Revisiting Dead Kennedys Apocalyptic Punk Masterpiece

Dead Kennedys at Houston's Island club, early 1980s
Dead Kennedys at Houston's Island club, early 1980s
Photo courtesy of Ben DeSoto

Michael Stewart Foley’s svelte new book for the 33 1/3 series explores Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, the sardonic and raucous opus by the Dead Kennedys originally released in 1980. It offers an incisive blend of urban history, socio-political witnessing, and pop culture insight. Peeling back the band’s mythos, he deftly sorts through family backgrounds, the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the nuanced and fecund microcosm of San Francisco during punk’s genesis, all at a breathless pace.

The book is compact, yet exploratory, dense as well as poetic. Don’t expect a song-by-song musicologist-style breakdown. This book is about the context, the news of the day, and chronicles the strides taken in punk’s anti-authority march. Luckily, though, Foley balances the eyes-wide-open vibe of a fan’s journal with his strenuous academic precision, so readers feel immersed in, but not overwhelmed by, the incendiary band’s tale.

We tracked Foley down between the college courses he teaches at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, to explore the topics.

David Ensminger: In the beginning of the book, you use powerful metaphors of wreckage, hell, and madness, almost with William Blake-like intensity, to paint the backdrop that gave birth to the Dead Kennedys and call New York City tame by comparison. Do you think music histories have been slanted towards the East Coast, perhaps because NYC might be considered the intellectual and cultural capital of the country and where Sire picked up major punk bands?

Michael Stewart Foley: Yeah, well, New York gets a disproportionate amount of attention in all things, it seems — not only in the history of punk. When we think of the decline of American cities in the 1970s, we associate it more with New York than anywhere else: The New York Post headline, "President Ford to City: Drop Dead," and movies like The Warriors or Escape from New York or Fort Apache, the Bronx have left us with this indelible image of New York as a crumbling, dying city - a microcosm of a nation in a deep recession in what one historian calls a "decade of nightmares." That's fine on the face of it, but the problem is that it obscures how every American city was falling apart at the same time. Deindustrialization and the related shrinking of the tax base that cities relied on to make everything run — from sanitation to schools to subways, firehouses, and police stations — created crises in every metropolitan area of the country. And the neoliberal response with which we're now so familiar started with lowering taxes on business, cutting social services dramatically (to offset the declining revenue streams) and handing out sweetheart deals to developers to gentrify neighborhoods — ultimately displacing long-term residents to make way for Yuppies and their ilk. That's why David Harvey's term — dispossession — is more accurate than "gentrification."

So, I write about the grit and gutters of San Francisco at this moment when Dead Kennedys formed because that city was, like New York, experiencing all of these dire economic problems, but then it had this extra level of insanity layered on top of that. Just in 1978 alone, there was Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes and, in the process, hastened the closure of two dozen schools; the Briggs Initiative, which aimed to ban homosexuals from teaching in the public schools (though it was ultimately defeated); the People's Temple departure from San Francisco to Guyana, where the Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 people through a mass suicide; and, then, days later, the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former Supervisor Dan White. Completely nuts. The Bronx may have been burning, but the whole city of San Francisco seemed to have tumbled into Hell. And that's the context in which the city's punk scene formed, and it's what produced Dead Kennedys. That band could have come from nowhere else.

You suggest outsiders thought punk generated in this era was “transgression for the sake of transgression,” yet even cool critics like Lester Bangs, who adored the Clash, seemed very wary of the Dead Kennedys. Why do you think that is – perhaps their so-called tasteless nihilism?

"Tasteless" is the right word, I think. Historian Jeff Cowie saw DKs many times in the early 1980s, and he said to me (in a line I should have squeezed into the book), "It's hard to exaggerate how tasteless they seemed to mainstream people." Most people didn't understand the band's name, seeing it as some kind of celebration of the Kennedy assassinations when it was really a lament for the American dream — which had been "torpedoed," Jello Biafra said, by the assassinations. But it didn't matter: people saw the name and recoiled. And although most punks seemed to get the band's sense of dark humor, it seemed lost on others who couldn't see the satire in roller coasters crashing and killing kids on the boardwalk or chemical weapons deployed at a country club.

