35 Years Ago: Dead Kennedys Slow It Down, But Still Rage on ‘Plastic Surgery Disasters’
By the time Dead Kennedys began recording their second full-length studio album, the San Francisco punk band had been together for four years. They had released an LP (1980’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables) a non-album single (1981’s “Too Drunk to F--k”) and an EP (1981’s In God We Trust, Inc.), all the while amassing more material.
In fact, singer Jello Biafra claimed the Dead Kennedy had so many songs at their disposal that they were able to be strategic as to what songs went on which release. The idea is that each record would have a unique aesthetic – at least within the bounds of hardcore punk.
“We thought, ‘We’re going to make this the first album. We’re going to gamble on being able to one day make a second album’,” Biafra told Songfacts in 2013. “So, I decided that the first album should be mostly the first batch of songs and get those documented. I’m a vinyl junkie and I’m a librarian’s kid, so I’m very document conscious. All these amazing bands before Dead Kennedys – like Screamers, Avengers, Sleepers, Negative Trend, Mutants, the Bags in L.A. – they broke up before they ever got to make an album. So, I was really conscious trying to get that happening.”
After introducing a unique blend of political satire and sneering fury on their debut and doubling down on a hardcore assault on the EP, Dead Kennedys sought to present a more diverse – if still frantic – palette on Plastic Surgery Disasters. Amidst ragers such as “Government Flu,” there was the anarchic cacophony that preceded it, a bit of boogie in “Forest Fire,” an epic track with sonic shifts (the near-six-minute “Riot”) and heavier doses of East Bay Ray’s surf rock-tinged guitar.
The band’s founding guitarist described some of the album’s more expansive material as having a “psycho-psychedelic sound.” “Plastic Surgery kinda has both that – you know, it has the hardcore,” East Bay Ray said in 2004. “Well, there was In God We Trust, which was really fast and hardcore. And then Plastic Surgery had both [sounds].”
Listen to the Dead Kennedys Perform 'Halloween'
If Dead Kennedys decided to slow the place a little, Biafra’s commentary remained furious, from excoriating a “Terminal Preppie” to wondering why it’s only cool to be a freak on “Halloween” to taking on the CIA and President Ronald Reagan – “cowboy Ronnie” – for acts committed in the early ’80s on “Bleed for Me.” Pearl Jam would later cover the song, which the Dead Kennedys put out as a single, to attack the George W. Bush administration in the ’00s.
As with previous Dead Kennedys releases, Plastic Surgery Disasters’ commentary bled onto its cover art. This time, they employed an award-winning shot taken in Uganda by Mike Wells. The picture shows a starving African child’s hand being held inside an average white adult’s. The previous year, the same photograph had been used by fellow San Francisco punk band Society Dog for an EP.
Plastic Surgery Disasters was released in November 1982, coming via the band’s self-started Alternative Tentacles record label. The indie release didn’t chart, but due to a passionate British fanbase, it went gold in the U.K. Later compact disc editions paired Plastic Surgery Disasters with the In God We Trust, Inc. EP.
Looking back, Biafra considers this era of his former band to be their best. Certainly, it featured the Dead Kennedys’ steadiest lineup: Biafra, Ray, bassist Klaus Fluoride and drummer D.H. Peligro (who had joined before the EP in 1981).
Yet, following a frenzy of recordings, the Dead Kennedy's song bank was tapped out. They continued to tour and manage Alternative Tentacles, but Plastic Surgery Disasters would be the last Dead Kennedys album for close to three years.