VLP readers voted them the best hardcore punk band of all-time recently. San Francisco’s DEAD KENNEDYS mixed experimentation, hardcore and provocative and sarcastic political commentary to create a sound all their own in the early ‘80s. Big Cheese caught up with their legendary guitarist East Bay Ray last year to hear from him how it all happened. Here's the article that resulted, followed by the rest of the interview which was formerly unpublished. Nazi Punks Fuck Off!!!
“The place we played the most was the Mabuhay Gardens [where they played their first gig in July ‘78]. The interesting thing is that on the bill, there’d be an art band, a pop band and a punk band, all drawing different crowds, so there’d be this kind of intermingling of ideas and directions. There were about two years there where there was a lot of artistic input.”
Having formed in 1978 when East Bay Ray advertised for band members, Dead Kennedys certainly benefited from this Molotov cocktail of “ideas and directions”, including Ray’s pioneering use of surf guitar sounds with hardcore punk. Even amongst the members there were different influences that would lead to the band’s instantly recognisable and individual style.
“Klaus [Flouride, bass] had a collection of ‘70s jazz and Spike Jones and [Jello] Biafra [vocals, ‘78-‘86] wanted to make garage music. I kind of listened to different stuff, Pink Floyd and Jimmi Hendrix. I didn’t really listen to ‘70s music that much: I listened to ‘60s music in the ‘70s.”
“I really like song structure the most and combining it with the sounds was kind of my job in the band. We wanted to do more than three chords. I think everybody in the band was like ‘Okay, let’s try to make it a little bit different’, just for our own amusement, and luckily it turned out a lot of people liked what we did.”
Earning a reputation and a dedicated following from their explosive and theatrical live shows, powerful debut single ‘California Uber Alles’ was unleashed in 1979 on Ray’s own Alternative Tentacles Records label and, in true DK style, went straight for the throat politically, attacking then governor of California, Jerry Brown. The same year, Jello Biafra ran for mayor as a prank, and came in fourth! The debut single was followed by 1980’s classic humour-filled ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, ‘Kill the Poor’ and ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ (a UK top 40 hit single in ’81!). Their debut album, ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’ is a landmark hardcore punk release.
“[For ‘Fresh Fruit…’] We had a very low budget so we did a lot of pre-production, which is practicing in the studio basically, and we did it on a sixteen track two-inch. There’s actually a 25th anniversary edition out with a DVD in it of the documentary of the making.”
Satirising the conservatism and violence of American life on early fan favourites such as ‘Let’s Lynch the Landlord’ and ‘I Kill Children’, the band’s sarcasm was misinterpreted by far-right political groups who became interested in the band.
“The skinhead thing came later, probably when the music scene fractured. We do a lot of sarcasm, but we didn’t really have a skinhead following. We have ‘Nazi Punks, Fuck Off’ which is about that but with the later single ‘Kill the Poor’, we understood that some right wing party in Spain used it in their add. That’s not what we meant: it was misinterpretation. Sarcasm’s hard to translate.”
You’d think that the brave move of ‘Nazi Punks, Fuck Off’ may lead to several clashes between neo-Nazis and the band, but Ray explains that trouble usually came from elsewhere.
“Sometimes six of them [Nazi punks] would come to a show and try to start stuff but usually the crowd would tell them to cool it. The only time there was really violence at our shows was when the police twice tried to close them down for no reason.”
“One was in Long Beach, LA. The police department decided they didn’t like the look of people and actually tear gassed the hall. We were in the back, but people came running out the front and the police just hit them with batons. As far as we know there was no reason for the police to get involved.”
“The other one was in California and they decided to close the show before we even got to the place, so when we get there, there’s about a hundred cop cars and the kids went a little crazy. But like I said, there was nothing going on until the cops decided to step in. Basically unprofessional, incompetent police work. They were both really police riots but the press said ‘punk riot’ because the police are feeding the newspapers.”
These clashes with police at DK shows were probably because of the band’s refusal to accept authority figures and their willingness to stand up for what they believed in.
“Punk rock has a spectrum,” reflects Ray. “At one end you have your Sid Vicious types and at the other you have Johnny Rotten, the smart intellectual one. Dead Kennedys were much more on the Johnny Rotten end of things than the fist in the air punk scene.”
Despite Jello Biafra’s departure (and the ensuing lawsuits between him and the band), as well as another couple of singers who have come and gone, Dead Kennedys still have the same attitude as back in the ‘80s, fighting against corrupt, greedy world leaders and organised religion every step of the way.
“We’ve had Christianity for 2000 years, is there more peace in the world? Maybe it’s time to try something different. I mean, Adolf Hitler was a Christian. The weird thing is, things are scarier now than when the band started.”
Back in those early days of DK, the band had an incredibly strong DIY ethic... and that hasn’t changed.
“You have to understand it was different in the United Kingdom [in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s]: you had The Sex Pistols and The Clash on major record labels. In the United States there were no punk bands on a record label. The Ramones were kind of the only one, but they never got as big as they thought they would.”
