In 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated killing seven people, Ronald Reagan was in his second year of his second term as president and, in addition to Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys called it quits.
The band was also taken to court that year by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) for allegedly “distributing harmful matter to minors” due to the H.R. Giger-created artwork included with the 1985 LP, Frankenchrist. The case resulted in a hung jury. However, it is rumored that court costs coupled with the musicians’ disillusionment with the prevalence of machismo overtaking the burgeoning punk scene lead to the Dead Kennedys’ untimely demise.
The band’s farewell collaboration, Bedtime for Democracy, which was released only a month before the members’ breakup, is arguably the band’s most musically skillful and lyrically thought-provoking album.
If the recording’s title isn’t enough of a hint, a quick peek at the lyric sheet removes any doubt that San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys reeked of raw rebellion. As a veteran punk band formed in 1978, the Dead Kennedys amassed a large underground following with its experimental music style and purposely disquieting lyrics.
The band’s fourth album, Bedtime for Democracy, showcased each of the musician’s talents at their peaks. Deliberately challenging to the majority’s preconceptions of 1980s America, singer and lyricist Jello Biafra’s incisive wit and brutal social commentary abounded over a unique mixture of surf-rock fused hardcore punk played by D.H. Peligro on drums, East Bay Ray on guitar and Klaus Fluoride on bass.
Biafra’s divisiveness was his appeal. If his lyrics didn’t alienate you, his high-pitched near-falsetto delivery just as easily could have. Lambasting topics ranging from conformity within the punk scene to out-of-control yuppies, Biafra’s lyrically deft yet acerbic verbal assault left no one questioning where he stood, but resigned the average music listener to confusion, if not anger.
Biafra doesn’t coddle his audience with overt metaphors or flowery language. Using a lethal combination of unchecked sarcasm and inventive rhetorical imagery, Biafra mercilessly slices open Reagan-era economics on the track “Dear Abby,” unbridled masculinity in “Macho Insecurity,” and even war-as-entertainment in “Rambozo the Clown,” all with his shrill, alarming voice.
One particularly scathing stanza attacking corporate entertainment appears on the track “Fleshdunce,” a parody on the title of the 1983 movie “Flashdance,” which states, “We’re world industry’s thoughtlords/The entertainment wing/We keep you all in line by fixing your free will/Surround you with pop fantasies just slightly out of reach/To soften all the blows of your forced daily routine.”
His ideas on this album alone might have been enough to satisfy even the most socially conscious punk rocker, but the addition of these 21 finely crafted tunes served to only heighten the affect of his diatribes. Bedtime for Democracy, with its frenetically charged songs interspersed with jazzy interludes and a tongue-in-cheek faux-commercial for MTV, set a creative high-water mark for punk musicianship. The album’s sound took more cues from the United Kingdom’s anarcho-punk style than from the Dead Kennedys’ more heavy metal-influenced hardcore contemporaries, such as the Austin, Texas band Millions of Dead Cops.
Musically and thematically, this final Dead Kennedys album found easier comparisons to the U.K. band The Subhumans’ 1985 album Worlds Apart – compare the lyrics and guitar tones of The Subhumans’ “Ex-Teenage Rebel” to the Dead Kennedys’ “Chickenshit Confromist” – than something like Venice, Calif.’s Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 self-titled debut, an album which was written entirely in first person, deals with an introspective and self-destructive reaction to the surrounding world and was delivered with an indisputably aggressive, overdrive-heavy guitar attack.
Over the course of eight years and three previously released full-length albums, the band cultivated and matured their ” surf-meets-hardcore-meets-psychedelic” sound.
The band’s unconventional (even by punk standards) approach came to a masterful head on Bedtime for Democracy. This collection of Dead Kennedys’ songs, while not as aurally brutal as Plastic Surgery Disasters’ more traditionally hardcore approach or as shockingly memorable as Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (read the lyrics to “I Kill Children”), displays tighter songwriting and more confident musicianship.
East Bay Ray’s signature piercing guitar tones leap off the recording, clearing the way for Peligro’s pulsing, fluid drumming and Flouride’s nimble bass lines. Blisteringly fast and aggressive songs like “The Great Wall” and “Gone with My Wind” easily found their place next to more experimental and progressive pieces like the six-minute long “Chickenshit Confromist” or the unexpectedly catchy track “Shrink.” One unique song amidst a bevy of standouts in the Dead Kennedys’ catalog, “Cesspools in Eden,” made its appearance on this album. The song found its melodic underpinnings in a bass-chord riff accented by a haunting guitar texture.
The Dead Kennedys, with its clever pairing of unfettered musical exploration and fearless lyrics, continually pushed punk beyond its self-imposed boundaries during its short term as some of California’s leading punk-rock purveyors. Bedtime for Democracy was followed by a posthumous collection of b-sides, rarities and live tracks titled Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death in 1987. Yet, as the band’s death knell, Bedtime for Democracy encapsulated all of the unique elements that made the Dead Kennedys such a powerful force in the independent music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The album is still listenable.
Although the production lacks the lo-fi charm of earlier recordings and smacks of a more polished, mid-‘80s reverb-centric sound, Bedtime for Democracy is more than worthy of a regular rotation in the collection of anyone who considers themselves a fan of mentally engaging punk rock.