Let me just start by illustrating a couple of things that are wrong with the Adelaide ticket buying mentality. Firstly if you are thinking of driving all the way down from Murray Bridge and turn up at the door and say ‘One thanks’, perhaps save yourself a world of pain by ringing the venue first to see if there are any tickets left (there were not). Secondly do not buy tickets off randoms on the internet. And if you absolutely have to, don’t pay $500 for a fifty buck ticket because there is a very good chance (as last night illustrated), that you have been royally burned. If you wanna see the band $500 worth or two hours drive each way’s worth, then buy your ticket early people.
The first time I saw The Dead Kennedys was in 1983 at Thebarton Theatre supported by Grong Grong (‘The world’s foremost musical torture band’ declared Jello Biafra after their set). It was my first hardcore punk show. It was the first time I had ever seen stage diving. It was dangerous, electrifying and slightly terrifying. Jello was in fine form ‘I didn’t realise we were coming 15,000 miles to play inside a zeppelin hangar’ he sneered.
Tonight circumstances conspired against me seeing Grenadiers and Scum of The Surf, but I am lead to understand they were both great.
So we are snuggled in tight, black Dead Kennedy shirt against black Dead Kennedy shirt. Ready to see The Dead Kennedys. The legendary San Francisco hard core band that rallied against corruption, power crazy rich, informed me of the Cambodian horrors of the Pol Pot regime before I was otherwise aware of them. The band that told me that punks of a Nazi variety could fuck off. There is of course, going to be something missing from proceedings, and that is one Jello Biafra. Snarling and sneering lead singer and writer of many of their most impactful songs. When they were here four years ago I grudgingly went along feeling very conflicted as, in the scheme of things, I have always been Team Biafra in the division of loyalties for The DKs. Much to my surprise I had a great time, those songs are etched on my D.N.A., the three classic members (East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride and DH Peligro) played them well and current front man Ron ‘Skip’ Greer did a great job. He delivered the songs with punch and energy and people were accepting of him filling the Jello shaped whole in the legendary punk outfit.
We haven’t got time for a full blow by blow run down of their split up, but it’s messy and complicated. But the 7 inch edit goes something like this. The band formed in 1978 and disbanded in 1986 after an exhausting legal battle with authorities, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Centre. They disbanded in 1986. Jello went on making music with Lard, Guantanamo School of Medicine, and collaborating with DOA and NoMeansNo and making spoken word albums and touring extensively as well as running the independent label they were on – Alternative Tentacles. Fluoride released one solo album each decade in the 80’s, 90’s and one in 2011, mostly working as a producer for other bands. Peligro was briefly in the Red Hot Chili Peppers (and co-wrote some songs on Mothers Milk) and smaller bands like Nailbomb and Jungle Studs. East Bay Ray kept playing in a number of little known bands like Pearl Harbor and Johnny Fingers.
My understanding is that from the Biafra side, the DK’s were always on a reduced royalty rate for their records on their label Alternative Tentacles, because they sold the most records. This facilitated the releases of less popular bands. There was an accounting glitch which meant there was an amount of unpaid royalties outstanding to the band. From the other members point of view, Jello was cheating them of royalties and ‘not pursuing maximum return on the artists work’. The most famous example of which was Jello’s refusal to allow Levi’s Dockers to use Holiday in Cambodia in an advertising campaign to sell jeans. It would have earned the band over a million dollars, but Biafra was outraged that the others would even consider such a sell out move that went against everything the band stood for. The others, headed by Ray, took up a nasty legal battle against Biafra and rested both the intellectual property rights and ownership of the Dead Kennedys name from him. In 2001 the band started touring again with a number of different people on lead vocals before Ron ‘Skip’ Greer joined ten years ago. Since then they have toured a lot, but released no new music. Maybe that was the 10 inch edit…
They launch into Forward to Death from Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. They sound amazing. Punchy, ferocious. East Bay Ray isn’t moving round much but his fingers fly round his guitar making fantastic brittle punk fire. Fluoride attacks his bass like a lead instrument putting down several layers of thick bottom end and Peligro on the drums is frantic and solid. Winnebago Warrior and the incendiary Police Truck are almost a blur. You forget how short some of these DK songs are. Buzzbomb from Plastic Surgery Disasters precedes a punk rock sing-a-long on Let’s Lynch The Landlord. Jock-O-Rama is one of only two songs from Frankenchrist tonight and brings us to the fantastic Kill The Poor.
