When an album as beloved and important (within its own spheres of influence) as punk rock icons Dead Kennedys‘ second full-length, Plastic Surgery Disasters, turns 40 years old, even an avid non-punk such as me has to acknowledge its lasting impact. Forget the disputes, conflicts, and controversies amongst those who made it – today, it’s all about the music, and that, from what I’ve been told at least, holds up to this day.
In the time since writing the above introduction, Dead Kennedys drummer Darren Henley aka D.H. Peligro has passed away. The musician, who made his first recorded appearance with the band on In God We Trust, Inc., the EP that preceded Plastic Surgery Disasters, was 63 years old. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and band mates. Rest in peace.
To go listening to punk without ever encountering the Dead Kennedys would be somewhat of an impossible task to say the least. This is a band that took to punk’s political and anti-authoritarian ideas, only to express them with a satirical sense of absurdity, even going as far as laughing at punk rock itself. Listening to the Dead Kennedys for the first time made me look at punk music in a completely different way; their music seemed to convey an intellectual edge that many classic punk bands seemed to lack at the time. It was always fascinating, and somewhat humorous, listening to classic tracks such as “California Über Alles”, “Kill the Poor”, “Holiday in Cambodia”, and “Pull My Strings” and being drawn into the politically charged and socially conscious messages that were being performed with a rather sarcastic and nihilistically comedic tone.
Whilst most of these classic tracks may have come off the band’s debut release Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, a legendary album in its own right, it was the Dead Kennedys‘ sophomore release Plastic Surgery Disasters that I think really upped their satirical and political antics whilst proving they could play even harder and faster in a more hardcore punk-oriented aggression.
Where can you even begin with this record? There are many areas to consider, be it Jello Biafra’s politically conscious lyrics being conveyed in such an aggressive and bizarre manner; East Bay Ray’s affluent guitar work that incorporates elements from nasty and rapid hardcore riffs to more complex jazz abilities, highlighting the endless amounts of creativity and diversity within this record; bassist Klaus Flouride pushing those dirty grooves to the limit as he did so well an album prior on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; accompanied by D. H. Peligro’s immense drumming that showed much density, in which he was able to match a lot of the interchanging musical techniques so well.
Some stand-out tracks that I personally felt gave this record it’s notoriety and brilliance include “Government Flu”, a stripped-back, groove-ridden, and climactic opener. It begins the album well, highlighting the band’s shift into a darker, more anarcho-punk direction. The following track “Terminal Preppie” adds more diverse musical characteristics such as the almost comedic horns and bluesy bass lines to accompany Jello’s distain for the upper-crust snobs infesting America’s college campuses. More decadence aimed towards the middle-class bourgeois and their meaningless lifestyles can be heard on the classic punk tune “Halloween” and the catchy, yet hard-hitting “Forest Fire”. Here, it’s fun to take pleasure in hearing the band completely run a mockery of America’s heavily contradictory middle-class social fabric.
The self-explanatory track “Riot” again shows the band’s anarchic and heavier musical direction in a song that just makes you want to get up and mosh to the sound of dissonant guitar lines and ear-piercing police sirens, whilst latter songs like “Bleed For”, “I am the Owl”, and “Moon Over Marin” take a direct stab at the greed and corruption embedded in the government, recognising their role in a wide stream of national and global issues like torture of civilians, overreach of surveillance, and environmental degradation.
It’s one thing to say that Plastic Surgery Disasters was a controversial and provocative record of its time, but it could even be said that the record, being deep-rooted in so many political and social issues, is still relevant today. The anarchy that ensues on this record is not as stripped-down and direct as some punk listeners might expect however; rather, the Dead Kennedys were always sure to convey their messages in the most satirical and poignant way possible be this through the self-referential, clever, and oftentimes humorous lyricism that provides a backdrop of entertainment, or the diverse range of musical experimentation that sees the band question punk rock’s commonly perceived angsty and musically simplistic nature.
Dylan Nicole Lawson
Hell yeah, DK all day! Definitely a punk staple as a band, or at least one of the first names that comes to mind when reflecting over the punk genre. Dead Kennedys turned up the heat for full-length two on this one, and with the production work of Thom Wilson and Geza X on the liner notes, it was sure to be a bombshell. Featuring a more hardcore focus, Dead Kennedys tell you all about just how hate-able the American Government is and was on Plastic Surgery Disasters.
