In 1978 Dead Kennedys released their first single, California Über Alles, in which they mocked the liberal, marijuana-smoking governor of California, Jerry Brown. They imagined the “zen fascist” Brown sending out his “suede denim secret police” to have un-cool people killed with organic poison gas. In 1981 the band rewrote the song into a comment on “Emperor Ronald Reagan/ Born again with fascist cravings.” This new version was called “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” This was the first recognition of a struggle against Reaganism, here broadly defined as cultural traditionalism, militarism and free-market economics, which increasingly came to define DK. Overall DK’s story both illustrates and contradicts Robert Collins’ assertion that culture moved to the left in the Reagan years as politics moved to the right. Certainly DK’s left-wing politics were hardened by the advances of the right, but equally DK’s body of work is a comment and a documentary source on a move to the right both politically and culturally, a conservative surge that eventually claimed the band’s life.
In examining DK as it relates to US Culture in the “age of Reagan” we have to keep in mind that the more immediate context for the band members themselves was the San Francisco and Bay Area punk scene in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. We should also remember that “hardly anybody was listening to it [punk rock] in the ‘80s. For everybody who was digging Black Flag there were another 10,000 people who were more interested in The Eagles or Saturday Night Fever.” However, DK reached perhaps the widest audience of all their peers, such that members of other bands grew angry at seeing jocks and “suburban morons” coming to their gigs to see DK. They were also one of the most consistently politically-engaged punk bands of that period, providing a constant commentary on US culture and politics. Against the backdrop of the age of Reagan, their work became more than escapism or entertainment or a career; the 1980s turned it into a struggle.
The first and most important aspect of this struggle are DK’s lyrics, most of which were written by singer Jello Biafra. In this respect DK’s first album, 1980’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, was very different from later releases. Featuring songs written in the late ‘70s and 1980, the lyrics reflect a sense of decay, or the “rot” of the album title. Most of the lyrics (mostly by Biafra but also by guitarists 6025 and East Bay Ray) are not explicitly political, but crude, violent and shocking. The infamous “I Kill Children” is perhaps not as disturbing as the scene of funfair sabotage depicted in “Funland at the Beach”. Other song lyrics are more flippant than shocking but are still simply about violence and delinquency rather than explicit protest. “Eighty percent of the songs were like getting inside some sort of crazed psychopath’s head and trying to figure out what made them think that way,” says Klaus Fluoride, DK’s bass player. A search through the rest of DK’s albums for similar songs yields very little. After Fresh Fruit DK’s lyrics became over time a more overt commentary on politics and culture.
Overall while Fresh Fruit does have some songs which are unambiguous political statements, most convey a sense of the years of the Carter Presidency which are usually associated with the term “malaise”. This was a period defined by economic crisis, the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, unresolved issues of race and class, the Watergate scandal and the impotence of liberal America. More locally, San Francisco had just witnessed the Moscone-Milk killings, the White Night Riots (in which “all the punks were out, rioting and burning cop cars”) and the mass suicide at Jonestown, whose victims had until recently been based in San Francisco. The lyrics on Fresh Fruit, written between 1978 and 1980, reflect an ill-defined but violent discontentment.
The admission in 1981, following Reagan’s inauguration at the start of that year, that “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” may mark a shift in the band’s focus lyrically. Reaganism on the offensive has become “a bigger problem” than hypocritical liberalism. 1981’s In God We Trust, Inc was dominated by songs with definite social and political messages, including the band’s two great anti-religious anthems, “Moral Majority” and “Religious Vomit”. 1982’s Plastic Surgery Disasters was stuffed from start to finish with political and cultural statements that it was impossible to mistake. Frankenchrist (1985)and Bedtime for Democracy (1986) continued on the same path with overtly political songs.
