Accusation and Accountability in Jello Biafra’s Dead Kennedys Lyrics
By Monte Williams
It’s not surprising that the Ramones, the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys were such standouts in the punk rock genre. The Ramones embraced an accessible pop sound that one would expect to have earned them the scorn of the punk fan base, and Glenn Danzig’s beautiful vocals stood out in a genre populated by shouters and screamers. And for all their angry criticism of police corruption and religious hypocrisy and political incompetence and consumer greed, Jello Biafra’s Dead Kennedys refused to spoon-feed their angry fans with easy answers and soothing scapegoats. They demanded, instead, that their fans take a look at themselves.
Near the end of the unfortunately titled “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” (from the Frankenchrist LP), Jello Biafra delivers a spoken-word monologue that begins, “But what can just one of us do?” This calls to mind arguably the worst song in the history of music: KISS’s cover of Argent’s “God Gave Rock n’ Roll to You”, wherein Paul Stanley addresses his troubled fans with a motivational speech that begins, “I know that sometimes life can be tough, and I know that life can be a drag…” From there, though, Biafra says, “We won’t destroy society in a day until we change ourselves first from the inside-out / We can start by not lying so much and treating other people like dirt”.
Leave it to Jello Biafra to unceremoniously assume that his entire fanbase shares his dream of destroying American society. But where a lesser band would make “Destroy the USA!” its chorus, Jello admonishes each listener to put down his bricks and bats and spray paint cans and work first at being a better person. (The next lyric in the monologue: “It’s so easy not to base our lives on how much we can scam”.)
Alas, these challenges went unanswered more often than not, because too few Dead Kennedys fans understood the band’s message. In Frankenchrist’s “This Could Be Anywhere”, Biafra sings, “So many people I know… can’t create, so they just destroy / ‘Come on, let’s set someone’s dog on fire!’”. One can imagine the average Dead Kennedys fan responding, “Yeah! Let’s set someone’s dog on fire!”
My friends and I were no better, at least at thirteen. Our chief response to “Goons of Hazzard” was to pitch a fit of I-can-see-my-house-from-here pride because Biafra mentioned our hometown of Oroville in the song. Here is the verse in question: “We’re the vigilante heroes of your tough-guy flicks / Bashing punks and bums and fags with our baseball bats / No deer to blow away in the woods today / So we go to Oroville and shoot a black kid down / Or waste demonstrators in Greensboro, instead”.
It never occurred to us that Biafra might be referring to some other Oroville, but I’m sure you’ll agree when I gently suggest that a hopeless case of Narcissistic tunnel vision was the least of our issues.
Here’s another embarrassing example: when I first discovered the Dead Kennedys take on “I Fought the Law”, from Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, I’d never heard about the murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. As a consequence, I thought Biafra was just being nonsensical when he followed his “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends / That’s how this country’s run” lyric with “Twinkies are the best friends I’ve ever had”. Had I been born ten years later but still discovered the song at the age of thirteen, I might have offered that most baffling of endorsements: “That’s so random!”
The Dead Kennedys had a message, to be sure. But despite lyrics like “You ain’t hardcore ‘cause you spike your hair / When a jock still lives inside your head”, the Dead Kennedys message wasn’t “Fuck the jocks”. And it wasn’t “Fuck the cops”, though “Police Truck” would certainly suggest otherwise: “It’s roundup time, where the good whores meet / We’re gonna grab one screamin’ off the street… Dispatch calls: Are you doing something wicked? / No sirree, Jack, we’re just giving tickets”.
The Dead Kennedys message wasn’t “Fuck the sellouts”, although “Pull My Strings” opens with the all-time funniest, simplest, starkest and most damning sketch of a sellout: “I’m tired of self-respect / I can’t afford a car / I wanna be a prefab superstar”. (Kurt Cobain came close, in “Serve the Servants”: “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”). The Dead Kennedys message wasn’t even “Fuck the religious zealots”, despite lyrics like “You call yourself the Moral Majority… Masturbating with a flag and a bible / God must be dead if you’re alive”.
The Dead Kennedys message certainly wasn’t “Punk forever!” or any similar nonsense. Biafra was punk’s harshest critic, opening Bedtime for Democracy’s “Chickenshit Conformist” with the popular slogan “Punk’s not dead”, only to follow it with the provocative suggestion, “But it deserves to die when it becomes another stale cartoon”. The song goes on to dismiss punk fans as “harder core than thou for a year or two” until “it’s time to get a real job”, and the punk rock genre itself as “a closed-minded, self-centered social club” where “ideas don’t matter, it’s who you know”, and also “a meaningless fad”. Here’s a highlight:
Hardcore formulas are dogshit
Change and caring are what’s real
Is this a state of mind
Or just another label?
“Chickenshit Conformist” is arguably the most rousing anthem the Dead Kennedys ever produced, but it’s also quietly heartbreaking in places, particularly when Biafra observes that “the joy and hope of an alternative has become its own cliché”. Most intriguing of all is that Biafra dedicates the entire song to deconstructing the failures of punk rock, only to ultimately dismiss the scene entirely:
Music scenes ain’t real life
They won’t get rid of the bomb
Won’t eliminate rape or bring down the banks
Any kind of real change
Takes more time and work
Than changing channels on a TV set
The Dead Kennedys message appeared as a question more often than a statement. Consider the closing lyric from “Stars and Stripes of Corruption”: “If we can’t find a way to do better than this, who will?” Or this passage, from “Where Do You Draw the Line” (its very title a query, despite the missing question mark; the chorus repeats the title and concludes, “I’m not telling you, I’m asking you”):
How do we feed and make room for all the people crowded on our earth / And transfer all that wealth from the rich to those who need it?
“Where Do You Draw the Line” continues, “Ever notice hard line radicals can go on star trips, too, where no one’s pure and right except themselves?” Biafra offers examples of such self-righteousness (“The Party Line says no, feminists can’t wear fishnets” and “You wanna help stop war / Well, we reject your application / You crack too many jokes and you eat meat”) and follows them with a demoralizing insight:
What better way to turn people off than to twist ideas for change into one more church that forgets we’re all human beings?
However, in its purest, simplest form, the Dead Kennedys message is not a question, but a suggestion. From Frankenchrist’s “A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch”:
Everyone should just love each other…
Drop your guns and lawsuits and love each other
Listening to the Dead Kennedys today is like reading Catcher in the Rye today, in that where once I laughed or became intoxicated with vicarious rage, I now just mostly feel sad.
And I think that’s how I was always supposed to feel.