It was 1982, skepticism was in, the times they were-a changin’, and rebellion was becoming the latest trend. But the songs on this album don’t even totally focus specifically on politicians. In fact, many tend to speak on annoyance with the pharmaceutical industry, the idea of having a title being the only judge of merits (as seen on “Well Paid Scientist”), upper class, and other familiar aspects of suburban, white America. A personal favorite is “I Am the Owl”, which makes an eerie focus on the haunting reality of government surveillance on its own people.
Something I’ve always appreciated about the Kennedys is their way of conveying a scathing message on corruption and political or social injustices, all the while making it one of the catchiest bops guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Somehow, it has the set-up for commercial pop music, but it just isn’t. Some might argue it a contradiction to their style and punk mentality in general, but I think it just reflects some authentic songwriting genius.
On top of bringing a catchy nature to educating the people of the horrors of their own society, Dead Kennedys find some interesting noise choices in each instrument. Some of the bass lines have much more forefront than would be expected in traditional punk music, the guitars almost supply this theatric layer of sound effects to pair nicely with the zany vocal approaches of Biafra. All of this together concocts into this formation that, while seemingly a bit cartoonish, emphasizes the message and presents as a trademark for the band.
‘Tonight, it’s a blast; Tomorrow, you’re homeless!’ With such visceral, strong lyrical work as well as performance, it’s no wonder this record left an impact. Biafra has also cited it as his favorite! It is also the first record to feature D.H. Peligro on drums. Mosh pits had never felt so dancey and fun before this record made its way to the floor.
First off, rest in power to D.H. Peligro. I want to acknowledge the awkward coincidence this puts us in. We’ve never been one to clout chase or get clicks on the backs of someone’s death or misfortune, and we don’t intend on doing it now. This ASIR episode has been planned since October 22 (technically way longer than that, since Dom lines these up months, sometimes years ahead of time). We didn’t think to delay or change it up because, well, that would have been very short notice to get a new episode going and, honestly, the circumstances just made it more clear that this was a good pick. For more, I’ll just point to Jello Biafra’s eulogization to Peligro posted on the Alternative Tentacles Instagram.
Dead Kennedys are without a single doubt my favorite punk band. They were also the first one I really latched onto aside from Bad Religion, who are full of merit and moxie as well, but nothing could top what DK did. The biting satire, the on-point sociopolitical commentary whose relevance only seems to deepen over the decades, the rabble-rouser attitude and energy. There’s no aspect of their music that isn’t captivating as hell, and across four albums, an EP, and their first (and only if it’s up to me) compilation, they had a death grip on this style to varying degrees. Their best work is, arguably, Plastic Surgery Disasters.
Just a quick note: streaming services and CD pressings of this album will attach DK’s In God We Trust, Inc. EP onto the end as a sort of deluxe package. Cool, and I absolutely love that EP as it’s their hardest material ever, but we’re just talking about the original 14 tracks of Plastic Surgery Disasters.
And they’re a hell of a set of 14 tracks. The tightest DK would ever be, even if this album’s missing their bigger hits that helped them break out and grow. And you know what? It’s assuredly in big part because of D.H. Peligro, who joined the band for the aforementioned EP in ‘81. Ted’s drumming on debut Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was instrumental (ha) in the band making an impression, driving heavy-hitters like “Chemical Warfare”, “Forward to Death”, and “Drug Me”. I will always remember those songs for the gems they are – they will just be sitting a row or two behind Plastic Surgery Disasters.
Peligro’s work was just so expressive. You can feel every fucking drum strike on every song. He always seemed to have a bit of flavor around each corner ready to spice things up, a bit of a rarity in punk, which tends to puts its message before musicianship (fair enough). Jello Biafra’s voice is one of the most unique and recognizable in music’s history with a distinct lilt, and he is in top form on this album. East Bay Ray’s guitars are a little less influenced by surf rock than they were on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, but it bleeds through when it wants to, like on “Moon Over Marin” or “Buzzbomb”. Wonderful melodies as well. Klaus Flouride’s bass is always present and truly complementary to Peligro’s percussion as the backbone of the band (“Halloween” is a bass standout). His backing vocals are unique and always accenting Biafra’s leads with harmonizations and more.
