Imagine If Crass Was Funny: ‘Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’

by John L Murphy
June 13th, 2014

Intended as liner notes for the 25th anniversary of this punk album, Alex Ogg’s project had to wait five more years for what turns into a longer book on a 38 minute 1980 LP. Legal disputes over songwriting credits, added to the protracted resentment between singer Jello Biafra and his bandmates, notably guitarist East Bay Ray and bassist Klaus Flouride, tested the patience of the author and theDead Kennedys, past and present.

This story, told efficiently by a veteran chronicler of punk, reveals that the American underground in the late ’70s could match the best of the British punks when it came to political commentary paired with feisty music. Furthermore, unlike so many righteous punks before and after the Dead Kennedys, this San Francisco outfit retained its sense of humor.

However, as an Angeleno, growing up a near-contemporary of the band, I challenge Ogg’s claim that this was the peak of proto-hardcore. To me, the band’s debut resembled, but did not better, the blur and buzz of the Germs’ first LP. I’ll admit that unlike that short-lived L.A. band, the Dead Kennedys outlasted Reagan’s first term. As the subtitle shows, Ogg narrates the start of it all, but he stops very soon after the album’s release and their first tour.

How the Dead Kennedys scaled the summits of the American independent label punk scene so rapidly, Ogg reminds readers, can be credited to their discipline. More on the intellectual influences informing the band members might have answered the question of how they managed so quickly to create two classic singles, “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia”. Within this punk milieu, few contemporaries dared to roam beyond a handful of approved “provocative” topics. Most punk bands preached against racism, some against sexism, many against conformity, as expected for spiky non-conformists to conform.

Biafra, raised in Boulder, Colorado, and apparently embittered from delivering pizzas to smug lefty college kids his own age (he dropped out of an equivalent institution early on, the University of California, Santa Cruz, tellingly), decided to widen his target range. He spoke for an overlooked echo-boomer generation, coming of age during Watergate, too young to be hippies, but who had to listen to those not much older ramble on over and over about how great it was then and how dismal it all turned out by 1980, as youth woke up from years of Carter’s malaise on the morning after, snuggled or smothered by Reagan’s revived or reviled “values”.

Although now a balding, gray statesman in cahoots with the state’s prison guard union, and cutting deals with corporate sponsors while managing to rule to convey a pale-Green image in keeping with his earlier gubernatorial reign, Jerry Brown represented to this band a “Zen fascism” during the ’70s. Risible though this seems to this Californian critic, in retrospect if not to Ogg, who takes this semi-seriously from the mouth of Jello, this song roused “the suede denim secret police” who were bent on arresting “your uncool niece”. The Dead Kennedys spinned shock value by evoking Nazi imagery, and trafficked in such regalia by certain punk colleagues with lines like, “Come quietly to the camp/ You’d look nice as a drawstring lamp”. Biafra’s uneasy message, within the campy medium of the jerky anthem, either strengthens or weakens its lyrical conceits. Still, the song lives on, covered often, in lots of styles.

Its follow-up, “Holiday in Cambodia”, has garnered fewer cover versions and parodies. It’s a darker song, as its Pol Pot theme dramatizes, and it’s more disturbing. It castigates those smug Boulder or Berkeley collegians, those who curry favor with bosses, those who pretend solidarity with the masses. It contrasts this mindset with what would happen when the self-proclaimed progressives of the West go East: “Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back/ For a bowl of rice a day/ Slave for soldiers till you starve/ Then your head is skewered on a stake.”

Ogg skirts extended exegesis of these two songs, assuming that readers probably know them well, but he does take pains to, in true rock journalist fashion, tell us about the vintage tube microphones used to capture this song’s roar.

Without the churning, Echoplexed, surf-tinged guitar of East Bay Ray, Klaus’s doom-laden bass, and drummer Ted’s bashing backing, however, these songs, for all their lyrical baiting, would not have succeeded. Ogg credits Jello’s voice as a “human theramin” and attributes a Kabuki-like ranting and wailing for impact. Many listeners, myself included, have found Biafra’s self-consciously theatrical delivery trying, but in live shows as on record, the Dead Kennedys sought to stand out from punk yammering.

Boosted by Geza X’s production of “Holiday in Cambodia”, these singles remain arguably the band’s best vinyl moments. Geza X (member of the L.A. band the Bags, who crafted early releases from Black Flag, Weirdos, and the Germs, as well as San Francisco’s Avengers) labored to make this song wail, so it’s a shame that Jello’s wish for him to produce their first album was rejected by the rest of the band. To me, this decision dulls the sonic power of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, and it feels muffled as a result.

