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Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years
By Alex Ogg
PM Press Copyright © 2014 Alex Ogg
All rights reserved.
So You've Been to School for a Year or Two
It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world. (Oscar Wilde)
It's the Amerikan in me that makes me watch the blood Runnin' out of the bullet hole in his head (The Avengers' 'The American In Me', referencing JFK's assassination)
San Francisco was a natural crucible for punk. For years it had been synonymous with liberal thought, with vocal gay rights, feminist and ecological lobbies, and in the '60s became a magnet to the Beats and base camp for the Summer of Love. It also had the working class districts one would associate with a port town. A haven, then, for weirdos, hippies and eccentrics, as well as more rational left-leaning thinkers, it was natural that, after New York, and alongside its Californian neighbour Los Angeles, it rejoiced in the punk ethos of difference. It was, after all, at the city's Winterland Ballroom that the Sex Pistols played their final show, not so much passing the baton as dropping it where they stood. Or, in Sid's case, fell over. "In San Francisco," notes singer Jello Biafra, "a lot of the prime movers of all the different things in the arts over the years came from people who came there from somewhere else. It's not like London or New York, where a lot of the people grew up there. It's a city where people are drawn from all over the country, and even the world, to chase their dream and find some freedom to try to see what they can become." A city that Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane once succinctly described as "Forty-nine square miles surrounded by reality". Any reference to the latter band in a book about Dead Kennedys might provoke bewilderment, but the lineage back to the '60s was clear. The band itself was explicit. "We were trying to restore what the hippies believed in," guitarist East Bay Ray would state, "tolerance for experimentation, the do-it-yourself thing and the questioning of authority." "And," adds Biafra, "insurrection, direct action and good old-fashioned pranks."
If the city offered opportunity for innumerable square pegs, Frisco's traditional celebration of outsiders was also readily simpatico with punk values; the discarding of status built on appearance, wealth or career advancement. "Unlike London," Biafra points out, "San Francisco had no Carnaby Street or King's Road. Punk fashion throughout California was 98% DIY, straight out of charity shops. Look at old pictures of the Weirdos and The Dickies! Even the Hollywood punks got their gear from Salvation Army." Instead, San Franciscan punk made personal eccentricities a positive and baited the pomposity of those who would assume authority over others. Above all it fetishised individuality, personal creativity and self-expression. Mutual support and collaboration were key elements. One of punk's myths was that its year zero culture was effectively a big bang – an instant grow-bag with everyone at each other's throats – when in truth it scooped up those already disaffected and desperately waiting for something to happen, something the misfits and mis-shapes could belong to.
When Ray put up an advert ('guitarist wants to start punk or new wave band') in Aquarius Records, reprinted in San Francisco's BAM newspaper, he had a singular intention. He wanted to have the best such band in San Francisco. Which may not sound such a lofty ambition, but by the time the ad was placed in 1978, the city had already midwifed a hugely diverse punk generation.
Front-runners Crime and The Nuns delivered attitudinal, primal rock 'n' roll and to this day dispute the honour of being the city's first punk band. Crime, who initially eschewed the punk tag, would take the stage dressed as cops, or in fedoras or tuxedos, play turbo-charged Stooges-like punk-blues at deafening volume with a sense of melodrama that recalled Kiss as much as MC5. They legendarily told Seymour Stein that he needed to get the Ramones a haircut. The Nuns, led by Jennifer Miro and featuring future alt-country star Alejandro Escovedo, were no less a force – the visual equivalent of Marlene Dietrich fronting the Dead Boys and for some time the movement's biggest live draw. They were the first San Francisco punk band to play an 'official' gig at the scene epicentre Mabuhay Gardens and the first to be courted by the majors, though in the end they elected to sign with Howie Klein's 415 when a deal with Columbia fell through. It was a harbinger of the fate that would befall all of the city's pioneering punk bands.
The Avengers, who alongside The Nuns supported the Pistols at Winterland, had a keen instinct for taut melody as well as aggression. With singer Penelope Houston as impossibly cool, photogenic lead, they led the second wave, but cruelly never got to release an album despite having material sufficient for three. Their peers included the highly theatrical, populous Mutants, who played alongside The Cramps at the State Mental Asylum in Napa, causing consternation among guards attempting to differentiate between performer and audience. The Dils, led by the Kinman brothers, had relocated from San Diego and established a class-themed political consciousness that would later be refined in the region's punk bible/ pre-internet punk networking compass Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. The swaggering Sleepers from Palo Alto, featuring Crime's original drummer Rickie Williams on vocals, a registered schizophrenic trailer-park live wire, referenced The Stooges but also mined SF's psychedelic (musical and pharmaceutical) hinterland, and were the Germs' Darby Crash's favourite band.