There’s just such a huge spark on this album that isn’t as present on any other album (it is on In God We Trust, Inc., which is why it makes sense the two were packaged together). Songs are faster, more melodic, in-your-face, and acerbic in approach. Even now, this is one of the few albums that absolutely nails that balance between dark humor and satire with its subjects that are more serious by nature. For every “Terminal Preppie” and “Buzzbomb”, there’s a “Trust Your Mechanic” and “I am the Owl”. I’m not calling Dead Kennedys absurdist geniuses, but I’m not not doing that either.
Dead Kennedys excelled at being agents of chaos. It was never their goal to be edgy for edgy’s sake (though they tread close occasionally), but rather interrogate the shit out of America’s Stepford Wife, white picket fence ideal of the American Dream, a bygone myth that was hardly ever attainable to begin with no matter what the boomers say. Not much was spared by Jelly Biafra and crew; rich-ass preppies, government-sanctioned torture and surveillance, stale social norms, and personal excess – and that’s just this one album.
“Forest Fire” is a favorite, setting fire to California hills the compounds of the rich reside in and watching them scramble to save their overpriced and coveted possessions before going to safety, continuing the elite antagony that was started on “Stealing People’s Mail” (and many others). “Government Flu” is a groovy monster about the feds testing debilitating drugs on the American populace for efficacy so they can use it abroad in Russia (this was 1985, so the Cold War Russophobia was in full force). “Winnebago Warrior” lampoons glamping yuppies before glamping was even really a thing.
The only song I don’t love unabashedly is “Dead End”. It’s fine enough, but set next to the other 13 tracks which all feel meaningful and unique, it pales with its message that effectively boils down to ‘don’t waste your time with dead end people and things that don’t fulfill you or only take from you’. That’s a good moral! It just doesn’t feel as DK as I’d like.
Dead Kennedys’ world was more cartoonish than it perhaps should have been, but they made it work exceedingly well, the humor acting as a crowbar to pry open the minds of youth like me 15 years ago and drop some real truth bombs to radicalize against fascist and apathetic thought. This is where a healthy distrust of your government and authority starts – that is, if you don’t already watch what happens in our real world, but that’s the stuff DK’s music is based on so same thing really.
That’s really all that needs to be said. You either jive with it or you don’t. If you’re looking for seminal punk institutions to delve into, Dead Kennedys is a wonderful start to ease into the punk world, which can be abrasive and unwelcoming, especially with the early years, which were produced lightly if at all. Maybe that makes them more punk, though. I don’t know anymore.
Dead Kennedys are one of those defining bands that just get it. Jello Biafro is a fucking wild front person that just elicits so much chaos and destruction it’s only and always intoxicating. East Bay Ray’s guitar work is raucous and brash, as if everything is on fire and instead of putting it out, he just fucking grabs a flamethrower to help it grow. D.H. Peligro’s (REST IN POWER) drumming is so pummeling throughout the entire album it just stays a rollicking galloping force of unstoppable destruction, and the basswork of Klaus Flouride slaps boxes throughout leaving faces sore everywhere. The frenetic and anxious energy this develops is something so inherently earnest it hurts. Dead Kennedys fire on all cylinders at all times, and Plastic Surgery Disasters just encapsulates this holistically.
Everything just works on this album, and is quintessential in understanding the underground hardcore scene in the ’80s, but also remains timeless in its definition of the ever destructive American Zeitgeist. “Government Flu” radiates similar energy between growing distrust megaphoned by DK in the ‘80s, to our own alternate bizarro world Covid disinformation nightmare we’re still actively trapped in. I recently saw Ruben Ostlund’s impeccable Triangle of Sadness and couldn’t help but think about how similar that wavelength is to “Forest Fire”. In another bizarro the Winnebago warriors DK takes aim at on “Winnebago Warrior” can just be swapped out for all these snobby Tesla-driving Musk bros, and while we’re at it, those fuckers are the same shits DK takes aim at on “Halloween” too. DK will always be on their bullshit, and throwing fists at all who deserve them. They are a fucking gem.
Americans have always been good at trash. We’re essentially a trash culture that has perfected a potent form of cognitive dissonance that denies claim to the reality of our actions in pursuit of things. Dead Kennedys has always been one of those bands from the underbelly, the honest part of our culture, that defines truth in every sense of the term. They’ll forever and always carry that torch alongside the likes of Public Enemy, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down, Run The Jewels, and the rest of the freedom fighters we rely on. Forever polarizing, ever passionate, brutally honest, and music to punch Nazis to… what else could one could ask for?