During my punk days in the good old eighties I stumbled across many bands that influenced my rebellious character and thinking. Amongst them were the Sex Pistols, The Exploited, The Clash, Seven Seconds, GBH, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. The latter always left an impression on me, not only for the music but for the critical ethos of frontman Jello Biafra. After a few decades of listening to other music I came across him once again, but now more as a (political) critic rather than a musician. He is perhaps not known to many so I shall feature him in this post.
Eric Reed Boucher (born 1958), better known by his professional name Jello Biafra, is an American singer, musician, and spoken word artist. He is the former lead singer and songwriter for the San Francisco punk rock band Dead Kennedys.
Initially active from 1979 to 1986, Dead Kennedys were known for rapid-fire music topped with Biafra’s sardonic lyrics and biting social commentary, delivered in his “unique quiver of a voice.” When the band broke up in 1986, he took over the influential independent record label Alternative Tentacles, which he had founded in 1979 with Dead Kennedys bandmate East Bay Ray. In a 2000 lawsuit, upheld on appeal in 2003 by the California Supreme Court, Biafra was found liable for breach of contract, fraud and malice in withholding a decade’s worth of royalties from his former bandmates and ordered to pay over $200,000 in compensation and punitive damages; the band subsequently reformed without Biafra. Although now focused primarily on spoken word performances, Biafra has continued as a musician in numerous collaborations. He has also occasionally appeared in cameo roles in films.
Politically, Biafra is a member of the Green Party of the United States and supports various political causes. He ran for the party’s presidential nomination in the 2000 presidential election, finishing a distant second to Ralph Nader. In 1979 he ran for mayor of San Francisco, California. He is a staunch believer in a free society, and utilizes shock value and advocates direct action and pranksterism in the name of political causes. Biafra is known to use absurdist media tactics, in the leftist tradition of the Yippies, to highlight issues of civil rights and social justice.
Born in Boulder, Colorado, Boucher developed an interest in international politics that was encouraged by his parents. An avid news watcher, one of his earliest memories was of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Biafra says he has been a fan of rock music since first hearing it in 1965, when his parents accidentally tuned in to a rock radio station. Boucher ignored his high school guidance counselor’s advice that he spend his adolescence preparing to become a dental hygienist.
He began his career in music in January 1977 as a roadie for the punk rock band The Ravers (who later changed their name to The Nails), soon joining his friend John Greenway in a band called The Healers. The Healers became well known locally for their mainly improvised lyrics and avant garde music. In the autumn of that year, he began attending the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In June 1978, he responded to an advertisement placed in a store by guitarist East Bay Ray, stating; “guitarist wants to form punk band,” and together they formed the Dead Kennedys. He began performing with the band under the stage name Occupant, but soon began to use his current stage name, a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the short-lived African state Biafra. The band’s lyrics were written by Biafra. The lyrics were mostly political in nature and displayed a sardonic, sometimes absurdist, sense of humor despite their serious subject matter. In the tradition of UK anarcho-punk bands like Crass and the Subhumans, the Dead Kennedys were one of the first US punk bands to write politically themed songs. The lyrics Biafra wrote helped popularize the use of humorous lyrics in punk and other types of hard-core music. Biafra cites Joey Ramone as the inspiration for his use of humor in his songs (as well as being the musician who made him interested in punk rock), noting in particular songs by the Ramones such as “Beat on the Brat” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”.
Biafra initially attempted to compose music on guitar, but his lack of experience on the instrument and his own admission of being “a fumbler with my hands” led Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride to suggest that Biafra simply sing the parts he envisioned to the band. Biafra sang his riffs and melodies into a tape recorder, which he brought to the band’s rehearsal and/or recording sessions. This later became a problem when the other members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra over royalties and publishing rights. By all accounts, including his own, Biafra is not a conventionally skilled musician, though he and his collaborators (Joey Shithead of D.O.A. in particular) attest that he is a skilled composer and his work, particularly with the Dead Kennedys, is highly respected by punk-oriented critics and fans.
Biafra’s first popular song was the first single by the Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles.” The song, which spoofed California governor Jerry Brown, was the first of many political songs by the group and Biafra. Not long after, the Dead Kennedys had a second and bigger hit with “Holiday in Cambodia” from their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. AllMusic cites this song as “possibly the most successful single of the American hardcore scene” and Biafra counts it as his personal favorite Dead Kennedy’s song. Minor hits from the album included “Kill the Poor” (about potential abuse of the then-new neutron bomb) and a satirical cover of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” The Dead Kennedys received some controversy in the spring of 1981 over the single “Too Drunk to Fuck.” The song became a hit in Britain, and the BBC feared that it would manage to be a big enough hit to appear among the top 30 songs on the national charts, requiring a mention on Top of the Pops. However, the single peaked at number 31 in the charts.
