“Basically, I went through 30 or 40 different shows,” underground guitar legend East Bay Ray says of DK40, the new triple-disc box set documenting the live fury of San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, the punk band he founded in 1978.
The three shows number among the best tapes Ray’s found from across DK’s history: Amsterdam’s Paradiso club and Munich’s Alabama Halle in 1982 and San Francisco’s The Farm in 1985. This ensures DK’s classic lineup—iconoclastic singer Jello Biafra, Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D.H. Peligro—achieves crucial documentation of the era when they were American punk’s most potent voice of dissent.
“Most of them were easy to eliminate because they were board tapes,” Ray says, born Raymond John Pepperell 60 years ago in Oakland, California. “So it was usually just kick drum and voice, which was musically not that interesting. But these three were radio broadcasts, so you could hear the bass, the guitar—all the parts of the Dead Kennedys’ music. Klaus and D.H. are great players, but what sets bands apart are usually the singer and all the musical parts. In the Dead Kennedys’ case, the musical part is the guitar. So if you don’t have any guitar in there, it’s not a Dead Kennedys song, in my view.”
The Munich disc’s especially notable as the first official release of 1983’s notorious Skateboard Party bootleg, once the most widely circulated, high-quality document of DK’s live fury. If all the Skateboard Party cassette dubs passed hand to hand around the ’80s punk world could’ve been tallied, Dead Kennedys would probably have earned a platinum record.
“That was a broadcast in Germany,” Ray recalls. “I asked them to tape some, and I went into the sound booth and helped them remix it. So you could hear the bass, the voice, the guitar, the snare and kick. It’s difficult to get those five things balanced. Punk is difficult to mix, because the voice, the guitar and the snare are all aggressive and in the midrange, so it takes a bit of work to differentiate them.”
Dead Kennedys differentiated themselves upon birth from U.S. punk first-wave shock troops such as the Ramones or Dead Boys. It wasn’t simply their brutal blend of ramalama pogo energy with anything from surf instrumentals to psychedelia to 99-cent-bin exotica. It was also their lyrical content. Even SF predecessors such as the Nuns and the Avengers only shared a negationist streak with more political U.K. cousins such as the Sex Pistols. Early classics such as “California Über Alles” and “Holiday In Cambodia” saw Biafra applying sick, Alice Cooper-esque B-movie horror/humor to topics yanked straight from headlines.
As the suburbs overwhelmingly voted Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980, American punk went political overnight. It became hardcore. Dead Kennedys, with their shocking name echoing the first shattering event in the ’60s timeline and their gonzoid anti-authoritarian tunes, rocketed to the forefront of U.S. mohawk culture. The band correspondingly accelerated to thrash tempos after sharing bills with new breed vanguard acts such as Bad Brains and Black Flag.
“All four of us listened to different music,” Ray muses of the band’s musical alchemy. “Then when we would get together to write songs, it was 2+2=5.
“Klaus and I would [give] something a little pencil sketch. He has more technical musical skill by a long shot. Klaus and I would be like architects and turn that sketch into something that could be built.” Those “sketches” are likely the demos Biafra has said he would send Ray of himself singing and shouting into a cassette recorder. It was up to the guitarist and bassist to create music out of those rantings.
“We also came in with songs,” Ray’s quick to add. “It wasn’t all him. We would also come in with music, and he would take it home and write words. It was a collaboration. That’s what some people don’t realize: Dead Kennedys were more of a collective.”
DK were the target of a 1986 obscenity lawsuit in Los Angeles centered around the poster accompanying the previous year’s Frankenchrist LP. It reproduced famed artist H.R. Giger’s painting “Penis Landscape,” depicting row after row of male sex organs entering various orifices. Though the case resulted in a hung jury, it took its toll on the band. And with an increasingly cloistered, violent hardcore scene frustrating their aims, Dead Kennedys deactivated in 1986, releasing Bedtime For Democracy as their final effort in November.
After an accountancy error culminated in suing Biafra and Alternative Tentacles Records in the late ’90s for fraud and nonpayment of royalties, Ray, Flouride and Peligro reactivated Dead Kennedys as a touring unit in the new millennium. They’ve played their classics live with new vocalists such as former child TV star and Dr. Know vocalist Brandon Cruz. Ex-Wynona Riders member Ron “Skip” Greer currently palms the vocal mic.
As DK’s issued post-lawsuit archival live albums, compilations and reissues, Biafra—active recently as a DJ and fronting the Guantanamo School Of Medicine—remained bitter, referring to the releases as “cash-grabs” and the touring band as “karaoke.” But with the seated president making Reagan seem benign and grandfatherly, vintage DK polemics such as “Kill The Poor” sound remarkably relevant, give or take the substitution of a name or two. The modern world could certainly use fresh DK anthems. Is this a possibility?
“Skip and I have written some new songs,” Ray affirms. “A couple of years ago, we played them live. People were like, ‘Huh? What’s that song? I don’t remember that one!’” The material will see release in the fall as the Killer Smiles. Meantime, when Killing Joke last toured the States, frontman Jaz Coleman got Ray and Biafra to finally face each other backstage at a recent K-joke gig.
“Jaz told us, ‘Killing Joke have had periods where we fought and didn’t speak. You need to do this for the music and the fans,’” he recalls. “And Biafra said he was too busy, and that was that.
Dead Kennedys dropped DK40 today, and it is available here. You can check out a trailer for the release below.