The music of the Dead Kennedys mixed the more experimental elements of British 1970s punk with the raw energy of the 1980s American hardcore punk scene. Dead Kennedys' songs mix the deliberately shocking lyrics of punk with a humorous, acerbity, satirical, and sarcastic left-wing commentary on current social and political issues. Many of the band's songs criticize the right-wing ideologies of the religious right and the Ronald Reagan administration.
In the late 1980s, the band was embroiled in an obscenity trial in the US over the 1985 Frankenchrist album, which included a poster with art that depicted penises (Penis Landscape by H. R. Giger). The band was charged criminally with distribution of harmful matter to minors, but the trial ended with a hung jury. The band officially disbanded in 1986. From 1998-2004, the band was embroiled in an acrimonious lawsuit over royalties and rights to the band's music. In 2001, the band re-formed and began touring with a new vocalist over the objections of former lead singer Jello Biafra, who, after losing the lawsuit and being found liable for fraud, filed two appeals that he later lost. In 2008, the band picked up their first ever UK gold sales awards in 15 years.
Dead Kennedys played numerous shows at local venues afterwards. Due to the band's provocative name, they sometimes played under pseudonyms, including "The Sharks", "The Creamsicles" and "The Pink Twinkies". The name, despite popular belief, was not meant to insult the assassinated Kennedy brothers, but to quote Biafra, "to bring attention to the end of the American Dream". 6025 left the band in March of 1979. In June of 1979, the band released their first single, "California Über Alles", on the Alternative Tentacles label. They followed with a well received East Coast tour.
On March 25, 1980, the DKs were invited to perform at the Bay Area Music Awards in front of music industry bigwigs to give the event some "New Wave credibility", in the words of the organizers. The day of the show was spent practicing the song they were asked to play, the underground hit, "California Über Alles". In typically subversive, perverse style, the band became the talking point of the ceremony when after about 15 seconds into the song, Biafra said, "Hold it! We've gotta prove that we're adults now. We're not a punk rock band, we're a new wave band."
The band, who all wore white shirts with a big, black S painted on the front, pulled black ties from around the backs of their necks to form a dollar sign, then started playing a new song "Pull My Strings", a barbed, satirical attack on the ethics of the mainstream music industry, which contained the lyrics, "Is my cock big enough, is my brain small enough, for you to make me a star?". The song also referenced The Knack's biggest New Wave hit, "My Sharona". The song was never recorded in the studio but this performance, the first and only time the song was ever performed, was released on the posthumous compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.
Around the same time, East Bay Ray had tried to pressure the rest of the band to sign a major label deal with Polydor Records; Biafra claims he was prepared to quit the group if the rest of the band wanted to sign the deal, though Ray asserts that he recommended against signing with Polydor. Polydor balked after they learned that the Kennedys were planning their next single to be "Too Drunk to Fuck".
In May, the band released the single "Too Drunk to Fuck". The song caused much controversy in the UK as BBC feared the single would reach the Top 30; this would require a mention of the song on Top of the Pops. However, this never came to be as the single peaked at #31.
The band's music had evolved much in a short time, moving away from hardcore formulas toward a more innovative jazz-informed style, featuring musicianship and dynamics far beyond other bands in the genre. By now the group had become a de-facto political force, pitting itself against rising elements of American social and political life such as the religious right, Ronald Reagan and the idle rich. The band continued touring all over the United States, as well as Europe and Australia, and gained a large underground following. While they continued to play live shows during 1983 and 1984, they took a break from releasing new records to concentrate on the Alternative Tentacles record label, which would become synonymous with DIY alternative culture, independent from and in contrast to the commercialized sterile cultural landscape the world had become since the "cultural revolution" of the '60s faded into the yuppie '80s. The band continued to write and perform new material during this time, which would appear on their next album (some of these early performances can be seen in the Live at DMPO's on Broadway video, originally released by Dirk Dirksen and later reissued on Rhino).
In 1986 members of the band Dead Kennedys, along with other parties involved in the distribution of Frankenchrist, were charged criminally with distribution of harmful matter to minors. The store where the girl actually purchased the album was never named in the lawsuit. The criminal charges focused on an illustration by H.R. Giger, titled "Work 219: Landscape XX" (also known as Penis Landscape). Included as a poster with the album, Penis Landscape depicts nine copulating penises.
