Here's an NME interview with the band who were over on their second UK tour shortly prior to the release of the 'In God We Trust, Inc.' EP. Here the band talk of their game plan of cultural terrorism, the Moral majority and the influence of the New Right on successive US Governments.
'Films like Swedish Virgins and Diary Of A Nymphomaniac take a backseat tonight as Birmingham's Imperial cinema plays host to what the gutter press, city fathers and the Mecca Organisation would have you believe is a whole lot more harmful and perverted than fifth rate skin flicks.
Laydeez and Gentlemen, your attention please - they've been scorned in San Francisco, treated like lepers in LA, dreaded in Dundee. Let me hear it for the loudest, the brashest, the cleverest and the funniest punk band in captivity. I give you The Dead Kennedys! ! An onslaught of potent cackles, ripfire threats and pure horror dedicated to the fading memory of the American dream, the sound of a hollow culture crashing to the ground.
In the dressing room, polite fun loving drummer Darren is sharing urinal intimacy with small studious bass player Klaus. As they hover precariously over a gradually filling paint pot the group's main madman Jello Biafra paces the dressing room in a doctor's coat and tie-dye T shirt. There's a marked exasperation about Biafra, who's determined the Kennedys should be cranked up to full malevolent intensity and slam straight through five new songs so that the audience has no time to let their attention stray or to start barking for old favourites. But he seems a little peeved, unsure if his urgency is getting through to his four partners.
For the first few songs any such fears are dispelled, Biafra's mighty voice carries the group and their absurdly knucklebound sound - mesmeric gutsy guitar, punched bass rivets and crude slamming drums - right into the heart of the crowd. Then, just when it seemed like nothing could stop The Dead Kennedys' crazy pyscho-drama from reaching its high pressure peak they hit overload and, bang, East Bay Ray's guitar amp gives up for the fifth and last time on their whist le stop British tour.
The next fifteen minutes see the stage filled with squatters rather than invaders, mostly drunken berks and publicity seekers with nothing to offer except apathy, indolence and ignorance. Biafra handles the hecklers with tact and a brave cutting edge.
" Look at this lazy sod," he says, indicating a rotund idiot who's deposited himself at his feet, " he sits on the middle of the stage and passes out as if he was at a Pink Floyd concert."
There's a lot of idiots trying to grab his microphone. One guy wants everyone to remember his friend, allegedly killed by 'the pigs' in Birmingham recently, but mostly they just want to sing a chorus of 'Anarchy' or shout obscenities at anyone who cares to listen. Jello gives as good as he gets : "It's
funny how everybody wants anarchy but they also want to rule at the same time," he smirks
meaningfully. " Well it's good to see the intelligentsia have come along tonight.”
Eventually the amp is replaced and the stage cleared as the group has treated the audience to a minimalist (bass, drums and vovals) version of the epileptically named narcotic satire ‘Drug Me’. The songs are half old and half new, not the sort of thing that I’d want to listen to every but ‘Landlord’, ‘Too Drunk To Fuck' and 'Holiday In Cambodia' are classics of their kind, and new songs like the commendably straightforward 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off' and 'I Am The Owl' are right up there with them.
What sets the Kennedys apart from other punk bands is the intelligence of their songs which, while never losing sight of a basic punk motto - think fast, react - are crafted to go beyond the obvious, gobbling up facts and attitudes to see things through to their logical, often macabre conclusion. Onstage this can take the form of an improvised pre-amble before the songs, the brushed denim secret police of 'California Uber Alles' and Governor Jerry 'Linda' Brown are forgotten as the group's debut single is
preceded by an imaginary dialogue between Margaret Thatcher, Alexander Haig and Ronald Reagan. The song itself now goes: "I am emperor Ronald Reagan born again with fascist cravings ... "
"In the States there's a lot more of what is called slam, dance and crash from stage invaders. They get up on stage and quickly dive off, rather than just sitting there like a bunch of bozos. You do get a bunch who try to jump on other people when they aren't looking, but generally it's a lot of fun."
