Fresh Fruit for Nostalgic Punks: DK40 takes fans back to Dead Kennedys’ wild heyday

RNRG’s exclusive chat with guitarist East Bay Ray about the new three-disc live anthology and the madness connected to them

The Dead Kennedys/Photo by Edward Colver

Leave it to Jello Biafra to paint a comically bleak picture, one that would be much funnier if it didn’t so closely mirror real life. At the start of a December 1982 show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, the former Dead Kennedys frontman plays the part of a man who wakes up with a severe hangover, his only recourse being to flop down in his La-z-boy and get lost in the glow of the tube. It’s Biafra’s dystopian vision of American mediocrity and the powers-that-be who hold us down in it.

Dead Kennedys DK40, Manifesto Records 2019

The rant sets the table for a blistering 13-song live set, one of three captured on DK40. The three-CD set, out April 26 on Manifesto Records and available digitally May 10, also includes sets recorded in Munich in 1982 and in the band’s hometown of San Francisco in 1985. In its best moments, DK40 is a document of one of America’s most provocative, exciting, and iconic hardcore bands operating in full flight. There are manic time signatures, European dudes screaming nonsense into the mic, blown notes, Biafra tooling on LA fans, and other mischievous fun emblematic not just of early Dead Kennedys shows, but the dangerous and unpredictable first wave of American hardcore.

Today, the Jello-less Dead Kennedys are still successfully touring with three quarters of the original lineup in tow. We talked with guitarist East Bay Ray about DK40 and weighing his band’s past versus its present.

RNRG: Were Dead Kennedys in the habit of recording their shows?

East Bay Ray: No. I went through 30 to 40 tapes of different shows, mostly other people’s tapes. Most of them were kind of junky, because they came straight off the PA board. They were less than bootlegs, just board mixes that got the voice and the kick drum. You don’t hear the full thing. But these three were radio broadcasts, so all the instruments were in the mix. You could hear the guitars and the bass.


So some of the work had already been done in a way.

Yeah, they were live broadcasts. I picked these three because they were really good performances and really good recording quality. To me, you have to get all the instruments in order to get the full impact of the band.


The recordings don’t show their age at all. They’re very visceral.

The lyrics are political and humorous, but also we’re a great rock and roll band. That’s the visceral part. We all play and sing from the gut. We’re musicians. Real musicians, I guess.


VIDEO: Dead Kennedys – London 1982

Even the between song banter holds up today. When Jello is talking about how Americans are preconditioned to go through school just to join the corporate rat race before “Life Sentence”, he could rant about that today the same way he did in 1982 or 1985.

There’s always a dialectic, so to speak, between how much one needs to be socialized for the tribe and how much one needs to be an individual. It’s a complex problem. If everyone did whatever they wanted, society would just be full of assholes and nothing would ever get done. But at the same time if everyone’s a robot, then society would become very rigid and inflexible. In that song, of course, we’re taking an extreme position in order to get people to think. We never really wanted to tell people what to think. We’d rather they think for themselves. But being a rock and roll band, you want to be exciting, and sometimes you have to hit people over the head with a 2×4 to get their attention.


How long was the project in the works?

I guess we started in the middle of last year, but we finished by the end of last year. There was artwork and manufacturing that had to be done and all that. I’ve actually had the CDs for two months now.


Did you find yourself looking at things through a different lens revisiting these shows so many years later? Did it jog any memories or make you look back on that period in a different way?

Ya know, I just listened to everything. Like I said, some of the tapes were really bad. On some I maybe listened to a few songs and then just moved on. There’s a couple of others that were pretty good. I’d have to go back and listen more to see why I picked these ones over those. I’m guessing either the performances or the sound quality weren’t as good. But there were a couple of other broadcasts that were pretty decent. The B list (laughs).

Photo by Sue Brisk

Another thing that jumps out listening to the set is the physicality. Was it hard on a physical level to give that kind of energy night after night? Does it wear on a band?

Well (bassist) Klaus (Flouride), (drummer) D.H. (Peligro), and I are still doing it. I mean, we’re not 20 anymore, so our tour manager pushes us to get our rest. I kind of liken it to cats. They sleep 16 hours a day and then they get up and run around like crazy. That’s how we do it now. Back in the day, we had a lot more energy. The energy of all the members together, it was like 2 +2 = 5.


But even most young bands I’d imagine would struggle to pull off those shows today.

Back in the day, and even now, we’ll have a younger band play before us. We still have a lot more energy than a lot of other bands. Part of it is the way the songs are written. Really good music comes from the soul, so that’s where that drive comes from.


How do you guys approach performing now as opposed to 35 or 40 years ago? Have things changed much or is the mode of operation still pretty much the same?

I think we’re more experienced now. We know how to dial back our individual egos and play the Dead Kennedys. We make a point of putting the music first. Back in the day, we were younger and immature, and sometimes our egos would get in the way.


The band has thrived on the strength of its back catalogue, but is it frustrating that legal hurdles keep the band from releasing new Dead Kennedys songs? Are there new Dead Kennedys songs?

Well the singer we have now, Skip McSkipster, he was in a band called the Wynona Riders. They were on Lookout Records. We actually have a band together called the Killer Smiles. We have a record coming out hopefully in the fall. I’m still working on that. D.H. has his band, Peligro, and Klaus has his solo records.


VIDEO: East Ray Bay and the Killer Smiles – You’re Such a Fake

There are other outlets.

Right. Going back to what I was saying about putting the music above the individuals, I’m hoping that could happen, too (laughs). I don’t know if you know this, but Johnny and Joey Ramone didn’t speak to one another.


For years and years.

Yeah. They never spoke to one another. Our manager was in a new wave band that toured with them. He was like “Yep. They didn’t speak at all.”


But when the time came to play they put all of that aside.

Exactly, because they realized the music was more important than their individual problems. They never spoke bad about each other in public or anything.


Are you holding out hope that there could one day be new Dead Kennedys material?

Well Skip and I have written songs that we’ve actually played at Dead Kennedys concerts.


Just not under the Dead Kennedys name.

Yeah. [Writing songs with the original lineup] isn’t something that we’ve contemplated doing.


But it’s great to see that there’s still a hunger for the band after all these years.

Oh yeah. Our audiences today are probably one-third fans from back in the day and two-thirds new fans. As a musician, that’s quite an honor. You take a band like the Moody Blues or something, their audience is the exact same age as the band. We’re starting to get three generations of fans out to our shows. We’ve been playing or a few years now in this second formation, and it’s just growing bigger and bigger. That’s what’s helped me realize “Oh, this is really about the music that we created together as a collective.”


VIDEO: Dead Kennedys – Live San Francisco 1984

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Ryan Bray

Ryan Bray has written for Wicked Local, Consequence of Sound, AV Club, Village Voice, and Washington City Paper. Follow him on Twitter @feedbackbos.

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