Music » Music Features

Sound Advice

The Flyer's music writers tell you where you can go.


In the '80s, when European music rags began to lovingly refer to the Dead Kennedys as the long-delayed American answer to the Sex Pistols, the group's outspoken frontman Jello Biafra responded in a fairly predictable manner. He called it bullshit. Noting that the Sex Pistols were leaders in the first wave of Brit Punk, Biafra played it humble and merely claimed discipleship. Singling out earlier West Coast punks like Penelope Houston and the Avengers and the Dils as well as Detroit's the MC5 and their sidekicks the Stooges as influences, Biafra accepted his place at the forefront of punk's third generation. But he shouldn't have been so quick to knock the Sex Pistols comparison. After Elvis, Sinatra, and Sid Vicious, no one could cover "My Way" and have it ring true like Biafra. From the beginning he did things his way. To avoid corporate interference and almost certain censorship, he formed the successful and enduring Alternative Tentacles label in the early '80s. And like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys (doubtless the progenitors of hardcore) were able to shock parents like few pre-gangsta-rap groups could ever hope to do. They remain the only American rock group in history to be brought up on criminal obscenity charges for album content.

Upon beating that rap to the tune of 100K in legal fees, Biafra parlayed his newfound status as a First Amendment activist into a second career as both a politician and a spoken-word artist. In those loathsome fields, he stands head and shoulders above the pack. Biafra, unlike his pumped-up peer Henry Rollins, shies away from the poesy, choosing instead to just "tell it like it is." Taking stances so radically leftist he was even booed by the audience on an episode of Politically Incorrect, the witty and wily Biafra continues to pursue an agenda which includes instituting a maximum wage and the total elimination of the armed forces. And while there's something very attractive about Biafra's furiously Utopian vision, it's also a wee bit frustrating, because the Dead Kennedys were so good at describing everything that was wrong with American culture in shredding, two-minute soundbites. The Frankenchrist album was perfect front to back, and no song has ever summed up how shallow and misdirected college life is like "Terminal Preppy," the standout track from Plastic Surgery Disasters. The spoken-word material is cumbersome by comparison. But it's still funny in its own way and even in extremis it can be thought-provoking. Check it out when Biafra comes to the New Daisy Theatre on Thursday, November 1st. -- Chris Davis

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment