I wanna be a tool
Don't need no soul
Wanna make big money
Playing rock and roll.
--Jello Biafra, "Pull My String"
"They now are," said Jello Biafra, "the world's greediest karoake band. This is the great rock and roll swindle. They have become their own scabs." Biafra is referring to his former Dead Kennedys bandmates East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride and D.H. Peligro, who are currently embarked on a 16-city American tour promoting a new video and live CD, Mutiny on the Bay.
Dead Kennedys were, of course, the premiere American punk band of the late '70s and early '80s. Their music, characterized by savage wit, an uncommon musical dexterity and a politically infused vision, viciously lampooned American corporate culture. Their incendiary live shows were the stuff of legend. The band released a series of genre-expanding recordings before its breakup in1986.
For Biafra, this nominal Kennedys "reunion" tour is both fraudulent and a violation of the Kennedys' enduring legacy. "The booking agent for this tour sells the group as Dead Kennedys and neglects to mention that I'm not in the band," Biafra said. "The promo picture they send out is one with me in it. If people ask, then they mention that Biafra is not singing with them."
Fronting the band these days is Brandon Cruz, the former child actor in the TV sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father and singer for the punk band Dr. Know. "Initial reports of the fake Kennedys reunion shows have not been, shall we say, altogether positive," Biafra reported. "Ray doesn't worry about things like that. For years he has said, 'People are willing pay big money to see anything we put on stage.' He is only interested in getting as much money as he can.
"That band is a big part of my soul," Biafra added. 'Unfortunately, it seems like the objective of my former bandmates is to chop out the heart of Dead Kennedys and sell the body parts to whoever pays the most money. Now that they fooled the courtroom, they think they can fool the public."
Biafra is referring to the recent trial in which the three ex-Kennedys, claiming that Alternative Tentacles, the label formed by the band in 1980--and now wholly owned by Biafra--had defrauded them of earned royalties. Ruling in their favor, the court awarded the three musicians $200,000, plus $20,000 in punitive damages, in addition to full control over much of the DKs catalog, which they have subsequently licensed to other labels, both in the United States and overseas. (The case is currently under appeal.)
Prior to the court decision, the three band members had voted to move the Kennedys catalogue from Alternative Tentacles. The decision was made while Biafra was out of town on a spoken-word tour. His offer to send a proxy to vote for him was, according to Biafra, rebuffed by the others. "We used to do everything by consensus," Biafra said. "All band decisions were made that way. It was a true democracy. Now it's a kleptocracy! A Russian-style democracy!"
In Biafra's opinion, the incident that sparked the band's decision to leave Alternative Tentacles was his refusal in 1997 to allow "Holiday in Cambodia," perhaps the band's defining moment (and Biafra's favorite Kennedys song), to be used in a Levi's Dockers commercial. The Levi's corporation had apparently offered the band $200,000 to use the song.
"It was the commercial with wealthy yuppies in a loft, where the girl's hunky boyfriend jumps up, puts on his Levi's and captures a mouse," Biafra said, the disgust palpable in his voice. "I could think of no worse way to stab Dead Kennedys fans in the back than to turn around and trash everything we ever stood for and allow one of our best songs to be used to sell products by a global corporation with controversial labor practices. Dead Kennedys always stood against things like this.
"And it wasn't just the political angle," Biafra added. "I would hate for people to become as nauseated by that song as they are by 'Like a Rock.' The pain would be unbearable!
"Ray threatened me that if we didn't do it, there would be repercussions. I tried to reason with Klaus, and told him what this would do to our reputation, even how it would affect us financially in the long run. They told me, 'Why don't you go to the press and you tell them that we donated the money to charity? Then we could give 5 percent for charity, and pocket the rest ourselves.'"
The contention that he had changed the royalty rate of DKs CDs to defraud his bandmates is, in Biafra's opinion, ludicrous. "There was an honest-to-God human mistake in the accounting. Ray was invited to look at our books, to see if we could clear up the problem together, so we wouldn't have to go to court, but he never showed up."
