Geffen, the man whose company benefited most from Nirvana and the ‘second-coming’ of punk in the ’90s. Brown also had a very public dalliance with Linda Ronstadt. The Eagles, Jane Fonda (later referenced in ‘Kill The Poor’) and Francis Ford Coppola numbered among Brown’s supporters.

Other references to ‘Zen fascists’ in the song recall Biafra’s adolescence in Boulder where the idealism of the ’60s retreated to the greed of the ’70s, garbed in fake hippy mysticism. In essence, it’s a spiritual heir to Zappa’s ‘Who Needs The Peace Corps’ from We’re Only In It For The Money, the song that ridiculed San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippies. There’s also a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 Nazi-themed film The Serpent’s Egg (itself a reference to a Brutus quote in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar concerning the emperor). The b-side, ‘Man With The Dogs’, profiled another character from Boulder, whose daily routine consisted of freaking out the town’s residents by stopping and staring deep into their eyes – exactly the type of ‘vacant stranger’ who customarily fascinated Biafra. (5) The ending of ‘Man With The Dogs’, a kind of bespoke ’60s garage psych with Ray’s Echoplex skewering a repeated chord phrase into sonic oblivion, was an early indication that the band were not going to limit themselves to four-four punk.

Jerry Brown’s politics would, perversely, eventually move closer to Biafra’s own. “Jim Carroll [the late former punk musician and author of The Basketball Diaries] told me he’d spotted Brown at the Savoy Café in North Beach, and ran across the street to Recycle Records and bought the single and gave it to him, while he was governor,” Biafra recalls. “We didn’t hear anything from that. Many years later, Brown had veered very, very sharply to the left and beyond, and we were both working with Earth First. I encountered [film-maker] Michael Moore at a speaking engagement in San Francisco. We all went over to an Oakland warehouse space where Jerry Brown’s people were serving a big dinner for everybody. One of the people working with Jerry who lived at his place came down and said – ‘Oh, yeah, Jerry, this is Jello! I played Jerry your song this morning!’ I have no idea what shade of red my face turned! He seemed more or less understanding.”

For Ted, they never surpassed the original ‘California Über Alles’. “That, to me, was the greatest. It was a great recording. It was much rawer than the Different Fur sessions. I think that track still sounds better than the one that’s on Fresh Fruit. It was just a local recording studio, in the basement of Jim Keylor’s house in San Francisco.” Keylor, a much-liked San Francisco musician who had previously played in Blue Cheer precursors The Oxford Circle, was in the process of establishing his Army Street Studios, which for some time would become a fixture of the local music community. “He was the engineer along with Ray, I guess,” Ted continues. “But the sound was great. It was exciting. I found it had a lot more punch than the version we finally did on Fresh Fruit. The drumming was a little bit more unique, in part because the song had sped up so much from when we first did it till we finally did it for Fresh Fruit. By that time, it was difficult to do all those parts at twice the pace.”

Biafra, who once had the stated ambition of collecting every punk record ever made, had been won over by an early UK obscurity by The Users, ‘Sick Of You’, housed on Cambridge’s Raw Records imprint. He went to the trouble of bringing the single into the studio to show Jim Keylor the sound he wanted to achieve in the final mix, “but Ray’s guitar setting was so different, we didn’t have a chance”. He agrees with Ted, however, on the primacy of that take of the song. “Yeah, I think the single versions of all our songs are better than the album versions. But I noticed that with other albums of the time, that the album version of the song rarely sounds as good as the single. The first time you record a song, especially if you’ve never recorded before, you’re giving it everything you’ve got. And Jim Keylor went the extra mile to make it a good-sounding record. And re-recording ‘California Über Alles’ and ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ was kind of a drag. ‘Wait a minute, we’ve done this already!’”