There's a morbid fascination with death that ran through American punk, and Dead Kennedys seemed particularly interested in an array of horrors, but it wasn't purely for the sake of shock value, and it sure wasn't nihilistic. Rather, there's a political analysis that runs through nearly every song, and a deep commitment to stripping away all of the "bullshit" of mainstream commentators who would intone from the television, as if it was nothing remarkable, that we're now a nation developing the neutron bomb and chemical weapons, home to many serial killers, rapacious real-estate interests and navel-gazing former hippies in equal measure. The point was to expose all of this, to confront listeners with it and maybe to give them some sense that they're not alone in thinking that the whole society was coming unglued.

No doubt Dead Kennedys' subversive, caustic wit (perhaps handed down from Jonathan Swift through the Yippies) and gallows humor seemed like a stark comparison to the laid-back Me Generation complacency and “protest fatigue” of the late 1970s, yet necessary as well. Though Biafra still mines the same style, do you think it’s a kind of lost art in contemporary punk?

I think it's a kind of lost art, period. Not just in punk. It's not the fault of punks or activists, but more a product of changing technology and a dramatically different media landscape. Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies could capture the three networks' attention in the late 1960s because they were newly audacious *and* the networks had no competition. Dead Kennedys were pioneers in a budding independent, alternative-media movement that worked through a constellation of venues, labels, radio shows, etc., to reach a vast underground audience. Of course, the caustic wit and gallows humor caused people to pay more attention to DKs the way people had paid attention to Abbie Hoffman. But all of this happened before Americans got more than a thousand TV channels and a million distractions on their laptops and smartphones. It's not hard to find caustic wit and gallows humor on those devices these days, including in service of political causes, but if everything is reduced to meme-level quality, and all you can hope for is something going viral and being in the public consciousness for maybe a week...this is hardly a good model for political change.

You describe early San Francisco punks as products of trauma – people who served in bewildering, dangerous Vietnam; youth who watched assassinations broadcast live on television, and whose families endured recession, killers and revolutionary kidnappers on the loose, aside from collapsed hippie idealism, Prop 13 and the failed Nixon administration. Hence, their bullshit detectors were turned way up. Is that an essential punk skill set – the ability to slice through murk, fabrications and distortions, no matter the era?

I think so. The political potency of punk was based, from the start, on this expression from young people that they were not going to accept any more lying. These were mostly people born in the late 1950s, who grew up in the Sixties, still being told that the USA was the greatest country on earth and that their futures were so bright, there was nothing they could not do, nothing they could not achieve if they just put their minds to it. Of course, as they learned, thanks to insidious persistent racial discrimination, patriarchy and homophobia, that was bullshit from the start. And then they lived through Vietnam and Watergate and watched the once-unstoppable American economic juggernaut collapse in a heap.

So, by the time they're in their twenties in the late 1970s, punks concluded that grown-ups had been lying to them all along. And they found a common sense of purpose in rejecting the bullshit of their elders — in fact, in making fun of them and their distortions — and in building a kind of microcosm of the kind of society they wished existed. And that place was a place of truth. Dead Kennedys were at the center of all of that — of both exposing lies and urging their peers to open their eyes and think for themselves.

Even as punk has been continually been whitewashed — that is, literally interpreted as white-people music — you deftly explore the important black-music background of Klaus [guitarist Flouride], whose interest, even adoration, ranged from Little Richard to Tower of Power, which likely shaped his style. Do you feel punk histories need to dig deeper, shed former narratives, and better understand the diverse musicality behind the genre?

I do. As I say, if the median age of punks in 1978 was twenty years old. That means that most of them grew up listening to early rock and roll, R&B (that is, the real, original R&B that grew out of blues, jazz, and gospel), rockabilly and country. No small number of them (including both Klaus and Biafra) were obsessive record collectors, saving every cent they could to spend on music. For all we hear about the importance of the Stooges, Velvet Underground, MC5 [and] New York Dolls to every kid who became a punk, there's almost always a much deeper, more varied musical history in every punk's story. When I do oral-history interviews with punks, I start by asking them to tell me about their lives pre-punk: about their parents' work, politics, religion, etc., but also about what kind of music they were hearing from an early age, what resonated with them. And no matter what, these were American kids listening to American and British rock and roll, so, at most, we're only ever a few steps away from the blues.