In their last two albums, while still making plenty of criticisms, DK were beginning to ask searching and sincere questions. DK were, to use the words of one critic examining the punk genre, moving on from their “historical task of negation” toward finding out what positive message they could give and how; but losing confidence in the face of the rise of the right. Frankenchrist’s “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” has the character of an all-encompassing manifesto for Jello Biafra, expounded with an earnestness and sincerity that is a long way from his early lyrics about killing children or lynching landlords. “A Growing Boy Needs his Lunch” subverts this fragile optimism: “Stick your neck out and trust/ And it’ll get chopped away.” Bedtime for Democracy, recorded after the band had decided to break up, includes no less than three songs which build on a dissatisfaction with many elements of the punk scene first flagged in “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in 1981. “Where do ya draw the line?” meanwhile expresses a wider political weariness and uncertainty:
Seems the more I think I know
The more I find I don’t
Every answer opens up so many questions
Anarchy sounds good to me
Then someone asks “Who’d fix the sewers”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighbourhood?” […]
“I’m cleansed of the system
(‘Cept when my amp needs electric power) […]
Between the inchoate gleeful violence of their early days and the hints at a loss of certainty in 1985-6 lies the main body of DK’s lyrics, which are almost entirely satirical. Many songs from all of DK’s albums are directly political, dealing with war, unemployment, US policies in Latin America, government surveillance and pollution. Forming a bigger portion of their songs, however, are those which are more cultural than directly political. DK are perhaps best remembered for songs such as “Holiday in Cambodia” and “MTV Get Off The Air” which are critiques of the prevailing culture in the US rather than attacks on any specific action, policy, individual or distinct group. These two labels, “cultural” and “political”, are not ideal but they are useful when applied in a broad sense. The difference between the two is illustrated by “Rambozo the Clown” and “When Ya Get Drafted”. “Rambozo” is an attack on hawkish action movies. This song is of course political but it its main concern is everyday culture. “When ya get drafted” on the other hand makes direct criticisms of various aspects of war itself. This is anti-war, and “Rambozo” is anti-militarism. Side one of Plastic Surgery Disasters is broadly cultural while side two is broadly political. The split between these two kinds of songs in DK’s discography works out at roughly three “cultural” songs for every two “political” songs. The main, but not overwhelming, bulk of DK’s lyrics are therefore a sustained critique of US culture in the Reagan years.
To return to Collins’ assertion that in the Reagan years politics moved to the right while culture moved to the left, it seems that DK’s politics and culture remained firmly on the left, but that their songs, taken as a whole or one by one, constitute a record and a critique of a massive rightward shift in both politics and culture. Their abandonment of shock lyrics and their turn toward a real urgency and stridency in lyrics follows naturally from their recognition that “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” in 1981. The greater number of agitational songs from 1981 onwards would seem to reflect a growing number of obvious targets for DK’s criticism compared to the more general anxieties which are expressed in a song like “Funland at the Beach.” The greater focus on cultural aspects of conservatism gives us a dark insight from a highly critical point of view into everyday life and culture in the Reagan era.
In an interview in which he was otherwise highly critical of Biafra, East Bay Ray defended Biafra’s habit of delivering short speeches on social and political matters between and during songs at gigs. An example is a speech given during a rendition of “California Über Alles” in 1986 in which he claimed that Reagan had manipulated the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing in order to encourage jingoism. A recording of a full set from 1980, however, includes no such speeches; Biafra engages in a little rapport with the audience, but these are not performances. Biafra’s later move toward peppering a gig with auxiliary harangues could partly reflect a growing on-stage confidence and experience. However, it would more so seem to agree with our interpretation of DK’s lyrics: that as time went on, as Reagan came to power and the right grew more confident, Biafra and DK were fired up with a sense of urgency in addressing political and cultural questions. Not content with addressing such questions in practically every song, politics were bursting through the seams between songs. If there was a cultural war in the 1980s, as Pat Buchanan claimed in 1992, then Biafra was an irrepressibly enthusiastic participant. Not everyone in the scene liked this: “And here came Jello, ‘Wha wha wha, you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be more political’”. Others, however, maintained that “Dead Kennedys was actually opening people’s eyes”.
The scene of which DK were a part was initially a reaction to and a criticism of the “hideous interlude of corporate rock” in the 1970s. Klaus remembers that what got him into punk was in fact The Eagles: “Nothing in the mainstream that was calling itself rock’n’roll was really rock’n’roll. It was easy listening music at that point.”The scene was itself a critique of US musical culture. Politically, “In Berkeley and the Bay Area, Reagan was seriously the devil,” (Oran Cornfield, p 246) so DK were not unique in their politics either. In other respects, however, they did not fit in so comfortably.
