When they were fronted by Jello Biafra from 1978-1986, Dead Kennedys were one of the most explosive, zaniest live punk bands of all time. With lyrics that could be either political or comical (sometimes both at the same time), the band — whose best-known lineup also included guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D.H. Peligro — struck a nerve with the Mohawk set with such classic ragers as “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Too Drunk to Fuck,” “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “Kill the Poor” and “California Über Alles.”
Biafra chose not to participate when the others reunited the DKs in 2001, resulting in several singers subsequently taking his spot (the latest being former Wynona Riders singer Ron “Skip” Greer). But to mark 40 years since the band first formed, the group has assembled a three-disc live collection, DK40, which will be released on April 26 via Manifesto Records. It’s comprised of three vintage shows, two from 1982 (the Paradiso in Amsterdam and Alabama Halle in Munich) and one from 1985 (the Farm in San Francisco).
According to Ray, fans will get to hear the Biafra-led line-up the way they would have at an actual gig with DK40, standing front and center…albeit without the fear of taking a combat boot to the noggin from a stage-diver. “Most of the tapes [circulating in fan circles] are straight off the PA board, so it’s just voice and drums – no bass and no guitar,” he tells Billboard. “You don’t get the full impact of the Dead Kennedys. But these three were radio broadcasts, so the balances are pretty good.”
What made the band decide to put out a live compilation now?
We actually had the plan for a long time. The packaging was going to be that brown wrapping paper with a string around several LPs. And then we got distracted by one thing or another, and then this is our 40th year, so we wanted to do something special, and there’s a lot of garbage out on the Internet and YouTube. So I went through 30 or 40 different shows that I had cassettes of, and people had sent me digital files. I basically picked the three that had really good performances, and also, really good recording quality. In the sense that you could hear all the instruments.
Can you believe that it’s been over 40 years already since the band first formed?
No, I can’t. I still feel like I’m 32 on the inside. I’m immature for my age, I guess.
Do you recall anything specific about those three performances?
The Paradiso might have been the first time we played there, and that’s a legendary club. The one in Munich, we went to soundcheck and they were going to broadcast it live on the radio, and I remember they taped a little bit from soundcheck, and I went up in the control room to listen to it and help them balance it out better. And the Farm is a legendary club here in San Francisco — it had a lot of good shows. D.H.’s mother was there in the audience!
Something that may be lost on those who did not see the band live back then — there was certainly an element of danger and unpredictability at Dead Kennedys shows.
We were a high-energy band. And still are a high-energy band. When it’s going good we kind of liken it to being in the eye of a hurricane: 99% of the time, it was safe. But it was basically a high-energy good time. And a smart time, whether it be social or political.
And while the band could certainly be viewed as political, there was always a sense of humor detected – “MTV Get Off the Air,” “Jock-O-Rama,” etc.
Well, “Too Drunk to Fuck”…how political is that? They weren’t all political — you’ve got to keep some humor.
Which song created the most controversy at the time?
I guess “Too Drunk to Fuck.” It made it into the top 40 in the United Kingdom without ever being played by the BBC. But that was kind of predictable — using that word.
Do you think a band like the Dead Kennedys could come out today and survive?
Society has taken a big wrong turn, and specifically, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but there’s a book about surveillance capitalism [The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff], and it’s about how Google, Amazon, and Facebook basically eavesdrop on your life — where you’re going, what you’re doing. But the myth that was perpetuated — the distribution of content — it was when these corporations eavesdrop on their lives, and then these corporations use this information to their interest. Google is very good at that — they have more lobbyists in Washington, DC than anybody else now — and then they sell it to anybody that will pay them money. And basically what it is, is that they’re collecting information, and you don’t know exactly what they’re collecting. I think one of the solutions is to have a right for a person to go to Facebook and say, “Let me see the file you have on me.” But the bigger problem is surveillance capitalism. So basically, Google and Facebook, they cut the money on advertising. And the consequence is musicians…like for us, in order to be able to make the same living and still be able to finance your records, you have to have an audience ten times bigger.
Why do you think such influential hardcore punk bands like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Bad Brains are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
None of those band were mainstream in the United States. In the United Kingdom and in parts of Europe, we were a top 40 band. But not in the United States. In England, the Ramones — who were on a major label, Sire — they never really had a big hit in the United States, like the Clash or the Sex Pistols had in England. That’s part of it. But the thing is back in the day, we had our own record label [Alternative Tentacles], and we’d go, “Hey, here are some records to review.” And very subtly — not directly — it came back, “Well, unless you can afford to buy an ad in our paper, we can’t take you seriously.” [Laughs]
Is there any communication between the band and Jello?
He has an attorney — he won’t talk to us directly. Although I did run into him at a Killing Joke show. Basically, people need to forgive themselves. We’re only human. I mean, the Beatles sued one another, the Beach Boys sued one another — the fans don’t really care, it’s about the music. I don’t know if you know, but Johnny and Joey Ramone didn’t speak to each other for ages. I believe the story is Johnny took Joey’s girlfriend — not because of the music. Our manager was in a new wave band and toured with them, and said, “Yeah, they didn’t talk to one another. But they showed up and did the shows and recordings.” So, that’s what we’re hoping Biafra will realize — the band is bigger than any individual.