Members of the band and others were each charged with violating the California Penal Code,, which carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in county jail and a base fine of up to $2,000. Biafra says that during this time government agents invaded and searched his home. The prosecution tried to present the poster to the jury in isolation for consideration as obscene material, but Judge Susan Isacoff ruled that the poster must be considered along with the music and lyrics. The charges against three of the original defendants, Ruth Schwartz (owner of Mordam Records), Steve Boudreau (a distributor involved in supplying Frankenchrist to the Los Angeles Wherehouse store), and Salvatore Alberti (owner of the factory where the record was pressed), were dismissed for lack of evidence.
In August 1987 the criminal trial was submitted to the jury with the two remaining defendants: Jello Biafra and Michael Bonanno (former Alternative Tentacles label manager). In August 1987, the criminal trial ended with a hung jury. The split on the jury was 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal for all of the defendants. District Attorneys Michael Guarino and Ira Riener made a motion for a retrial which was denied by Judge Isacoff, Superior Court Judge for the County of Los Angeles. The album, however, was banned from many record stores nationwide.
During the summer they recorded these songs for their final album, Bedtime for Democracy, which was released in November. The artwork, depicting a defaced Statue of Liberty overrun with Nazis, media, opportunists, Klan members, corrupt government officials, and religious zombies, echoed the idea that the punk scene was no longer a safe haven for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". The album contains a number of fast/short songs interspersed with jazz ("D.M.S.O."), spoken word ("A Commercial") and psychedelia ("Cesspools of Eden"). The lyrical focus is more introspective and earnest ("Where Do Ya Draw The Line?""), with an anti-war, anti-violence ("Rambozo The Clown") bent, moving away from the violent imagery of their early records, while remaining as subversive as ever ("I Spy", "D.M.S.O."). In December, the band announced their split. Biafra went on to speak about his political beliefs on numerous television shows and he released a number of spoken-word albums. Ray, Fluoride, and Peligro also went on to solo careers.
Biafra claims that their lawyers had told him only to correspond through lawyers and not directly with the band, as the conflict over payment had apparently arisen before the accounting mistake was discovered. Both sides claim they attempted to resolve the matter without legal action, but the ultimately complicated legal dispute (involving royalties, publishing rights, and a number of other issues) soon led to the courts, where Biafra was found liable for the royalties and guilty of fraud and malice, and was ordered to pay damages of nearly $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members.
Malice was defined for the jury as "conduct which is intended to cause injury or despicable conduct which is carried with a willful and conscious disregard for the rights of others.". Biafra's appeal was denied; he had to pay the outstanding royalties and punitive damages, and was forced to hand over the rights to the majority of Dead Kennedys' back catalogue to the Decay Music partnership.
The jury and judges also noted, in their words, that Biafra “lacked credibility” on the songwriting issue and found from evidence presented by both sides that the songwriting credits were due to the entire band, using a clause in the band's written partnership giving a small share of every Dead Kennedys song royalty directly to the band partnership..
Biafra had received sole songwriting credit for most Dead Kennedys songs on all released albums for the last 20 years or so without complaints from the band, though a minority of songs had given credit to certain group members or the entire band as a whole, indicating a system designed to reflect the primary composers rather than a regimented system like the Jagger/Richards partnership; today, most Kennedys reissues list the songwriters as "Biafra, Dead Kennedys", indicating Biafra's lyrical contributions -- which the band doesn't dispute, or else simply as "Dead Kennedys"). Ray, Fluoride and Peligro found new distribution through another label, Manifesto Records.
This dispute was hotly contested by all concerned who felt passionately for their cause, and the case caused minor waves within punk circles. Biafra claims that guitarist East Bay Ray had long expressed displeasure with Alternative Tentacles and with the amount of money he received from them, thus the original incentive for the discovery of the back payments. It was found out that Alternative Tentacles was paying Dead Kennedys less per CD than all the other bands, including Biafra himself, and not informing his other bandmates, which was the fraud. Biafra accused the band of wanting to license the famous Dead Kennedys song "Holiday in Cambodia" for use in a Levi's jeans commercial, which the band denied.
Biafra apparently pushed this issue in court, although there was no hard evidence and the jurors were apparently unconcerned with corporate use of independently produced political music. Biafra would later complain that the jury was not sympathetic toward underground music and punk culture. The song never appeared in a Levi's commercial, although in interviews Biafra described the situation surrounding the commercial in detail and was able to give specifics about the advertisement, including the name of the advertising agency that had created the commercial's script.
