A Dead Kennedys Primer

During a recent discussion about karaoke, I confessed that one of my favorite songs to sing when it’s available (which is more often than you’d think) is “Too Drunk to Fuck” by the San Francisco Bay Area punk legends Dead Kennedys. Virtually no one is expecting to hear it, and it elicits precisely the sort of slack-jawed amusement and/or horror I like to see in a karaoke audience.

My friend Tyler, who was a Bay Area resident for many years, told me he has long been interested in Dead Kennedys, but wasn’t really sure where to begin with them. So I put together a playlist that I think would be a fine introduction for anyone who wants to give the band a try. (A note for completists: though some fans would disagree with me, the band’s last two albums, Frankenchrist and Bedtime for Democracy, are inessential at best, so nothing from either of them is included here.)

  1. California Über Alles

    California Über Alles [Single] (1979)

    Dead Kennedys’ first single, “California Über Alles,” is still their most iconic song, and a perfect way for the band to introduce themselves to the world, one member at a time. It opens with mononymous drummer Ted’s unmistakeable, quasi-martial drumbeat, layering in an ominous bass line from Klaus Fluoride and matching guitar riff from East Bay Ray, before launching into one of singer Jello Biafra’s signature paranoid fantasies. The song (whose title refers to the former German national anthem) describes California governor Jerry Brown’s presumed ascent to the presidency, a dystopia which Biafra envisions as a hippy version of the Third Reich.

  2. Kill the Poor

    Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

    “Kill the Poor” opens Dead Kennedy’s outstanding debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, by cheerfully extolling the virtues of the neutron bomb. Suggesting it could be used to wipe out America’s poor without causing any property damage, the song isn’t so much a prediction as it is an attack on a callous American upper class who sees the nation’s underclass as little more than a tax burden to be erased. Musically, it is one of the band’s most poppy, accessible tunes. But anyone mistaking the song’s ironic approach to its subject for genuine enthusiasm will be set straight by a key change which ends the song in more foreboding territory.

  3. Too Drunk to Fuck

    Too Drunk to Fuck [Single] (1981)

    With a dirty garage rock riff straight from the guitar of a late-1950s greaser on speed, “Too Drunk to Fuck” is the perfect soundtrack to the sort of rowdy, vacuous party that might inspire its title. Lyrically, Biafra’s slurred take on drunken nihilism would be unnerving if it wasn’t so funny: “You give me head / That makes it worse / Take out your fuckin’ retainer / Put it in your purse.” Despite being banned by the BBC, the song reached the UK Singles Chart’s Top 40, the first single with “fuck” in its title to do so.

  4. Chemical Warfare

    Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

    The thematic inverse of “Kill the Poor,” “Chemical Warfare” imagines a mustard gas attack on a country club, that most convenient symbol of bourgeois banality. There is, of course, no irony in Biafra’s gleeful description of the proceedings this time. The song’s most distinctive feature comes when its rapid-fire sonic assault segues into a goofy waltz, only to devolve into complete cacophony as the deadly gas clouds drift from the golf course to find more victims at the pool.

  5. Halloween

    Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)

    Disdain for conformity was a prevalent theme in Jello Biafra’s lyrics, and he was possessed of a Salinger-esque distrust of the phony trappings of conventional adulthood. “Halloween” is an almost wistful expression of this, asserting that our Halloween costumes are more accurate reflections of our true selves and ambitions than our everyday personas are. Guitarist East Bay Ray mimics this dichotomy with unorthodox, dissonant guitar lines that depart from his bandmates’ easy-going, lockstep groove.

  6. Viva Las Vegas

    Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

    Plenty of bands would be content to make over this old Elvis Presley chestnut in their own style and leave it at that. But while DK’s arrangement is essentially a stripped-down, sped-up version of the original, Biafra manages some sharp satire by changing only a few lyrics, giving the song’s romanticized gambler’s paradise a discomfiting edge that’s much closer to reality.