Recorded for $10,000, the album appeared in 1980 on the British indie label Cherry Red. Ogg reminds readers that between the Dickies signed by A+M in 1978 and Husker Du by Warner Brothers in 1985 (and by then, they were not really part of this scene anymore), no American underground band had been issued on a major label. The Dead Kennedys responded by starting the Alternative Tentacles label.

Distributors IRS had balked from releasing the album, due to a distant Kennedy acquaintance, for the barbed band name (amazingly or inevitably, preceded by a Cleveland band who then declined to go on with the same moniker) led to many double-takes and dead-on-arrival rejections by the record industry. Tracks included hints of musical influences as diverse as Duane Eddy’s guitar, Buddy Holly’s vocals, MC5’s slogans, and Sparks’ lyrics, attesting to the band’s affection for their childhood idols.

It ends with a throwaway cover of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas”, made famous by Elvis Presley. True to the LP’s prickly, brooding, snarling vibe-part Travis Bickle, part Mothers of Invention-the production was credited by the band to the friendlier of engineer Oliver DiCicco’s two cats, Norm. Neither Lester Bangs nor Robert Christgau welcomed the record; the latter critic disdained its “Tiny Tim vibrato”. Biafra sneers throughout the entire record, true, but this “sustains” Ray’s guitar tremelo; it suits the frenetic delivery Jello Biafra adopts for his stage persona.

The original band was already splintering during the making of the record, with second guitarist and oddball (even by Dead Kennedys) standards 6025 soon departed. A new drummer stepped in-later to claim some of those songwriting royalties which have earned the ire of Jello vs. Klaus and Ray, one learns if in diplomatic fashion via the long-suffering journalist Ogg, who patiently hears each side out as they argue. This underlying subplot, still rankling these early bandmates to this day, provides a telling coda to the ambitions of many in the punk era to make a career out of their passion, vs. the compromises the original lineup fended off in their attempt to remain independent of corporate tentacles and truisms.

“Yakety Yak” compiles quotes about the band and album by celebrities in and beyond the rock scene. A closing chapter by Ogg’s co-author Russ Bestley (of The Art of Punk), titled “Grafical Anarchy” shows how collaborator Winston Smith (who legally changed his name to that Orwellian protagonist) conspired with Biafra to create collages inspired by Situationists.

The LP cover never got the reproduction Judith Calson’s San Francisco Chronicle photo deserved. This was taken during the “White Night Riots” following the short sentence handed down to Dan White after his “Twinkie Defense” for the shooting of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1979. The front cover shows three police cars on fire; the back cover shot of a hokey music combo led to lawsuits by one of its members, so this image was defaced or replaced on later pressings. This pattern would repeat during the band’s career, although Ogg avoids much mention of more litigation.

The political subtext of the band gains some attention, but how the members gelled to create these singles and the album from a perspective tinted by their predecessors from the ’50s and ’60s, whom other punks might have disdained, needed more elaboration. Bestley gives a nod to this crucial continuity as context links what the San Franciscans were doing, with jarring détournement (literally “re-routing”): cut-up montages from ads, photos, and pamphlets arranged to shake the viewer up.

Smith’s Fallout Magazine helped rally recruits to the Dead Kennedys cause, but its contents and range don’t earn the coverage that could have explained how printed texts and posters widened the band’s DIY appeal. Certainly Alternative Tentacle’s mail order reach, and diligent product placement in indie record stores, accounted for the international audience the band garnered. Given Bestley and Ogg’s knowledge of these multimedia within political punk, more coverage was needed.

Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols and Gee Vaucher for the English anarchist collective Crass served as counterparts in this guerrilla art form of collage as cultural critique. This packaging boosted the Dead Kennedys’ impact. The band and Smith wrapped its records in striking artwork and album inserts. Among punks today, their red-and-black logo endures, but Ogg and Bestley glide past how those two symbolic colors might or might not stand for the band’s principled assertion of anarchy. The band’s commitment to radical politics as well as pranks and poses needed more elaboration.

As Biafra (an eventual Green Party presidential campaigner, he came in fourth in a nine-way race for San Francisto mayor in the fall of 1979 to replace Moscone) reminds Ogg, Jello mused on what the Dead Kennedys might achieve: “Imagine if Crass was funny.”

The Dead Kennedys were. Whether this ensured their success or failure, you are left to ponder.

Back to Alex Ogg’s Author Page | Back to Winston Smith’s Illustrator Page | Back to Ruby Ray’s Artist Page