When the Dead Kennedys were first active as a punk band in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry Brown was the governor of California, the nation’s high unemployment rate was a major cause of concern and conservative politics was on the upswing.
My, how times have changed. Well, times have changed, at least for the Dead Kennedys personnel.
Co-founder, singer, frontman and would-be politician — having run for San Francisco mayor and for the nomination for Green Party presidential candidate — Jello Biafra is no longer performing with the band, which broke up in 1986 after an exhausting legal fight against obscenity charges. Biafra was sued in 1998 by other band members in a dispute over songwriting credit and royalty payments. (The court ruled in favor of the other band members.) When the band reformed a few years later, Biafra was not involved.
Knowing this background, it’s not surprising that when the Dead Kennedys played at the Majestic Ventura Theater on Saturday night, it was a Jello-free evening. The somewhat unenviable task of singing in Biafra’s shadow fell to Skip McSkipster, formerly of the Wynona Riders. The links to the past were co-founder East Bay Ray slashing away on guitar, and D.H. Peligro — who played on most of the band’s albums — on drums. The lineup was rounded out by Greg Reeves on bass.
Although their performance started out with a poor sound mix, things quickly picked up by the end of the second song, especially in the crowd’s response. Indeed, a rather active mosh pit formed, mostly consisting of people who probably weren’t even born when the Dead Kennedys first terrorized the nation.
Kudos to the Majestic Ventura Theater for allowing things to get wild and crazy, unlike most Santa Barbara venues. People got knocked down, ankles were sprained and shoes were lost. But all was in good fun.
The setlist showcased half of the band’s classic debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, including such satirical and darkly humorous songs as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” which is kind of self-explanatory; “Kill the Poor,” a Jonathan Swift-worthy proposal to use neutron bombs to kill poor people without damaging property; “Chemical Warfare,” a fantasy about gassing country club members; “California Uber Alles,” which warns of a New Age dystopia courtesy of Brown; and “Holiday in Cambodia,” which manages to be critical of both the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime and Americans who seem more absorbed with their own so-called problems that they ignore atrocities elsewhere in the world.
Other highlights were “MTV — Get Off the Air,” “Too Drunk to F***” and “Nazi Punks F*** Off”, the latter a not-so-subtle response to the punks who used Nazi symbolism as part of their style or, even worse, dabbled in neo-Nazi ideology.
OK, like probably everybody else in the audience, I would have preferred to see Biafra with the band. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening seem about as remote as Biafra becoming president.
But in many ways, the songs of the Dead Kennedys seem just as relevant today as they did 30-or-so years ago. McSkipster did a good job giving the songs the requisite attitude and energy they demand.
And East Bay Ray’s guitar playing hasn’t lost its rawness over the years.
With all due respect to Biafra and the purist fans, I say it’s a good thing that the band is still out there sharing these songs with the public.
Forward to Death
Buzzbomb From Pasadena
Let’s Lynch The Landlord
Kill the Poor
MTV — Get Off The Air
Too Drunk to F***
Moon Over Marin
Nazi Punks F*** Off
California Uber Alles
Bleed For Me
Viva Las Vegas
Holiday in Cambodia
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.