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 (allmusicguide.com), 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.