Another one from The Island
Another one from The Island
Photo courtesy of Ben DeSoto

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You also shed light on the musical choices of the band — their use of an old tube limiter in the studio to produce vocal tones from classic rock and roll, meticulously “comping” vocal lines from different tracks, Ray’s insistent use of Echoplex, etc. So, though the Avengers, X, Zeros, or Dils singles are very powerful and raw, the Dead Kennedys' early recordings sound distinct, like an aural landscape. Looking back, do you feel those choices, not just subject matter, really propelled the band’s art?

Certainly, they had a distinct sound, and Ray's Echoplex is a big part of that, but I don't know about propelling the band's art. If you listen to early Dead Kennedys live recordings — at the Mabuhay Gardens or the Deaf Club, for example — the band has the same kind of raw intensity of those other bands you mentioned. There's a sense of careening chaos driving the whole experience, and it's hard to distinguish between band and audience — you can hear (or see, on YouTube videos) the mashup of seemingly everyone in the room. So, I guess you could make a case for that live experience being what propelled the band's art.

On the other hand, the meticulous care taken in putting their sound on vinyl was essential in bringing them to a bigger audience beyond San Francisco. It's one of the great shames of American punk history that bands like the Avengers and Dils — whose sound and songs were as good as anything the Clash did, and who were most likely to lead punks to the barricades — never got to record full-length LPs in the same way. If they had, we'd be talking about why San Francisco punk gets so much more attention than New York punk!

Of all the songs, tactics, stridency, and dark glee of Fresh Fruit..., “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” seems completely current, like newsprint 2015. You trace the landlord crisis back to the 1970s, calling it one of the fiercest struggles of the era. What can we learn from that era to better understand what’s happening in the Twitter era struggle?

I think the main thing we need to understand is that it's all connected. What happened then is what has led us to where we are now. It makes me crazy that historians have so far been content to explain the late twentieth century as "the Age of Reagan" when it's really been an age of crisis and class war. "Let's Lynch the Landlord" is still relevant, as you say, because it reminds us of the most obvious example of this: that we've been living through a housing crisis for forty years. The subprime mortgage scandal is just one part of it. The wider context is that we have had rental housing shortages for longer than anyone can remember, and the tenant battles and homelessness that we associate with the 1980s were just hints of what we see now: dispossession of American cities by real estate speculators and their allies in local government. Tenants and the homeless have won some battles along the way, but they've lost the war, and San Francisco is the clearest, most depressing evidence of this. Longtime working-class and middle-class residents are being pushed out of their neighborhoods by the Twitterati who can afford to buy the new condos that have replaced rental properties or they can pay super high rents that locals cannot touch. And the number of homeless has never been higher. It's really grim.

Punks were among those who fought these battles in the 1970s and 1980s, participating in anti-eviction actions, critiquing the city's takeover by real estate interests (including its landlord mayor, Dianne Feinstein), and squatting in vacant buildings. All of that predicted where we are now, but it's clear now who has won. What is shocking is how quickly the transformation is taking place. This spring, I was walking in the outer Mission — I hadn't been there for a year — and I couldn't believe how much the place had changed. There were still a few taquerias and dive bars, but they were suddenly surrounded by boutique-y restaurants, hipster cocktail bars, and yoga studios — all playgrounds for the tech set that were not there twelve months earlier. It's pacification by yoga mat. Once you see yoga mats in your neighborhood, you know you're beat. 

Though “California Uber Alles” eviscerates Jerry Brown, you seem to argue the malevolent political force in the city was business-oriented, hate-the-kooks Diane Feinstein. Both still reside in power. Does that prove the limit of punk counter-narratives, or simply prove the political resiliency of each?

