Over the past few months, I’ve been missing live gigs. Since they now seem logistically improbable (or at least highly irresponsible) for the foreseeable future, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to simulate the experience through Zoom dance parties and socially distanced listening sessions. But I doubt there’s any substitute for the charged energy of punk shows, where deafening riffs and moshpits of sweaty strangers offer an incomparable catharsis. With its rowdy solidarity, punk is the perfect genre for airing political grievances—and few bands have capitalized on this potential better than the Dead Kennedys.
The San Francisco band epitomized hardcore punk during the band’s initial 1978–1986 run. Their last studio album from that period, Bedtime for Democracy, is a tour de force that criticizes everything from Reaganomics to masculinist culture, largely driven by the political proclivities of the band’s outspoken frontman, Jello Biafra. The punk masterwork includes forays into jazz, psychedelia, and spoken word, and its title plays on Reagan’s 1951 film Bedtime for Bonzo. The album’s cover depicts the Statue of Liberty’s desecration at the hands of Nazis, bureaucrats, posers, and opportunists. America, it suggests, is a corrupted land, far from the refuge it once promised to be.
This message reverberates through the album’s twenty-one punchy tracks, most of which are around two minutes or less. Each functions as a contained outburst, with Jello’s astringent screeds amplified by the dizzying, eclectic riffs of guitarist East Bay Ray. Jello was a master of satire, and his verses often confront economic injustice and capitalist neglect with humor that borders on the grotesque. In “Dear Abby,” for instance, a county coroner laments not being able to afford meat to feed his family, and is instead forced to serve them “choice cuts from my / autopsy subjects” mixed with Tuna Helper. Paranoid that his family will find out his secret, he writes to “Abby,” who closes the track in a deep drawl: “DEAR REAGANOMICS VICTIM: Consult your clergyman. Make sure the body’s / blessed and everything should be just fine.”
Throughout their oeuvre, the Dead Kennedys meditate on the hollowness of the American Dream, the glossy façade of which conceals a noxious underbelly. The result is a malaise that permeates middle-class suburbia, which the band confronted in “Cesspools in Eden.” The “ticky-tacky houses” of McMansion Hell, built on “toxic chemicals / and leaking gas” cause “fainting spells.” Kids run crying to their mothers after playing outdoors, and the “cancer rate’s shot up.” In response, “the company laughs / ‘We don’t owe you one damn thing.’”