Even when the medium is hardcore punk music and the message is radical politics dipped in acid-tinged irony. Dead Kennedys may be synonymous with the anti-establishment counterculture of the Reagan era, but somehow the band’s music feels just as important today as it did almost 40 years ago. Maybe even more so. Hell, Jerry Brown was the governor of California for most of the decade. Again. Bringing “California Über Alles” back into vogue. The lyrics for “The Great Wall” might as well be the motto of the current administration for fuck’s sake (yes, the song’s sardonic genius and pro-refugee stance would be lost in appropriation).
With the passage of time, both the medium and the message become relevant again.
California Governor Jerry Brown, 1978
California Governor Jerry Brown, 2018
The implied warning in the band's last album, Bedtime for Democracy, wasn’t a false alarm back in 1986; it was just a generation too early.
Combining the anti-authoritarianism of the Clash with the give no fucks mentality of the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys defined the second wave of the American punk movement. Composed of primary members Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride and D.H. Peligro, the group relocated the genre’s nexus from the CBGB to the former center of the hippie movement on the West Coast. Although overtly leftist in its politics – an outlook mostly credited to lead singer Biafra – the Bay Area punk group spared no one from its lyrical barbs, going out of its way to offend liberals, conservatives and “independents” alike. Hypocrites were everywhere, though mostly in big houses or on TV.
Even the damn Nazis were hiding in plain sight, as the band presciently tried to explain in the iconic proto-antifa anthem “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off”.
Beneath this authentic mask of irreverence and outrage, Dead Kennedys were surprisingly sophisticated songwriters. The pulsing guitar rhythms and rapid-fire drumming blazed the trail for the hardcore punk sound, but the band would often shift tempo and layer movements within its songs, as though trying to confuse the mosh pit into thinking it was suddenly at the junior high slow dance. Adjacent to the emergence of rap and hip-hop, the band playfully “sampled” pieces like the kite medley in the middle of “Chemical Warfare” or the Mickey Mouse club theme at the start of “Moral Majority”. A song like “Religious Vomit” might seem like a surface level gag, but it’s really a playful fusing of form of function into musical onomatopoeia.
In other words, the song really sounds like religious vomit. And that's fucking brilliant.
Maybe it’s because we’ve finally reached that point where nostalgia meets irony. Maybe we weren’t listening closely enough the first time around (to be fair, you had to have really sharp fucking ears). Maybe it’s just that more Kennedys keep on dying. For whatever reason, Dead Kennedys have as much to say about 2020 than they did about 1980. Back then, Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco as a joke; he lost. If Biafra did the same thing today, would he win? And would it still be a joke?