We all treasure certain artists, movies, shows, or corporate brands that through some divine wind enrapture us for life. For me, I got The Simpsons, Clint Eastwood, the Waffle House and Bucc-ees gas stations. In music, many examples turn up and chief among them stand the Dead Kennedys. Discovering the Dead Kennedys was like discovering penicillin or radiation. I was eleven and sitting in my friend’s apartment after school and he showed me two things that proved life changing.
First thing was this:
The second was this:
Really, a life-changing day in multiple respects. I had recently gotten into punk music and was feeling my way around The Ramones, Clash, and Sex Pistols, listening to them and feeling like a badass but not really connecting. Then I heard DK, and let me tell you what. I was hooked. Listening to “California Uber Alles” unearthed something in that budding mind, that may or may not have proved detrimental to society. At any rate, punk rock was born in me that day and the Dead Kennedys made the delivery.
So you can only imagine how stoked I was to find out they were playing at the White Oak Music Hall, which they did last Friday. Sure I was bummed to find out that Jello Biafra, original singer-songwriter and in many ways central creative force behind the legendary San Francisco hardcore outfit, wasn’t performing with them. Then I realized that it made perfect sense. Jello and other band members hate each other, and after years of court battles and high grade, high profile beef, who could expect anything else? Still, not seeing Jello with them definitely earns an asterisk cause it’s Jello Biafra. I saw Bad Brains and they were old as dirt but they at least featured everybody. No, this occasion was more like when I saw Black Sabbath…….…with Ronnie James Dio. Badass concert and I got to see Dio, the man behind the devil horns, holy divers, and mystical songs about demonry and times of Olde, before he died. But I can’t just going around saying I saw Black Sabbath. It’s irresponsible. Same goes for this situation. I saw the Dead Kennedys*—and it was pretty freakin awesome.
I got to the venue in time to see the penultimate act, Texas-based punks, Avenue Rockers. Great band. Despite a light and relatively sober crowd, they mustered up the energy and charisma to gain the admiration and respect of the room when it was all said and done. They’re music sounded like a good blend between ska punk like Sublime or Rancid mixed in with some classic happy punk music like The Adicts. They played some great songs and the singer definitely fit the bill for what you think a punk singer should look like: red checkered pants, some sort of snaggletooth, and Doc Martens. The only song I remember the name for is “Rosetta Stone,” which punctuated their set perfectly. It was around this time that I also noticed the first wave of flying beer cans, a comforting sight when you’re seeing some classic punk.
Next up, the Dead Kennedys. Lights go out. Music queues, something from one of the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, but not The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). That’d be way too cliche. It was either from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or For a Few Dollars More (1965). All of a sudden someone who looks like he just got himself some of that Denny’s early bird special and held an AARP card does that classic old person shuffle onto the stage. I was legitimately confused and concern. Then I was realized he was none other than Klaus Flouride, the bassist for DK. Sure enough, D.H. Peligro (drummer) and East Bay Ray (guitarist) soon followed. Then came the man charged with filling in the big shoes of Jello Biafra, Ron “Skip” Greer, probably best known for fronting fellow Bay Area punk band, the Wynona Riders.
They opened with something that was either “Ill in the Head,” “ When Ya Get Drafted,” or “Police Truck.” Not really sure, but it was enough to set the right tone. What became clear from the get-go was that these guys came to play. Klaus started grooving them bass lines, D.H. blasted that drum set from here to next Sunday, and East Bay Ray broke into his signature punk/surf guitar/blues sound. Skip established himself as the man early on too which was cool. To my chagrin he kept on introducing the first set of songs with some off-color, sarcastic attempts to bring the whole political angle into the fold. For example how do you introduce
“Kill the Poor?” Well you suggest that we kill homeless people. We all got what he was doing but it just seemed forced.
Really, the Dead Kennedys sounded great. They played classics like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “MTV—Get Off the Air,” and “Jock-O-Rama,” with a fervor and enthusiasm perfect for any punk show. As you can imagine, most of their set comprised tunes from Fresh Fruits For Rotting Vegetables, one of the greatest pieces of music ever forged. When you think of that album, there remain several songs that stand out amongst the herd: “Kill the Poor,” “California Uber Alles,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Chemical Warfare,” and for me, the band’s cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.” You gotta hear those songs live in order to die happy. Well DK played “Kill the Poor” and “California Uber Alles” during the main set and rocked it. Both are very different songs. “Kill the Poor’s” easily one of the best pop tunes written by a punk band, what with pairing music that belongs on American Bandstand with lyrics that would make Johnathan Swift cream. “California Uber Alles” on the other hand is a punk anthem that sounds like the rapture doing 100 in a 25 mph zone (except for the bridge where it does 5 in a 25 mph zone). Both songs got the crowd into a frenzy. Shout out goes to D.H. Peligro for his drum work. Dude slayed all evening with his performance.
Throughout the night, the mosh pit maintained a respectable flow of drunk people sacrificing their bodies by atom smashing into each other. At one point the pit radius grew by a mile, probably during a really up-tempo number like “Drug Me” or “When Ya Get Drafted.” I ended up punching a dude in his drunk face cause he decided to grab me by my collar like some bully in a Disney movie. That’s how you know you’re at a punk show, albeit a tame one. You somehow pick fights without actually doing anything to pick a fight. One minute you’re minding your own business at the edge of a mosh pit, the next you’re punching a dude who’s trying to act like a badass. Yeah maybe we pushed each other into the pit thinking that’s where the other wanted to go. But riding the edge of a mosh pit is not where you decide you like your space. Along with this encounter, more beer bottles catapulted across the room, more people leapt into the crowd expecting some divine force to cradle their bodies, and a slew of people slam danced their way to oblivion. The set ended without DK playing “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Chemical Warfare,” or “Viva Las Vegas,” so you know it didn’t actually end. There’s no way it could.
After a little finagling from the crowd, the Dead Kennedys came back on stage to play a few more numbers, two of which were “Holiday in Cambodia,” and “Viva Las Vegas.” Those two tunes finished off the first encore and boy were they something. Think about that chorus to “Holiday in Cambodia,” or listen to it for the first time and then think about it. It’s pretty epic. Imagine a zoo of people singing that chorus in perfect time. Same goes for “Viva Las Vegas” with that killer riff and running bass lick.
After the encore, the band exited the stage again and this time it seemed for real. The lights in the house even went up, usually a tell-tale sign that the venue wants you to kindly fuck off. Could they really leave it at that without playing “Chemical Warfare?” Maybe, bands always do stupid shit like that. But something bubbled in the air, you could feel it. Also, some dude off the side of the stage encouraged us all to chant “DK.” So like good little punk rockers we did just as we were told, and wabam! they returned for the final time. Not only did they bust out freakin’ “Chemical Warfare,” they played the little gondola-circus sounding bridge in the middle AND interspersed it with the chorus to “Sweet Home Alabama,” probably cause we’re kind of in the South and when you’re from the west coast, literally every state below New York is The South (trust me, I’m from L.A.; it’s how we learn geography). Really, who the hell mashes “Chemical Warfare” with “Sweet Home Alabama?” Dead motherfuckin’ Kennedys, that’s who. After that little dagger, the show unequivocally ended.
It’a always weird seeing an old punk band perform, because one can argue that it’s either the least punk rock thing to do or the most punk rock thing to do. At times I felt like I might as well be standing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, music’s ultimate irony. Honestly, the most punk thing I did was not pay to see them. Still, I’m not here to be a jerk. These guys gave it their all and showed that you can watch Matlock by day and still rock out by night. Took 16 years, but I can finally say that I saw the Dead Kennedys.*