Part of an irregular series of bite-sized posts about 7″ singles I own – shameless nostalgia from the days of vinyl. (Search ‘Backtracking’ to collect the set!)
DEAD KENNEDYS – California Über Alles b/w The Man With The Dogs (Fast, 1979)
I vividly remember the night I thought I had witnessed the death of Jello Biafra. Thanks to the miracles of the internet I can say for sure that the date was 8th October 1980 and the venue was the Music Machine in Camden Town, London (now the Koko). The net even tells me what the setlist was (the relatively lacklustre B-side was apparently the first song they played that night).
What I remember most about the concert was the moment that Biafra dove recklessly into the mosh pit and seemed as if he was not going to emerge. The docile bouncers eventually prized him free but for a moment it looked as if he was going to suffer a similar fate to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume (i.e. torn limb from limb).
The show preceded the band’s debut album (Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables) so most punters were there on the strength of the two amazing singles - California Über Alles and Holiday In Cambodia. Both have the demented energy of British Punk Rock rather than other arty U.S. new-wavey bands emerging from CBGBs like Talking Heads or Television.
Co-written by John Greenway. the target for California Über Alles, their debut single , was Governor Jerry Brown and is a warning off his Nazi-style ‘zen fascism’ with smileys in the place of swastikas. In updated versions of the song targeted even bigger problems in the form of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In later years, Biafra stood for mayor himself and although an anarchist at heart he still understood enough about the need for political organistations to say: “We still need government to transfer the wealth from those who have too much to those who have too little, to make sure important projects get done, and keep territorial humans from screwing over and killing each other…”
The swagger and energy of this single still stands up now so that the briefest of clips in the Social Network movie is enough to give a taste of its manic power. Three years on from the official peak of Punk, it remains one of the defining singles of the late 1970s.