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How George Orwell inspired a classic Dead Kennedys song

American punk rockers Dead Kennedys have never been afraid of controversy. Take ‘Holiday In Cambodia’, an excoriating blues number, yet one littered with racial epithets; take ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’, a raucous anti-fascist number dedicated to toppling the racists reclaiming a genre based on equality and fairness; and then there’s ‘California über alles’, a blistering treatise of man’s influence under fascism, replete with a swaggering guitar hook.

For those of you who are wondering, yes, “Über Alles” does translate into “above all else”, and yes, it served as the German national anthem during the Nazi regime. The song is about California Governor Jerry Brown, who was challenging Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary, outlining his manifesto, disguised as a dictator.

Hefty words, and ones that dated quickly, but to his credit, singer Jello Biafra later conceded that his impressions about Brown were misguided. “I realised I was wrong about my conspiracy theory about Jerry Brown, ” he once said. “Sure, I’d made it up all by myself and it turned out not to be true, so it was updated with Reagan lyrics until ‘We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now,’ and the jazz version we goofed off with at soundcheck wound up becoming a staple of that record and the live show.”

Moreover, this incendiary, uncompromising rocker is lifted by the powerful drums and the band’s overall commitment to the cause. It doesn’t take a Masters in Commonwealth literature to recognise what author Biafra was referring to with “Big Bro on white horse is near” and “now it is 1984”.

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By the time the band had composed this tune, they had followed a series of musicians who had paid tribute to George Orwell. David Bowie was the most notable candidate with his Diamond Dogs drips in homage, but that would be overlooking Roger Waters efforts on Animals and The Wall. What parts of The Jam’s startling ‘Start!’ that weren’t influenced by The Beatles were also inspired by Orwell’s writings.

But none of the other artists had thrown themselves into the Orwellian narrative with the fury of The Dead Kennedys. Offering no quarter from the opening note, the band compliment the world they are building together, curating a soundscape based on thunder, rhythm and piercing guitar hooks. In other words, the song doesn’t embody 1984, it is 1984, portraying a world only shades away from the reality that circled the band.

Punk had yet to take hold in America, but the band were better received in England, not least because John Peel adored them. It was customary for punks to display contempt towards those on the right of the political spectrum, as The Clash had so deftly proven on ‘White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)’ (“If Adolf Hitler, were here today…”). The Dead Kennedys fitted nicely into the surroundings and even released the Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables album on the British record label, Cherry Red.

In 2005, the song enjoyed a tasty update when Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in as Governor of California. Biafra re-wrote the song as ‘Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century’, a song which he issued with the Melvins in 2005. Discussing the tune, Biafra highlighted some of the zestier lyrics: “How can you drop a song that has lines like ‘Steroids for the master race, So you all can have my face?”.

Yet there’s something so timeless about the original, embodying a form of anger that rode on the coattails of the punk movement, only to offer an alternative that was three times as likely and seven times more terrifying than the path they were already heading down.

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