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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Dead Kennedys

Ask around, and we bet you won’t find a punk band with as much mythos as Dead Kennedys. The group, led by Jello Biafra, is synonymous with the anti-establishment, anti-fascist and anti-censorship movement and rightly considered one of the finest punk bands of all time. During their initial eight-year run, the Dead Kennedys represented the pointed end of the punk rock spear, ready to punch through any saccharine pop or deluded politician you had to hand.

With the genre of rock music struggling to hold the attention of the masses as it once did, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational moments in the world of music. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created, so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest; this time, we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Dead Kennedys.

As we aim to offer up a little insight into the icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the movement behind the legend. Dead Kennedys are most certainly a legendary outfit worth celebrating, and getting their fiery catalogue into just six songs is one of the more difficult challenges we’ve had. But we’ve been listening to DK all day, so nothing seems like a challenge we can’t conquer.

The band arrived in a flurry of activity in 1978. East Bay Ray, AKA Raymond Pepperell, was inspired to start a punk band in the San Francisco area after witnessing a ska-punk show that stoked his fires. The band quickly gained a reputation as their name, The Dead Kennedys, grabbed the attention of the masses, “Just when you think tastelessness has reached its nadir,” wrote Harb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle, along comes a punk rock group called ‘The Dead Kennedys’, which will play at Mabuhay Gardens on Nov. 22, the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.”

Huge protests erupted, and with the owner of Mabuhay refusing to renege on the contract, the band were left in an unwelcomed position. But, in a show of the kind of band they would become, Ray made a statement which said the band’s name wasn’t an insult to JFK or his family, “the assassinations were in much more poor taste than our band. We actually respect the Kennedy family. . . . When JFK was assassinated, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when RFK was assassinated, the American Dream was assassinated. . . . Our name is actually homage to the American Dream.”

It would set the stall for their position as one of the most incendiary bands in American history. Their first single, ‘California Uber Alles’ would light a fuse that would continually explode for eight years. The band would produce only four studio albums but, in doing so, become one of the most widely adored punk bands of all time. The real reason people loved and still love Dead Kennedys is that they were authentic. None of their antics or songs felt like a ploy for column inches or record sales. Meaning, even when they released their final record Bedtime For Democracy, they did so with their entire beings.

Below, we’re picking out six songs which define the Dead Kennedys and their illustrious career.

Six definitive songs of the Dead Kennedys:

‘California Über Alles’ (1979)

With the inimitable Jello Biafra leading your band, you are always in good hands, and the band must have realised they were on to something special with this undeniably potent debut. ‘California Über Alles’ is a song that was always designed to get under the skin of the political class. Comparing America to the Nazis, even in a punk rock song, was destined to be a moment neither party would ever forget.

One of the most arresting things about the song is how complicated it is. Though many would like to paint punk rock as a three-chord punch-up, the reality provided by the Dead Kennedys was far more complex. The band employed flecks of surf-guitar, poetry and jazz to make their tunes really pop.

The group chose to use their debut single to aim at California Governor Jerry Brown amid a flurry of incendiary images. East Bay Ray later described the song as “our Wagnerian piece with a bolero rhythm.”

‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (1979)

Following on from their debut single, the band never looked like slowing up in their political discourse nor their artistic evolution with ‘Holiday in Cambodia’. The harrowing bassline that opens the track only adds more atmosphere to what’s about to come. The song gathers pace like a runaway freight train and doesn’t stop until it hits the midnight hour of grimy nightclubs and dangerous streets.

Biafra’s vocal is as strange and stretched as you’d hope. Quick as lightning and as sharp as a razor, the song is jam-packed with different musical ideas, each vying with one another to become the most influential piece of the band’s canon. It also contains some of Biafra’s most vicious set of lyrics.

The singer aims at the snotty-nosed students who have “been to school for a year or two, and you know you’ve seen it all.” Outside of the song’s intention, the track should be regarded as one of their most inspirational moments.

‘Pull My Strings’ (1980)

Of course, trying to suggest that ‘Pull My Strings’ is one of Dead Kennedy’s best songs is a bit tricky. The rest of the group’s canon is rich in punk rock moments that drip with intensity. But perhaps no song sums up the group better than ‘Pull My Strings’.

The track was performed for the first time in curious circumstances. Dead Kennedys had set out their stall as not the type of band to be pushed around. However, their label Polydor hadn’t really been paying attention. The group were invited to perform at the Bay Area music awards in San Francisco to give the event “new wave credibility.” It was not a smart move.

After a few seconds of the band performing ‘California Über Alles’, Biafra suddenly cuts the music and says with sarcasm: “We’ve gotta prove that we’re adults now. We’re not a punk rock band, we’re a new wave band.” They performed ‘Pull My Strings’, which asked questions like: “Is my cock big enough, / Is my brain small enough / For you to make me a star?” With their point made, the band never played the song again, even if the award show version was included in the compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.

‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off!’ (1981)

Much like Britain’s punk bands had struggled to keep order within their shows and had been left frustrated by the staunch right-wingers of the cities and the adoption of their sound, Dead Kennedys decided to fight back against the infiltration with a more than obvious song.

‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off!’ is undoubtedly one of the songs that define the Dead Kennedys. Released as their fifth single in 1981, it appeared on their EP In God We Trust, Inc and even came with a free armband that had a crossed-out swastika emblazoned on it.

It was a clear message to the masses. Nazis, in any form, were not welcome at any punk rock show. It has since become a bastion for the genre as it continues to fight the plight of its politics.

‘Soup Is Good Food’ (1985)

The band’s 1985 Frankenchrist album was destined to be derailed from the very beginning. This time though, it wasn’t their songs getting them in hot water but their artwork. The record contained a poster of HR Giger’s Penis Landscape which depicts rows of penises and vulvae. They’re just lucky that Biafra didn’t get his wish for it to be the album’s cover.

The album won’t go down as the greatest of the Dead Kennedys canon, even if it did look to introduce even more instruments to the fold, including synths, trumpets and an electric bouzouki. But the LP’s opening track ‘Soup Is Good Food’ is still a blinding piece of punk revelry.

Below, the band try to get through the track — hampered by a mischievous crowd and a few flying missiles — as part of a raucous live show from 1985. It gives you an up-close and personal look at everything the Dead Kennedys were.

‘Cesspools in Eden’ (1986)

1986 came around real fast for the Dead Kennedys. With four albums under their belts, they soon decided that the music industry as a whole sickened them. It was a disdain no longer reserved for the mainstream; now, they aimed at the punk rock scene. They announced their split shortly after the release of their final record, Bedtime for Democracy.

The album is still pulsating with what made them such a vital prospect in the first place. The rhythms were fast like a cheetah, and the riffs were as powerful as a lion’s jaw. On ‘Cesspools in Eden’, we get the purest sense of the band’s ever-dangerous planes.

In this song, the group provide an energising break from the furore and instead share their concerns about the turning environment. There’s a little dabble of eighties production to put off punk purists, but otherwise, it is a six-minute joy ride.

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