Dead Kennedys Overview

Dead Kennedys were an American United States hardcore punk band, formed in San Francisco, California in 1978. Pioneers of hardcore during the 1980s, the band gained a large underground following Underground music in the international punk music scene.

Their music mixed the more experimental elements of British 1970s punk with the raw energy of the 1980s American hardcore punk scene. Dead Kennedys' songs mixed deliberately shocking lyrics with satirical satire and sarcastic criticism political criticism of social and political issues of the Reagan era Presidency of Ronald Reagan .

In the late 1980s, the band was embroiled in an obscenity trial in the US over the artwork of their 1985 album, Frankenchrist, which included the explicit titular subject of H. R. Giger's *** Landscape. The band was charged with distribution of harmful matter to minors, but the trial ended with a hung jury.

The Dead Kennedys released five studio albums before officially disbanding in 1986. In 2001, the band reformed without original singer Jello Biafra, who had been in a legal dispute with the other members over royalties, before going on indefinite hiatus in 2008. Biafra has gone on to be a spoken word performer, covering political topics in particular, since the dissolution of the Dead Kennedys.


Late 1970s: Formation of the band

The Dead Kennedys formed in June 1978, when surf rock-influenced guitarist East Bay Ray (Raymond Pepperell) advertised for bandmates after seeing a ska-punk show at the Mabuhay Gardens. They were heavily influenced by the bands they saw there. The original DK lineup consisted of Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher) on vocals, East Bay Ray (Raymond Pepperell) on guitar, Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) on bass, and 6025 6025 (musician) (Carlos Cadona) on drums. This lineup recorded their first demos The 1978 Demos . In early July, the band wanted a more experienced drummer, so they recruited Ted Ted (musician) (Bruce Slesinger). Drummer 6025 left the band, but he was invited back as second guitarist. Their first show was on July 19, 1978, at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, California.

Dead Kennedys played numerous shows at local venues afterwards. Due to the band's provocative name, they sometimes played under pseudonyms, including "The Sharks", "The Creamsicles" and "The Pink Twinkies". The name generated controversy. Wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1978, "Just when you think tastelessness has reached its nadir, along comes a punk rock group called The Dead Kennedys, which will play at Mabuhay Gardens on Nov. 22, the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Despite mounting protests, the owner of Mabuhay says 'I can't cancel them NOW — there's a contract.' Not, apparently, the kind of contract some people have in mind." Biafra was on the show with Tipper Gore as part of a panel discussion on the issues of "controversial music lyrics" and censorship.

1986: Bedtime for Democracy, Break up of band

In addition to the obscenity lawsuit and being ignored by the mainstream media (MTV and most radio stations gave such groups scant notice, not to mention airplay), the band became increasingly disillusioned with the "underground" as well. The hardcore scene, which had been a haven for free-thinking intellectuals and downtrodden nonconformists, was increasingly attracting hooligans who came to punk concerts looking only to slam dance and fight to violent music. In earlier years the band had criticized neo-Nazi skinheads for trying to ruin the punk scene, but just as big a problem was the increasing po***rity of thrash metal and stereotypical macho "post-1982 hardcore" which brought the group (and their genre) an audience that had little to do with the ideas/ideals they stood for. In January 1986, frustrated and alienated from their own scene, the DKs decided to break up to pursue other interests and played their last concert on February 21. The band continued to work on songs, with Biafra penning songs such as "Chickenshit Conformist", "Anarchy For Sale" and Do the Slag, which articulated their feelings about the "dumbing down" of punk rock.

During the summer they recorded these songs for their final album, Bedtime for Democracy, which was released in November. The artwork, depicting a defaced Statue of Liberty overrun with Nazis, media, opportunists, Klan members, corrupt government officials, and religious zombies, echoed the idea that the punk scene was no longer a safe haven for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". The album contains a number of fast/short songs interspersed with jazz ("D.M.S.O."), spoken word ("A Commercial") and psychedelia ("Cesspools of Eden"). The lyrical focus is more introspective and earnest ("Where Do Ya Draw The Line?""), with an anti-war, anti-violence ("Rambozo The Clown") bent, moving away from the violent imagery of their early records, while remaining as subversive as ever ("I Spy", "D.M.S.O."). In December, the band announced their split. Biafra went on to speak about his political beliefs on numerous television shows and he released a number of spoken-word albums. Ray, Flouride, and Peligro also went on to solo careers.

1990s-2000s: Legal conflicts

Lawsuits over royalty payments

In the late 1990s, former band members discovered problems with the amount of payments which each band member had received from their record label Alternative Tentacles. Former band members claimed that Jello Biafra had conspired to pay less royalty rates to the band members. Although both sides agreed that the failure to pay these royalties was an accounting mistake, they were upset that Biafra failed to inform the band of the mistake after he and his co-workers discovered it.

Biafra claims that their lawyers had told him only to correspond through lawyers and not directly with the band, as the conflict over payment had apparently arisen before the accounting mistake was discovered. Both sides claim they attempted to resolve the matter without legal action, but the ultimately complicated legal dispute (involving royalties, publishing rights, and a number of other issues) soon led to the courts, where Biafra was found liable for the royalties and guilty of fraud and malice malice (legal term) , and was ordered to pay damages of nearly $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members.

Malice was defined for the jury as "conduct which is intended to cause injury or despicable conduct which is carried with a willful and conscious disregard for the rights of others". Biafra's appeal was denied; he had to pay the outstanding royalties and punitive damages, and was forced to hand over the rights to the majority of Dead Kennedys' back catalogue to the Decay Music partnership.

The jury and judges also noted, in their words, that Biafra “lacked credibility” on the songwriting issue and found from evidence presented by both sides that the songwriting credits were due to the entire band, using a clause in the band's written partnership giving a small share of every Dead Kennedys song royalty directly to the band partnership.

Biafra had received sole songwriting credit for most Dead Kennedys songs on all released albums for the last 20 years or so without complaints from the band, though a minority of songs had given credit to certain group members or the entire band as a whole, indicating a system designed to reflect the primary composers rather than a regimented system like the Jagger/Richards partnership; today, most Kennedys reissues list the songwriters as "Biafra, Dead Kennedys", indicating Biafra's lyrical contributions—which the band doesn't dispute, or else simply as "Dead Kennedys"). Ray, Flouride and Peligro found new distribution through another label, Manifesto Records.

This dispute was hotly contested by all concerned who felt passionately for their cause, and the case caused minor waves within punk circles. Biafra claims that guitarist East Bay Ray had long expressed displeasure with Alternative Tentacles and with the amount of money he received from them, thus the original incentive for the discovery of the back payments. It was found out that Alternative Tentacles was paying Dead Kennedys less per CD than all the other bands, including Biafra himself, and not informing his other bandmates, which was the fraud. Biafra accused the band of wanting to license the famous Dead Kennedys song "Holiday in Cambodia" for use in a Levi's jeans commercial, which the band denied.

Biafra apparently pushed this issue in court, although there was no hard evidence and the jurors were apparently unconcerned with corporate use of independently produced political music. Biafra would later complain that the jury was not sympathetic toward underground music and punk culture. The song never appeared in a Levi's commercial, although in interviews Biafra described the situation surrounding the commercial in detail and was able to give specifics about the advertisement, including the name of the advertising agency that had created the commercial's script.

Biafra's former bandmates maintain that they sued because of Jello Biafra's deliberate withholding of money, though when pressed they have acknowledged that the payment was an accounting mistake, but insist that Biafra was wrong in failing to inform the band directly. Details about this issue remain scarce. The band also maintains that the Levi's story was completely fictitious and invented by Biafra to discredit them. Ultimately, these issues have led to a souring of relationships with the erstwhile bandmates, who still have not resolved their personal differences as of 2008.

Disputes over new commercial activities

Matters were stirred up even further when the three bandmates invited Jello Biafra to "bury the hatchet" in the form of a band reunion. Jello Biafra felt it was unprofessional because no one contacted him directly. In addition, Biafra was disdainful of the reunion, and having long expressed his disdain for nostalgia and rock reunion/oldies tours in particular, argued that the whole affair was motivated by greed.

Several DVDs, re-issues, and live albums have been released since the departure of Biafra most recently on Manifesto Records. According to Biafra, the live albums are "cash-ins" on the Dead Kennedys' name and his music. Biafra also accused the releases of the new live material of having poor sound quality. Furthermore he has stated he is not receiving any royalties from the sale of any Manifesto Records releases. Consequently, he has discouraged fans from buying any Dead Kennedy reissues. The other band members denied Biafra's accusations regarding the live releases, and have defended the mixes as an effort of hard work. Biafra dismissed the new group as "the world's greediest karaoke band." Nevertheless, in 2003, Klaus Flouride, bassist for the band, had this to say of performances without the band's former frontman: "There hasn't been a show yet that people didn't really like."

Biafra further criticized them for advertising shows using his own image taken from the original '80s incarnation of the band, which he labeled as false advertising. He recently attacked the reformed Dead Kennedys in a song called "Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)", which appears on his second collaboration with sludge metal band The Melvins, Sieg Howdy!.

Biafra told an audience at a speaking gig in Trenton Trenton, New Jersey , New Jersey, that the remaining Dead Kennedys have licensed their single "Too Drunk to ***" to be used in a ***scene in a Robert Rodriguez movie. The reference is to a lounge cover of the song, recorded by the band Nouvelle Vague Nouvelle Vague (band) , played during a scene in the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse Grindhouse (film) , although no ***takes place, and in fact the would-be rapist is killed by the would-be victim. The scene in Planet Terror has would-be rapist, "Rapist #1" (Quentin Tarantino) order one-legged stripper "Cherry Darlin" (Rose McGowan) to get up off the floor and dance. At this point Tarantino hits play on a cassette recorder and Nouvelle Vague's cover of "Too Drunk To ***" plays.

