Dead Kennedys loom large as one of the most relevant and unique voices of the early punk and hardcore movements. Released in 1987, a year after the band went inactive for the first time (a new lineup reformed in 2001), “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” provides a crash course for the uninitiated into Dead Kennedy’s brilliant work during their early years.
“Give Me Convenience” is not a typical compilation album. Rather than being a run-of-the-mill greatest hits record, the band compiled a mix of classic singles, live tracks, B-sides and a re-recording of “Buzzbomb” with altered lyrics, none of which were released on studio albums. The album’s title itself is self-referential, reflecting the satirical and tongue-in-cheek nature of the band’s lyrics. It acknowledges that the record exists only to satisfy the lazy fans who refuse to buy their single records and will only shell out cash for a complete album, while also hinting at the anti-consumerism messages present in many of their songs.
As anarchists—at least at the time—Dead Kennedys skewer all manner of sociocultural trends and various mainstream political ideologies. Much of this is spearheaded by legendary former frontman Jello Biafra. Biafra is a true character. He ran for Mayor of San Francisco, which was the band’s headquarters for much of their career, and became notable for his ironic and humorous platform. He made businessmen wear clown suits within the city limits, paid laid-off workers to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods and mocked a notorious publicity stunt by mayoral opponent and eventual U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein—where she was photographed cleaning the city streets for only a few hours—by vacuuming leaves off of her front lawn.
Biafra also proposed a number of more serious platforms such as allowing homeless people to squat in vacant and tax-delinquent buildings and having police officers be elected by the communities they are assigned to patrol. Biafra may be a satirist and comical lyricist, but he is indeed well-read and insightful. The latter element is present in his lyrics for those who care to listen.
Notable on this compilation is “Holiday in Cambodia,” a song which lampoons the weak-willed and performative brand of liberalism which has slowly become a staple of our culture. Much like Jordan Peele’s recent-ish film “Get Out,” Biafra’s lyrics on this track tackle pseudo-intellectual white liberals—namely well-to-do bourgeoise college students—who claim to represent leftist ideals while benefiting from a first-world capitalist system and society. He writes: “So you’ve been to school for a year or two/And you know you’ve seen it all/Driving daddy’s car, thinking you’ll go far/Back east your type don’t crawl.” Biafra uses clever wordplay to hint at the reveal to come. Listeners think he means “back east” as in New York or Jersey, not realizing he means Southeast Asia.
Biafra also satirizes the performative empathy of white upper-class liberalism, such as the awkward attempts of rich white kids to ingratiate themselves within civil rights movements by claiming to ‘get it’ because they listen to the blues and jazz (or, nowadays, hip-hop). The use of slurs is shocking, but it’s clear Biafra intends their use to emphasize the irony and frankly offensive nature of such claims, and to hint at the underlying prejudices behind such attempts at “compassion.” It is still tainted by condescension and superiority, hinting at an insidious form of subconscious racism within the privileged class.
The meat of the song is without a doubt the viciously mocking lyrics proposing these students should take a study abroad in Cambodia, at the time under the control of an extremely far-left/authoritarian regime by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This implies those with this immense class privilege would not hack it under such brutal circumstances, while slipping in some critiques of the US’s own systems of class oppression as he writes, “Kiss ass while you b—-/So you can get rich/While your boss gets richer off you/Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back/for a bowl of rice a day/slave for soldiers til you starve/And your head is skewered on a stake.”
Biafra takes no prisoners in this track. While he clearly recognizes that this type of idealistic and all-too-comfortable Ivy League brat is not the core of any of the US’s problems, and that they are only being raised to serve as cogs in corporate machines, he also refuses to give them a pass. Biafra attacks something this writer is also guilty of: romanticizing leftist theory from a point of extreme comfort and luxury—relative to the rest of the world—while failing to recognize that living that theory in practice would be extremely difficult. And in cases like Pol Pot’s Cambodia, hellish. Are we willing to give up so much of our modern conveniences and wealth to live out our ideals? Dead Kennedys think not, which is also part of their critique of how dull and apathetic the average American has been made by consumerist culture. Even our ideals have become a sort of commodity, a social signifier representing nothing.
Dead Kennedys pushed this controversial and nuanced message even further with the single art for the original release of this track being an infamous photograph of a leftist student protester in Thailand being beaten to death by a far-right radical mob—emphasizing that while their song may ridicule performative liberalism and far-leftism alike, they recognize the brutality wrought by far-right militias and dictatorships globally as well. As stated earlier, Dead Kennedys were anarchists. They detested all forms of authority, whether it be capitalism or communism.
But the track isn’t just powerful for its lyricism. The opening minute is spent beautifully building this immense tension with off-putting guitar notes plucked courtesy of East Bay Ray—made so off-putting by vaguely resembling echoing screams and sirens—and a foreboding bassline by Klaus Flouride before D.H. Peligro brings in the drums. All three crescendo into the surf rock-esque main riff, with Ray bending his notes to create a very Dick Dale sound to offset the menacing intro. Biafra’s warbling and characteristically theatrical vocals help to keep the song somehow lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek despite its disturbing and graphic lyrics. Only Dead Kennedys could make a song so dark and intensely provocative, also catchy and almost comic.
Speaking of which, this album is a great introduction to the Dead Kennedy’s musical style, blending hardcore punk with political lyricism that would later become popular with bands such as Rage Against the Machine—and to a lesser extent Green Day—with elements of surf rock and even some experimental flourishes like spoken word pieces.
