“Pull My Strings” was only performed once by the Dead Kennedys and it was basically a prank they pulled when they were asked to perform at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards (the “Bammies”). They started out playing their underground hit “California Uber Alles” wearing white button down shirts with “S”‘s on them. They suddenly stopped playing and announced “We’ve got to prove we’re adults here … We’re not a punk rock band, we’re a New Wave band!” and then pulled skinny ties around from the back so the “S”‘s became dollar signs. The skinny ties and white button down shirts were a direct knock on the Knack, who were then considered the most popular of all the New Wave bands. Anyway, the band launched into “Pull My Strings,” a song that critiqued the current state of rock at the time and was specifically directed at all the luminaries at the gathering. According to legend, Boz Scaggs was allegedly seen clawing his seat in anger. On the other hand, Eddie Money apparently told the Kennedys he liked it. In any case, it’s a funny and ingenious way to take the piss out of a group of fevered egos gathered together to pat themselves on the back. The song eventually appeared on the Kennedys’ compilation “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.” At some point in the late 2000s, “Death” went Gold, meaning it had sold 500,000 copies, a remarkable achievement for a hardcore punk band from the early 1980s.
Time to wake up! This is the lead-off track from Lard’s “The Last Temptation of Reid” album from 1990 and was later featured in the prison riot scene in Oliver Stone’s 1994 “Natural Born Killers” (though, you’ll hear more of it in the director’s cut which features a longer, more violent version of the prison riot among other scenes). Lard was a collaborative side project consisting of Al Jourgensen of Ministry and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys … as well as others, including other members of Ministry.
From Jello Biafra’s 1989 spoken word album “High Priest of Harmful Matter” comes this monologue about the “Frankenchrist” trial from 1987. “Frankenchrist” was a 1985 album released by the legendary punk rock group The Dead Kennedys (Biafra’s band at the time) and the album infamously included a poster that featured the H.R. Giger painting “Penis Landscape.”
Never mind that a sticker on the album cover contained a warning label about the poster, Biafra (and others) were brought up on criminal charges for “distributing harmful matter to minors.” What the prosecution hoped to do was for Biafra (an artist on an independent record label) to plead guilty so a legal precedent would be set. The prosecution actually admitted that going after Biafra was a “cost-effective” way to send a message. Had that precedent been set, then prosecutors could have gone after bigger game, such as Prince or Madonna. But Biafra … seeing the big picture and the REAL reason he was targeted … chose to fight the charges instead. Sadly, his fight was without the help of any major record label (who seriously should have seen the bigger picture as well and helped Biafra … but did not). Fighting the charges was expensive and nearly bankrupted Biafra and his record label, but he won … sort of. The trial resulted in a hung jury and the judge chose to dismiss the case after the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision.
The entire arrest and subsequent trial are brilliantly (and very entertainingly) explained in this 43-minute monologue. Some bad language here and there, but to quote the label on the “Frankenchrist” album, “life can sometimes be that way.”
Some bizarre footnotes of this trial:
1) Gene Simmons of KISS wanted to the buy Biafra’s life rights to make a dramatic film about the trial with Billy Crystal playing Biafra (?!?)
2) The prosecutor, Michael Guarino, later admitted it was a mistake to have gone after Biafra and later came together with him on Ira Glass’s “This American Life” to discuss the trial and for Guarino to apologize. Guarino also admitted that his son became a huge Dead Kennedys fan in later years and would blast their music to the annoyance of everyone on their street.
Here’s the DK’s with a deceptively mellower vibe … but only musically. The lyrics, on the other hand, are arguably as harsh as “Holiday in Cambodia” or “Kill the Poor.” Someone named “I Am the Owl” at Songmeanings.net sums it up better than I can:
“This song showcases the contradictions that arise when greed affects how our government handles the enforcement of property, contrasting the privatization of a beach (usually considered as a public commons) with the laissez-faire attitude towards environmental protection (inevitably leading to an oil spill). The contradiction of values literally washes up upon this yuppie Marin county residence, the proprietor, having given up any concerns of the rest of the world in the pursuit of this symbol of wealth, copes with their oil-sodden acquisition by strapping a gas mask on and sidestepping the remains of ocean fauna to remind themselves of who owns the deed. The irony of it all that nobody now can truly enjoy what once belonged to no one.”
Well put. A damn good song from 1982’s “Plastic Surgery Disasters” that should have been the DK’s commercial breakthrough … at least as far as American radio is concerned. But that’s not what the DKs were about … ever. It makes me wonder had it been their commercial breakthrough, would anyone have gotten what this song was about?
AKA “California Uber Alles Part Deux” … Only this time focusing on Ronald Reagan, instead of Jerry Brown. This is some really cool studio footage of the Dead Kennedys performing this classic from “In God We Trust, Inc.” 30+ years on, it’s easy to forget what an authentically provocative and dangerous band the Dead Kennedys were back in the day. But this brings it all back in spades.
From the 1990 album “The Last Temptation of Reid” comes the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen project from hell, Lard. This track is called “Can God Fill Teeth?” Alternately funny … and annoying … but in a good way. I always liked this song, even though most of it sounds like a cat being stretched in two. Lard was thoughtful enough to also include a cover of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha – Haa!” on the same album, but “Teeth” makes that one sound like the Carpenters.