  7. Holiday in Cambodia

    Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

    This version of “Holiday in Cambodia” is a slight improvement over the single version that was released earlier that year. The main difference is an eerie, extended intro of slicing, heavy reverb guitar noise that sets the stage perfectly for the horrific imagery to come. As Biafra juxtaposes privileged Western complacency against the savagery of Pol Pot’s barbaric dictatorship, the band’s backup is by turns buoyant and bleak.

  8. Pull My Strings

    Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (1986)

    In March of 1980, Dead Kennedys were invited to perform at the Bay Area Music Awards, ostensibly to give the event some street cred. Slated to play “California Über Alles,” they instead commenced with the first and only performance of “Pull My Strings,” a scathing commentary on the mainstream music industry. True to its message, the song is a musically pedestrian pop tune – even parodying The Knack’s then-current hit “My Sharona” (“My Payola”) in a few places – with Biafra asking all the while, “Is my cock big enough / Is my brain small enough / For you to make me a star?”

  9. Winnebago Warrior

    Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)

    Though few of their songs lack wit, DK’s general preoccupation with the death of the American dream can really weigh on the listener after awhile. Luckily, their albums are not without levity, though even the occasional fun respite from skewering injustice and corruption is usually still plenty sardonic. “Winnebago Warrior” is one such track, mocking the institution of the nuclear family road trip. With choice lines like “Honey, quick, the Polaroid,” Biafra paints a vivid picture of his emasculated protagonist, whose vacation in the Great American West doesn’t quite line up with his John Wayne self-image. In perfect sarcastic fashion, the guitar in the chorus is a triumphant nod to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores.

  10. Nazi Punks Fuck Off

    In God We Trust, Inc. [EP] (1981)

    Jello Biafra was never big on subtlety, and a title like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” didn’t really need any further explanation, but that didn’t stop him from expounding on the topic in a surprisingly thoughtful – if apoplectic – manner. Considering that the song is a ferocious blur of hardcore lasting just 63 seconds, it’s impressive how much Biafra manages to say, lambasting the titular Nazi punks for being glorified jocks with mohawks, and reminding them that “In the real Fourth Reich, you’ll be the first to go.”

  11. Police Truck

    Holiday in Cambodia [Single] (1980)

    Perhaps the finest exhibition of East Bay Ray’s substantial admiration of surf rock, the reverb-drenched guitar in “Police Truck” surfaces in quick stabs, punctuating Biafra’s tales of a police force run amok over a fast and tight rhythm that appropriately recalls Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme.” Even by DK standards, this is a dark song; its portrayal of thuggish cops addicted to wanton violence manages to make street-level institutional corruption feel more consequential than even the worst totalitarian regimes.

  12. I Fought the Law

    Play New Rose for Me (1986)

    Another seemingly straightforward cover with a subversive lyrical twist, DK reversed the outcome from the version first made famous by The Bobby Fuller Four (and later The Clash). While the original is written from the perspective of a woebegone prisoner after “the law won,” Biafra proudly sings, “I fought the law, and I won.” More than just a cheeky reversal, though, this version refers to infamous San Francisco politician Dan White’s murder of his colleagues George Moscone and Harvey Milk, for which White served only five years of a seven year prison sentence for manslaughter. (Not coincidentally, a photo from the “White Night Riots” provoked by that ruling graces the cover of Dead Kennedys’ first album.)

  13. Moon Over Marin

    Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)

    “Moon Over Marin” closes out Plastic Surgery Disasters, DK’s second (and last essential) album, in idiosyncratic fashion. Not only is it uncharacteristically melodic and mid-tempo (with a pretty guitar signature that almost shimmers), but Biafra’s description of a dismal, overpopulated future saturated with pollution doesn’t seem to be laced with any of the rage or sarcasm we’ve come to expect. Instead, he sounds plaintively resigned to the fate he foresees, taking some solace in the fact that at least “there will always be a moon over Marin.”

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