The insanely confrontational Negative Trend probably held the upper hand, however, in terms of envelope-pushing. In one of his last acts as manager of the 'real' Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren had asked them to headline above his charges at Winterland after enquiring as to the identity of the 'worst' band in the area. Original vocalist Rozz Rezabek left at the age of seventeen, the Bay Area's very own Iggy having burnt himself out physically. He had famously completed a show with a broken arm at the Iguana Studios before an indifferent Sandy Pearlman, renowned for producing Blue Öyster Cult but having just worked on The Clash's second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope. Indeed, he had not merely broken his arm, but actually gone to hospital then returned to the gig to break it again in a different place. Biafra unsuccessfully auditioned for the vacant spot. So too did Bruce Loose, who would eventually find a berth in fellow Negative Trend survivor Will Shatter's subsequent band, Flipper.
Dead Kennedys would arrive as part of a third wave spearheaded by The Offs, who blended buzz-saw guitar and Velvet Underground-styled drone-noise with dub bass. Incidentally this author does not claim to have been a witness to any of these bands. Fortuitously, Joe Rees at Target Video shot them all, providing the most comprehensive audio and visual catalogue of an emerging movement that any Johnny Latecomer could wish to access.
The shock of hearing Dead Kennedys therefore, at least outside San Francisco, has to be reconciled to this unique context. What made 'California Über Alles' and 'Holiday In Cambodia' sound more jarring, sarcastic and musically spiteful than the offspring of Lydon and Strummer was the result of a scene largely sealed from outside gaze in which the impetus to outdo, outperform and out-out was abroad. Not only had the city embraced punk, it had accelerated the process of personalising it.
All those storied groups, however, were forced to survive without any kind of infrastructure at a time when recording and independently releasing records remained a pipe dream. It was against this firmament of fast-evolving creative dissidence, and logistical obstacles, that any new San Franciscan punk band would have to measure itself.
Already a seasoned musician who had grown up on his dad's Duke Ellington collection, Ray, the band's sole Bay Area native, was inspired by Scotty Moore's guitar playing on Elvis's early records as well as Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. It was seeing the latter band play at Winterland in October 1970 as a twelve-year-old that convinced him to pick up a guitar. Later, he got into the Ohio Players when '70s rock started to chase its own tail. He was immediately excited by the arrival of the Ramones and the first English punk records he heard. Ray had a caveat in reference to potential respondents to his advert. In defiance of prevailing notions, he wanted everyone to be not just proficient or capable, but individually excellent.
Raymond Pepperell, to use Ray's birth name, has a mathematics degree. "I graduated from University of California, Berkeley. So I have a right brain and a left brain. I forget which is which! I really respond to music, though, non-intellectually." His parents were both politically active. "They were involved in the civil rights movement, fighting block-busting in the '50s and '60s – people would put a black family in a block of white people, then buy up all the white houses cheap. And redlining insurance neighbourhoods [the practice of hiking insurance costs in predominantly black areas]. My parents were fighting that, too. My parents were definitely activists and liberals, particularly in civil rights. I know I got dragged to one or two protest meetings. My dad was even on the school board for a while. He worked at a corporation and wore a suit and tie, but was doing this stuff. Both mom and dad dressed strait-laced. But they weren't. My mom used to listen to Pete Seeger in The Weavers. And Frank Sinatra! Guilty pleasure!"
He was already an experienced if unfulfilled musician. "I only had six months of guitar lessons, and the teacher wasn't showing me what I wanted to know, so I mostly learned from records. In high school I played with friends and my brother played drums. That was in the suburbs of California [Castro Valley], still in the East Bay. I went to college and stopped playing. When I got out of college, I was playing in a bar band at the time, making $100 a week. I thought, I can live off this! So I was working three or four nights a week. It wasn't satisfying, but it was educational." The one document of this time is his contribution to the Bay Area showband Cruisin', who cut one single, 'Vicky's Hickey', which the band sold at shows through the mid-'70s. They even had alternate Beatles and Beach Boys sets, complete with swimming trunks.
By the time 1978 swung around, he had begun to notice punk stirring. "I'd heard of the Sex Pistols and Ramones, and I was listening to them. Then I went to see the Weirdos at the Mabuhay [Gardens]. One of the ways I like to test music is if the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. That happened when I saw the Weirdos live. 'Ah, this is what I want to do.' I was in the area having dinner and I wandered in and talked to them." Thereafter he put his plan in motion, but was determined that his new band's musicianship should be spurred rather than tethered by the punk breakout. Instinctively he rejected the 'two chords and the truth' mantra of UK punk. "Originally, when I put up the advertisements for the band, one of the images of punk was that you shouldn't be able to play your instrument, which is a bit of a myth. When I put the ad in, I said I wanted to start a punk band, but people had to be able to play."
The first respondent to the Aquarius advert was Eric Boucher, soon to be known to the world as Jello Biafra; a nom de plume chosen at random from a notebook after originally billing himself as Occupant. "When I put the ads up I was dealing with different people," Ray continues. "Talking on the phone, then meeting with them and playing with them. I was working with someone else and Biafra at the same time, writing songs together. The other guy showed up an hour late. And that was it. I said, 'I've been waiting here an hour. Thank you very much. Bye.' They were both talented. But everyone in DKs had that craftsman work ethic, about showing up on time. This won't get anywhere [otherwise]. It's about commitment."
