The Dead Kennedys are coming to Reno. But don’t expect to see Jello Biafra
The cover for the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 EP In God We Trust, Inc. is a searing indictment of early ‘80s American culture. Featuring a golden Christ hanging on a crucifix made out of dollar bills, its message is clear—religion has become about money, and money has become a religion. In many ways, the cover is a symbol for a theme the band investigated over its eight-year career—namely, America’s graven worship of consumer culture.
Strange, then, that in 1998, nearly 17 years after the EP’s initial release, Alternative Tentacles (owned by former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra) found itself in court battling three ex-band members over charges of insufficient royalty payments and failure to promote the band’s back catalog. Stranger still was Biafra’s claim that the dispute erupted over his decision in 1997 to veto the use of the band’s song “Holiday in Cambodia” in a Levi’s Dockers commercial.
“When the other band members contacted me and told me that they wanted to use the song to help sell Dockers, I got pretty frightened,” Biafra said during a telephone interview. “The idea of probably my favorite song the Dead Kennedys ever did being used in a commercial nauseated me. I would hate to have ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ become as tiresome to other people as hearing ‘Like a Rock’ in a Chevrolet commercial.”
The three ex-members—guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D. H. Peligro—deny that they wanted to sell the song to Levi’s. However, soon after, the three terminated their contract and brought a lawsuit against Alternative Tentacles. Then, in October 2000, the case went to court.
During the three-week trial, the issue focused around a $76,000 discrepancy in royalty payments. Though both sides agreed that money was owed, they had conflicting stories on how the mishap had occurred. Biafra said it was due to an accounting error, that an incorrect multiplier had been used to calculate the band members’ royalties. The other members alleged something more sinister and claimed that it was part of a plot to defraud them of money.
When all was said and done, the jury ruled against Biafra, awarding the three ex-members nearly $220,000 in damages and giving them control of the band’s entire back catalog. The jury also said the band members could now make decisions based on a majority, rather than unanimity. And, said the judge, they didn’t have to wait for the outcome of Biafra’s appeal.
Armed with a court order, the band members digitally remastered and rereleased the group’s old albums. The move proved profitable. According to deadkennedys.com, total sales have surpassed the 100,000 mark—an increase of 33 percent in the first year.
“The Dead Kennedys’ reissue campaign on Manifesto Records has been an absolute success,” wrote guitarist East Bay Ray on the band’s Web site. “With the band controlling the very music we helped create, sales of our back catalog increased. Obviously, we are doing something right.”
Biafra claimed the increased album sales came at a significant cost, saying the band shelled out more money in advertising than it received in increased sales. He also said he has yet to receive any of the profits.
“Once they hoodwinked the court and seized control of the albums, they quit paying me,” Biafra said. “Their lawyer sent me a letter saying they weren’t going to pay me anything because they wanted me to give them $140,000. That’s supposed to be my share of their legal bill to sue me.”
Along with re-releasing the old albums, the band also embarked on a reunion tour in November 2001. But before they could tour, they had to find a replacement for Biafra. They found one in Brandon Cruz, lead singer of the band Dr. Know and former TV child star in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
The problem with the reunion, Biafra said, is that promoters aren’t informing fans of his absence. As a result, people still show up expecting to see him at the helm.
“I feel bad for all the people who show up thinking it’s the real Dead Kennedys,” Biafra said. “Instead, it’s like going to see Black Sabbath and discovering that Donny Osmond is the lead singer. If they were going to do this, they could have at least been creative and picked someone like Gary Coleman. … But I say let the audience be the judge.”
Band members dispute Biafra’s charge, saying that they’ve done everything in their power to ensure people coming to the show know that he’s not part of the line-up. However, confusion still exists.
At the Jan. 11 Dr. Know show at Ark-a’ik, a teenager asked Cruz to sign a Dead Kennedys album. Ecstatic to be talking to the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, the youth was shocked to discover that Cruz wasn’t the original singer for the band.
“I get that a lot,” Cruz said. “Unfortunately, some people still don’t know that Jello isn’t in the band anymore.”
But Cruz is quick to point out that he feels the reunion tour has been a success. As evidence, he said the band has sold out 75 percent of its shows.
“Biafra says, ‘Let the audience be the judge,’ “ Cruz said. “Well, judging by the sold-out shows, the verdict they’ve rendered is that the DK reunion is a good thing.”
But after a year of touring, controversy continues to dog the band. At every stop, band members encounter people who resent the reunion.
“I think we are winning over more and more people,” Cruz said. “But there’s still controversy. I’ve even had death threats.”
Despite the controversy, Cruz said he’s looking forward to playing in Reno at the New Oasis on Jan. 24. He even claimed he harbors no resentment against Biafra.
“He’s called me a scab singer and a lot of other things, but I still buy all of Jello’s albums,” Cruz said. “I really think he’s an incredible talent. In fact, the other band members have even said they would take him back if he just apologized. And if they did, I would gladly step aside.”
Biafra bristled at the suggestion.
“Their story changes by the day," he said. "At one point they were going off on how much better they were going to be now that they had gotten rid of me and all my stupid political stuff. Then they’re claiming they’ll let me back in if I apologize. Apologize for what? They’re the ones who hired the corporate lawyer who represented Bill Graham, Journey, Boston and the Doobie Brothers to sue me."