Of all the DKs back-catalogue, ‘California Über Alles’ has enjoyed the most intriguing afterlife, partly because Biafra has continually updated it.6 Within a year of Fresh Fruit’s release it had become ‘We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now’ on In God We Trust, Inc., reflecting the election of Ronald Reagan as president. “That was just a result of the band goofing off at practice and at sound-check,” notes Biafra. “Will Shatter from Flipper, who was one of our harshest critics – and one of everybody’s harshest critics! – he said, ‘you’re always so stiff, playing the same way – why don’t you play it that way?’ So it just wound up becoming an alternate version.”

Given that California has seen fit to elect an increasingly surreal roll call of governors, it is no surprise that the investiture of Arnie Schwarzenegger in 2003 gave Biafra ammunition to revise the lyric once again. It would be re-imagined as ‘Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century’ with both the Melvins (a live version was included on their second collaboration with Biafra, 2006’s Sieg Howdy) and his current band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine. That he is able therein to incorporate an approximation of the Austrian’s Comedy-Kraut accent provides too delicious an irony to forgo.

The phrase itself has now slipped into common parlance. The American-German author Gero Hoschek wrote a (so far unfilmed, though Biafra gave his blessing) screenplay with the title after titling his Zeit magazine article on the Golden State in its honour. Then there was the bizarre episode in 2010 when a right-wing commentator mischievously (we have to assume, no-one being that stupid) insisted that ‘California Über Alles’ was the perfect theme song for the Meg Whitman Republican campaign, in which she faced down and lost to our old friend Jerry Brown. “The very first single the band released in 1979 will make any California conservative’s heart sing, I assure you,” gushed Chip Hanlon. The calculated shit-storm that ensued ensured that Ray would appear on his radio show to put the record straight.

The band continued to play live wherever they could. Their first expeditionary tour of the East Coast was an unheard of venture for a Californian punk band, including a particularly memorable set at the Rat in Boston. “First the beer pitchers and trays flew,” Biafra recalls. “Then the furniture flew. When we came back for our second set, everyone backed up, standing against the walls. The only band I’d ever heard of that got a reaction like that was The Stooges. So I was very proud that evening – one of my all-time favourite gigs. ‘Welcome to the West Coast, motherfuckers!’” The story about him being beat up by an indignant waitress included on the 25th anniversary DVD of Fresh Fruit is, unfortunately, untrue. “She scratched my chest – big deal – then fled the room.”

They also played Max’s Kansas City in New York opening for the Voodoo Shoes, a singularly inappropriate billing. “That tour was a drag,” Biafra laments, “because it wasn’t all-ages in the US north-east. It was a horrible bar band scene with tables and chairs. Maybe someone would get up and dance with their date and … Yecch! It was in early ’81, fresh off the UK success that we were in bigger venues finally and had the clout to demand the shows be all-ages. Critics ridiculed it as a gimmick. But those kids started hardcore bands and the critics were out of a job.” The trip also proved a financial disaster. “We went to New York and lost our shirt on the flights,” notes Ray. “When I got back, Bob Last [founder of Edinburgh’s Fast Product] called me and said he wanted to put ‘California’ out.”

“Jim Fouratt of a club called Hurrah’s had hosted Bob in New York and played him a whole bunch of records,” Biafra recalls. “The ones that Bob Last liked the most were ‘California Über Alles’, Middle Class’s debut EP and another San Francisco duo called Noh Mercy. Those were the three he dug. And ‘California Über Alles’ already existed as a kick-ass single so he had something to release without having to record or pay for it. I was pretty blown away, because I grasped how important Fast Product was at that time. People were waiting with bated breath for the next Fast single after he’d sprung the Gang of Four, the Mekons, Human League, Scars and others. Bob Last deserves a thank you. Without him, Dead Kennedys would have been gone within a year and a half.”