Well, even Biafra corrected himself pretty quickly on Jerry Brown. He had this theory for a long time that Brown was a wolf in sheep's clothing, cynically positioning himself to be the "man on a white horse" the nation needed. That turned out to be wrong, which is why he reframed the song by focusing on Reagan, and changing the name to "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now." And Feinstein...it's more of a challenge to get people outside of California, who think of her as an archetypal California liberal, to see her the way punks did: as an Iron Lady who, as a landlord (who was also married to a real-estate developer), had a vision of cleaning up the city to make it attractive to tourists and Yuppies only. That meant paving the way for the anodyne, Googled City by the Bay we know today, and using the police force to clear away any dissenters. A former sheriff once referred to her as a "cop groupie." But she's been in the Senate for so long now, that we forget all of this. And Brown remains infuriating as a political figure because he offsets good policies with bad, but maybe gets a pass because at least he's not a cartoonish former bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor...

Schooled in performance, Jello’s approach, whether on stage, cutting songs, or running for Mayor, you argue, amounted to creative crimes – a series of art and adventures inspired by Yippies that helped instigate local “doings.” Yet, one of the Dils told me: “What Jello is, and what he wanted to become, was like a fifth-level celebrity nationally, who gets on a talk show occasionally, does a lecture here and there, and is a San Francisco character, like Emperor Norton or Wavy Gravy.” Is Jello, perhaps, both?

Yeah, I've read that interview, and I have enormous respect for Tony Kinman (who was one of the real San Francisco punk intellectuals), but I'm not sure he's right about that. My sense, from my research in the archives and dozens of interviews, including a lot that I conducted with people who knew Biafra well at the time, is that he may have been a smart-ass, and he may have liked the spotlight, but he was a very earnest young man when it came to being a political artist. He didn't place himself in the tradition of the Yippies (I did), but that's clearly the political tradition from which his idea of "creative crimes" springs. The bottom line is that it's about wrapping a serious political critique in spectacle and black humor or, as David Spaner, the former Yippie and manager of the Vancouver band Subhumans, described it: it's "political pie-throwing." And the thing about political pie-throwing is that it can (or it could) bring a lot of media and public attention, and at its best, it would help to educate people about an important issue and maybe even help mobilize people.

The potential downside is that some others are not going to take it seriously because a pie in the face seems silly, and, in fact, they may question the pie-thrower's motives. So, it's not hard to find people who will say that someone like Abbie Hoffman or Jello Biafra really just want to be famous, just want to be on television, and that their politics is just a pose. But I think Biafra understood — and this is when he was, you know, 20 years old — that his artistic style and the attention it attracted gave him a platform from which he could raise awareness about serious political questions.  

Author Michael Stewart Foley
Author Michael Stewart Foley
Photo by Isabelle Renate la Poutre

Lastly, you deal with the “hardcore” turning of the tide – out of punk came a stripped-down sound, zealous speed, and the influx of suburban macho males to gigs, perhaps catalyzed by Dead Kennedys (likely the Germs too, I believe). Do you think Fresh Fruit... marks both a beginning and end — a record with one foot in both worlds: the promise of punk and the pummeling of hardcore?

That's certainly one way to look at it. It's got those dirty surf riffs of Sixties garage-rock in songs like "Landlord," but also the fast-playing we associate with hardcore on songs like "Drug Me" and "Chemical Warfare." You'll sometimes hear punk veterans blame DKs, along with some of the Southern California bands, for ushering in hardcore — playing songs faster and faster, but also opening the door to weekend punks from the suburbs (stereotypically muscled macho frat-boy types) — as if all of this was bad for punk. It's an easy way to start an argument among punks, in fact.

On the one hand, Dead Kennedys and other bands that carried on into the 1980s succeeded in bringing punk to a wider audience, to reaching people beyond San Francisco who needed punk [and] who now feel like punk saved their lives. That's no small thing. On the other hand, there's no question that it changed the local scene. As the pit got rougher and more dangerous, a lot of women left punk behind, and the sense that the scene felt at times like a political movement seemed to fade. Certainly, as a prefigurative phenomenon — of trying to build a small-scale model of what they hoped the larger society could be — it did not last into hardcore. That's the book I'm working on now, trying to understand the promise and limits of this punk political culture in late-1970s San Francisco, so once I get a better handle on that, I'll let you know.


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