Monday, August 3, 2009

Song of the Week: "California Uber Alles", Dead Kennedys

Listen -- The Dead Kennedys perform California Uber Alles.

If this song doesn't get your blood pumping, then nothing ever will. Our SoTW this week is the Dead Kennedys' political satire, California Uber Alles. Specifically, it is the first version of the song released in 1979 as a single. Penned by frontman Jello Biafra, the Boulder, Colorado native born Eric Boucher who changed his name and geography. The song is satirically sung from the perspective of then Governor of California, the new-agey Jerry Brown. In the song Biafra imagines a not too far off time when "Carter power will soon go away" and be replaced by the commands of "Zen Fascist" Jerry Brown who will force your kids to "meditate in school".

The Dead Kennedys were one of the most important, original and earliest pillars in the American punk or hardcore scene. A scene that was birthed almost entirely in California. As we noted in our earlier article on X, the California hardcore scene created a completely unique movement in music. Far less extravagant and outlandish in appearance than it's UK counter-part movement, the California scene pushed minimalism. But truth be told, the Dead Kennedys were different than other bands in the scene. More political, more humorous, more eager to offend any and all constituencies. Both evangelicals and progressives lined up to throw eggs at a band they found offensive to their sensibilities. The Dead Kennedys reveled in their thumb in the eye of everyone positioning. One need look no further than their name to see proof of that.

In California Uber Alles, Biafra holds nothing back: "Zen fascists will control you, 100% natural. You will jog for the master race and always wear a happy face". But it's the bridge at 1:41 of the song, both musically and lyrically, where the song hits it's high point. Slowed down to a half tempo we start with an ominous single string riff played by guitarist East Bay Ray. Biafra's famous quivering voice (reminiscent of Feargal Sharkey of the Undertones) mixes images of George Orwell, the Nazi movement and hippy cults. It is one of the best movements in a song that I have ever heard: "Now it's 1984. Knock-knock at your front door. It's the suede/denim secret police, they have come for your uncool niece. Come quietly to the camp. You'd look nice as a draw string lamp. Don't you worry it's only a shower, for your clothes here's a pretty flower." Then, "Die on organic poison gas." Nobody was spared from the sarcastic wit.

Some time around 1983 I saw the Dead Kennedys perform in San Francisco at Mabuhay Gardens and then again at The Farm. They were two of the best shows that I ever saw. Not musically so much as from the perspective of a total performance. As the martial drums rolled California Uber Alles to a close, Biafra goose-stepped around the stage with a mock Nazi salute. The racist Nazi-punks in the audience sensing they were being ridiculed stormed the front of the stage and spat upon the shirtless Biafra who wiped the spit all over his chest and face. As the nazi-punks would flail at him and gesture with their middle finger, Biafra yelled out the count-down for the next song: "Nazi-Punks, Fuck Off! 1-2-3!" The battle was on and the stage became a melee. I moved to the back of the very small room and was, to be honest, very scared. I couldn't believe that the diminutive Biafra would invite this type of trouble. But the Dead Kennedys were afraid of nothing and no one. And it comes across in this song. Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, how nice of Jerry Brown to become California's governor (again), just so we have an excuse to hear this song again.