“I felt like I was swept into it because it all happened so quickly,” says Klaus. “All of us probably had the feeling of that in some way. We had some slow times; our first East Coast tour was a dreadful mess. When we came back from it, things picked up again.” Indeed, no-one in the band has particularly fond memories of this period. “We’d done an East Coast tour and gone to New York as total unknowns,” remembers Biafra. “It might have been too soon. I went through culture shock. Some of the other guys … you start to learn a little bit more about everybody that way, and I wasn’t liking what I was seeing. The guys who’d played in bar bands were acting like that again, and I was like, well, maybe we’re done, but I’ll wait and see if the single goes anywhere. Then it did! I knew it was a really good record, the songs were good, and the sound itself was more powerful than a lot of other home-made punk singles coming out at that time.”

Last, whose Fast Product did indeed produce a near peerless run of singles before he safeguarded the label’s mystique by closing the label early, remembers it slightly differently. “Jim Fouratt was a good friend at the time. I went over to New York and stayed with him, but actually Dead Kennedys was completely coincidental to that. Noh Mercy and Middle Class were both things that [critic] Jon Savage drew to my attention, which I loved. The Dead Kennedys I think I heard – I’m not sure that John Peel didn’t call me up. At that time we were very close with Peel. I probably phoned him up during his show – ‘Who the fuck are these people – what is their number?’ That’s my recollection.” Biafra admits he can’t recall whether Last called him and mentioned Fouratt first or vice versa.

In one of the band’s first mainstream press notices, Sounds proclaimed the single “Wagnerian punk with production as dirty as a bear’s bum”. ‘California’ was to be the label’s final release, despite it being its most successful. “I can remember thinking it was a really funny, cool song,” recalls Jon Langford of fellow Fast artists the Mekons, “but we were in the throes of moving off Fast to a major – Bob was very keen on that. I got the impression he was pretty over running a label.” Last confirms that to be the case. “We just picked ‘California’ up because it was the perfect thing to end that series of singles on – you couldn’t have had a better high to go out on. My partner Hillary and I did have some discussion about doing an album, but it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in their album, it was that I wasn’t interested enough in albums at that time. It wasn’t what the label was about; it was about these special moments.” According to Biafra, “Bob Last did offer to follow the single with a 12-inch EP, but we didn’t want to do that. We had enough good songs for an album and America needed another strong underground punk album. Only the Germs had done it. We even looked into getting Kenny Laguna to produce us because the Germs’ LP sounded so good, but it didn’t happen.”

“It all came together, with Biafra and Klaus and 6025 and Ted through serendipity,” says Ray. “Everybody was at the right place at the right time. First with ‘California Über Alles’ as a single, then Biafra ran for mayor, which was a great gimmick. We kind of became the number one punk band in San Francisco, even though we were really the third generation one.” Biafra remains adamant that serendipity, to use Ray’s vernacular, and happenstance were key to the DKs becoming Californian punk’s hottest export. “It was something that we had to handle very carefully in the hometown. Here we’d had this random stroke of luck that had eluded the Avengers, Dils, X, Weirdos on down. I’ve always tried to look at that and keep reminding myself that it wasn’t necessarily because we were the best band at the time, it was just pure, dumb luck.”

Dead Kennedys continued to play wherever it could, insisting on under-ages shows and DIY booking themselves. As Michael Azerrad would later point out in Our Band Could Be Your Life, it was Canada’s DOA and the DKs who “became the Lewis and Clarks of the punk touring circuit, blazing a trail across America that bands still follow today”. Or as Black Flag’s Greg Ginn put it in the same book, “With those bands we did a lot of networking, sharing information. We’d find a new place to play, then we’d let them know because they were interested in going wherever they could and playing. Then we would help each other in our own towns.” Hence Black Flag would support Dead Kennedys at the Mabuhay Gardens on 10 October 1979, a gig that Joe Nolte of The Last would record in his journal. “The only thing I knew about the Dead Kennedys was that their singer, Jello Biafra, was running for mayor. The other three members of the band came onstage looking about as menacing as The Crickets. Then Jello bounced out and pandemonium ensued. Those fuckers were great – one of the best hardcore bands I’ve seen in a while. Jello would antagonize and fall into the crowd à la Darby [Crash, of the Germs], except that, unlike Darby, he never lost control, never stopped singing … controlled chaos.”7

