By Steve Scanner
In many ways, it should come as absolutely no surprise that this is the first book to be published about what is arguably the definitive US Punk band. Given the band featured someone as meticulous as Jello Biafra would probably be enough to scare off many so-called ‘music journalists’. When you take into consideration the acrimonious legal battles that have blighted the band since, it’s clear that any attempt to portray a truthful account from any stage of the band’s tenure could be a task of insurmountable contradictions, myth, backstabbing and quite likely legal action. Thankfully, the man that has written this is Alex Ogg who has been responsible for many highly-regarded books about Punk, including The Art Of Punk and No More Heroes.
The book dates back to the very genesis of the band when, in 1978, guitarist East Bay Ray placed an advert for other musicians. The likes of CRIME, NUNS, AVENGERS and NEGATIVE TREND already flew the Punk flag in San Francisco at the time, but the arrival of the DEAD KENNEDYS announced a new twist to a familiar sound. No band before had been as jarring, as acerbic or as sarcastic – and that could be true on not just a local level but a national and international level also.
What follows is an incredibly well researched account of the band’s formative years, through the recording and release of the album in the book’s title and onto December 1980 with the departure of original drummer, Ted, and the June 1981 release of the single, ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’.
Thankfully, Ogg has conducted fresh interviews with all of the band, specifically Biafra and Ray, and just about every other significant party involved. He has represented both parties equally and fairly, but does not refrain from suggesting doubt at various dubious statements (like Ray’s insistence that he wrote, or rewrote, a number of the band’s greatest songs) or emphasising any contradictions. If any doubt is cast over the amount of effort on Ogg’s part to get this as accurate as possible, you only need to read the book’s prequel in which Ogg states the book took ten drafts running to 64,000 words when there were space for but 5,000; he even calculated quote allocations to prove all parties were equally represented.
The resulting narrative makes compulsive and essential reading. It’s laden with facts previously undisclosed and has a continuity that most other biographies (and biographers) can’t even aspire to.
The book is rounded out with a veritable cornucopia of visual material, be it some excellent photography from San Fran’s legendary Mabuhay Garden taken by Ruby Ray, or many images of flyers and promo material created by Winston Smith. The narrative is completed by some extensive notes from Ogg, some soundbite snippets from a bounty of notable names and an essential five-page piece about Winston Smith who was responsible for so many of the band’s infamous graphics; the book would have missed an integral part of the story without kudos being given to Smith.
It’s these new, exclusive interviews, Ogg’s directness and his attention to detail that makes this among the best biographies you will ever read. It should certainly be a lesson to all those who write error-laden biographies based only on information already available. Ultimately, the book recounts a vital chapter in US Punk history and delivers its narrative with style, focus and sincerity. Ogg is quick to state in the book’s final chapter that he has no intention of documenting the remainder of the band’s career; should anyone decide to take up that challenge, Ogg has set a stunningly high standard to follow.