Rock’n Roll must be dangerous, agressive and social relevant. It must be a rebellion against the establishment, an expression of an alternative culture. Not every band falls in this category, but for sure The Dead Kennedys, a San Francisco based group around the charismatic mastermind Jello Biafra, which existed from 1978 until 1986. The Dead Kennedys together with a few other american bands invented a new genre called “Hardcore”. Hardcore is similar to Punk, but what is the difference? Well “Hardcore” takes ingredients of “Punk” and radicalize them. Hardcore is faster, more aggressive, more political, more of everything. And while Post-Punk and New Wave watered down the aggression of the first Punk generation, Hardcore emphasized it.
I remember my first contact with the Dead Kennedys, when I listened to their legendary debut Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables. There are those seldom moments, when you are listening to new music and you think you have never heard anything like this before. Your ears are shocked and try to adjust and you think “What the …” If I had to collect adjectives for the sound of the Dead Kennedys I would choose: Raw, unpolished, energetic, fast, aggressive, Lofi, Unique. Of course I explored some hooks and melodies in the songs, but they were sung and played with such a restless attitude. When you are listening to DK you are feeling like sitting on the first seat of a dangerous rollercoaster, which never stops. Sometimes it seems to fall into a hole, but immediately you rush into a looping. I had similar feelings when I explored Slayer and I understand, why Jeff Hanneman played a guitar with a Dead Kennedys-Sticker. The sound of The Dead Kennedys is the opposite of nice and beautiful. The guitar sounds like a darker version of Dick Dale or like a friendly buzzsaw. Tempos are often ridiculous fast. From a Producer’s point of view the sound lacks frequencies and seems to be narrowed down. Imagine you would listen to a hole band through a broken Telephone and you get an impression, what to expect from DK. And throning on the top of this chaos Jello Biafra spits out the words like an angry Pitbull. Though you can not say, that Jello sounds beautiful or nice (Who would expect a beautiful voice in a band called “Dead Kennedys”?) he convinces with other qualities. He can sing extremely fast without loosing control over the words and the articulation. And he can make you believe, that he is angry, very angry, and sarcastic on the same level.
What I love about the Dead Kennedys: The lyrics attack politics, corruption, war, the music-industry and are very entertaining and clever and funny. Jello Biafra tried later to become the mayor of San Francisco. The Dead Kennedys set some marks against the establishment. They played on the “Rock against Reagan”-Festival and, they played the offensive “Pull my strings” on the 1980 Bay area music rewards. DK searched for controversy.
Musically DK surprises with a fusion of contrary elements. They expand the simple Punk-Formula with elements of Surfrock, Classic Rock’n Roll, Chromatic lines, Tempo-changes and spoken word parts. The music is often unpredictable and always exiting. All band-members are excellent musicians. I want to distinguish the talent of D.H.Peligro, who sets new standards for hardcore-drumming and later joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers and East Bay Ray on the guitar with his clever use of Delay, rapid chord changes and catchy melody-lines, which are obviously influenced by Surf-Rock. If you get more familiar with the DK-sound you can explore more and more recognizable little melodies, often as little interludes and played by the guitar. And many songs are very catchy, though you will probably not recognize this at the first listen. Taking a closer look on their albums I highly recommend “Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables”, because it contains all their best songs like “Holiday in Cambodia”, “California über alles”, “Chemical warfare” and “Kill the poor”. Second it is the most consistant work, the origin of the “Hardcore”-movement and can show off al, qualities of the band. The following EP In God we trust is focused on the wild side of DK with very fast and short material throughout. The eight tracks were recorded all live in the studio and fortunately the session was captured on video-tape, so you can admire the band on Youtube recording this album. “Nazi Punks fuck off” and the cover “Rawhide” stay in mind. The follower Plastic surgery disasters sounds more like a real second album, it widens the formula of the first album, the songs are more experimental and progressive, but less melodic. I highly recommend “Winnebago warrior”, “Buzzbomb”, “I am the owl” and “Riot”. Maybe the album had been more successful, if the band had choosen another track-list, because in my opinion the best songs are not the first ones. The latter works “Frankenchrist” and “Bedtime for democracy” suffer from the absence of good songs and hooks, though Jello Biafra is still able to write political relevant and clever lyrics.
The Dead Kennedys are one of the most original bands I know with a highly remarkable sound and style. Their message and attitude was always highly credible and honest and this credibilty regarding the music and the lyrics is one of the things, which set them apart from other artists. The aggression and provoking attitude of many bands seems to be calculated, a clever marketing-tool to reach a targeted audience. Just think on all the satanic messages in Metal-songs. Believe the musicians, who sing about satanic rituals, really in their message? I don’t think so, maybe except some crazy norwegian Black-Metal groups, which even not shrinked back from murder.
The other point, which sets them apart from other bands within the genres Punk and Hardcore is their clever musicianship and the variety of their music. Compare the Dead Kennedys with bands like Bad religion, Green Day, Blink 182, which are all labeled as Punk and though they write good songs they all sound very polished, very mass-compatible and generic compared to DK. The heritage of DK is found in bands like Sick of it all and also Slayer.
Best albums (with Youtube links)
1. Fresh fruits for rotting vegetables
2. Plastic Surgery disaster
3. Give me convenience or give me death (Sampler with live recordings and singles with some well-known songs like “Police truck” and “Too drunk to fuck”)
Visit me on Spotify