The Dead Kennedys were probably the last great “original” punk rock band, in my view… I came across them as part of my Under-18 Brunel Amphi initiation in late 1979, hearing the distinctive drum intro to “California Uber Alles” (surely the most recognisable drum intro of any song ever!), followed by the vicious, bilious anti-US political tirade and strident, chanting chorus, and immediately “getting it”, understanding the message and meaning behind the obvious deliberately provocative “shock” factor. Picking up the magnificent “Holiday In Cambodia” on its’ release in 1980 and their subsequent first couple of albums, I admit I didn’t stay long with them, their subsequent descent into more unlistenable hardcore punk coinciding with my discovery of the slew of post-punk bands (Bunnymen, Furs et al) that defined and still shape my musical taste. Nonetheless, those first couple of releases hold a notable place in my formative musical journey, so I was up for a Dead Kennedys live show, the band having reunited some years back, albeit without frontman Jello Biafra, who long since had parted ways with his fellow Kennedys over royalties and other disputes.
I wasn’t alone; fellow old punkers Rich and Leightz, plus the younger Troy (undertaking a punk rock discovery of his own right now) joined us for a swift drive down the M4 into the setting sun. We parked up then chilled in the venue’s back bar before wandering into the sparsely attended hall for openers Slagerij, on at 8. A Swindon band in Bristol (!), their opener nicked the guitar riff from The Ruts classic “Babylon’s Burning”, but then descended into energetic but formulaic ska-punk. I dunno, that’s pretty much a genre where all proponents thereof sound exactly the same to these ears (and have done so for 20+ years, so don’t blame it on my age!), and make no impression on me whatsoever. A cover of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” (which Rich called after the opening note!) was even clumsier than the original, and although the latter part of the set was punkier and thus more palatable, I still remained unstirred.
Saw a nice scene whilst heading into the loo for a pre-gig squirt – a couple of sizeable old punkers in the doorway both giving it the, “after you mate,” “no, pal, after you!” See, punk rockers have manners too! Got back to a good stage-left viewing spot, as a fuller audience welcomed the band dead on 9. Down to 2 original members, namely bookish, grey-haired bassist Klaus Fluoride, looking every day of his 66 years, and lankier guitarist East Bay Ray, crane-like features defying his own 57 years, they were straight into the pounding punk of opener “Forward To Death”, and the crowd of old punkers went mental, with a frenzied shit-kicking moshpit throughout the gig, and vocalist Ron “Skip” Greer a committed, energetic presence from the off.
Ah yes, the vocalist. There are big shoes to fill and there are BIG shoes to fill… nonetheless, “Skip” really put in a shift, his flappy-gummed, more nasal vocals (recalling, for me, Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano) still fitting the material almost as well as Biafra’s Mickey Mouse-on-helium treatment, and his kinetic, scary-eyed conviction holding the attention. He also rejoiced in playing agent provocateur, condescendingly referring to Bristol as an “intellectual English town” and drawing boos from the crowd for sneeringly calling football “soccer” prior to “Jock-O-Rama”, before drawing the crowd back onside with some pointed tirades (“elections don’t change shit – anywhere!” and “it’s possible that there’s too many people looking at this show through the power of Instagram rather than just…looking at this show!” being two of the most memorable ones). An early “Police Truck” was brilliantly pointed and savage, “Let’s Lynch The Landlord” an almost anthemic surf-punk singalong, and “MP3 Get Off The Web” a savage skewering of social media’s self-obsession.
But it was the classics that shone; following an audience participation moment before “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (“David Cameron…Multinational Corporations…”), the unmistakable drum intro of set closer “California Uber Alles” heralded a bilious, vicious rendering, the crowd erupting as one for the chorus line. Then encore “Holiday In Cambodia”, my highlight of the night, underlined East Bay Ray’s importance as the real architect of the Kennedy sound, his resonant reverb delay and creepy, sinister riffery making your skin crawl. Great stuff. One final, barbed and chaotic “Chemical Warfare” (featuring an ironic line or two from “Sweet Home Alabama”!) ended the swift 1 hour 10 performance, at which “Skip” scrunched up the set lists and threw them into the melee, before descending into the front rows to meet and greet. As far as I know, he’s there still… So, no Jello, but we all agreed this was still a damn fine (and early!) night’s punk rock from the Dead Kennedys!