Ronald Regan, yuppies, MTV, the police: these were some of the many lyrical targets by Jello Biafra in songs by the Dead Kennedys. During the band’s 8-year tenure from 1978 to 1986, almost anything was on the table for lampooning and criticizing. No strangers to controversy, the band found the ire of conservative forces due to the lyrical content and artwork contained in their records. The surf-infused riffs of guitarist East Bay Ray, the walking basslines of Klaus Flouride, and the urgent drumming of DH Peligro set the stage for a unique approach to punk music, even in its infancy.
Dead Kennedys' legacy has stayed strong — despite some public disputes between Biafra and the band, as well as some Jello-less reformations — and they’ve influenced a large swath of bands across underground music.
Here are 5 covers of some Dead Kennedys tracks that may sound sonically different but retain the vitriol and fast-paced groove of the originals.
Napalm Death, "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"
When trying to connect a '70s punk band like the Dead Kennedys to a longstanding grind band like Napalm Death, there used to be a handful of peaks you’d have to travel in order to get there. But with the 1993 EP of the same name, released by Earache Records, Napalm Death built an autobahn of destruction that sent listeners careening towards the brick wall of the Dead Kennedys. The song hardly bears any resemblance to the original track, with an extended intro and enough blast beats to start an earthquake. Coupled with an original song, “Aryanisms," a live version of the title track, and a remix, the band packed a powerful punch on that small slab of wax.
While the Napalm Death version of the song also appeared on the 1992 Virus 100 compilation released by Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles, the proceeds of the standalone 7” release were given to antifascist organizations, which was influenced by some of the troubles the band experienced during their South African tours, as white supremacists were unhappy with the band’s steadfast stance against apartheid. The track still remains a staple in live their sets, decades after its release.
L7, "Let's Lynch the Landlord"
The aforementioned Virus 100 compilation brought together an interesting swath of bands such as Faith No More, Neurosis, Mojo Nixon, Sepultura, and Los Angeles hard grunge band L7. Much like the Dead Kennedys, L7 has been no stranger to controversy. The band secured their spot in rock history with a little bit of televised nudity and one particularly infamous used tampon. The band’s take on the anti-slumlord anthem is nothing short of powerful, with L7’s signature surf-laden and gritty instrumentation leading the charge and a reserved, almost airy, quality to the vocals.
You can hear the influence the Dead Kennedys had on L7 come through loud and clear on the track. One of the differences is in the guitar solo, which is augmented but still kicks ass. The band’s take on the DK original would have fit in perfectly on L7's hit Bricks Are Heavy album, but is an irreplaceable addition to the wild Virus 100 compilation.
Meth Leppard, "Religious Vomit"
Grinders from down under Meth Leppard took a stab at “Religious Vomit” on the compilation Grindcore Uber Alles: A Blast Beat Tribute to the Dead Kennedys, released by The Hills Are Dead Records in 2019. Meth Leppard is the only band I’ve heard of on the record, so naturally I checked out their track first after stumbling upon it on Bandcamp. Ever since hearing the song in my youth, I always thought it would sound sick as hell as a power violence or grind song.
Meth Leppard must have read my mind because they’re able to inject even more ferocity into an already venomous song. I mean, what else could you expect from a song about religion making you want to throw up? The band will be traveling to North America for a 20-date tour of the US, Canada and Mexico alongside PowerXchuck, Organ Dealer and Nak’ay, so check them out.
Earth Crisis, "Holiday in Cambodia"
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence Earth Crisis has had on modern hardcore in their 3-plus decade existence. Before the end of the band’s initial run, the album Last of the Sane was released by Victory Records in 2001, containing mostly covers and re-recordings of classic Earth Crisis jams. The selection of covers really run the gamut of the band’s influences: The Rolling Stones, DYS, Slayer, and Black Sabbath are all represented, as are other bands.
One of the tracks that stands out is the cover of “Holiday In Cambodia," where the band is able to nail the sinister nature of the introductory build-up, and put their own spin on the body of the song. Naturally, Earth Crisis vocalist Karl Buechner elected not to include the use of the racial slur that Jello Biafra penned in the song, which is not always the choice made by bands covering the song (looking at you, Boy Sets Fire). All in all, it’s a pretty solid take on the classic DK jam.
Spazz, "Short Songs"
If you know much of anything about the second wave Bay Area power violence band Spazz, you know they indeed like short songs. It only made sense that the band would cover “Short Songs” on their 1997 split with Lack of Interest, released by Deep Six Records. An imitation of Jello Biafra’s spoken intro to the original track starts off the song, replacing the namedrop of Rick Wakeman (Yes) with a reference to Despise You vocalist Chris Elder.
Clocking in at under 30 seconds, the band rips through the song at high speed, barely able to keep the vocals on time. Sometimes listening to Spazz, it’s easy to forget they were just 3 guys going as fast as they could, with incredible results. If you like short songs, the Tastin’ Spoon 5” by Spazz contains 4 covers of one second songs by Crab Society North, Napalm Death, The Electro Hippies, and Sore Threat. How’s that for brevity?