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You can love the fact that three-fourths of San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys have been performing since 2001 without original singer Jello Biafra, or you can despise it. What you shouldn't do, guitarist East Bay Ray says, is make assumptions without having seen the current lineup live.
"If you don't want to see us play without Jello, then just don't come," Ray says. "But don't judge it if you haven't seen it."
The first tours for the reformed group (Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, drummer D.H. Peligro and singer Ron "Skip" Greer) played to approximately 300 people per night, but those who've seen the band since 2001 have apparently decided that a Jello-less Dead Kennedys are a worthwhile act; they have played numerous European festivals and a show in Bogota, Colombia, to nearly 100,000 people, the guitarist says. He attributes the growth in the audience's size to a word-of-mouth excitement created by fans and the harmonious cacophony created by the band.
"We didn't get much help from the media," Ray says, "but now, when we play, it sells out because we're good and unique. There's a thing called chemistry, and we're like two and two equals five. It's an added element. Bands that influence people have that chemistry."
This is just one reason why the guitarist, born Raymond Pepperell, says his band attract a crowd that spans three generations—quite a difference from the aging groups relegated to the old-timer casino circuit.
Any punk historian will tell you of Dead Kennedys' history as one of the most revered bands during punk's halcyon days. Between 1978 and 1986, the group combined the blistering energy of the Ramones with Ray's surf-meets-psychedelia guitar tone, Flouride's quick, burbling bass lines, and, lest we forget, Biafra's vocals, quivering with a volatile mix of snark and rage. Their five full-length records yielded such punk classics as "Chemical Warfare," "California Über Alles," "Holiday In Cambodia," "Bleed for Me," "Moon Over Marin," "MTV—Get Off the Air" and "Too Drunk to Fuck."
However, research into the band's tumultuous legal history reveals a 1998 lawsuit that pitted Ray, Flouride and Peligro against Biafra and the label he owns, Alternative Tentacles. The band members alleged the company had been underpaying them for royalties and owed them upward of $76,000. After a three-week trial in May 2000, a jury found that the label and Biafra committed fraud with malice.
The trio then used its business partnership, Decay Music, to remove Dead Kennedys' catalog from Alternative Tentacles. The decision was confirmed on Dec. 22, 2000, when a San Francisco judge ruled that Decay Music was a partnership run by majority, meaning the three votes placed by Ray, Flouride and Peligro beat Biafra's singular vote. This move allowed the members to issue remastered versions of the band's albums on Manifesto Records, as well as release two live records, Mutiny On the Bay and Live At the Deaf Club.
With the court case over and money having been paid, you'd think everything would be settled. But you'd be wrong. Since the suit was filed, Biafra and the trio of Ray, Flouride and Peligro have fought to tell their sides of the story, which is so dense you could write a book about how a punk-rock band united in their fight against tradition, corporate greed and abuse of power wound up in court arguing over songs they hadn't performed in more than a decade. That book would surely detail the unflattering things each party has said about the other. For example, in a press release issued Jan. 23, 2001, Biafra wrote that the jury's verdict was "outrageous and both legally and factually incorrect," while Ray says his former singer "is telling people what to think, which is against the ideals of the band."
Regardless of who's singing, Ray says the band's music is as potent and—unfortunately—topical as ever.
"The issues underlying the songs are more relevant today than before," Ray says. "'Bleed for Me' is about dying for oil, basically, and we just had a big battle in Iraq. That was really about trying to get cheap oil, and that backfired. I've seen the destruction of the middle class and, along with that, democracy."
This article appeared in print as "Gelling Without Jello: Dead Kennedys say things are as brutal (and peaceful) as ever without their original lead singer."