The basic story of Bay Area punk kings the Dead Kennedys is one that has been told over and over again, though the details surrounding it get changed depending on the source.
Between 1978 and 1986, there were few more challenging and influential bands on the punk circuit. The 1980 debut Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in particular set the band up for future legendary status. The quartet of singer Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro (who joined shortly after the recording of the debut album) would forge something magical together and then, a mere eight years after forming, it was all over.
It got ugly for a while. In the late 1990s, Ray, Flouride and Peligro joined forces to take Biafra to court over royalties and then, in 2001, the trio reformed the band, initially with former Dr. Know singer and child actor Brandon Cruz taking the mic. That lasted two years, at which point his place was taken by Jeff Penalty. Another five years later (2008, for those keeping count), the Kennedys hired their fourth singer, Ron “Skip” Greer, and Skip remains with the band. Nothing, it seems, is going to keep these guys from playing out.
“We’re really great musicians, we wrote some really great songs, and people show up,” East Bay Ray says. “Actually, we don’t do the songs the same way every night. There are little intros and outros, and improvements here and there. Nothing on the Grateful Dead level though. That would scare people. It’s very subtle.”
The Dead Kennedys are hardly the first band to reform and tour with key members missing, whether it be because of death (New York Dolls, Doors, MC5, Germs, Thin Lizzy), or just in-fighting as is the case here. It’s easy to get precious about a band that we care about, but it’s also worth considering the fans who didn’t get a chance to see those bands in their pomp, and simply relish the opportunity to hear songs they love played by at least some of the people that wrote them. Plus, as Ray points out, these guys still get a kick out of playing together.
“People won’t admit it, but to be honest we sound better than we did back in the day,” he says. “We’re a little less ego and a little more talent. The thing that keeps the audience coming is the songwriting that we did. Everybody contributed to the song writing. Biafra has this band now (the Guantanamo School of Medicine) and he was never going to play Dead Kennedys songs because that was in the past. It turns out, nobody shows up and now he plays Dead Kennedys songs. We wrote them together and they’re really good. It’s kinda like having children and they’ve grown up — a life of their own.”
Skip Greer has been singing with the Dead Kennedys for ten years next year; he’s already the longest-serving vocalist that the band has ever had. Ray says that he’s grown into the role, upping his game when it comes to between-song banter. And yet there are no plans to record a new DK’s album. If nothing else, one would think that the current administration would provide perfect lyrical fodder.
“Yeah, but I’d rather have a good government and listen to more Taylor Swift than have a bad government and have good punk rock songs,” Ray says, quite correctly. “The other thing is, I think music can change individuals. After our shows, we have 10 to 30 people coming up and telling us how the band changed their lives. That’s worth going out for. In terms of changing society, we’re a little bit more experienced now and we know that’s not going to happen.”
He might be right, but the Dead Kennedys are perhaps as well-placed as any punk band to get a message across, thanks to the fact that the old fans have stuck around while legions of younger devotees have latched on too.
“Our audience is about two-thirds young people,” Ray says. “There’s been shows where I’ve met a parent and their 20-year-old kid at the show. You look at a band like the Moody Blues, and the audience is the same age as the band. There’s not that many bands who get a new audience each generation, so it’s quite an honor for us. We get a lot of prejudice because we don’t have the original lead singer. Overall, the media doesn’t want to ‘go there’ because of the prejudice.”
Prejudice or not, songs like “Holiday in Cambodia,” “California Uber Alles” and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” will always bring people in. Ray is convinced that the majority of people complaining about the current, Biafra-less version of the band have never seen it live, and therefore should shut up.
“It’s so easy to go on the internet and write but, if you haven’t seen the band, you shouldn’t have an opinion,” he says. “In a way, having an opinion is the lowest form of thought. It doesn’t take any fact checking, empathy or anything. I would like to see people withhold their opinion a little bit longer until they get more information. With the internet, it turns out misinformation is more popular than information. It sells more ads.”
He might have a point, but trying to silence people on the internet is always going to be a fruitless endeavor. Rolling with the punches makes far more sense, particularly when the musicians are having so much fun playing the tunes regardless.
“This is the difference between music, and things like spoken word or standup comedy,” he says. “You can read a book maybe once every ten years. Standup comedy maybe twice and then it’s dead to you. But music – I remember being a kid and buying a 45, and playing it 100 times. Music taps into a side of the brain which is non-linear, non-time oriented. We enjoy the songs, and particularly ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ is fresh every time we play it.”
That’s what we’ll get when the band comes to the House of Blues. Songs that we know and love, played extremely well by some of the people originally involved. There’s no full reunion on the cards, so this is what we have. Why knock it?
Dead Kennedys plays with JFA, The Detours, and Corrupted Youth at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 22 at the Anaheim House of Blues; 400 Disney Way #337, Anaheim; 714-778-2583; $25; All ages.