Skip does a good job on the vocals, and it is impossible to deliver Jello’s lyrics in any other manner than he had originally delivered them. Jello’s intonation and inflections are so wound up in the structure, rhythm and tempo of each song, that anybody attempting them is going to have to ape his delivery on some level. This time round I am noticing he is moving like Jello, bending and contorting, leaping off the stage to get the punters down front to sing. He is also doing snarky rants between the songs. Maybe this music brings that out in a singer, but tonight it seems a little laboured. He launches into a diatribe about horse racing (Melbourne Cup was earlier in the day) and was taking a very Biafra stand with ‘You people copying real sport from the country you try to emulate’. Skip is a good singer and he does these great songs justice, but there were more than a few comments about his Jello-esque performance afterwards. It’s a lot less dangerous of course, because there is less conflict. The music isn’t an affront to an adoring audience who have been listening to this music for three decades. It’s more of a celebration of music that was once dangerous and ground breaking. And while some of the songs still have social relevance It’s just a different beast thirty years later. It’s not like there isn’t anything new to rail about in 2018’s Trump America or a world full of incel madness, human rights abuses and an ever more volatile and right wing, populist, sexist, racist, violent, gun crazy world.
Their only concession to anything ‘new’ is a re-write of MTV Get Off The Air (Frankenchrist) re-imagined as MP3 Get Off The Web, which is introduced with another accusatory rant about people downloading, streaming and generally not paying for music. Slightly ironic that several people around me are filming this rant on their phones.
In 1981 The DK’s released the controversial punk rock anthem Too Drunk To Fuck. A single that could not be played on the radio or be stocked in a lot of record stores. It was a a rabid dog bite of a single, that managed to be proper punk and a strong melodic catchy (if very fast) pop song all at once. Each line another self deprecating punch in the singers own face.
Went to a party
I danced all night
I drank sixteen beers
And I started up a fight
But now I am jaded
You’re out of luck
I’m rolling down the stairs
Too drunk to fuck
Tonight the place explodes into a thrashing, crowd surfing, mess of arms and legs and beer, as it starts. What a mighty bloody song. What a great performance. Bloody hell it was fantastic!
Moon Over Marin, is great also but serves mainly as a palate cleanser before napalm style set ending Nazi Punks Fuck Off and California Uber Alles.
They return for Bleed For Me, which turns into Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off at one point (wasn’t expecting that!). Their breakneck paced cover of Viva Las Vegas had what is left of Presley’s corpse spinning faster than ever. Klaus and Ray starts playing some jazzy riffs but it soon becomes obvious that we about to go on a Cambodian holiday. Holiday In Cambodia is in some ways the essential Dead Kennedys song. More political than Too Drunk, it contrasted the life of privileged, wealthy American students who play ‘ethnicy jazz, to parde their snazz on your five grand stereo’ to life under the genocide in Cambodia under the dictator Pol Pot. A madman who was responsible for deaths of two million people. Student under that regime, Jello tells us, ‘You’ll work harder with a gun in your back for a bowl of rice a day’. The cover was a truly disturbing image of a right wing crowd beating the hanged corpse of a student protester with a metal chair. Sonically exhilarating, pointed critical lyrics, shocking imagery, killer guitar, massive build to a cold stop at the end. It’s a masterpiece any time, as it is tonight. Skip is down in the pit thrusting the microphone at people and nobody is shy about singing along.
They return for the final Chemical Warfare. It’s a shouty affair with us all yelling WARFARE WARFARE at the top of our lungs. Bows are taken, cheers are cheered. I look at my watch and realise they have been on for about an hour and ten minutes. A few minutes after they finish, they are all out in the bar signing records and doing selfies with people.
I am pretty confident you will never see The Dead Kennedys on a stage with Jello Biafra again. Like The Smiths the rift between the factions is a bottomless chasm, of history, pride, principal. I can say that this version of The Dead Kennedys is a killer way to celebrate these songs that have meant so much, to so many, for so long.
Next time get your tickets early.
Live Review Ian Bell
Dead Kennedys Set List
Forward to Death (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
Winnebago Warrior (Plastic Surgery Disasters 1982)
Police Truck (b-side of Holiday in Cambodia single 1980)
Buzzbomb (Plastic Surgery Disasters 1982)
Let’s Lynch The Landlord (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
Jock-O-Rama (Frankenchrist 1985)
Kill The Poor (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
MP3Get Off The Web (re-working of MTV Get Off The Air – Frankenchrist 1986)
Too Drunk to Fuck (single 1981)
Moon Over Marin (Plastic Surgery Disasters 1982)
Nazi Punks Fuck Off (In God We Trust Inc 1981)
California Uber Alles (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
Bleed For Me / Shake It Off (Plastic Surgery Disasters 1982)
Viva Las Vegas (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
Holiday in Cambodia (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)
Chemical Warfare (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables 1980)