Biafra is togged out in his winter wear happily exchanging news and views with it collection of fans, some of who have been following the group for the past three evenings, sleeping in the bus stations and eating very little to keep expenses low. Everyone is on their way to the second gig of the evening, across to the city centre Cedar Club where Discharge are playing. Biafra is an avid record collector and right now he's overawed by the outpourings of numerous US and British third wave punk bands. On the one hand he's just released 'Let them Eat Jellybeans', a compilation of groups that would otherwise never be heard of outside their home town, on The Dead Kennedys own Alternative Tentacles label, and on the other ... well, there he is right at the front of the stage for the Discharge performance, pushing, pogoing and grappling with the best of them as the angry cleansing spirit of Discharge fires through their mini meisterwerk 'Does The System Work'.
Jello Biafra - no one could ever pronounce his real name so he changed it - moved to San Francisco from Colorado about five years ago. Before forming The Dead Kennedys he'd been an insurance salesman, an actor and a journalist. The latter he did for enjoyment, and I imagine he was very good at it. He gave it up because "it became a bit too much like school, I ended up doing all my copy the night before the deadline." Since joining The Dead Kennedys he has made a marked impression in an election for the mayor of San Francisco, part of his manifesto being that all businessmen would be made to wear clown
suits. He's also had his group banned from all the predictable places. That's undoubtedly because in the great big world of American rock 'n' youth culture (not so much of the great) the crazy jabbering mad eyed anger of Jello Biafra is something to be thankful for amid the witless bluster of The Ramones, Springsteen, Blondie et al. The Dead Kennedys are one of the few American groups that give any clue towards the mass disaffection which the young people of the country must be feeling in the wake of Reagan's war-mongering.
In-Sight: D.H., Klaus, Jello and Ray (Birmingham 1981)
The group aren't afraid to attack idiocy in their own ranks either; with the superb, subtle as a flying mallet rant 'Nazi Punks' they shame many of their English counterparts. In view of recent events aren't they wary about playing the song in Britain?
"No, not at all if something needs to be said we're not going to shirk from it."
Do you get Nazi rabble in your gigs in the USA?
"Many of them don't know what it means. They just think swastikas shock their parents. They're not even shocking their parents because they've been brought up by a bunch of right wing assholes who've told them that it’s cool to be a racist. We figure that if they're going to be punks and listen to punk music
Then they might as well really listen to it and understand it and realise that it's not just a bunch of racist crap."
"What about Oi though? That's racist isn't it?" asks a fan from London.
"Some of it is and some of it isn't. I haven't seen an Oi gig over here and I haven’t met any of the bands. On the Oi album I liked Peter And The Test Tube Babies and Garry Johnson because they seemed to be bringing other influences into play besides HM punk.
"I think we're probably closer in our thinking and where we're coming from to Crass, and maybe even Discharge, than we are to the so-called Oi bands. We are not afraid nor are we ashamed of being political. Even 'Too Drunk To' Fuck' turns into a political song because of all the self proclaimed moralists and church groups who tried to get the song banned over here. Incidentally they gave us free publicity and our first hit single, which I thought was funnier than hell."
'Too Drunk To Fuck' is The Dead Kennedys' only single release this year, along with 'Bleed For Me' on 'Urghh - A Music War' and 'Nazi Punks' their contribution to the 'Jellybeans' compilation, the only new music from them this year. It's perhaps the most powerful record they've made, a special mix of molotov guitar cocktail and sterling production which certainly sees off the most celebrated moments of the Stooges. It is also a very funny record.
Biafra smiles slyly from behind the brim of his pint glass.
"Far from being offensive I think it was an educational song. It's exactly the sort of thing that your mammy or Sunday School won't tell you about. I think the people banning the record are the people that it's happened to.
"What I find really funny is how we can distress people who haven't even met us. One of the things that keeps us going is that we're really anti-social people, and though we do have big audiences here and we’re considered mainstream we do enjoy annoying people, getting under their skin and forcing them to think."
The next Dead Kennedys release is an eight track 'anti-church' EP (as yet untitled) which will provide the link between their rushed and misproduced first album and their second album which will continue the psycho-delic strain of 'Holidays In Cambodia'.