‘California Über Alles’ / ‘Man With The Dogs’ – US release 1979 first + second pressing (Alternative Tentacles / Optional Music)

Single review + Gig listing, Slash Magazine Vol. 2 No. 9, October 1979

‘California Über Alles’ / ‘Man With The Dogs’ – UK release 1979 (Fast Product)

Poster designed by Jamie Reid to promote ‘California Über Alles’. Though the imagery mixes Triumph Of The Will with a reminder of Altamont thuggery, Reid actually used a photograph from the Reading Festival. The design of this poster also coincided with Reid’s work for the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle – as evidenced in the cannabis swastikas and ‘Never Trust A Hippie’ footnote.

DKs Live – Victory 1978. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

DKs Live – Defeat 1978. Biafra was regularly pantsed after that. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

It’s important to remember that the DKs’ stature would have much to do with their overseas reception. In an age when many American critics had Anglophile tendencies, it meant that the DKs had an international gravitas that peers such as DOA, Black Flag and Minor Threat could not initially match. The buzz around the band in the UK that followed the release of ‘California Über Alles’ was therefore welcome. However, there was some degree of consternation at the emergence of a highly-politicised punk band from ‘sunny’ California at a time when opinion formers had concluded that punk’s slide was terminal – though that was never Biafra’s view. “There was a whole other generation rumbling right beneath the surface that exploded the very next year. Everybody from the Crass label bands to Discharge to the Riot City bands and the others, they were right below the surface. But the British music press wasn’t interested and wasn’t paying attention to it.” There was good reason for that. Some of the releases on Crass were extraordinary and Discharge did indeed up the ante; much of the rest was mush.

Coincidentally, Dead Kennedys would secure a high profile show supporting punk warhorses The Clash at Kezar Pavilion on 13 October 1979. “That was a very big show for us,” remembers Ray, “and we were in the hallway looking at the private dressing room. It was one of the few shows that Biafra lost his pants. Which gave us no end of notoriety. But very scary for him, I would imagine. It wasn’t planned or part of the act.” Promoter Bill Graham was so outraged by Jello’s nudity he vowed that the Dead Kennedys would never appear on one of his stages again, and was as good as his word. “I jumped into the crowd and came back with only my belt, my boots, and my Argyle socks intact,” Biafra recalls. “So I did the rest of the show nude. From what I was told afterwards, Bill Graham had to be physically restrained from going on stage and beating the crap out of me. But Bill Graham didn’t ban us. We just refused to work for him. It was the last time we ever played for him. Boy, am I glad of that. I know he has a good reputation in some circles, but certainly not underground punk circles at the time. He was very heavy-handed and had monopolistic practices whereby any show that wasn’t Bill Graham wasn’t supposed to exist in the San Francisco Bay Area.” A rumour went round that he destroyed an entire print run of the first Nuns record when he heard ‘Decadent Jew’, without realising that it was written by Jewish band member Jeff Olener and was intended to debunk stereotypes (Biafra disputes the potential of this happening). “But when there was money to be made,” Biafra concludes, “of course he came round, and booked Hüsker Dü. Even the Screamers got booked once by Bill Graham.”

As for seeing The Clash up front, Biafra was unmoved. “I’d seen them before,” Biafra recalls. “I can’t remember if I really watched much of them the night we played with them. We’d sort of got a bad taste in our mouths because they took a four-hour sound-check. Showing they were men of the people by giving little kids the guitars to play ‘Louie Louie’ while The Cramps and Dead Kennedys and Rockabilly Rebels waited for a sound-check that was never allowed. Then they went back to the hotel, and only came back right before they went on stage. It was not really a pivotal moment in the history of Dead Kennedys.”