Klaus and Ray alike had played in very different bands before DK; Ray in a band called Cruisin’ that played “all this ‘50s shit” (Dennis Kernohan, p 66) while Klaus played in “bands that were basically white guys playing R&B” (Klaus Fluoride, p 65). Both were inspired by the energy of bands like The Weirdos in the Bay Area to turn towards punk. Biafra claims Klaus and Ray therefore had “a lot of ‘70s bar-band damage to hack through… solos and fills in every possible place” (Biafra, 66). The result of this was, in the opinion of one of their peers, that “Their music was New Wave, surfy, kind of accessible. It wasn’t hard and mean and angry, even though Jello was doing his best to hold up his end. It was the other guys in the band that wrote […] Very wimpy music.” (Dave Chavez, 81). Other contemporaries who were “there” remember them as representing either the more nerdy edge of the punk scene or the more mainstream, jock, preppie edge (Frank Portman, 87; John marr, Murray Bowles, p 82). One musician thought Jello’s voice was irritating, and claimed “a million” others would agree (Penelope Houston, p 80).
These divisions played a part in DK’s eventual break-up and in later legal controversies over “a backlog of petty grievances” (James Sullivan, p 95). This musical diversity, however, was a huge factor in their success. Ray says there was a strong “cross fertilisation” in the scene generally in the early days, as the main venue, the Mabuhay Gardens, would be booked out with all kinds of different bands every night, from which punk eventually emerged and became dominant. Biafra remembers that at the time the attitude was: “Every band must sound different from every other band, or none of us are gonna be interested.” He remembers competing with other songwriters to come up with the next song that would be as different as possible from the last. Biafra is widely remembered as a “record junkie” and “a crazy collector and he probably has the broadest taste in music of any of us.” (Ruth Schwarz, p 55). Ray believes that DK’s success – which was apparent from their first gigs – was down to the energy and inspiration of the Mabuhay scene plus his and Klaus’ “trained ability” (p 66). While this definitely sells Biafra short, both were clearly essential factors.
Ray’s 1950s rock’n’roll, surfy sound was in fact central to DK. The solo on “Let’s Lynch the Landlord”, a song that reflects this influence very strongly, sounds as sarcastic as is possible for a guitar. The strange musical patchwork brought to the songs by Klaus and Ray, as well as by Biafra’s broad tastes, was consciously or unconsciously a vital part of DK’s critique of US culture. Like Winston Smith’s collages, discussed below, the band would, says Klaus, “take certain things from different things, and just sort of jumble them together.” What we hear in many DK songs is a dissected and reassembled soundscape, old elements placed in new relations, an audio parody of music sounding deliberately disjointed.
“Kill the Poor”, “Chemical Warfare”, “Terminal Preppie”, “Jock-O-Rama”, “Forest Fire”, and “MTV – Get Off the Air” are the most obvious examples of this sarcastic imitation of US culture but elements are visible throughout DK’s work. Their only definitely hardcore punk EP was In God We Trust, Inc. The later criticism of Biafra and Ray for one another must be interpreted with caution as Biafra and the three other band members faced each other in court in 2000 and the two camps have been very hostile since then. We should also understand that the criticism of others on the scene represented somewhat widespread but by no means dominant opinions. They do represent the fact that while DK were and could only have been a product of the Bay Area scene, they did not belong exclusively to it. DK’s unique musical sound was a combination of factors introduced by each of the band members. The use of music was an element of DK’s critique of US culture that was at least as important as the lyrics.
Artist Winston Smith was so attracted by punk aesthetics as a means of artistic expression that he began by designing flyers and posters for fictional bands playing at imaginary venues. Soon he was designing album covers and inserts for real, including the famous DK logo. His artwork is such a crucial part of each of DK’s albums and of their commentary on culture and politics that we should examine it on an equal footing. We should also note that Biafra collaborated in the creation of these images and that they were in no way created in a vacuum removed from the band.
Fresh Fruit included a two-sided poster made up of clippings from advertisements, comics, newspaper and magazine headlines, photographs and text, along with films such as The Exorcist, Taxi Driver and M. The images range from famous ones such as a photograph from the Vietnam War to bizarre and apparently pointless ones. They also range from the crude – Reagan’s face with a Hitler moustache and the word “sex” drawn all over it in marker – to the subtle. The newspaper clippings concern the disturbing and the marginal: one describes the police in Orange County hunting for “a small man with a large beard who likes to hide in the median of the Riverside Freeway and heave flat stones through automobile windshields” and who has stabbed a pursuing policeman. Another concerns a Vietnam War veteran who has poisoned a swimming pool using components of Agent Orange, affecting over a hundred people.
Overall the impression given is of the “Rotting Vegetables” of American society. Innocent headlines and images removed from any context and presented in strange new combinations give a vaguely-defined but very strong impression of a society that is going insane. Later album art follows similar techniques. Plastic Surgery Disasters includes an entire booklet of collages similar in nature to that of Fresh Fruit though making heavier use of innocent old-fashioned advertising in order to expose what one song describes as “The dark shattered underbelly of the American dream.”
