For anyone who still lives with the hope that the Dead Kennedys will one day make peace with their estranged vocalist and frontman Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray can guarantee it’s a forlorn one.
“I mean Biafra’s a bit of a chicken!” he loudly declares, with more than a hint of disdain. “There was this festival in Montreal where this guy booked Danzig on one night and Misfits on the other night and he booked Biafra’s band and our band on separate nights and Biafra pulled out! He’s the one that has the problem.”
The band’s relationship with Biafra has degenerated since disputes about royalty payments and song licensing broke out between them in the late 1990s. Following extensive legal proceedings, Jello Biafra was found to have defrauded the group and the rest of the band – Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D.H. Peligro – were awarded the rights to their recordings. Biafra has since regularly expressed his anger about the remaining Kennedys licensing songs to corporate interests such as big-budget Hollywood films, video games and advertising, the last of which the band denies.
The split remains bitter: “The problem is that he’s like the crazy uncle in the family,” Ray says. “He’s the one that had his hand in the till. His record label Alternative Tentacles skimmed $70 000 from the band, and somehow he thinks that’s all our fault. He’s like that river in Egypt – in de Nile.”
The Dead Kennedys reformed with vocalist Brandon Cruz at what was meant to be a one-off performance at the release of their live album Mutiny on the Bay in 2001 and have toured sporadically ever since, these days with Skip Greer out front.
“When the record came out we put together a bunch of bands to play and D. H. came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t we get up on stage and play?’” Ray says of the initial reunion. “So we did. We booked a rehearsal studio in LA and the rumour mill hit and there was about 300 people outside the club that couldn’t get in. We played the songs strictly as a one-off and it turned into a love-in!”
More than 35 years after Dead Kennedys first got together, their messages remain as potent as ever. Originally penned as strident protests against the economics of the Reagan administration and criticism of American society in general, many of the band’s songs are as pertinent now as they were then. East Bay Ray is keen to point out that some of them can also be re-interpreted to the current era.
“It’s kinda sad in a way that some of the songs are still so relevant, like ‘Bleed for Me’,” he says. “But there’s other things going on. ‘MTV – Get Off the Air’ has sort of been turned around to make fun of Internet bloggers who think they know everything because they’re on the Internet.”
These days it appears that the Internet – or more correctly the huge companies behind it – are the prime target of Ray’s anger. With an argument that reflects Dead Kennedys’ own battles with Jello about copyright and ownership recognition, Ray draws the likes of Google and Facebook as leeches and thieves using the work and property of others to create their revenue.
“People have to realise that the Internet is starting to – and it doesn’t have to end up that way – but it’s becoming a big advertising medium. Google is the second-biggest corporation in America, and they make 95% of their money from advertising,” he claims. “Facebook makes their money from advertising. There’s really no difference between a Dead Kennedys song and someone’s personal photo – if it can be clickbait and turned into advertising dollars, they’ll do it. They wanna use your life or my work and labour, or any independent band or any independent writer, independent film maker, photographers… we’re all just clickbait for them.”
The Internet’s capability for data retention has been a problematic feature of the technology since it was invented. While history caches and cookies allow browsers to re-connect to favoured sites and pages faster, literally everything that is given up to the Internet is still there somewhere. As Edward Snowden has revealed and Jennifer Lawrence has learned, anyone’s personal information can be used for nefarious purposes by anyone else with an Internet connection. It’s an abuse of personal freedom and liberty that East Bay Ray doesn’t stand for.
“The way Internet advertising works is surveillance. Google has to surveil you, Amazon has to surveil you, Facebook… in order to maximise their profits to their shareholders. We have surveillance in the name of Wall Street corporate profit. That’s gotta be changed. The way people use stuff. The way Instragram uses your photos or some Russian mob uses my songs to sell advertising. If people are using other people’s stuff without consent, have can you have liberty? How can you have liberty if you don’t have consent over how your stuff is used?”
It’s a subject that fits perfectly into Dead Kennedys philosophy. If Bedtime for Democracy was released now, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page would probably be on the cover helping Hitler defile the State of Liberty.
“You need to get consent to be able to use your stuff on the Internet,” Ray continues. “You should be able to go to Facebook or Google or Amazon and, just like they used to have with credit agencies, they had to keep all that stuff private and in the US they passed a law that you could see all the files that they have on you… For democracy and liberty to go forward, a citizen should be able to go to Facebook or Amazon and demand the files they have on them and be able to correct any errors and redact anything that it’s nobody else’s fucking business to know about. Those companies will fight that tooth and nail. They’ll tell people, ‘Oh, they’re trying to censor the Internet!’ But it’s really about their bottom line.”
Human rights activists and civil libertarians have long fought for the implementation of some degree of censorship over the Internet. Concepts such as the right to be forgotten have been invoked in court rulings against Google and Wikipedia in the past, for example, leading the likes of Wikimedia Foundation head Jimmy Wales to claim that such legislation would lead to the advent of Orwellian-style “memory holes” in the Internet. East Bay Ray laughs that off.
“Don’t buy the lie about regulating the Internet. It was never about regulating the Internet. It was always about regulating Wall Street corporations,” he explains with the enthusiasm of a man still fighting the system well into his fifties. “Free speech is supposed to protect YOUR speech. There’s a difference between free speech and plagiarism. For example when you take someone else’s thing and get credit for it. They like to confuse regulating the Internet with regulating businesses. There’s a profound moral difference between sharing with family and friends and distributing on the Internet without permission for profit. That’s a big moral difference and I’m still astonished that people don’t know the difference between those issues. It’s not kids in basements anymore. These are huge, giant corporations.”
Google and their ilk are, he says, now the Establishment. They are the ones that need to be brought into line, to have controls put on them and to be exposed as the monsters they are. The guitarist is even ready to put aside his animosity for government if they are more willing to do something.
“I’m not a big fan of government, but this is one thing where the government has to come in and regulate these assholes. It’s the same thing with food. If grocery stores were allowed to sell bad food or it was poisonous and [it was just] left up to the free market, so that, ‘Oh, people died at that grocery store, so I’ll go to this one’ – that’s crazy! As messed up as the government is, at least their motive [in this case] strictly isn’t profit. At least they say that on paper. You regulate food so you don’t get poisonous junk at the grocery store, it’s the same thing: regulate Internet businesses so they’re not poisoning people and poisoning lives.”
His passion for informing the masses about injustices and restrictions on liberty and personal freedoms comes across with every word he speaks. You get the feeling that, at 55 years old, East Bay Ray is still the angry California punk he was when he established Dead Kennedys in 1978. While the band’s glory days with Jello Biafra are still vivid in the memories of many, he promises that the message of his band will always be more important than who delivers it.
“The songs are bigger than any individual member,” he says. “The message of think for yourself and question authority is bigger than any individual member.”
Dead Kennedys start their Australian tour at the end of this month:
30/9: Fowlers Live, Adelaide SA (A/A)
1/10: 170 Russell Street, Melbourne VIC
3/10: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
4/10: Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast QLD
5/10: HiFi Bar, Sydney NSW
8/10: Mona Vale Hotel, Mona Vale NSW
9/10: The Entrance Leagues Club, Central Coast NSW
10/10: Small Ballroom, Newcastle NSW
11/10: Capitol, Perth WA