Climbing the Amps, 1978. Jello Biafra and Joe Rees of Target in front. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

DKs Live – Crazy Dance, 1978. Biafra had some crazy moves that the audience would imitate. (Photograph by Ruby Ray)

Chapter 4

Are You Believin’ the Morning Papers?

Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between The Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he’d grown up with. (from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, featuring a chapter on the Fab Mab, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize)

Biafra was by now, clothed or otherwise, already the consummate front-man. “I come from a theatre background. I like mood. I like vibe. I like characters. I didn’t realise for years how much the method acting I went through influenced both the music and lyrics I write, and how I match them up. When it comes to production and mixing I’m more like a film director, more interested in vibe or mood than each instrument being perfect. The lyrics are very visual, often, a ‘you are there’ scenario, instead of ranting and raving about a particular subject I have opinions on.” Back home in Boulder, in a delectable piece of casting, he’d previously appeared as the lead Nazi in a high school production of The Sound Of Music, as well as playing the Boris Karloff role in Arsenic And Old Lace. “Some of my best moments on stage are when the characters do come to life from inside me, and I can see parts of where the character is at in my mind’s eyes.”

It also gave Dead Kennedys an immediate visual signature. “I realised early on that I should bring out parts of myself that I didn’t see in the main ‘visionaries’ of other bands,” he continues. “There were voids I could fill. I was more theatrical on stage than any other singer I knew of in San Francisco. I saw a distinct lack of that and tried to fill that hole, but at the same time get some Stooges and Germs energy into the mix as well. I still do that, it’s the same thing I do today.” Similarly he was keen to mark out lyrical turf away from his peers. “I try to write songs about things other people haven’t already written about. Granted, the Circle Jerks and [the Washington, DC] Youth Brigade came out with songs about the Moral Majority at the same time I wrote mine, but in the long run I knew mine was going to be the most cruel …”

The theatrics went hand in hand with a lifelong devotion to troublemaking. Never as po-faced as some critics maintain, Biafra always enjoyed a mischievous wheeze – for more on which you are directed to his interview in RE/Search Publications’ Pranks! compendium. However, it was his mayoral challenge in the fall of 1979 that won him most notoriety. A benefit for his campaign was held on Labor Day in early September. The Symptoms, Anti-Bodies, Eye Protection, Contractions and Pink Section were among the support bands, which together with a spaghetti banquet raised a budget of $1,500. The Mabuhay was synonymous with cheap spag-bol, as nutritious a meal as many local punks could afford, as well as late-night music, so it all seemed appropriate. Most of the budget went on buying a place on the ballot. “If a person doesn’t get enough petition signatures to run for local office in San Francisco,” says Biafra, “they can make up the difference by paying something like $10 a head.” The manifesto was written on a napkin while watching a Pere Ubu concert – after Ted had ribbed him about having such a big mouth he should stand for electoral office.

His policies had several strands, including hiring laid-off city workers as panhandlers at 50% commission to replace funds lost through the deeply unpopular Proposition 13 tax dodge. This particularly irksome slice of legislature appeased property owners while ballooning the state’s budget deficit by fixing the maximum tax take to 1% of any property’s cash value – assessed at 1975 values. “It is actually popular to the point of being sacred now,” Biafra updates us. “Thus the state is bankrupt.” Police would have to stand at elections, and squatting would be legalised in disused buildings. A Board of Bribery would be established to set ‘influence’ rates. Most enterprising of all Biafra’s manifesto commitments, downtown businessmen would have to dress as clowns between the hours of nine to five. Despite this, Biafra’s manifesto was supported by the most unlikely of sources; but then Sheriff Mike Hennessey was a huge fan of punk rock and a regular at the Fab Mab. Only in San Francisco …

‘There’s always room for Jello’ was one of the campaign catch-phrases (parodying an actual 1964 advertising strap-line used by Jell-O’s manufacturers, Kraft), as well as ‘Apocalypse Now, Vote for Biafra’ and the simple but empha