Bedtime For Democracy abandons collages and photos for drawings and cartoons. The cover picture is a crowded, epic image of the statue of liberty overrun by yuppies, businessmen, Nazis, riot policemen and beer-swilling idiots. As such the message is far more direct. It is also deeply pessimistic: mushroom clouds blossom, waste pours into the sea, cops beat up protesters, “Top Goon” and “Rocky Balbigot” are playing at the cinema and immigrants, veterans and African-Americans are falling to their doom through a safety net with gaping holes. A companion picture, printed on the back of the CD edition, shows the Statue of Liberty on a vengeful rampage, complete with laser eyes and a fire-breathing mouth. However, this redeeming revolutionary image has no basis in reality while every detail on the main picture is a deliberately-crafted comment on an aspect of the contemporary US. There is nothing vague, confused or elusive in this as there was in the collages, and no room for interpretation. As DK moved toward more definite statements in their lyrics, Smith followed with his artwork; as DK grew more pessimistic, urgent and strident, so did Smith. The artwork followed a similar trajectory to the lyrics in an ever more sharply-defined struggle against Reaganism.
The most famous piece of DK-related artwork, however, had nothing to do with Winston Smith. This was HR Giger’s Work 219, Landscape XX, also known as “Penis Landscape.” In 1986 Biafra’s home was raided by police and he was charged with distributing harmful matter to minors. If DK had spent the last five years in a cultural war against Reaganism, Biafra’s obscenity trial represented Reaganism hitting back hard, pushing DK into a defensive battle. For over a year the Parents’ Music Resource Centre (PMRC), headed by four wives of prominent national politicians, had been criticizing DK along with others including Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe and Madonna, linking their music to teen pregnancy and other social problems (Suzanne Stefanac, p 90). Michael Guarino of the District Attorney’s office later ashamedly recalled, “I remember looking at that piece of art and thinking… We’ve got a great case.” Elsewhere he admitted, “the whole thing was a comedy of errors. About midway through the trial we realized that the lyrics of the album were in many ways socially responsible, very anti-drug, and pro-individual. We were a couple of young prima donna prosecutors.” Biafra alleged that the prosecuting team had chosen DK “out of a pile” of bands to prosecute, and that they chose DK because they were an independent band who would be broken by legal fees and fines. (p 90) This was an offensive by cultural traditionalists against DK specifically, and against wider aspects of popular culture, which was entirely characteristic of the culture of the “age of Reagan.”
DK, with the support of important elements of the Bay Area scene, fought a very effective defensive battle. Gaining nationwide coverage, they raised a “No More Censorship Defense Fund” from a vast number of grassroots donors to meet costs predicted to come to $50,000. Musician and anti-censorship campaigner Frank Zappa met with Biafra and advised him always to present himself as the victim and Biafra followed this advice very well. He defended the poster on the basis that it was a portrayal of “the me generation, the yuppie majority… Here we all are, screwing each other, in more ways than one.” Guarino’s comments and the 7-5 jury verdict in favour of acquittal in August 1987 prove Biafra’s assertion that the prosecution “won’t admit it but they learned something from it too.”
This attack from conservative traditionalists nonetheless finished off DK. The trial and the preparation for the trial effectively took months out of the life of the band and despite the case being dropped Wherehouse and other major retailers now refused to sell DK albums. Ray stated that he wanted to end DK and the band performed their final gig with Biafra before recording one final album, Bedtime for Democracy, before going public with the break-up in November 1986. Others from the scene claim that the four were never “tight” as a group, but the strain of the trial was definitely a major factor. Jello said during the trial, with DK already disbanded, that for him “it may take years to pick up the pieces.” DK had been defined over five years by its struggle against Reaganism and in 1986 it met its death at the hands of its arch-enemy.
DK’s lyrics were always closely pegged to the zeitgeist and were so intensely political by scene standards that they both enraged and enlightened audiences. DK’s eclectic and parodic use of music created a form of satire and cultural commentary that was just as powerful. Winston Smith’s excellent subversive artwork did visually what the music did for the ears. To experience all three at once is not only an intense artistic experience; it gives historians a dark and artistically brilliant “ground-level” view of US politics and culture in the “age of Reagan.” In itself DK’s work is a cultural artefact but it is also in many ways a comment on and a storehouse of culture itself, both in the way it directly satirized it words but also in the way it acoustically and visually dissected, collected, reassembled and presented culture in distorted, revealing new forms.
