While the reunion of the Dead Kennedys without singer and figurehead Jello Biafra has perhaps sullied the band’s legacy, there is no denying that the band in its original incarnation was a punk tour de force of the highest order. Forming in the wake of punk’s initial explosion, the band released a handful of incendiary singles, albums, and EPs between 1978 and 1986 that poignantly challenged Regan-era ideology and paired such pointed lyricism to a blistering soundtrack. More than the hardcore that followed, the Dead Kennedys embodied the punk ethos of freethinking, often challenging the very scene that supported them.
But it was the band’s live shows that sealed the deal. With their gigs frequently becoming a melee of bodies (with Biafra at the eye of the storm), the band’s blistering performances are the stuff of legend. Seemingly to prove this point as well as mark the 40th anniversary of releasing their first single, “California Uber Alles,” the members now controlling the band’s catalog (ie guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer DH Peligro) have assembled the three-disc set DK 40 (Manifesto Records).
Consisting of three full live shows recorded during the band’s heyday, it is indeed a convincing bit of evidence. The first disc was recorded at Amsterdam’s legendary Paradiso in December 1982, just a month after the band had released its second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, on Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. As you might expect, it contains a number of songs from that record including “Riot,” “Bleed for Me,” and “I Am Owl,” which Biafra points out at as a new song. However, the set hits its breakneck stride four songs in with “Police Truck” as Biafra sings, “Ride, ride, how we ride.” The show eventually climaxes with “Too Drunk to Fuck,” the one song the audience has literally been yelling for all night (as one can hear when one member apparently grabs the mic).
Disc two features a show recorded just eight days later on the same tour, this time in Munich at a former U.S. army ammunitions depot called Alabama Halle. Initially released as a bootleg called Skateboard Party, this recording captures Biafra at his most unhinged, his distinctively wily wail digging into some of the band’s best cuts like “Forward to Death” and “Holiday in Cambodia.” Of course, the band was just as much an important factor in the DK formula, and on cuts like “Kepone Factory,” it’s easy to hear how truly amazing they were, a potent combination of speed, chops, and vitriol.
The third disc jumps ahead nearly three years to a show recorded in the band’s hometown, San Francisco, at The Farm in 1985. As such, the setlist differs greatly from the first two, with only “Chemical Warfare,” “Forest Fire” and “Holiday in Cambodia” carrying over. Instead, it favors tracks from the Frankenchirst album that came out the same year (and which notoriously attracted the attention of the PMRC). Following an intro from DH’s mom, the band launches into “Goons of Hazzard” from that record. One can tell that the band had ventured even further from the standard “three chords and a cloud of dust” of their punk peers into a swirl of guitar textures and tight as hell rhythms also anything but standard punk beats. “A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch” and “This Could Be Anywhere” are evident of this while being no less potent. Even “Holiday in Cambodia” is anything but straightforward, with the band stretching it in several directions.
The Dead Kennedys were every bit as revolutionary as the generation of bands that preceded them, and operating as a completely independent entity, perhaps even more so when it came to walking the walk. But as if further proof was needed, there’s no arguing with the evidence here that they were a hell of a band live and deserving of the highest of praise.