If you were alive during the 1980’s, you must have heard of them. They were the lone voice from the rear end of the stifled Punk era, both indomitable and incorruptible by the conspiratorial masses of conformist manipulators. He was their driving frontman, navigating their route, unafraid to yell. It’s been quite a few years since the Dead Kennedys disbanded, but lead singer/lyricist/writer Jello Biafra is still the untamed wildman of the US alternative music scene.
The name Biafra first scalded the lips of his fellow San Franciscans back in 1977, when he ran for mayor of that city. The reason? A practical joke, of course – what better reason to run for office?! Among the many novel ideas that constituted his platform were intentions to: legalise squatting in buildings left vacant for tax write-off reasons; create a legal board of bribery; pass a regulation that all downtown business-men wear clown suits from 9 to 5; and insist that police officers run for election every four years, voted in by the people they patrol. All of which provide some early indicators as to his leanings.
And, as the SF mayoral campaign dictates, all candidates get equal air time on TV. So you can imagine how the audience got plenty of chuckles with Jello’s constructive satire. Actually, he came in 4th place, out of ten, giving the supposedly ‘serious’ candidates a much need kick up the ass.
However, 1980 was the year that the Dead Kennedys gave America some vital victuals with their first album, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables”. A classic of socio-political hardcore protein, served up in a suppository of thrash/punk attitude, creating the ideal vehicle for their intravenous venom. Titles like ‘Kill the Poor’, ‘California Uber Alles’, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and the infamously-banned-by-the-Beeb, ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’, gave a breath of Amethyl Nitrate to a slowly decaying scene and elevated the Kennedys to the status of mythical icons in the underground halls of glory as well as a place on Reagan’s subversive list! While retaining the attitude of punk, their successive albums transcended the limits imposed, while Biafra’s lyrics introduced wider topics to the arc-light of their ethos and vision. Little escaped the glare.
It was 1983 though, when their ‘Frankenchrist’ album incurred the wrath of the Parents Music Resource Centre – a group of ultra-right wing wives of Washington Senators, banding together to wipe the collective asses of “unclean” music. The controversy was over a poster by H.R.Giger, given away with the record. Commonly known as ‘Penis Landscape’, the prosecutor of the band (for breaching the obscenity laws) described it as “Ten erect penises entering rotting vaginal cavities”.
The trial gained nationwide coverage as it was revealed that the PMRC were choosing a ‘soft’ target to prosecute, as a test case, thus opening the door for multiple prosecutions at their whim. Chief members of the PMRC include Tipper Gore (who, as mentioned in a previous TC, allegedly caught her daughter “doing things” while listening to a Prince song) and Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of State James (she is on record as saying “God really calls me to be his instrument”. Comments welcome). Of course, this much publicised moral crusade did little to harm the reps of the husbands.
It was now that the Dead Kennedys set up the famous ‘No More Censorship’ fund and with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they won, partly by showing how unconstitutional the censorship campaign was. But, while proving their mettle, the damage had been done. They disbanded, after releasing a swan-song album in ’85, “Bedtime for Democracy”, though a compilation followed, proving that you can’t keep good satire down.
But what was it that made them so effective? The strength lay in their Art (and make no mistake, that’s what it was), commitment and ability. Biafra took phenomena offensive to human rights in general and manifests the cancer for all to see clearly, with his unique rhetoric and style. He ‘assumes’ the blatant face of the offending party, be they censors, corrupt politicians, cheesy musician hacks, religious nuts, dictators, or just callous money grubfucks. He then personifies and lampoons them, showing their true parisitical faces in the process, the antithesis of those who’d rather remain nameless for increased efficiency.
The Kennedy’s may have disbanded, but Biafra’s voice is still with us.
Recently, he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, in the defence of musical freedom, pitted against Mrs. Gore. Events spoke for themselves. He, smartly dressed in a suit, well-spoken and of obvious intelligence, maintained a rational air, as opposed to Tipper’s ranting, maniacal zealot dictator attitude. He was a perfect ambassador, more than a match for her, especially when he revealed on live, prime-time TV that she had just categorically lied to the audience.
If you want more info, write to: Alternative Tentacles Records, 64 Mountgrove Road, London N5 2LT. Send an SAE. Can you afford not to hear his message, in this conspiratorial world? Guaranteed 100% better value than David Icke!