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35 Years Ago: Dead Kennedys Go Hard on ‘In God We Trust, Inc.’

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After Dead Kennedys recorded their 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, a new strain of punk had been revealed. The Washington D.C. hardcore scene had exploded, with Dischord Records releasing putting out EPs by Minor Threat and Teen Idles – bands that packed a ton of songs into 7-inch records by playing them really, really fast. The Dead Kennedys responded in December 1981 with their first, and only, EP, In God We Trust, Inc.

As fans of the Dischord bands, the Kennedys upped their game by playing harder and faster. Their breakneck speed also was a natural progression, due to the lineup change that occurred when original drummer Ted (Bruce Slesinger) left the group in early 1981 to be replaced by the more adept D.H. Peligro (Darren Henley).

Although the D.C. scene was an influence, it wasn’t the lyrical impetus for the record. Frontman Jello Biafra explained that the project originated with a sculpture.

“That one actually began with the cover art,” the punk legend told Songfacts, referencing a sleeve that pictures a gold Jesus on a cross of dollar bills. “I saw that as a sculpture, a gallery exhibit of Winston Smith’s work and was just floored by it and thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to use this.’ And once Jerry Falwell began declaring him emperor of the country with veto power over the [Ronald] Reagan regime, there it was, In God We Trust, Inc.

The EP’s mongrel mix of music featured anti-religious ragers, a song about Minamata disease, a protest against Nazi punks, a Reagan-era, lounge-y reworking of “California Über Alles” and a cover of “Rawhide.” Biafra said that the music came easily, partially because some of the song had existed since Dead Kennedys’ start three years prior.

“‘Kepone Factory’ was the first song Dead Kennedys ever learned, ‘Rawhide’ went way back. As did ‘Religious Vomit,’ actually,” Biafra recalled. “And then ‘Hyperactive Child’ was new and then there was the updated ‘California Über Alles,’ where I realized I was wrong about my conspiracy theory about Jerry Brown. Sure, I’d made it up all by myself and it turned out not to be true, so it was updated with Reagan lyrics [and retitled] ‘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.”

Material was a snap, but recording wasn’t. The band’s first attempt to lay down the eight tracks on June 19, 1981, went belly-up when the tape proved to be faulty at the mixing stage. The band then did another one-day session on August 22 that resulted in the final version of In God We Trust, Inc. (Decades later some of the original tapes were salvaged, along with documentary footage of the first try, and released by the band.)

Preceded by a single release of “Nazi Punks F— Off’ in the fall, the Kennedy’s EP was released on the band’s label, Alternative Tentacles. On vinyl, the songs were split between the two sides, but for the cassette release, the DKs elected to pack all the tracks on one side, leaving Side B blank. The band explained their decision with a decree on the tape: “Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help.” Later CD re-issues added the eight In Got We Trust, Inc. songs to Dead Kennedys’ 1982 album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, for an extra dose of snarling social satire.

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