This last weekend, October 5, the So-Cal Hoedown punk rock festival took place at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, near Long Beach. The headliners were hardcore/thrash crossover titans Suicidal Tendencies, and Bay Area punk pioneers the Dead Kennedys.
So Greer is the singer now, their fourth, and has been for 11 years. At the So-Cal Hoedown, he looked as comfortable as you would expect somebody to be after fronting a band for over a decade. Like Biafra (and his other predecessors) Greer is adept at toying with the crowd. “Fuck punk rock, I’m done,” he screams at one point, before pretending to leave the stage for a second, chuckling and carrying on. But the biggest statement of the set was left to his colleague and drummer D.H. Peligro.
By way of an introduction to classic tune “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, Peligro said that the punk rock community has to stick together.
“We have to stand up against sexism. We have to stand up against homophobia. And we have to stand up against all this racism,” Peligro said. Nearly everyone cheered. One person loudly shouted “Fuck you” at the homophobia bit—but there’s always going to be one asshole.
Then the band kicked into the song and it was intense:
“You still think swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
They’re coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real Fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go.”
Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”
It’s a song that seems remarkably appropriate today. Arguably more so than it did in 1981 when it was released on the In God We Trust, Inc EP. It’s a song that is often interpreted as being about racist nazis, but read the full lyrics and it’s as much about elitist punks telling everyone how they should dress and behave while engaging in unwarranted violence at shows. It’s a rallying cry against jock culture. And yeah, a middle finger to racists too.
The Dead Kennedys are no strangers to controversy; indeed, they have been outspoken since their formation in 1978. They were subjected to a nonsensical obscenity charge in ’85–86 when they put out the Frankenchrist album, which included an insert featuring a piece by Swiss artist HR Giger called “Penis Landscape.” When a teen girl purchased the album in L.A., her parents complained to officials. Biafra’s home was searched by law enforcement officials in the middle of the night, and the story caught the attention of PMRC head honcho Tipper Gore.
Eventually, the case was thrown out of court but before that Biafra was quoted as saying, “The punishment has already been meted out very severely because I’ve had a year of my life completely disrupted and I’ve been unable to perform any more music.”
That case saw Biafra appear on the Oprah show, alongside Ice-T, doing battle with Tipper Gore. At that point, Biafra and the Dead Kennedys seemed like a force of nature — this was some time after their Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables classic,yet the case had pushed the band into the limelight in a way that the most savvy of marketing campaigns might not have done.
Later, Biafra and his former DKs would be in court against each other, fighting about royalties and the rights to use the name. It’s all a bit crass and nasty, though it seems to be over now. Most distressingly, it distracted from all that was great about the Dead Kennedys. Because in their prime they really were a force of nature.
Peligro was a rarity, in that he was one of the few black punks in a band at the time. There was the Bad Brains in DC, and Death in Detroit, both bands made up entirely of African-American men. But at that point, there were few punk bands that saw black and white kids playing together (The Germs, with Pat Smear, was another).
So the Dead Kennedys were breaking down barriers left, right, and center. The cover art for Plastic Surgery Disasters featured a missionary holding the hand of a starving boy. The tiny, frail hand said so much about injustice and global suffering, making the subject impossible to ignore.
On that same album, “Bleed for Me” sees the band digging into the kidnappings and torture conducted by the secret police.
“In the name of world peace
In the name of world profits
America pumps up our secret police
America wants fuel
To get it, it needs puppets
So what’s ten million dead if it’s keeping out the Russians?”
Dead Kennedys, “Bleed for Me”
The band’s final studio album, 1986’s Bedtime for Democracy, saw the Dead Kennedys typically slam Reagan, the US military, general conformity, and what they saw as serious issues within the hardcore punk scene. The DKs were never afraid to speak truth to power or indeed to their own crowd. Check out the lyrics to “Chickenshit Conformist”:
“Punk’s not dead
It just deserves to die
When it becomes another stale cartoon
A close-minded, self-centered social club
Ideas don’t matter, it’s who you know
If the music’s gotten boring
It’s because of the people
Who want everyone to sound the same
Who drive bright people out
Of our so-called scene
‘Til all that’s left Is just a meaningless fad
Hardcore formulas are dogshit
Change and caring are what’s real.”
Dead Kennedys, “Chickenshit Conformist.”
Words worth remembering the next time an old, plaid-clad punk tells you that the scene’s “just not the same” anymore. Good. It shouldn’t be. So says Jello Biafra, and the Dead Kennedys.