A few of the tracks included fall into that latter camp. “Night of the Living Rednecks” is a live track from when Ray’s guitar broke onstage at a show in Portland in 1979, leading Biafra to improvise a beatnik-style storytelling piece while Ray attempted to fix it. This track elaborates on an encounter he had with some drunken rich kids in Portland—backed by a jazzy drum beat and bassline improvised by Peligro and Fluoride with Biafra even shouting, “put those headphones on, its bebop time!” before launching into the story.
“Kinky Sex Makes the World Go Round” is a skit—almost reminiscent of the ones found on 90s rap albums. It features a casual conversation between the ‘Secretary of War’ at the U.S. State Department and an unknown official who says very little other than murmur and moan in a perverse-sounding way—detailing a plan to start a war to cut down on excess population and to achieve economic profit by mining foreign nations for resources under the pretense of abolishing some terroristic threat, which is backed by a faint but rather discordant wailing and cacophonous musical track.
“The Prey,” like the aforementioned “Kinky Sex,” is a track which balances dark humor with a genuinely menacing musical backing with Ray, Peligro and Fluoride working together to build up a sense of unease—almost reminiscent of the musical score to a thriller film. Biafra comes in with a subdued yet eerily unhinged timbre, playing a character who is preying upon a traveling businessman with the humor coming from ambiguity: whether this is actually from the perspective of a predatory mugger or merely the businessman’s interpretation of those in the lower classes.
“Pull My Strings,” another live track, shows the band’s self-awareness and their disdain at the commercialization of the punk rock movement. The band begins by hyping up the crowd with the opening drum beat and bass riff from “California Uber Alles,” one of their more iconic political satire tracks before Biafra cuts them off by saying, “Hold it! We’ve gotta prove we’re adults now… we’re not a punk rock band, we’re a new wave band!” before launching into an uncharacteristically poppy and slower-paced song. The lyrics mock the influence of record label producers on musicians and even pokes fun at other progenitors of the punk style—i.e. The Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, etc.—for going more commercial and even shifting to the then popular New Wave sound.
The band’s cover of Sonny Curtis’ rock classic “I Fought the Law,” made most famous by the Bobby Fuller Four, is also included. Dead Kennedys cemented their willingness to comment upon relevant historical events and social issues by changing the lyrics of the song to reference Dan White’s recent assassinations of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. While it’s unclear exactly when this was adapted, as it was never released on an album until this one, it’s clear from the ferocity of the track it may have been shortly after the murders and trial. Especially since Dan White killed himself after his release from prison two years before this album’s release, which the lyrics don’t reference.
The song is seemingly written from the perspective of White himself, with lyrics such as: “The law don’t mean sh*t if you got the right friends/That’s how this country’s run/Twinkies are the best friends I ever had,” which reference the infamous “Twinkie defense” during White’s trial, and the fact his status as a former police officer may have contributed to his charges being significantly lowered, serving only five years. After Ray performs a brief but very clean guitar solo, the band abruptly trails off into silence before Biafra, in-character as White, confirms the subject of the track for anyone who doesn’t get it—sneering and screaming the words: “I blew George and Harvey’s brains out!/With my six-gun!” Most famously, Dead Kennedys’ version alters the chorus: “I fought the law, and I won” and in the final moments, as the band slows, Biafra changes them once again to comment upon the inefficacy of the justice system to police its own, and the corrupting power trip inherent in such a position: “I AM the law, so I won.”
Two of the best tracks featured are, ironically, the first and last ones. “Police Truck” still features Biafra’s engaging presence and brutally skewering lyricism, but the key component here is East Bay Ray’s incredible guitar work. Dead Kennedys, despite never entirely abandoning the sloppy aesthetics of hardcore punk, have without a doubt some of the best technical musicianship of any of their contemporaries. Ray opens this track with a terrific warping effect on his guitar, and his fingers never falter even as he plays incredibly fast, bouncing effortlessly from sharp-sounding surf licks, muted chords, and noodling up and down on the high notes. He even gets a chance to show off his virtuosic ability by mimicking a police siren on his guitar towards the end. Peilgro and Fluoride keep up the energy with some impressive speed on their respective instruments as well. It’s a great way to kick off the album and reel listeners in.
“Buzzbomb from Pasadena,” the final track, is a cover of the band’s own “Buzzbomb” from 1982’s “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” This new version features altered lyrics, changing the narrator from a young punk who loves speeding in his car, to an elderly woman who loves doing the same thing—with Biafra putting on an impressive, if cartoonish, old lady voice for the entirety of the track. Like the original track, this features a pulsating, aggressive bassline by Fluoride—so much so that the bass starts to sound worn down with equally intense drum work by Peligro before breaking for a beautifully melodic yet brief guitar solo by Ray, before returning to chaos and finally breaking down completely in the final lines—reminiscent of the structure of Bad Brains’ track “Banned in DC,” released the same year as the original “Buzzbomb.”
“Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” is much more than a compilation album. It offers a crash-course into Dead Kennedys’ early work, and yet, the band wasn’t satisfied with resting on their laurels. The inclusion of more experimental work, live tracks, and even re-recording and re-working older tracks shows that although the original Dead Kennedys lineup was reaching the end of its run, the band still had a lot of creativity left in the tank. They also wanted to give a more complete picture of their work in-and-out of the studio rather than merely compiling their most popular songs. It’s an album that is funny, thought-provoking, angry, eerie at times and yet endlessly listenable despite this.
The fast-paced energy of much of the songs, broken up only occasionally by slower tracks, keeps everything feeling very exciting and engaging and the Dead Kennedys’ unique blend of all the aforementioned tones work surprisingly well. A less talented group may have wound up with a confusing mess of a compilation, but the Dead Kennedys managed to strike a rare balance of inventiveness and consistency, and their political anger, frustration and ironic humor feels more resonant today than perhaps even during their original run.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.