Jello, clearly disapproving of the situation, later wrote, "This is their lowest point since Levi's… This goes against everything the Dead Kennedys stands for in spades… The terrified woman later "wins" by killing Tarantino, but that excuse does not rescue this at all. I wrote every note of that song and this is not what it was meant for…. Some people will do anything for money. I can't help but think back to how prudish Klaus Flouride was when he objected to H.R. Giger's painting on the "Frankenstein Frankenchrist " (sic) poster, saying he couldn't bear to show it to his parents. I'd sure love to be a fly on the wall when he tries to explain putting a song in a ***scene for money to his teenage daughter… The deal was pushed through by a new business manager the other three hired."

Reforming of new band line-up

The reformed Dead Kennedys followed their court victory by announcing a number of tour dates, releasing reissues of all Dead Kennedys albums (except Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, to which they did not have the rights until 2005), releasing several new archival concert DVDs, and licensing several songs to The Manchurian Candidate The Manchurian Candidate (2004 film) remake and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. East Bay Ray claims he received a fax from Alternative Tentacles purporting Biafra approved the licensing for the game, which Biafra denies happening.

The band claims on their website that they still pay close attention to an anti-corporate ideology, despite performing on September 5, 2003 at a festival in Turkey that was sponsored by Coca-Cola, noting that they have since pulled out of a show in Los Angeles when they found that it was being sponsored by Coors Coors Brewing Company . However, Biafra claims the above mentioned licensing deals prove otherwise. Some have found difficulty reconciling this claim when Biafra also licensed to major corporations, approving with the other band members use of Dead Kennedys’ songs in major studio film releases such as Neighbors Neighbors (film) , Freddy Got Fingered, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (film) .

In 2001, Ray, Peligro, and Flouride chose former child star Brandon Cruz to replace Biafra's role as vocalist. The band played under name "DK Kennedys" for a few concerts, but later reverted to "Dead Kennedys" permanently. They played across the continental United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and Russia. Brandon Cruz left the band in May 2003 and was replaced by Jeff Penalty. The band has released two live albums of archival performances on Manifesto Records: Mutiny on the Bay, compiled from various live shows including a recording from their last show with Biafra in 1986, and Live at the Deaf Club, a recording of a 1979 performance at the Deaf Club in San Francisco which was greeted with more enthusiasm.

On October 9, 2007, a best-of album entitled Milking the Sacred Cow was released. It includes two previously unreleased live versions of "Soup Is Good Food" and "Jock-O-Rama", originally found on Frankenchrist.

Jeff Penalty left the band in March, 2008 in what he describes as a "not amicable split." He was replaced by former Wynona Riders singer Skip. D.H. also left the band for "taking some personal time off". He was replaced by Translator Translator (band) drummer Dave Scheff.

Second break up

On August 21, 2008, the band announced that they will no longer be touring in the foreseeable future due to health related issues of Flouride and drummer Peligro. Though unable to do major tours, Klaus will continue to perform and collaborate in local projects. Ray, and vocalist Skip, who sang on Dead Kennedys' last two tours, will continue working together writing songs, and performing under a new band name.The original logo was created by Winston Smith Winston Smith (artist) . He later contributed artwork for the covers of In God We Trust, Inc., Plastic Surgery Disasters, Frankenchrist, Bedtime for Democracy, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the back cover of the "Kill the Poor" single and the Alternative Tentacles logo. When asked about the "DK" logo in an interview, Jello Biafra explained, "...I wanted to make sure it was something simple and easy to spray-paint so people would graffiti it all over the place, and then I showed it to Winston Smith. He played around with it, came back with a bunch of designs that had the circle and slightly 3-D looking letters and he had ones with different patterns behind it. I liked the one with bricks, but ultimately I thought simple red behind it was the boldest and the best."The Dead Kennedys are noted for the harshness of their lyrics, which generally express a staunchly left-wing view of contemporary America. Unlike other leftist punk bands who use more direct sloganeering, the Dead Kennedys' lyrics are often snide. "Holiday in Cambodia" is a multi-layered satire targeting both the liberal elite and Cambodia's then-current Khmer Rouge regime.

*Jello Biafra (1978 - 1986)
*Brandon Cruz (2001 - 2003)
*Jeff Penalty (2003 - 2008)
*Ron "Skip" Greer (2008)


*East Bay Ray (1978 - 1986, 2001 - 2008)
*6025 Carlos Cadona (1978 - 1979) (rhythm guitar)


*Klaus Flouride (1978 - 1986, 2001 - 2008)


*6025 Carlos Cadona (1978)
*Ted Bruce Slesinger (1978 - 1981)
*D. H. Peligro (1981 - 1986, 2001 - 2008)
*Dave Scheff (2008)
Studio albums

*Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
*In God We Trust, Inc. (1981)
*Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)
*Frankenchrist (1985)
*Bedtime for Democracy (1986)*


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