THE POLITICS OF PUNK
When East Bay Ray placed an ad in a music paper for a lead singer in 1978, he had no idea it would lead to the beginning of one of the most influential bands in the history of punk rock.
“My goal was to have the best punk rock band in San Francisco,” said East Bay Ray (Raymond Peppernel), guitarist for the Dead Kennedys via telephone while on tour. “It went way beyond that.”
Jello Biafra (Eric Boucher), lead singer for the band, responded to the ad and was followed by bassist Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall), drummer Ted (Bruce Slesinger) and a second guitarist known as 6025, who ended up leaving the band. D.H. Peligro (Darren Henley) replaced Ted as drummer in 1980.
The band went on to make a lasting impression on the nature of punk by preaching against issues such as capitalism, abuse of power and the corrupt nature of government, gaining a following and spreading the punk culture. Even today, any fan of punk music knows who the Dead Kennedys are and is aware of the impact they have had on the movement.
Musically, the Dead Kennedys have more talent than the average punk band that only plays three chords. Biafra’s vibrant personality and stage presence bleeds through their performances, and East Bay Ray’s guitar riffs solidify the band’s overall musical tightness. The band’s first single, “California Ãber Alles,” criticized then-governor Jerry Brown, and it was followed by songs such as “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Kill the Poor.” (Biafra even ran for mayor of San Francisco – he came in fourth place out of 10 participants, forcing a run-off election). East Bay Ray also started the record label Alternative Tentacles Records in 1983.
The band broke up in 1986, and Biafra took ownership of Alternative Tentacles – a decision that would later land him in court against former band members East Bay, Peligro and Flouride. In 1997 it was discovered that Alternative Tentacles had underpaid the latter three members $76,000 in royalties during a 10-year period. After a battle in court, Biafra was ordered to pay the band almost $200,000 for damages.
“It’s really sad that Biafra didn’t pay us,” East Bay said. “That was what Alternative Tentacles was supposed to be against – power corrupts.”
But after branding their mark on the punk rock community through the past 20 years, East Bay Ray, Peligro and Flouride, joined by Brandon Cruz (lead singer of Dr. Know), have embarked on a tour. The first collection of live Dead Kennedys’ songs, Mutiny on the Bay, was released last September on Manifesto Records. A DVD of the original band performing live in 1984 has also been released, as will digitally re-mastered copies of previous albums.In late September, the band was to play unannounced for a CD release party in Los Angeles. Rumor spread that the band was playing, and the show sold out with 200-300 people outside wanting to get in. Although they had rehearsed the songs previously, East Bay said the four were nervous before playing.
“Everyone was singing along,” he said. “The reaction was overwhelming.”
After the show, agents approached the band, and they were asked if they wanted to perform additional gigs, which resulted in a tour across the globe.
But not everyone is content to know the Dead Kennedys are back on the road.
Some critics, and even faithful Dead Kennedys fans, are claiming the band isn’t the same band without Biafra as the frontman, and Biafra himself has sent out news releases warning that the audience will decide if the band is worth seeing.
But the audience has determined they want to see the Dead Kennedys. The band has sold out almost half its shows, and East Bay Ray said the reaction has been positive, even with Cruz on vocals.
As a result, Biafra has sent faxes to promoters threatening to sue.
“I guess he didn’t really mean it when he said let the audience decide,” East Bay Ray said.
East Bay Ray also noted that, in Denver, three concert-goers were in the front row holding their noses at the beginning of the show, mocking the band.
“At the end of the set, all three of them were on stage singing ‘Holiday in Cambodia,'” he said.
He has also received e-mails explaining how fans were expecting to be disappointed in the show, but they came out thinking it was the best performance they had ever seen.
Not only was he surprised at the positive reaction of fans but also the overall young age of the crowd and the intelligent nature of the audience.
“Two-thirds of the audience is under 30,” he said.Although some of the lyrics are dated and the majority of Dead Kennedys’ followers aren’t old enough to have personally witnessed some of the issues confronted in the songs, the underlying principles of the Dead Kennedys remain the same with fans and the band alike.
“The basic theme of the Dead Kennedys is to think for yourself, and get all sides of the issue,” East Bay Ray said. “One of the things punk is supposed to be about is tolerance for different viewpoints.”
He also noted differences in issues today as opposed to two decades ago.
“You’re not going to change things from the top down, people have to change themselves,” he said. “Revolution doesn’t come from the top nowadays.”
East Bay Ray said he didn’t know how long the band would tour, that it was a play-it-by-ear situation.
“As long as the audience is intelligent, as long as we’re having fun, we’ll be doing it for a while,” he said.
And as for the threats of lawsuits and negative news releases from Biafra, East Bay said it’s a sad episode.
“More music, less lawyers,” he said. “Music is going to outlive us mere mortals. It’s time to go on – and we have.”
- Contact Lindsay Fosterat firstname.lastname@example.org
The Dead Kennedys will perform at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg on Friday. For tickets/information call (727) 896-1244