Dead Kennedys: Live at the Deaf Club

Hank Kalet

Dead Kennedys

Live at the Deaf Club

Label: Manifesto
US Release Date: 2004-03-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

Imagine it's 1979. There's a revolution going on across the country, in all manner of tiny clubs and bars. It is a revolution of sound, a complete and unmitigated assault on the staid status quo of FM radio.

Imagine you're in a small club, an underground hall known as the Deaf Club in the Mission District of San Francisco. You're there for a night of music and hard-core politics, you're there to see the Dead Kennedys and you're not going to be disappointed.

That night in 1979 has now been released on CD by Manifesto Records, a 14-song reminder of the power and energy that the Dead Kennedys brought to the stage before legal hassles and acrimony led the band to implode. The disc remains fresh today, mostly because the violence and moral deceit the band railed against remains so pervasive in our society. Their songs target political and moral hypocrisy, imperial wars and greed, an apt description of our current political straits.

The Kennedys were a literate, somewhat paranoid bunch of anarcho-leftists, a band that railed against the government, military adventurism and all manner of hypocrisy, a band that mixed a chainsaw guitar assault with wry humor and earned a place among the great American punk rock groups of the day.

Built on the model of the Sex Pistols, borrowing their frenetic, in-your-face attack and melding it with the overt left-wing politics of the Clash and the Gang of Four, the Kennedys -- Jello Biafra on vocals, Klaus Fluoride on bass and vocals, East Bay Ray on guitar, 6025 on guitar (the live disc being reviewed here is his last performance with the band) and Ted on drums -- released a half-dozen explosive albums and antagonized many a cop and government bureaucrat in their day, eventually splitting apart in flaming acrimony.

The band formed in 1978 in San Francisco when Biafra and Fluoride responded to East Bay Ray's magazine ad. The band released a couple of regional singles in 1979 and then went national with their abrasive, jet-powered debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, on IRS Records.

But back in 1979, they were still a regional phenomenon and Live at the Deaf Club 1969 captures them in all their ragged brilliance and defiance.

The band opens with what the disc bills as the disco version of "Kill the Poor", a funked-up, edgy (but far from disco) run through of one of their more satirical songs -- featuring the dead-on surf-inspired chorus, "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor / kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor".

Jello's somewhat unstable tenor underscores the sarcasm of songs like "Back in Rhodesia" (an early version of "When You Get Drafted"), "California Uber Alles" (his harsh critique of lock-step politics, targeting then California Gov. Jerry Brown, a liberal Democrat with presidential aspirations and his liberal supporters), "Holiday in Cambodia", "Police Truck", "Forward to Death" and others -- a series of pointed rants against conformity, conservatism, greed, and authority.

On record, as Steve Huey points out on All Music Guide (, Biafra baits his targets with a "viciously satirical sarcasm that keeps his unflinchingly political outlook from becoming too didactic."

Live, there is a bit of the stand-up comedian in him. Biafra taunts the crowd in his faux top-40 radio voice, sounding very much like the Laugh-In announcer Gary Owen on a speedball, calling them lemmings and commanding them to dance. Later, after a raunchy version of "Man with the Dogs", a woman shouts "Show us some bicep, Biafra." Jello pauses, then shouts "Gaslight!", kicking the band into a torrid punk rock ode to doom and death that rides along the refrain, "dying with the lampshade on." "Gaslight", previously unreleased, is one of the nuggets here for Kennedys fans that also include covers of "Viva! Las Vegas", "Have I the Right", and "Back in the U.S.S.R." The Beatles classic is rendered here as pure punk, deconstructing what is probably Paul McCartney's best late-Beatles composition, a Beach Boys-inflected bit of irony, and reconstructing it in such a way to tease out the revelation that it maybe one of the first punk-rock songs ever written.

Listening to Live at the Deaf Club makes me realize how much I missed not seeing them live, makes me wish I could have been their that night in March 1979, makes me wish they were still making records with their power, energy and humor.

This is what is so amazing -- and disturbing -- about this disc. The music remains incredibly fresh, too fresh, reminding that things have not changed all that much from when this concert was recorded. The Kennedys' acid humor and uncompromising critique of the power structure created an intellectual opening, a sense of the possible at a time when the political space was narrowing and Ronald Reagan was about to enter the White House.

In a time when we have a president using an amorphous war on terror to engage in his own political agenda, an attorney general that views civil liberties as an inconvenience, and a political elite that consistently talks about protecting the little guy as it slips his wallet from his trousers, we could use a little of the Kennedys unflinching honesty now.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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