" America has all these right wing church groups at the minute that put Reagan in office. They're called the Moral Majority and they're run by Gerry Falwell who's a television evangelist who rakes in 50 million dollars a year. He's going political at the same time and he's got his hooks into Reagan and all these conservative money organizations who run ads against liberal politicians all over the country. When George McGovern was running against Nixon they put posters saying George McGovern is a babykiller because he was for legalised abortion.
"This is the way the MM thinks. They aren't nearly a majority nor are they in any way moral but they are a force that must be crushed.
"They're as scary in our country as the NF is in yours, probably more so because it is all older people who have put their money behind it. Insurance companies have put money into it because if women don't get equal rights then they don't have to pay them full premiums. This is what has helped create what is known as The New Right.
" The Moral Majority want to force Christian prayer in school, bring a police state into play, with unlimited surveillance by the FBI and the re-introduction of the treason laws, meaning guess who'd be the first to go? They want to make abortions illegal so that you'd have to go to Mexico with rusty knives in the basement to get rid of unwanted children.
"We have a song on our EP called 'Moral Majority' but we played in Glasgow and no-one understood it. It's something that people have to watch because I've never seen a 'Christian' bible toting religious cult turn so blatantly fascist in America. They don't use swastikas, they use crosses and bibles so that a lot of people haven't caught on to them yet."
Just like the 'Reverend' Ian Paisley, Jello and guitar player East Bay Ray were recently ordained at a college in America where they more or less sell the certificates over a counter. The good thing about this is that as men of the cloth they can't be considered for drafting. While Biafra's interest in politics far outweighs his interest in religion, the former stretching to back to when he was about 5 years old and began passing up on the cartoons so he could watch the news, he has flirted with certain spiritual phenomena.
"When I was in drama school I had some really good instructors' and directors who thought nothing of giving kids parts that were difficult for Broadway adults. I had mostly 'method' directors, where you build the character from within and find out what makes them tick, rather than a 'technique' director who makes you take so many steps breath, step back and speak etc. I don't relate to that 'at all.
"Method acting comes into play with our performance and sometimes it really sinks in and we're totally demonic and possessed, like our Liverpool show this time. In the ha ha to Adam Ant department I went to a-Sioux wardance where there are definite forces going on that are not scientifically explained. I couldn't put my finger on what it was exactly, but it was definitely a very uplifting experience for me.
" I also do relaxations that I learned in theatre classes and try to apply them to medicine and to get rid of colds. I got rid of a knee injury that way which I got diving offstage and going kneecap first into a monitor. It's something I've barely touched on but I'm keen to explore when time permits."
Being on the road with The Dead Kennedys is an amicable enough proposition. The other members might not say much but they are accomodating and keen-eyed observers. Three of the group wear Clarke Kent glasses offstage - guitar players East Bay Ray and Micro Wave along with Klaus Floride, who looks like a younger, healthier Elvis Costello. The band's latestrecruit is drummer Darren who comes from Chicago and previously played with The Aliens, backing band to famous acid casualty Roky Erikson, and Darren still keeps his 'arm in' playing with The Speedboys, a local San Francisco group, when The Dead Kennedys aren't in action. The group emphasise the fact that they are all reclusive and separate
characters and it's a fusion of all their outside interests which brings about The Dead Kennedys' ravaged vision of America.
In addition to Darren's drumming outside the band, East Bay Ray produces a couple of local bands and experiments with synthesisers. He's a big fan of various German electronic musicians and is on the look-out for a suitable synth player for the Kennedys. Biafra runs the American end of Alternative Tentacles' operations and a local radio show, while coy Klaus (he won't tell his age) keeps a travelogue of tapes from each town the group visit for an as yet unrevealed purpose. He has his own very strong views on The Dead Kennedys as I found out when I asked if they were out to shock their listeners.
Klaus: "We don't want to shock people for the sake of shocking people. We're not like The Plasmatics; we want to shock people into thinking. The Dead Kennedys are not here to ' cash in on the Kennedys' name or to cause them more grief - they've had enough grief already. What the name represents is the
downfall of the idea that everything is getting bigger and better. You just have to look at the difference between people like Eisenhower and Haig; Eisenhower was genuinely elected president and his last statement to the public was 'beware, of the military industrial complex', Haig will ask people to embrace it."
