The History and Continued Evolution of the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks F— Off’
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By 1981, the Dead Kennedys had already issued a gold-standard assortment of politically charged punk rock invective. Through 1980’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the San Francisco-based band had set ablaze the SoCal punk community with a snappish brand of wild-eyed punk, animated by guitarist East Bay Ray’s lightly psycho-surf frill and frontman Jello Biafra‘s merciless wit.
But it was the immediate follow-up to Biafra and gang’s crowned debut that elicited the Dead Kennedys’ most acute socio-political fulmination, “Nazi Punks F— Off”—an anthemic commentary on the ’80s punk-scene that carries a cultural lineage not nearly as straightforward as its title.
Recorded live in a single take, punk’s most recognized anti-fascist staple began as but one hurried contribution to Fresh Fruit‘s slapdash follow-up. It was part of a session on Aug. 22, 1981 that yielded all eight tracks found on the In God We Trust, Inc. EP.
Blurring the lines between the disparate regional stylings of the burgeoning hardcore movement, the EP was conceived as an expression of musical solidarity with the breakneck hardcore sound characterized by punk’s emergent 7-inch culture. Armed with new drummer D.H. Peligro, the Dead Kennedys offered an admiring nod to the sonic ferocity characterized by the likes of SST and Dischord Records, formed by Black Flag‘s Greg Ginn and Minor Threat‘s Ian MacKaye, respectively. By then Biafra had established his own record label, Alternative Tentacles, which would put out In God We Trust, Inc.
But 7-inch records and punk label compilations weren’t the only things arriving on the scene in the early ’80s. “Punk is such an extreme form of music, the most extreme form of rock and roll ever invented,” Biafra told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, “and it’s always attracted different kinds of extremes.” One such extreme was the growth of Nazi-sympathizing skinheads, harboring a natural inclination toward the crude harshness of punk music, who saw the often-physical expressions of release at punk shows as easily exploitable.
The confluence of hardcore punk and neo-Nazism was an export from the British punk scene, most notoriously exemplified by the band Skrewdriver, who formed in 1976. Brandishing deceptively agreeable banners such as the Rock Against Communism concert series, right-wing organizations like British National Party aimed to merge the alluring rage typified by discordant punk music with the wayward angst of blue-collar English youths.
In the early ’80s, obscure white supremacist outfits in the United States followed suit, billing neo-Nazi skinhead bands alongside far-right speakers at events organized by groups like the Aryan Nations, the Northern Alliance, and the White Aryan Resistance (or, acronymically, WAR).
The beginning of the decade saw a surge in neo-Nazi compounds being established stateside, typically in remote wooded areas, where militia groups would reside permanently and sympathizers frequently convene. Such locations served first as a nerve center for disseminating newsletters, aimed mostly older readers on the fringes of the right and then, in league with their English counterparts, hosting all-ages hardcore shows to capture younger, politically-ungroomed anger.
This setting was most recently employed in 2015’s Green Room, a suspense film that begins with a punk band suborned into playing a show at such a neo-Nazi compound. Its most memorable scene occurs early on when the group leads into their set with a cover of “Nazi Punks F— Off,” a decision that’s quickly greeted with predictable hostility by the audience.
Watch an Excerpt From the Film ‘Green Room’
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However, decades before Green Room, it was far more common for Nazis to invade left-leaning and non-political punk shows than an unwitting punk band to wander onto white separatists’ turf. And not necessarily always ideological Nazis.
“[Punk] began to attract people showing up just to see if they could get in fights in the pit or jump off stage and punch people in the back of the head and run away,” Biafra recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “I thought if we’re gonna play this music, we need to distance ourselves from that side of the scene.”
Initially, Biafra innocuously intended the song to be merely a denunciation of the Nazi-like behavior exhibited by a segment of brutish dilettantes clearly more preoccupied with antagonizing the audience than engaging the music. But soon after incorporating “Nazi Punks F— Off” into Dead Kennedys live sets, the song took on an entirely new meaning. “Then,” Biafra says, “the real ideological Nazis began coming out of the closet.” And harassment from skinheads at shows saw an uptick.
Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles imprint released “Nazi Punks F— Off” as a 7-inch single in November 1981, a month leading up to In God We Trust, Inc. And repositioning the song as an explicit anti-fascist anthem, the Dead Kennedys included the now-iconic crossed-out swastika armband packaged free with the single. The symbol would become the de facto logo for a variety prominent anti-racist activist movements throughout and beyond the ’80s.
Even next to the esteemed poli-punk mastery of the likes of “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia,” the lasting cultural impact of “Nazi Punks F— Off” is unparalleled in the Dead Kennedys oeuvre, and in ’80s hardcore writ large. It’s perhaps even the case that “Nazi punk” is the only subgenre bereft of a group at least as influential as an adversarial band’s song rebuking it.
And while it’s quite clear that Biafra won’t reunite with the Dead Kennedys anytime soon to take advantage of the opportune malaise of the current political climate, it can be trusted that the punk rock polemicist can be found shrewdly repurposing his anti-racism masterpiece for it.
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