Biafra had grown up in Boulder, Colorado, the son of a librarian mother and a psychiatric social worker father who also wrote poetry. Both endorsed Martin Luther King's advocacy of passive resistance. Authority figures, notably a sixth-grade teacher who would daily profess what a good man Richard Nixon was, collided against an embryonic political consciousness forged by the anti-war demonstrations Eric could observe taking place at Colorado University from his elementary school window. As a consequence he immersed himself in the prevalent hippy culture, with its attendant stand against the Vietnam War and advocacy of environmentalism, civil rights and free love, but he later became horrified by its slide into exploitative practices and self-satisfaction. Realising how manipulative this community had become was fundamental to his worldview: "Seeing many hippies turn their backs on their ideals and evolve into what is now called New Age and Yuppies". He sought refuge instead in pranks and music. A shit-stirrer was born. Or rather, as Biafra prefers to have it, referencing Abbie Hoffman ('Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers'), the proud tradition of American shit-stirringdom had a new inductee.
While his family preferred classical music, the first records he possessed were by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf, Christmas gifts both, followed by a couple of Led Zeppelin albums and the Woodstock soundtrack. "Blue Öyster Cult are significant," he adds, "because their Tyranny and Mutation was the first one I ever bought without first hearing the songs on the radio. I was fed up with radio by age thirteen, in 1971, so I started buying records whose covers looked cool, especially since that first one really hit the spot. My big later interests also included The Stooges, Pink Fairies, 13th Floor Elevators, Hawkwind, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath and, believe it or not, Sparks, because their lyrics and songs were so demented, especially the Indiscreet album."
Many of these initial purchases were through local store Trade-A-Tape, nearby his high school. Faithfully dedicated to servicing country-rock to local residents, the proprietors would throw anything they regarded as slightly weird into a free box outside the store. Later he was fortunate enough to discover the original Wax Trax store in Denver, run by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, who later moved the shop to Chicago and set up the famed record label of the same name. "All of a sudden, I noticed this window and it had old Yardbirds records in it, and a John Denver record nailed onto the door, nails through his eyes and blood pouring out ... and I figured, aha, this is the place for me."
MC5 were also an important addition to his growing musical consciousness. "What got me clued into them was the music critic of The Denver Post. His name was Jared Johnson. He did capsule reviews of albums every week. Boy, did he go off on albums he didn't like. He said that Paul Simon and the Bee Gees were the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but he ranted and raved against Alice Cooper and said that Black Sabbath was almost as bad as MC5. So I immediately went out and started looking for MC5 albums the next day." He found two of them for 25 cents at Trade-A-Tape.
Despite a propensity for mentally warehousing large tracts of information and a fascination with printed and visual media (which would later manifest itself in the collage art that would accompany Dead Kennedys records) music singularly inspired Biafra's love of words. "Music lyrics are almost my entire literary background," he confirms. "This seems to shock and annoy a hell of a lot of people, although Allen Ginsberg thought it was great and perfectly valid. At the very least, it helps me overcome my intellectual upbringing to hopefully better communicate to other people raised on music lyrics who don't really like to read."
While still in Boulder he roadied for Colorado's first punk band, The Ravers. They would subsequently relocate to New York and eventually had a 1984 hit with '88 Lines About 44 Women' for RCA under new name, The Nails. Irony fans will note that the A&R link was Bruce Harris, the man credited with finally convincing Epic to release The Clash's debut album in America and invoking the epithet 'The only band that matters'. However, Biafra's first noteworthy musical venture was The Healers. They specialised in "real scary music" and did some tentative recording but never played live. "We never rehearsed," confirms Biafra, "it was me and John Greenway and sometimes others banging on instruments we couldn't play when our parents weren't home. It was all improvised."
Sensing the winds of change overseas, a trip to England in the summer of 1977 saw Biafra check out the local punk scene. He was able to attend shows by The Count Bishops and Little Bob Story, and caught an early Wire gig supporting The Saints (he was so impressed by the latter he had them sign a copy of I'm Stranded). On his return he enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz that autumn to study Drama and the History of Paraguay – simply because they were the only classes left on offer (he'd tried to get into film school but didn't make the cut). Inspired by repeat spins of the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK' – he had been amongst the first residents of Boulder to possess a copy – he cut off his hippy hair, placed it inside a Ziploc bag and nailed the spurned locks to his dorm door. "That was just inspiration because I felt the hippy thing had run its course. They weren't causing enough of the right kind of trouble anymore. As soon as the hair went off, all of a sudden I felt dangerous again from the way people reacted. The bag of hair still exists! I've got it somewhere. I found it a while back!"
Excerpted from Dead Kennedys by Alex Ogg. Copyright © 2014 Alex Ogg. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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