Biafra's former bandmates maintain that they sued because of Jello Biafra's deliberate withholding of money, though when pressed they have acknowledged that the payment was an accounting mistake, but insist that Biafra was wrong in failing to inform the band directly. Details about this issue remain scarce. The band also maintains that the Levi's story was completely fictitious and invented by Biafra to discredit them. Ultimately, these issues have led to a souring of relationships with the erstwhile bandmates, who still have not resolved their personal differences as of 2008.
Several DVDs, re-issues, and live albums have been released since the departure of Biafra most recently on Manifesto Records. According to Biafra, the live albums are "cash-ins" on the Dead Kennedys' name and his music. Biafra also accused the releases of the new live material of having poor sound quality. Furthermore he has stated he is not receiving any royalties from the sale of any Manifesto Records releases. Consequently, he has discouraged fans from buying any Dead Kennedy reissues. The other band members denied Biafra's accusations regarding the live releases, and have defended the mixes as an effort of hard work. Biafra dismissed the new group as "the world's greediest karaoke band." Nevertheless, in 2003, Klaus Flouride, bassist for the band, had this to say of performances without the band's former frontman: "There hasn't been a show yet that people didn't really like.
Biafra further criticized them for advertising shows using his own image taken from the original '80s incarnation of the band, which he labeled as false advertising. He recently attacked the reformed Dead Kennedys in a song called "Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)", which appears on his second collaboration with experimental metal band The Melvins, Sieg Howdy!.
Biafra told an audience at a speaking gig in Trenton, New Jersey, that the remaining Dead Kennedys have licensed their single "Too Drunk to Fuck" to be used in a rape scene in a Robert Rodriguez movie. The reference is to a lounge cover of the song, recorded by the band Nouvelle Vague, played during a scene in the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse, although no rape takes place, and in fact the would-be rapist is killed by the would-be victim. The scene in Planet Terror has would-be rapist, "Rapist #1" (Quentin Tarantino) order one-legged stripper "Cherry Darlin" (Rose McGowan) to get up off the floor and dance. At this point Tarantino hits play on a cassette recorder and Nouvelle Vague's cover of "Too Drunk To Fuck" plays.
Jello, clearly disapproving of the situation, later wrote, "This is their lowest point since Levi's… This goes against everything the Dead Kennedys stands for in spades… The terrified woman later "wins" by killing Tarantino, but that excuse does not rescue this at all. I wrote every note of that song and this is not what it was meant for…. Some people will do anything for money. I can't help but think back to how prudish Klaus Flouride was when he objected to H.R. Giger's painting on the "Frankenstien" (sic) poster, saying he couldn't bear to show it to his parents. I'd sure love to be a fly on the wall when he tries to explain putting a song in a rape scene for money to his teenage daughter… The deal was pushed through by a new business manager the other three hired."
The band claims on their website that they still pay close attention to an anti-corporate ideology, despite performing on September 5 2003 at a festival in Turkey that was sponsored by Coca-Cola, noting that they have since pulled out of a show in Los Angeles when they found that it was being sponsored by Coors. However, Biafra claims the above mentioned licensing deals prove otherwise. Some have found difficulty reconciling this claim when Biafra also licensed to major corporations, approving with the other band members use of Dead Kennedys’ songs in major studio film releases such as Neighbors, Freddy Got Fingered, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas..
In 2001, Ray, Peligro, and Fluoride chose former child star Brandon Cruz to replace Biafra's role as vocalist. The band played under name "DK Kennedys" for a few concerts, but have since gone back to "Dead Kennedys" permanently. They have played across the continental United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and Russia. Brandon Cruz left the band in May of 2003 and was replaced by Jeff Penalty. The band has released two live albums of archival performances on Manifesto Records: Mutiny on the Bay, the recorded version of their last show with Biafra in 1986, and Live at the Deaf Club, a recording of a 1979 performance at the Deaf Club in San Francisco which was greeted with more enthusiasm.
On October 9, 2007, a best-of album entitled Milking the Sacred Cow was released. It includes two previously unreleased live versions of "Soup Is Good Food" and "Jock-O-Rama", originally found on Frankenchrist.
Jeff Penalty left the band in March, 2008 in what he describes as a "not amicable split." He was replaced by former Wynona Riders singer Skip. D.H. also left the band for "taking some personal time off". He was replaced by Translator drummer Dave Scheff.
Recently, Klaus Fluoride announced that he will be leaving the Dead Kennedys after their Spring 2008 tour. This was due to complications from his Angiodema.