Imagine If Crass Was Funny: ‘Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’

Told efficiently the veteran chronicler of punk, Alex Ogg, this story reveals that the American underground in the late '70s could match the best of the British punks.

Intended as liner notes for the 25th anniversary of this punk album, Alex Ogg’s project had to wait five more years for what turns into a longer book on a 38 minute 1980 LP. Legal disputes over songwriting credits, added to the protracted resentment between singer Jello Biafra and his bandmates, notably guitarist East Bay Ray and bassist Klaus Flouride, tested the patience of the author and theDead Kennedys, past and present.

This story, told efficiently by a veteran chronicler of punk, reveals that the American underground in the late ’70s could match the best of the British punks when it came to political commentary paired with feisty music. Furthermore, unlike so many righteous punks before and after the Dead Kennedys, this San Francisco outfit retained its sense of humor.

However, as an Angeleno, growing up a near-contemporary of the band, I challenge Ogg’s claim that this was the peak of proto-hardcore. To me, the band’s debut resembled, but did not better, the blur and buzz of the Germs‘ first LP. I’ll admit that unlike that short-lived L.A. band, the Dead Kennedys outlasted Reagan’s first term. As the subtitle shows, Ogg narrates the start of it all, but he stops very soon after the album’s release and their first tour.

How the Dead Kennedys scaled the summits of the American independent label punk scene so rapidly, Ogg reminds readers, can be credited to their discipline. More on the intellectual influences informing the band members might have answered the question of how they managed so quickly to create two classic singles, “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia”. Within this punk milieu, few contemporaries dared to roam beyond a handful of approved “provocative” topics. Most punk bands preached against racism, some against sexism, many against conformity, as expected for spiky non-conformists to conform.

Biafra, raised in Boulder, Colorado, and apparently embittered from delivering pizzas to smug lefty college kids his own age (he dropped out of an equivalent institution early on, the University of California, Santa Cruz, tellingly), decided to widen his target range. He spoke for an overlooked echo-boomer generation, coming of age during Watergate, too young to be hippies, but who had to listen to those not much older ramble on over and over about how great it was then and how dismal it all turned out by 1980, as youth woke up from years of Carter’s malaise on the morning after, snuggled or smothered by Reagan’s revived or reviled “values”.

Although now a balding, gray statesman in cahoots with the state’s prison guard union, and cutting deals with corporate sponsors while managing to rule to convey a pale-Green image in keeping with his earlier gubernatorial reign, Jerry Brown represented to this band a “Zen fascism” during the ’70s. Risible though this seems to this Californian critic, in retrospect if not to Ogg, who takes this semi-seriously from the mouth of Jello, this song roused “the suede denim secret police” who were bent on arresting “your uncool niece”. The Dead Kennedys spinned shock value by evoking Nazi imagery, and trafficked in such regalia by certain punk colleagues with lines like, “Come quietly to the camp/ You’d look nice as a drawstring lamp”. Biafra’s uneasy message, within the campy medium of the jerky anthem, either strengthens or weakens its lyrical conceits. Still, the song lives on, covered often, in lots of styles.

Its follow-up, “Holiday in Cambodia”, has garnered fewer cover versions and parodies. It’s a darker song, as its Pol Pot theme dramatizes, and it’s more disturbing. It castigates those smug Boulder or Berkeley collegians, those who curry favor with bosses, those who pretend solidarity with the masses. It contrasts this mindset with what would happen when the self-proclaimed progressives of the West go East: “Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back/ For a bowl of rice a day/ Slave for soldiers till you starve/ Then your head is skewered on a stake.”

Ogg skirts extended exegesis of these two songs, assuming that readers probably know them well, but he does take pains to, in true rock journalist fashion, tell us about the vintage tube microphones used to capture this song’s roar.

Without the churning, Echoplexed, surf-tinged guitar of East Bay Ray, Klaus’s doom-laden bass, and drummer Ted’s bashing backing, however, these songs, for all their lyrical baiting, would not have succeeded. Ogg credits Jello’s voice as a “human theramin” and attributes a Kabuki-like ranting and wailing for impact. Many listeners, myself included, have found Biafra’s self-consciously theatrical delivery trying, but in live shows as on record, the Dead Kennedys sought to stand out from punk yammering.