Forty years ago, the Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Uber Alles,” which humorously warns of a New Age dystopia courtesy of then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
“California Uber Alles” also appeared on the band’s classic 1980 debut album, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” along with 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; 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 notable Dead Kennedy songs include “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.
The Dead Kennedys — original guitarist East Bay Ray, original bassist Klaus Flouride, drummer D.H. Peligro, who joined in 1981, and vocalist Ron “Skip” Greer, who joined in 2008 — will be performing at the Majestic Ventura Theater on Oct. 4. Tickets are available by clicking here. Note that original singer Jello Biafra is no longer performing with the band.
Flouride talked to Noozhawk about the band’s crazy history.
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Jeff Moehlis: You’re celebrating the 40th year of the Dead Kennedys. Why do you think people are still listening to the Dead Kennedys 40 years on?
Klaus Flouride: For one thing, the music was good and different. For better or worse, there weren’t many bands that used our sound as a template — let’s say, like for instance, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. So it sounds different. Also, unfortunately, a lot of the topics are still topical [laughs]. We do keep getting new people in every time we play. It’s really kind of cool that way.
JM: I’m a huge fan of the first album, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.” What are your reflections on that album?
KF: We basically thought that this was the one that we were going to get to do before we break up. We didn’t expect it to sell anything, really. We were doing it so we could do a European tour. I mean, we had the songs, so that was good, but we couldn’t do a European tour just on the strength of “California Uber Alles,” so one of our people in the U.K. offered to fund the record. I’m not sure if it was Iain McNay, but Cherry Red offered to fund the record and gave us a check for, I think it was 10 grand. And we did the thing for seven grand or something, and split the money thinking that was the last pay we were ever going to see [laughs]. And it just sort of took off. But we put a lot of thought into the sequencing of the songs and recording it.
JM: “California Uber Alles” is arguably the band’s signature song. Do you remember your reaction when you first heard the lyrics to that? Do you think, “Wow, we have something really good here”?
KF: I was happy with it, because it was doing the thing of seeing how far we could push the envelope — and not just shock for shock’s sake. That was one of the things we didn’t want to do with the band, even with the name, to not have a reasoning behind the songs that we did.
JM: One of my favorites is the song “Kill the Poor.” How did that song come together?
KF: It was around the time that the neutron bomb came out, and the whole thing about it was it doesn’t cause any physical damage to the property. It’s an air explosion with radiation left over. So it made sense — leave the property intact for the people who aren’t quite in the shadow of the bomb, and then move in and take over. Kill the poor.
It was obviously tongue-in-cheek. There were some countries, unfortunately, that had regimes that didn’t understand, maybe because it wasn’t their first language, that it was meant to be taken sarcastically, ironically. I mean, ironically that record was pushed in a couple of countries. So we sold records — that single — for the wrong reason, in a way.
JM: Listening to that first album from the beginning, you hear about killing the poor and lynching the landlord, then it comes to “Stealing People’s Mail,” which always cracks me up. How important was having a sense of humor to the band?
KF: It was one of the top things that, at least, I was insistent on. I’d been playing in R&B and blues bands and stuff like that, and there wasn’t much of a sense of humor in those. The attitude was, “Oh, that’s not the right way to do this thing,” and we made sure that we didn’t follow those rules. We were inspired by everything from The Weirdos to The Screamers, and then there’s Devo and The Residents. We threw as much [Residents’] “Duck Stab” humor in as we could, basically.
JM: Do you have any memories that you’re willing to share from the early Dead Kennedys tours? Like, how crazy was it to be touring with a name like Dead Kennedys?
KF: The Dead Kennedys name really reared its ugly head when we were in Boston. We were playing The Rat [The Rathskeller] in Boston. There was an Irish bouncer when we were trying to get in to do soundcheck who said, “No, you’re not going to go into the club.” It was a club on Kenmore Square. I don’t remember why they had a bouncer at the door that early in the day, but they did. He just said, “No, there’s no way that you’re going to play in this club with that name.” Fortunately, our manager at that point was Irish also, and he came up and talked him into letting us in.
Then we had to play two sets that night. That was pretty chaotic. That was fun. For the first set, people just sat there and stared at us, so I think at the end Biafra took a pitcher of beer off of the waitstaff’s tray and spilled it all over the front row of people. During the second set, the waiter came over and poured a pitcher of beer on Biafra, which was just fine with us [laughs]. It all worked out fine.
Click here for the full interview with Klaus Flouride.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his website, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.