O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire – June 27th
The woolly mammoth in the room of any current Dead Kennedys show is, of course, an absence – that of estranged former frontman and lyricist Jello Biafra. The rest of the band are no doubt sick of the fact, but it is a stretch to blank the lack of one of punk’s most prominent figures, a man whose scything satire made DK the fiercest political force of their genre.
Tonight, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on the conclusion of an 11-date European tour, drummer DH Peligro had also been substituted, his stool ably filled by hardcore sticksman Steve Wilson, meaning that only half the classic Kennedys remained – bassist Klaus Flouride and guitarist East Bay Ray, whose howling, harrowing take on surf-punk six-string was always the other key component of the DK sound. The man now tasked with delivering the San Francisco band’s vocal vitriol was a New Yorker, Skip, admirably close to Biafra in energy and stage theatrics, though more entertainer than agitator. His tongue-in-cheek goading of the crowd about ‘soccer’, the ‘godforsaken’ UK and being too old for punk rock was pretty hackneyed, though you can’t really beef about his readiness to hurl himself into a molten mosh-pit boiling and frothing with balding bulk and younger Kennedy converts alike.
This was a crowd psyched to get stuck in, no matter what emanated from the stage, as proven by their enthusiasm for a relatively wooden opening salvo of the ‘Rawhide’ theme and ‘Winnebago Warrior’. But when the guttural amphetamine lick of ‘Insight’ rang out, it served as a jolting reminder of just how red-hot those early Dead Kennedys tunes were. ‘Let’s Lynch The Landlord’ and ‘Moon Over Marin’ followed suit, as did what could be a nailed-on critique of Cameron Cabinet ideology, ‘Kill The Poor’. Here the lyrics had been contemporarily tweaked – “Obama’s on YouTube today/Convince the liberals it’s OK” – as was a clumsier rework of ‘MTV Get Off The Air’ to ‘MP3 Get Off The Net’. ‘California Uber Alles’, though, was played out in its original glory, despite DK having already brilliantly repurposed the song after Ronald Reagan was elected: ‘We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now’.
Maximum frenzy was reached during ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ – propelled by East Bay Ray’s famed chainsaw riff; an accelerated version of ‘Bleed For Me’, whose 1981 depiction of the poisoned fruits of CIA subterfuge is all too relevant; and the impossibly quick 90-second thrash, ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. Perhaps the contradictions of the latter acting as such a riotous agro shout-out wouldn’t have been lost on Jello Biafra – still very much the activist – or indeed any of the current lineup, but the DK of tonight seemed satisfied with dependable, dynamic punk nostalgia, the social comment a component of the material rather than its catalyst. But, hell, these guys can hammer out a set to thrill. Nearly four decades in and during its high points, not least the still extraordinarily spine-chilling ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ encore, it was easy to become immersed and even to forget about who wasn’t there.