This article originally appeared in the April 21, 1981 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
The name alone – Dead Kennedys – rubs salt into America’s wounds and then laughs. But there’s more than tastelessness at work here. Consider the name of lead singer Jello Baifra. Can you think of a sharper description of US-Third World relations? More than any American group, this San Francisco band, which played the Channel last week, has politics on its mind. Its zany attack, though, owes more to the Sex Pistols. Biafra even ran for mayor in Frisco’s last election, garnering 6600 votes and placing fourth; it was a classic publicity stunt, inspired by Hunter Thompson’s run for sheriff in Aspen in the late ‘60s. Biafra’s platform called for a law requiring all businessmen to wear clown suits to work, among other things.
The Dead Kennedys’ album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (IRS), is full of such lampooning and war-club irony. In fact, comedy is what distinguishes the group form its grimmer peers down in LA. For example, in the opening cut, “Kill the Poor,” Biafra sermonizes, “Efficiency and progress is ours once more/Now that we have the neutron bomb.” After a gleeful whine – his usual tone – the band steps in hard and fast behind him, and he sneers the chorus: “Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill the poor.” (Discussing this song, guitarist East Bay Ray told me before the Channel show, “You’d be surprised how many people think we’re serious. That song was number four on the charts in Portugal. We think the government promoted it.”) Even on less cosmic matters, such as high rent and no heat in “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” the bile is satisfyingly overstated. This song, incidentally, is a musical pun, stealing the riff from the Blues Magoos’ “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet,” which gives you an idea of the Kennedys’ garage-rock inspirations.
The weaker songs on the album don’t have a political focus. “Ill in the Head,” “Stealing People’s Mail,” “Forward to Death,” and “I Kill Children” are all routine punk obnoxiousness. So unremarkable, in fact, that these make the album a questionable purchase, especially since the essential cut, “Holiday in Cambodia,” is also a single. A bona fide underground hit (number two on the 1980 “Cellars by starlight” Top 10) it’s an attack on complacent college students. (Biafra once said in a Slash interview, “Wouldn’t you love to see the entire student body of UCLA working in a coal mine?”) Biafra digs in hard:
So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car
Thinkin’ you’ll go far….
It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself my dear
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but it’s life….
What brings the song off, however, is the music. Ted’s drums crash and bang (the more fully named D.H. Peligro has since replaced him), Klaus Flouride’s buzzy bass rumbles, and East Bay Ray takes off on one of the most twisted guitar runs I’ve ever heard. He sets the tone immediately with a sort of oriental Twilight Zone motif, highlighted by eerie piercing notes that fire through the mass like tracer bullets. He then bends and screws the riff, methodically cruising up and down, before ramming it home on the chorus. The song ends with Biafra chanting “Pol Pot Pol Pot Pol….”