- Jason Toynbee, review of Greil Marcus, In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk 1977-1992, in Popular Music, Vol 15, No 3, Australia/ New Zealand Issue, October 1994, pp 365-366
- Dead Kennedys, Bedtime For Democracy, Decay Music, 1986 (Manifesto Records)
- Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist, Decay Music, 1985 (Manifesto Records)
- Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Cherry Red Records, 1980
- Dead Kennedys, Plastic Surgery Disasters/ In God We Trust, Inc, Decay Music, 1981 (Manifesto, 2001)
- Dead Kennedys, Live at the Deaf Club, Decay Music, 2004
- Dead Kennedys, Mutiny on the Bay, Decay Music 2001
- Eds. Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day, Penguin 2009
- Robert M Collins, Transforming America: Culture and Politics in the Reagan Years, Columbia University Press, 2007
- Jacobs and Zelizer, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989, Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011
- R & M Video Collection, “Jello Biafra obscenity trial 1987,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAkY4oS9-Y0, accessed 20.07, 3/11/2012
- Jello Biafra on the Oprah Winfrey Show, 1986 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpUeo6wR7M4, accessed 21.10, 2/11/2012
- Ted Drozdowski, “Bullshit Detector: Jello Biafra cuts to the politics of pop,” July 1997, http://www.bostonphoenix.com/alt1/archive/music/reviews/07-10-97/JELLO_BIAFRA.html, accessed 12.32, 31/10/2012
- Jeff Lowe, Interview with East Bay Ray, February 2007, http://www.thepunksite.com/interviews.php?page:deadkennedys
- rich, Interview with Jello Biafra, August 2012 for punknews.org, www.punknews.org/48637/interviews-jello-biafra, accessed 14.54, 1/11/2012
 Dead Kennedys, Plastic Surgery Disasters/ In God We Trust, Inc (CD, Manifesto, 2001), 1981, track 21; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Cherry Red Records, 1980, track 8
 Robert M Collins, Transforming America: Culture and Politics in the Reagan Years, Columbia University Press, 2007, p 5. Collins leaves it unclear what he means by a “cultural” move to the left – for instance he seems to imply that a wider spread of left-wing attitudes has led to there being more single mothers. This display of a remarkable ability to miss the point is not something I want to focus too hard on in this piece, but Collins’ initial statement is useful rhetorically.
 Eds. Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor, Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day, Penguin 2009, p 82
 “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “Stealing People’s Mail” are examples. Fresh Fruit, tracks 4, 9, 10, 11, 12
 Gimme Something Better, p 80
 Jacobs and Zelizer, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989, Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011, pp 16-18
 Gimme Something Better, p 42
 Jason Toynbee, review of Greil Marcus, In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk 1977-1992, in Popular Music, Vol 15, No 3, Australia/ New Zealand Issue, October 1994, pp 365-366
 Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist, Decay Music, 1985 (Manifesto Records), tracks 4, 10
 Dead Kennedys, Bedtime For Democracy, Decay Music, 1986 (Manifesto Records), track 18
 Jeff Lowe, Interview with East Bay Ray, February 2007, http://www.thepunksite.com/interviews.php?page:deadkennedys
 Mutiny on the Bay, Decay Music 2001, track 6. This harangue anticipated Bedtime for Democracy’s “Potshot Heard Around the World”. It also receives an unconscious echo in Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the Gulf War, Jarhead, in which he describes the Beirut barracks bombing as the event that made him want to join the US Marine Corps: Swofford, Jarhead, Scribner, 2003
 Live at the Deaf Club, Decay Music, 2004, tracks 7, 15
 Collins, p 172
 James Angus Black, Sergie Loobkoff, quoted in Brauware & Silke, pp 81, 86. Further quotations from contributors to Brauware & Silke will take the form eg. “James Angus Black, p 81”
 Lowe, East Bay Ray Interview
 Lowe Interview, rich Interview
 Winston Smith, Fresh Fruit, album insert
 Plastic Surgery Disasters, track 2
 Winston Smith, Bedtime for Democracy cover artwork
 Ted Drozdowski, “Bullshit Detector: Jello Biafra cuts to the politics of pop,” July 1997, http://www.bostonphoenix.com/alt1/archive/music/reviews/07-10-97/JELLO_BIAFRA.html, accessed 12.32, 31/10/2012