Formed in the volatile San Francisco punk scene of the late 1970s, the Dead Kennedys became one of the West Coast's most visible punk bands, pioneering hardcore. Fueled by a cutting political preoccupation, lead singer Jello Biafra's quavering vocals conveyed the excess that marked such songs as "Drug Me" and "California Über Alles." Biafra and company directed diatribes against the Moral Majority, creeping U.S. imperialism and fascism, and their perceptions of a plastic suburban lifestyle. The band's rapid-fire instrumental overkill attracted punk fans in the U.S. and abroad; they even matched the Sex Pistols on their home turf, going to #36 in England with the airplay-banned "Too Drunk to Fuck." Biafra, the son of a psychiatric social worker, ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979; one of his campaign planks was that businessmen wear clown suits downtown. The Dead Kennedys formed their own record label, Alternative Tentacles, which in 1982 released a compilation album, Let Them Eat Jellybeans, consisting of tracks by various unsigned American bands.
The DKs' Frankenchrist album made free-speech history when, on April 15, 1986, Biafra's apartment was raided by nine cops; the singer and others associated with Alternative Tentacles were soon charged in an L.A. courtroom with distributing pornography ("harmful matter") to minors under the nation's revised obscenity laws; the album included the H.R. Giger painting, Landscape #XX, which featured genitalia and sex acts in a surreal, assembly-line setting. The case ended in a hung jury and was dismissed. Former L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino later admitted the case was "a comedy of errors." But the drawn-out legal battle put such a strain on the Kennedys that they split up after Bedtime for Democrazy. Biafra took full ownership of the label after the band dissolved in 1986. Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death collects the band's more accessible material. The Dead Kennedys made the news again in 1993 when a box of reissues of their first album were mixed up with a package of Christian radio broadcast CDs, and inadvertently shipped to Christian stations around the country.
Biafra has persisted with his political ranting —which often revolves around free speech issues —on his spoken-word albums, college-lecture tours, and occasional collaborations with other artists. Among these collaborations was the band Lard (including Al Jourgenson and other members of Ministry). Biafra also appeared on the Offspring's Inxay on the Hombre. In 1994 he was beaten and his knee permanently damaged by "fundamentalist punks" at the Berkeley 924 Gilman club, once the home turf of Green Day. Mostly, he tends to the business of running Alternative Tentacles, which continues to put out music by button-pushing rock bands. Klaus Fluoride formed the politically charged acoustic band Five Year Plan, and East Bay Ray plays with hard rockers Skrapyard and a surf instrumental band —with East Bay Ray and Fluoride —called Jumbo Shrimp.
Running the label has often been a struggle. In 1997, a federal judge ordered Biafra and Alternative Tentacles to pay $2.2 million to the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police after the label printed a photograph of police on the back of a Crucifucks album. The singer was also found liable for failing to promote the Dead Kennedys' catalogue (when he refused to license "Holiday in Cambodia" for a Levi's commercial) and for paying insufficient royalties to his former bandmates; a jury awarded East Bay Ray, Fluoride, and Peligro about $222,000 in damages. In a countersuit filed by Biafra, a jury ruled in his favor that Ray had mismanaged the business partnership and had to pay Biafra $5,000. The ruling also stated that Decay Music, not the individual songwriters, owns the band's work and that the partnership can now make decisions based on a majority vote.
In 2000 Biafra toured as part of the Spitfire spoken word tour, founded by Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, and he ran in the New York state primary for the Green Party's presidential nomination. Alternative Tentacles released a live recording by the No WTO Combo, featuring Biafra, Novoselic, and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, in protest of policies of the WorldTrade Organization.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).