“ONE MORE SHOPPING DAY!” The words didn’t take long to sink in. “ONE MORE SHOPPING DAY!” bellowed Jello Biafra, stalking back and forth on a makeshift stage at a makeshift venue on Industrial Road on December 30, 1983. Then, with the band doing a slow buildup behind him, “… UNTIL IT IS 1984!” At which point he launched into a rant that ranged from U.S. foreign policy to Las Vegas police. Then everything sped up and burst into “California Über Alles.”
All of this barely took up one minute of the Dead Kennedys’ New Year’s Eve eve performance at a warehouse along the railroad tracks known at the time as Pinollas. Thanks to KUNV-FM’s nightly alternative show Rock Avenue and a few programs on the Valley’s first cable TV system, Las Vegas had heard of the band in advance to the point where several hundred people turned up for the show, and it was clear from the start that the Dead Kennedys stood out among a sweaty avalanche of punk groups that had emerged as the Sex Pistols were flaming out. Where most relied on anger and shock value to augment basic youth rebellion rock, Jello put politics and humor squarely into the band’s mix in a way that made the music thought-provoking and fun. The politics were extreme left, the humor rich with satire and dark to the core, and Biafra was the main attraction—because it was obvious these things came from deep within his own belief system.
That night the group was mosh-perfect: sharp, tight and completely in sync with Jello. My brother-in-law and I staked out a spot where we could take it all in without getting hurt. Early in the set a few spotlights went dark from moshers scrambling across the stage and tripping on wires. The fast solos were really fast and the overall execution really impressive, especially considering most of the better-known songs were far more complex than typical three-chord punk.
Three years into the Reagan presidency, Biafra wasn’t hurting for topics for sporadic spoken and sung rants. Las Vegas was a frequent target: “The closest thing to Babylon I’ve ever seen.” He assured us that, “We’ll be doing new stuff, but also some moldy oldies for you commercial-minded punk rockers who only wanna hear the hits.” And he urged the crowd to support local bands even when they weren’t opening for established acts from out of town. They ripped through “Viva Las Vegas” in 85 frantic seconds, and the lights went out for the night.
The Dead Kennedys broke up in 1986, but after a long series of legal clashes, a band with that name has been touring without Jello on and off since 2001. He’s had success as a spoken-word performer, and I caught his three-hour set at the Sanctuary club behind the Huntridge Theatre in April 1999. It provided the same charge as a DK show, and you didn’t even mind that the band wasn’t there.