“We’re not on a major label now but we just got a gold record in the United States and two in the United Kingdom. Most of the punk bands who have gold records from back in the day are all on majors and we weren’t. We’ve always been on independent and we’re still on independent, so it’s been a struggle. But it’s DIY and we never compromised the music.”
Dead Kennedys last year - East Bay Ray far right
Having toured the UK in May, East Bay Ray explains, “we’re still around, still doing our stuff.” What happens in the future is unsure, due to the recent departure of founding member Klaus Fluoride for medical reasons, the band’s songs and beliefs are as strong as ever.
“Our basic theme is ‘think for yourself’, Ray stresses. ”We don’t tell people what to think.”
PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED INTERVIEW MATERIAL
-We mentioned the fascism. With ‘In God We Trust’ it was kind of attacking religion. How much do you think religion is to blame for the state of the world at the moment?
EBR: Just to be clear, there’s a difference between organised religion and spiritual values. I’m not opposed to spiritual values and I have them myself, but organised religions tend to perpetuate themselves.
-In a way the world needs Dead Kennedys now more than ever.
EBR: Well, it’s hard to believe music changes anything. Like Christianity, we’ve been around for two decades and it’s not any better. I’ve kinda lost faith but you can change individuals. At every show someone comes up and says ‘You’ve changed my life. You helped me through.
-Do you think it’s important to get all of the troops out of there?
EBR: Yeah, I do. If anybody is serious about national security, our money shouldn’t be spent on armies but it should be spent on alternative fuels, particularly oil. Most of the oil is in the middle east and the middle east and the west don’t get along. We need to get off oil and instead of spending 500 billion dollars, invest in university research.
-It’s scary with organised religion. The positives can be distorted
EBR: Exactly: power corrupts. They get power and then they get more interested in survival than propagating the truth and that happens with almost any organisation. I wouldn’t say religion has caused more deaths than relieved. It’s funny in the United States: take the earthquake in San Francisco, all the TV evangelists came out and said ‘They’re punishing the gays’. But in the Bible Belt in the south there’s been river floods and hurricanes, but where are the people saying ‘They’re getting punished for being too extreme.’ It just doesn’t happen.
-As a guitarist, you’re really respected for what you’ve achieved and your sound has really influenced a lot of people.
EBR: I’m in guitar hero 3 and I’m actually gonna be in guitar hero 4: it’s kinda bizarre. I didn’t know we were in it until Christmas.
-That’s gotta be quite cool, that you’re involved in something like that?
EBR: As I said, since we’re independent we don’t have a big promotion budget like EMI or Warner Brothers. Kids’ll play the pop tunes or the heavy metal tunes and then they’ll get down to Dead Kennedy’s and be like ‘Oh wow, this is interesting.’ It’s like our way to get on the radio.
-With your guitar sound over all the albums, especially like Frankenchrist, it just seems like you’ve drawn on a whole variety of different influences. Is that something that’s always been important to you, to draw on everything you’ve always liked, rather than one kind of sound?
EBR: I don’t know how conscious that was. It was just basically having fun and trying something different. Frankenchrist is very kinda psychedelic, with a lot of echoes. I was just trying to surprise myself and make the music interesting. Make the familiar sound different and the different sound familiar. You’d make a melody line that’s really pretty but then always put an off note in it, like a beauty mark amid the pretty part. Contrast always sounds better.
-What do you think about the state of punk today?
EBR: Well I still like Green Day. But there’s a lot of pop punk bands that are kinda worrying and not that interesting. It’s like anything else: 99% is crap, 1% is good.
-Is the underground still going strong?
EBR: No, not in San Francisco, unfortunately. Most of the clubs have switched to DJ’s. San Francisco thinks it’s a cultural capital but musicwise, they need more clubs. Austin, Texas has more clubs, Portland, Oregan… One of the reasons Nirvana came up in Seattle in the early 90’s is because they were playing for 300 people. When you’re playing for your friends and ten people, it’s kinda hard to be inspired to write songs. I can’t say that in San Francisco, though: everyone’s all like more San Francisco than thou.
-Finally, are there any new or local punk bands that you’re particularly excited about?
EBR: Not at the moment. I changed a bit last year, so now I’m listening to other kinds of music. Most musicians that I admire listen to all kinds of different music: that’s how rock n’ roll was created. Somebody listened to country, blues and gospel and mushed them together. When I play with bands, I say ‘Don’t just listen to punk bands, listen to other stuff.’ It’s more interesting.
-Have you been inspired or influenced by some stuff that you haven’t been in the past? Any fresh stuff?
EBR: Actually, some of my best song writing comes from listening to the 60’s country singer Merle Haggard: his phrasing is as good as Frank Sinatra’s. This is gonna sound silly, but someone gave me a collection of CDs of non hit tracks of Blur. I was only familiar with their hits, but they were trying different sounds and songs, it was actually interesting.
-Are the police better with punk bands now than they were back then?
EBR: Yeah. I think certain police departments in different cities are a little more professional. I remember one time we played a show in Germany and underneath the stage were twenty police officers, but they were just sitting there playing cards. They were there in case something happened but they never came out the room, nothing happened and they went home. In Manhattan the police department are used to seeing everything, so they don’t get involved unless they have to. They don’t need to create work for themselves.