Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Jello, Penny & John


JELLO BIAFRA: One thing that's lost on many people who play this kind of music now is that our band itself was started as a prank, especially on people who would come to early punk shows seeking singles bar action. In particular I was attracted to the early Negative Trend, where Rozz would leave the stage and get into altercations with the audience. It got to a point where it was hard for them or Flipper to get any gigs at all, because of the anxiety surrounding their very existence. The same thing with The Germs — they definitely explored the idea of breaking down the bullshit barrier between "artist" and "audience."


Our band's sound, lyrics, packaging of records (which has gotten us in trouble now) and just plain attitude of the band itself I saw as one great big prank against the entertainment industry. In 1980 we were approached by the CBSs and Warner Bros of the world to whom we said, "What we want is artistic control." They said, "Fine! We'll give you all the artistic control you want if you just change your name!" Since then we've been putting out our records ourselves.

In 1980, The Dead Kennedys were invited to the Bay Area Music Awards to play one of their most popular and musically palatable songs, California Über Alles. About 15 seconds into the song, Biafra, the lead singer, yelled out "Hold it!" and the music screeched to a halt. He continued: "We gotta prove we're adults now. We aren't a punk rock band, we're a new wave band." The four members — all wearing dress shirts with an "S" painted on front — flipped their neckties from behind their backs, forming a dollar sign.

dead kennedys pull my strings
They then began to play Pull My Strings — a song written specifically for the occasion. They took the #1 Billboard Top Pop Single of 1979 — The Knack's My Sharona — and spoofed the refrain to launch an attack on the music industry and the values of those who'll do anything in an attempt to make it big. The song was recorded live, performed only once.

pull my strings

BIAFRA: I think we've been a long-term thorn in the sides of big record companies because we didn't disappear in six months — perhaps that's why we've been singled out for prosecution instead of entertainment industry creatures like Ozzy Osbourne or Slayer or AC-DC.

INTERVIEWER: It's funny that families of victims of the "Nightstalker" never sued AC-DC, whose songs supposedly inspired his murder sprees.

BIAFRA: Yeah, but judging AC-DC and their fans by a guy like the Nightstalker is like judging all born-again Christians by Mark Chapman, who reportedly killed John Lennon as "a favor to the Lord." I mean, who encourages more kids to wind up dead: Ozzy Osbourne, or U.S. armed forces recruiting ads?


BIAFRA: I heard two pranks about the band Crass in England. They negotiated with a teenage bride magazine, Loving, because they wanted to reach sixteen-year-olds hung up on the whole soap opera. Then they recorded a song, "Our Wedding," totally attacking that idea but camouflaged by schmaltzy music. It was sung by Joy de Vivre from Creative Recording and Sound Services (CRASS). The publishers actually went ahead and included it as a flexi-disc insert without deciphering the lyrics beforehand! After the issue hit the stands, they had to recall the copies. As a result, Crass gained access to the straight media and were able to voice a lot of criticism not only about the wedding syndrome, but about society in general.

Then they "leaked" to the press a cassette tape of an alleged phone conversation between Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on the feasibility of launching a winnable nuclear war! This caused quite an uproar. Oddly enough, Reagan and Thatcher didn't even deny the conversation — they just said, "It must be a KGB plant." Apparently it was very deftly spliced together from radio and TV news statements.

In 1963, a UK pop music show called Ready Steady Go! hosted a contest where people were asked to send in their portraits of The Beatles. The winner got to meet the Fab Four on national television and received two albums of their choice. Jeremy Ratter (later "Penny Rimbaud" — member of the legendary anarcho-punk band Crass) heard about the competition and decided to enter. He took a friend's guitar and cut it down the middle, mounting each half on the end of a board painted with Beatles graffiti. On top of the graffiti he painted the four Beatles, portraying them, as he would later describe in his autobiography Shibboleth: My Revolting Life, as "street-wise desperadoes." Finally he took a mannequin arm and placed it so that it was reaching out of one of the guitar halves. He called the piece "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." It was all perfectly designed to win. A week later Ratter got a call inviting him to the studio. And it appears as though he did all of it just to play a small prank on The Beatles.


The title of this post is a play on the #4 U.S. pop chart single of 1968 — Dion's Abraham, Martin & John. Bob Dylan performed a cover of the song during a 1981 tour, with the original "John" (John Kennedy) becoming a clear reference to John Lennon who was killed just a year before — 29 years ago today.

1 comment:

Hectocotylus said...


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"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 stand 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 "Frankenchrist" 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."

* * *

"It's better off Mr. Lennon never lived to see
The day his revolution peddled sneakers on TV."
-Jimmy Chrismer