Dead Kennedys Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness
If it can’t be said that the Dead Kennedys epitomized “hardcore punk,” it’s because the term is simply too congested and narrow to fit a band so stylistically autonomous and divergent. And with each album capturing a distinct phase of their restless career arc, it’s worth assessing each one on its own merits. So let us review the eternally raucous Dead Kennedys canon, and order them by awesomeness.
For eight years, the Dead Kennedys commanded the underground’s pulpit in San Francisco. Forming in 1978, at a time when punk rock seemed to be getting comfortable massaging familiar Rebellious in Name Only tropes, the Kennedys burst into the fore like a page from a pop-up book with a singularity that was confrontational, original, and provocative while most of their contemporaries wrestled over the scraps of 1977.
From the first few seconds of their debut “California Über Alles” single in 1979, it was apparent that the Dead Kennedys were kicking at the boundaries of a musical ethos that was heretofore thought to have had erected none. Foregoing the immediate full-on, rapid-fire assault of traditional hardcore, the track creeps in with a cautious deviousness. Commencing with the chugging of tribal tom drums, shortly to be accompanied by Klaus Fluoride’s brooding bass pattern, and then followed by East Bay Ray’s slithering, darkly surf-tinged guitar notes, the song neatly composes itself of each vital organ crucial to the Dead Kennedys apparition. Topped off with Jello Biafra’s snarling lyrical role-play targeting California Governor Jerry Brown, the single inheriting anything less than that of punk rock principality was an abject impossibility.
Where D.I.Y. lip-service was traded as currency, Biafra and co. paraded militant self-sufficiency. Establishing their own Alternative Tentacles imprint in 1979, such would become the vehicle for all four Dead Kennedys’ proper studio LPs, the In God We Trust, Inc. EP, as well as 1987’s posthumous Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death compilation. Answering to only themselves enlivened their penchants for confrontation and antagonism, transmuting Biafra’s rambunctious stagecraft and extracurricular political antics into the form of recorded song.
From 1980’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables to their Bedtime for Democracy finale in 1986, the Dead Kennedys oeuvre is as much a discography as it is a manifesto, with practically each track assembling a page worth of Biafra’s polemical screed. Introducing themselves by a name referencing the assassination of a U.S. president, and a debut tracklisting that includes such thorny titles as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “I Kill Children,” they could hardly claim to have asked to avoid controversy. And their habit of attracting it could hardly be bothered to stay contained within their music. The band sparked a fracas during the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards when they cut their performance mid-song and instead dove into an anti-industry “new wave” satire; and 1986 saw the band subject to an obscenity trial when it was discovered by the Parents Music Resource Center that a rather phallic H.R. Giger illustration was tucked inside the Frankenchrist album sleeve.
In a scene locked-in-arms against common enemies (the Government, the Corporation, censorship, et al.), Biafra’s biting wit was never too preoccupied with the usual suspects to shift the crosshairs toward his own punk compatriots. Such self-torching was most prominent on Bedtime for Democracy, which, ironically, adopted perhaps the most straightforward hardcore sound of any of their releases. After a full career tackling authority, consumer culture, and conformity, he zeroed in on the self-defeating folly punk rock’s fashionable High Courts. And thus, after serving two presidential terms in the scene, the Dead Kennedys’ manifesto was complete.