Dead Kennedys: Bedtime for Democracy

Dead Kennedys
Bedtime for Democracy

“Alternative Tentacles will not carry these CDs in our mail order. I will not sign them. I don’t even want them in my collection”.
— Jello Biafra

At first glance, getting a stack of some of the Dead Kennedys’ politically prescient and always entertaining backlog — including the jam-packed greatest hits collection, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the raw Bedtime for Democracy, the sobering Plastic Surgery Disasters, and the classic Frankenchrist — would seem like a gift from punk rock heaven. Especially if they profess to be “Digitally Remastered!” — as the bright yellow, green, pink, or red stickers on their covers loudly professes. And especially if Plastic Surgery Disasters is fattened by the addition of the Dead Kennedys’ legendary EP, In God We Trust, Inc., containing one of their all-time left-wing anthems, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. And especially if the independent label Manifesto’s press release crows that the reissues have been blessed by an amiable agreement with “the former members of the legendary punk-rock band”.

And, and, and? “More like “Ack Ack Ack”, as the late punk rock genius D. Boon — who, along with Mike Watt and George Hurley, was one third of the brilliant Minutemen — screamed. Because there’s always something blocking those ecstatic conjunctions from being truly convincing, is there not?

And sure enough, there it is on the back page of Manifesto’s release, a blurb stating that “a grueling court trial in May 2000 found that the Dead Kennedys’ previous record label covered up royalties owed to the band and that the label wrongly put out the DK’s catalogue without the bands’ permission”. Which would seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to get pissed about if you’re a slew of punks fighting The Man, but it neglects to state that the band’s previous label is run by the band’s previous singer, Jello Biafra, who has disavowed the latest DK releases to anyone within shouting distance. The release’s only hint of the internal tug-of-war that has fragmented the activist harmony of DK is guitarist East Bay Ray’s argument attesting that “We did the Dead Kennedys together and the band is run by a majority of the band members, which only makes sense”.

In other words, the Dead Kennedys are now a democracy, and Jello Biafra is its exiled minority.

Which is fair, if that’s the only issue at stake. But let’s not forget that Biafra himself penned not only the majority — there’s that word again — of their caustic and timeless lyrics but that without him, the Dead Kennedys would be short their John F., their philosopher-king, so to speak. And if that sounds positively contrary to the DIY ideals of the DKs and punk, in general, it’s just the latest example of what Biafra has called “the real rock ‘n’ roll swindle” in a recent Alternative Tentacles press release on the subject. Something that is, when you think about it, more associated with the mainstream music circus that the DK were specifically railing against when Biafra sang, “You’ve turned rock ‘n’ roll rebellion into Pat Boone sedation” in “MTV – Get Off the Air” on Frankenchrist. Couple that with the fact that the DK members who felt jilted by Jello and Alternative Tentacles are now banding together and touring while failing to tell promoters that Biafra is not on board until the eleventh hour, if at all, and you have yourself a full-blooded, corporate ego clash.

So where do I come in exactly, being the DK and punk fan that I am, you may be asking yourself right now? In the miasma of War and Enron, Bible thumpers and infidels, sellouts and staying true to the game, who can I trust in a popular culture that until so recently was infatuated with the mantra, “Trust no one?”

Usually, the answer would be trust the music, but now there is nowhere else but Manifesto to run if you want any of the Dead Kennedys titles mentioned earlier. The Alternative Tentacles store is listing them as out-of-print, probably because — as Jello has stated on the AT Web site — East Bay Ray walked into Alternative Tentacles’ distributor, Mordam, in January 2001 and then summarily “walked off with every unsold Alternative Tentacles DK CD, cassette and LP (except “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” and the “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” single, which [AT is] still allowed to sell)”. Therefore, if you want to skip the drama and go straight to the music (that is, if you really can), then the only choice is to go Manifesto’s reissue route.

Which, corporate or anti-corporate rock politics aside, seems to sound and feel no different than the previous label’s offerings, which means that the only thing that’s really been Remastered! here is ownership. The discs look and sound more or less exactly the same as Alternative Tentacles’ efforts, which is middling to say the best, something that may say more about the Dead Kennedys’ studio skills than anything. Unlike current mainstream punk rock bouncing around the radio or on MTV, the Dead Kennedys were by no means a very loud outfit, relying more upon Biafra’s shaky sneer and East Bay Ray’s surf guitar fed through a high-pitched fuzz box or echoplex than the wall-to-wall angst-filled heavy metal distortion you hear these days that may or may not be a residual effect from the Nirvana/Mudhoney/Social D borderline grunge axis. In short, digital remastering has added not much bottom or gravitas to Manifesto’s reissues: it’s still mostly a crackling affair of treble, squeals, and scratches, sounding closer to Bauhaus than breakneck Raw Power.

But barring discussion of the technical specifics, it’s still a bracing punk rock refresher to listen to Frankenchrist‘s fiery “Hellnation” or Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death‘s canonical “Holiday in Cambodia” — which, believe it or not, may have started this whole conflict when Jello refused to let Levi’s feature the tune in a Dockers commercial (!), to the chagrin of the other members — or Plastic Surgery Disaster‘s sardonic “Terminal Preppie”. Indeed, the entirety of Give Me Convenience should be mandatory listening for burgeoning punk rock fans and bands — especially those that Jello cannot stand like skinheads who advocate violence against people they don’t like — if only because punk rock’s ethics have never been so clearly spelled out and mainstream corporate society’s greedy heart has never been so faithfully vivisected. Whether he’s skewering George W./Enron-like friends in high places (“The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends / That’s how this country’s run”) in the DK’s revisionist “I Fought the Law” or biting The Knack’s “My Sharona” in their scathing critique of corporate rock (I’m tired of self-respect / I can’t afford a car / I wanna be a prefab superstar”) in “Pull My Strings”, Jello and the Dead Kennedys are almost unparalleled in their insights into capitalism and consumer culture’s casualties of war.

Which is a bitter pill to swallow now that the DK’s legendary punk ethos has been called into question by the in-fighting and money-grubbing ripping their camp in two. Perhaps tired of self-respect, East Bay Ray finally figured that not landing a Dockers commercial featuring “Holiday in Cambodia” (sample lyrics: “Kiss ass while you bitch so you can get rich / But your boss gets richer off you / Well you’ll work harder for with a gun in your back / For a bowl of rice a day” — is irony not sweet?) was too much to take, that in fact he would rather have that car, after all. Meanwhile, Jello is sticking to his guns, calling the current DK tour a show by “the world’s greediest karaoke band” intent on ripping their fans off at $25 a pop. Now estranged from his prodigious artistic output (and its attendant royalties), he has been restricted to his path of exile until the court decides his appeal. Meanwhile, punk rock’s most outspoken defender of the weak and poor has at last fallen prey to capitalism’s Midas desire.

When in Rome, indeed.