The court decision has allowed the ex-Kennedys to remaster and reissue the Kennedys' recordings on a variety of other labels, in some cases changing the artwork and even the songwriting credits. "Ray and company changed all the songwriting credits so I am no longer credited with writing any of the music to my own songs," Biafra said. "D.H. Peligro is now listed as an author of songs recorded before he was even in the band!
"This is all about royalties, so they can pimp our songs to whoever they want," Biafra said. "They did not contest the songwriting credits until the trial started. They waited for 20 years to claim that the songwriting credits were wrong. In fact, the closer we got to the trial, the longer the Pinocchio noses grew. Peligro even claimed that Alternative Tentacles owed him $15,000 because we didn't finance a video for his record."
In Biafra's opinion, however, the most dangerous part of the trial's outcome is the contention that he, as owner of Alternative Tentacles, did not do enough to promote Dead Kennedys recordings, thus making him liable to pay the band for monies it failed to earn. In Biafra's words, "The jury fell for it, and awarded them damages for lack of promotion because this guy, the expert witness, said, 'Well, if X amount more money had been spent on advertising, X amount of more CDs automatically would have been sold.'
"This is dangerous for every business, both big and small," Biafra continued. "It's a decision that could potentially have a huge impact. Imagine if Britney Spears decides that her record label didn't do enough to promote her art--if you want to call it that. She could sue the label for millions, claiming it would be the money she was owed if they had advertised more."
Biafra decries both the greed of his former bandmates and the fact that they are taking advantage of the Dead Kennedys' name after years of neglect. "I did the work," he said. "I put the money in. I kept the label going. And this is the thanks I get. For 15 years, Ray and Klaus didn't express any pride in being in DKs, or playing that punk music before they became 'respectable' musicians or whatever.
"Those guys have earned enough steady royalty money while on Alternative Tentacles to live comfortably without having to work day jobs," Biafra continued. "Very few punk bands have been able to do this. Ray, for example, was making around $50,000 a year. But are they satisfied or grateful? No! All they can think of is they should have made even more money!"
There have a few well-documented setbacks in Biafra's career, including the Frankenchrist obscenity trial and a beating by street punks in Berkeley. By far, however, the trial and subsequent ruination of his band's irreproachable legacy have been the worst experiences of Biafra's life. "I am devastated," he said. "These are people I've loved like brothers. ... It broke my heart to hear Klaus say that the only reason he stayed in Dead Kennedys all those years was because of the money.
"Ray has wanted to tear me to pieces for years. He has said that one of his main goals is to destroy Alternative Tentacles. It doesn't matter to him that this will destroy many other artists and also throw dozens of decent hard-working people out on the street."
Jello Biafra's refusal to sell out is especially remarkable in today's climate, where it's difficult to turn on the TV without hearing "Blitzkrieg Bop," or the Who screaming about not getting fooled again, or "Thick as a Brick" as the background for a car commercial, or the Buzzcocks promoting SUVs, or even Nick Drake singing for Volkswagen. While the trial has taken a severe toll of his "money, emotions, creativity and finances," Biafra has recently been energized by the growing global opposition to the World Trade Organization, and has participated in numerous rallies and marches. "It's a new era, fighting global feudalism," he said. He is active in the Green Party, having been nominated by a New York Green group to run for president in the previous election. (After much soul searching, he decided to defer to Ralph Nader.) And he'll have a new spoken-word album later in the year, tentatively entitled The Big Kaboom, Part 1.
"Guess what it's about?" he said. "King George and his barnyard friends and their insane military strategy. If we invade Iraq, we will lose the British, the Germans, the rest of the alliance, and what little good will we have left in the Middle East. All we'd be doing is creating thousands more bin Ladens. We'd be safer if Sheriff Arpaio were president!"
And with that, Jello Biafra is off and running. Somewhere, a band that calls itself Dead Kennedys is preparing for another show.