One of the funniest anti-drug songs ever recorded, this song with the f-bomb in the title actually made the Top 40 in Great Britain in 1981. When British radio announcers were forced to acknowledge the song, they referred to it as “a record by the Dead Kennedys” like it was a piece of dog poop that inadvertently wound up on their hands.
The DK’s supplied a sticker to record stores that could be placed over the single that read: “Caution: You are the victim of yet another stodgy retailer afraid to warp your mind by revealing the title of this record so peel slowly and see…” However, much to the band’s amusement, some of those stickers wound up on Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” albums instead.
The song can now be found on the compilation “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death,” which achieved Gold status by the RIAA in 2007.
“Frankenchrist” was the Dead Kennedy’s 1985 long-awaited follow-up to their 1982 album “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” Nearly 30 years later, I can’t say it’s a better album, but it’s a lot better than I remember it. Of course, much of this reassessment has to do with all of the trouble that “Frankenchrist” whipped up back in the day.
A big part of the problem was the inclusion of a poster, a reproduction of Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger’s “Penis Landscape,” that was included with the album. If you want to see this painting, you can type in “H.R. Giger” and “Penis Landscape” into a Google image search and see what all the fuss was about. Please note that the artwork is not safe for work or little ones. Anyway, it caused the DK’s lead singer Jello Biafra to be arrested, along with other folks, and charged with “distributing harmful matter to minors” because the warning label on the album allegedly wasn’t big enough … or something like that. The reason why they were targeted (as opposed to a more high profile artist like Prince) was because the DKs were a smaller band on an independent label. As such, they were more financially vulnerable, more likely to plead guilty, which would then set a legal precedent so then, prosecutors could go after bigger artists. To Biafra’s enormous credit and foresight, he saw the big picture, decided to fight the suit and much to his financial detriment (and his band’s ultimate demise), wound up getting the case dismissed after a long and costly trial.
Biafra’s tale is most brilliantly told in his “High Priest of Harmful Matter” spoken word album, the track labelled “Tales from the Trial” that really needs to be heard by any person who appreciates free speech. Biafra’s speech on this album briefly inspired me to want to become a First Amendment lawyer back in college, a notion that was eventually disabused by my lack of public speaking skills. However, I do cherish the memory of dropping this career plan on my ultra-conservative attorney uncle back in the day and seeing him first turn white … then red … in fear and anger. His reaction was so extreme that even my conservative Dad chuckled and gave me a thumbs up for getting under my uncle’s skin so effectively. I gotta hand it to my Dad … he always went for the cheap (and funny) joke over principles. To paraphrase Ray Bolger in “The Wizard of Oz,” “If I’d only had a pair …”
The most bizarre footnote of this case was that Gene Simmons of KISS wanted to buy Biafra’s life rights to this story so he could produce a movie about the trial with Billy Crystal playing Biafra. As Ace Ventura would say, “Alllllrighty then!”
Cable TV has gotten better and worse since its mass infiltration during the 1980s. On the one hand, it’s now a cliche to point out that the five best shows on cable are far more innovative, artistic, and edgy than the five best motion pictures of any year. On the other hand, things have gotten so homogenized that it’s hard to find a cable channel with any identity anymore. You know you’ve reached a tipping point when CMT (Country Music Television) is showing “Caddyshack.”
However, back in the early 1980s, I would argue that cable was ballsier because they were really trying to be an alternative to regular TV and movies. A lot of it was cheesy, but there was an adventurous “let’s throw it against the wall” mentality that was quite exciting.
Which leads me to “Night Flight,” the USA Cable Network’s terrific late-night Friday and Saturday three-hour block of rock video, cult films, and other esoterica that you couldn’t find anywhere else on television (or video, for that matter). “Night Flight” featured a lot of music you couldn’t find on MTV back in the mid-1980s, including rap, punk, industrial music, and pretty much everything that was classified as “college rock.” It was the first place that I was exposed to Run DMC, R.E.M., Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, Roxanne Shante, and Laurie Anderson. I also had a chance to see great films such as “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains,” “Rude Boy,” and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” that were hard to find on video and couldn’t be seen anywhere else on cable.
Which now leads to “New Wave Theatre,” which was nationally available on “Night Flight.” “New Wave Theatre” was literally the only public outlet for hardcore punk music on national television at the time. I got into punk with my friends around the age of 13, but the only way you could experience it in those days was to trade tapes with friends. Unless you lived in a big city, the bands never came to your town and even if they did, you had to be 18 to get in. The albums were hard to find and if even if you could find them, they were beyond the budget of the average 13-year old. I remember seeing this very clip around 1984 or so and I felt like levitating. These days, moshing and slam dancing are about as corny and quaint as square dancing and the Charleston. However, this DK’s clip was the most exciting musical performance I’d ever seen. I remember being so wired afterwards that I couldn’t sleep. As a result, I watched “Night Flight” every week to see if they would repeat “New Wave Theatre,” only to discover later that the episode I saw was a rare repeat, since the host (Peter Ivers) was murdered around the same time. It wasn’t a complete loss by any means because I got to experience so many other cool things through “Night Flight.” But I also remember being terribly let down when it didn’t pop up until years later.
There are clips of “New Wave Theatre” scattered throughout “YouTube” if you’re feeling inclined. There’s also a terrific biography about Ivers that came out in 2008 called “In Heaven, Everything Is Fine” which I highly recommend as well.