The last time an American musician was asked for a reaction to the shooting of President Reagan in these pages he claims to I have been in tears upon hearing the news. So was Jello Biafra, though for different reasons.
"I was staying with friends in Orange County and I'd just fallen asleep when there was a banging on the door and someone was shouting 'Biafra, Biafra get up, Reagan has just got shot.' My initial reaction was 'Let me sleep', but eventually I got up and we sat in front of the TV and laughed like it was a Marx Brothers movie!'
Do you support terrorism?
"People who don't want to obey an army sergeant and just want to have fun with guns are no better than anyone else, much worse probably. But I'm all for cultural terrorism, trying to create change through art rather than physical violence."
This 'art' you talk of, is it misunderstood?
"People who don't want to use art as a weapon aren't artists at all. You've got to want to inflict somethiing on someone, be it positive or negative. Rather than just trying to entertain, to please and to sell. In no way is that art."
Biafra eschews all forms of drugs, mainly because he's seen so many musicians throw away their talent on stimulants.
"As a music fan that bugs me a lot. Coincidentally or not, one thing I've noticed since Reagan came to power is that there's a lot more speed and a lot more heroin and a lot more of everything dangerous available and being fed to the punks. In the suburbs there's suddenly all these people, taking acid. I think it is totally planned in order to torpedo another youth cult before it starts, just like acid and pot torpedoed the hippies before they could overthrow Nixon."
Of course there are far more subtle and widespread ways of controlling and influencing youth so that they become fodder for the state's insatiable cravings.
"It only dawned on me about a year ago that everyone I know had a real bitch for a second grade teacher. I think that's the year they try and break your spirit and make you conform and learn the rules to obey rather than ways to create. I think the fact that they emphasise planning and de-emphasise creativity explains not only why idiots who go through art school adding crudeness to childishness get labeled as geniuses, but also why they've managed to produce a race of idiots. The American school system is a very vicious instrument of corporate control."
Jello Biafra may sound like one of life's great paranoids - maybe he just sees things as they are and ploughs on regardless. There can be no doubting the validity and good sense of The Dead Kennedys as a subversive thorn in the flesh to both American society and its behemoth-fuelled rock industry. They aren't strangled by guilt complexes, but their accomplished comic stripped razor edged dynamics make no secret of past crimes.
Above all else they say: GET UP, DON'T BE STUPID AND THINK FOR YOURSELF.
" ‘I Am The Owl' is about Watergate criminals who come out of retirement. It's sort of a composite of several dirty tricks that have gone on over the years by the FBI and the CIA. There's a line about LSD, it's about this guy who was the leader of a gang of semi-thugs. They fed him full of acid and let him loose on a freeway where he just wandered around ‘til he was knocked down. They tried to hush up and pretend it was a great mystery, but a friend of mine has a father in the police and we got to hear about how they sat around drinking after hours congratulating each other on getting rid of this local annoyance."
'Keypone Factory' is about-this chemical factory owned by Allied Chemicals in Virginia and how they've manufactured toxic chemical spray and dumped the waste in Chesapeake Bay which is now closed to fishing. The people who worked there were given no masks so they breathed all this shit into their lungs and started to get double vision, become impotent and get all gnarled and spastic. The company offered them all spectacular Hot Rod cars if they didn't say anything but by that time everyone was too gnarled and spastic to even drive. "
Aren't there lobbies and outrages about this sort of thing?
"There are lobbies against it, but the lobbies of the chemical industries are much stronger because they have much more money. The US government is pushed around by lobbying groups on the far right."
In the Weimar Republic a lot of big companies financed Hitler's rise to power and a lot of them are still very successful today.
"Something that's very scary is that General Motors sued the American government after World War 2 for bombing some of their factories in Nazi Germany which had been kept open during the war. And they won."
Don't you think it's ultimately futile straining against the power and cut throat tactics of these bodies?
"It takes time. I just hope, unlike the '60’s where people made a definite dent and then gave up, turning out to be almost as conservative as their parents - that everyone keeps pushing this time."'