Review: Dead Kennedys’ punk style alive and relevant in 2015


The Dead Kennedys’ raucous show at the Belly Up on Jan. 15 in Solana Beach attracted viral attention online. (Photo by Jesus Ruiz)

Layla Marino

n_review_2014_webThe Dead Kennedys are a punk band from the 1980s with near legendary status. From their iconic rune-inspired logo to the antics of frenetic frontman Jello Biafra, this loud, hardcore and marginally silly band represents the spirit of anarchy and rebellion that is endemic in the soul of every punk rocker.

Their raucous show at the Belly Up on Jan. 15 has become the subject of much discussion on news outlets, but not necessarily because of the band. Nonetheless, the spirit of punk was definitely alive that night, and San Diego has the Belly Up and the Dead Kennedys to thank for that.

The Dead Kennedys formed in 1978. Along with The Ramones, they are considered to be among the best and most influential U.S. punk bands of the 1980s and ’90s. Their jocular take on political issues also cemented them as one of the more intelligent punk bands, and they became a hit not only with punks but in the college rock scene.

They released five albums before disbanding in 1986, when the band became disillusioned with the “softening” of the punk scene. The scrutiny they faced in the public eye for obscenity charges brought against them in 1985, and the racist groups that plagued the hardcore punk scene, also contributed to the band’s demise. One of the Kennedys’ later hits, in fact, was a song called “Nazi Punks F*** Off,” which was aimed directly at this growing punk faction.

Other hits by the Dead Kennedys such as “California Uber Alles,” a song that thumbed its nose as the then-and-now Gov. Jerry Brown, and the most well-known “Holiday in Cambodia” cemented the band’s wicked reputation within the punk scene. Songwriter Jello Biafra had a knack for penning searing political lyrics which, when paired with the band’s over-the-top, raucous and almost silly song composition, gave all of the Kennedys’ songs an air of eye-rolling irony. This might have been the reason why mainstream music vehicles such as MTV shied away from giving the band much recognition, as the combination of political wit and ultra-satirical musical tone made them that much more dangerous.

Indeed, the Dead Kennedys drew quite a lot of attention from media, censorship groups and, finally, from the government for their uncensored, “nothing is sacred” approach to punk. Despite the problems they encountered, this reputation and their incredibly articulate criticism of the establishment made them a huge influence for punk bands and artists in general going into the early ’90s and beyond.

After the band split, Biafra continued to write and release work under his label, Alternative Tentacles, as the rest of the band members went on to other projects, as well. During the ’90s, a feud arose between Biafra and the rest of the band over royalties, and there was quite a bit of bad blood between the anarchic frontman and his bandmates.

The conflicts continue to this day, as Biafra largely doesn’t agree with the many commercial ventures in which the other band members have participated under the name of the Dead Kennedys. He also remains defiant in the face of the band and fans alike who clamor for a reunion as the rest of the band continues to tour with various replacement frontmen.

To wit, the Dead Kennedys show at the Belly Up did not contain the prodigal Biafra. The show was opened by another California punk staple, DFL (Dead F***ing Last), who put on an amazing show and got the mosh pit going early. DFL were founded by vocalist Tom Davis and two members of the Beastie Boys.

Currently sans Beasties, DFL are known for their purist hardcore punk style, and they did not disappoint. Tom Davis scream-sang all of the band’s most well-known songs such as “The Mosher” and “Think About the Pit,” and he also ad-libbed and psyched up the crowd. The band was loud, aggressive and definitely punk.

When the Dead Kennedys stepped onto the stage, the mosh pit immediately turned into a swirling vortex of aggression, energy and drunken debauchery.

Jello Biafra was replaced at the helm by a more than suitable replacement, Ron “Skip” Greer of the Wynona Riders. Though many punk purists would argue that the Dead Kennedys are not the Dead Kennedys without Biafra, Greer has his own punk pedigree as the Wynona Riders are known and respected in the hardcore scene and beyond.

Greer gave a great show, performing all of the Kennedys’ hits with suitable punk abandon, and the rest of the band clearly hadn’t lost their chops. Greer also did quite a bit of political ad-libbing about the dangers of Facebook, the silliness or modern media and the stupidity of smart phones, so he definitely did his part to capture the political spirit of this classic punk band.

Whether fans and Biafra agree with the band’s tactics of making endorsement deals and touring to stay relevant, there’s no arguing it was a fantastic show. The San Diego punk scene definitely showed up for these punk legends minus-one.

What San Diego punks, the Belly Up and even the band themselves didn’t expect was an incident onstage that has now caused the show at the famous venue to venture into the infamous.

It is typical in punk shows for fans to scramble up onto the stage and dance or sing with the band, then jump back into the arms of the awaiting mosh pit — that is if they’re not thrown back by security or a grumpy band member first. There was plenty of that during the show, but this punk practice took an unexpected turn when a young couple perched on the edge of the stage and allegedly performed a sex act while the band was playing.

Pictures and blurred video of the incident abound on the Internet, and the couple may face public indecency charges. Even the band was shocked at the act, as Greer remarked between songs and after security had carted the lovebirds away, “Seriously … I’ve been doing this s**t for 25 years and I have never, ever, ever seen what I just saw at a punk show.” He shook his head and continued, bringing the house down with the Kennedys’ most popular song, “Holiday in Cambodia.”

Mosh Pit sex act or not, Biafra or no Biafra, the Dead Kennedys with DFL showed that the punk spirit is alive and well in 2015. With mainstream punk acts continuing to homogenize a once great genre into pop, these two bands, no matter what their motives, continue to represent the politics, anger and intelligence of the true underground punk scene.

Both bands and fans also have the Belly Up to thank for taking a chance on an admittedly rowdy group to do their part in helping keep real punk alive. Despite incidents at the show, both punk and the venues that love it will continue to soldier on for truth, justice, and the right to mosh.

Layla Marino is a San Diego music and arts writer