Later albums also contained memorable songs, but with less popularity than the earlier ones. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. contained the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” as well as “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now,” a rewritten version of “California Über Alles” about Ronald Reagan. Punk musician and scholar Vic Bondi considers the latter song to be the song that “defined the lyrical agenda of much of hardcore music, and represented its break with punk”. The band’s most controversial album, Frankenchrist, brought with it the song “MTV Get Off the Air,” which accused MTV of promoting poor quality music and sedating the public. The album also contained a controversial poster by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger entitled Penis Landscape.
The Dead Kennedys toured widely during their career, starting in the late 1970s. They began playing at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens (their home base) and other Bay Area venues, later branching out to shows in southern Californian clubs (most notably the Whisky a Go Go), but eventually they moved to major clubs across the country, including CBGB in New York. Later, they played to larger audiences such as at the 1980 Bay Area Music Award, and headlined the 1983 Rock Against Reagan festival.
On May 7, 1994, punk rock fans who believed Biafra was a “sell out” attacked him at the 924 Gilman Street club in Berkeley, California. Biafra claims that he was attacked by a man nicknamed Cretin, who crashed into him while moshing. The crash injured Biafra’s leg, causing an argument between the two men. During the argument, Cretin pushed Biafra to the floor and five or six friends of Cretin assaulted Biafra while he was down, yelling “Sellout rock star, kick him,” and attempting to pull out his hair. Biafra was later hospitalized with serious injuries. The attack derailed Biafra’s plans for both a Canadian spoken-word tour and an accompanying album, and the production of Pure Chewing Satisfaction was halted. However, Biafra returned to the Gilman club a few months after the incident to perform a spoken-word performance as an act of reconciliation with the club.
Biafra has been a prominent figure of the Californian punk scene and was one of the third generation members of the San Francisco punk community. Many later hardcore bands have cited the Dead Kennedys as a major influence. Hardcore punk author Steven Blush describes Biafra as hardcore’s “biggest star” who was a “powerful presence whose political insurgence and rabid fandom made him the father figure of a burgeoning subculture and a inspirational force who could also be a real prick … Biafra was a visionary, incendiary performer”.
After the Dead Kennedys disbanded, Biafra’s new songs were recorded with other bands, and he released only spoken word albums as solo projects. These collaborations had less popularity than Biafra’s earlier work. However, his song “That’s Progress”, originally recorded with D.O.A. for the album Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, received considerable exposure when it appeared on the album Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.
In 1998, three former members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra for nonpayment of royalties. The other members of Dead Kennedys alleged that Biafra, in his capacity as the head of Alternative Tentacles records, discovered an accounting error amounting to some $75,000 in unpaid royalties over almost a decade. Rather than informing his bandmates of this mistake, the suit alleged, Biafra knowingly concealed the information until a whistleblower employee at the record label notified the band. According to Biafra, the suit resulted from his refusal to allow one of the band’s most well-known singles, “Holiday in Cambodia”, to be used in a commercial for Levi’s Dockers; Biafra opposes Levi’s because of his belief that they use unfair business practices and sweatshop labor. Biafra maintained that he had never denied them royalties, and that he himself had not even received royalties for re-releases of their albums or “posthumous” live albums which had been licensed to other labels by the Decay Music partnership. Decay Music denied this charge and have posted what they say are his cashed royalty checks, written to his legal name of Eric Boucher. Biafra also complained about the songwriting credits in new reissues and archival live albums of songs, alleging that he was the sole composer of songs that were wrongly credited to the entire band.
In May 2000, a jury found Biafra and Alternative Tentacles liable by not promptly informing his former bandmates of the accounting error and instead withholding the information during subsequent discussions and contractual negotiations. Biafra was ordered to pay $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages. After an appeal by Biafra’s lawyers, in June 2003, the California Court of Appeal unanimously upheld all the conditions of the 2000 verdict against Biafra and Alternative Tentacles. Furthermore, the plaintiffs were awarded the rights to most of Dead Kennedys recorded works—which accounted for about half the sales for Alternative Tentacles. Now in control of the Dead Kennedys name, Biafra’s former bandmates went on tour with a new lead vocalist.
As of late 2005, Biafra was performing with the band The Melvins under the name “Jello Biafra and the Melvins”, though fans sometimes refer to them as “The Jelvins.” Together they have released two albums, and worked on material for a third collaborative release, much of which was premiered live at two concerts at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco during an event called Biafra Five-O, commemorating Biafra’s 50th birthday, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Dead Kennedys, and the beginning of legalized same-sex marriage in California. Biafra was also working with a band known as Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
In June 1979, Biafra co-founded the record label Alternative Tentacles, with which the Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Über Alles”. The label was created to allow the band to release albums without having to deal with pressure from major labels to change their music, although the major labels were not willing to sign the band due to their songs being deemed too controversial. After dealing with Cherry Red in the UK and IRS Records in the US for their first album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the band released all later albums, and later pressings of Fresh Fruit on Alternative Tentacles. The exception being live albums released after the band’s break-up, which the other band members compiled from recordings in the band partnership’s vaults without Biafra’s input or endorsement. Biafra has been the owner of the company since its founding, though he does not receive a salary for his position; Biafra has referred to his position in the company as “absentee thoughtlord”.
Biafra is an ardent collector of unusual vinyl records of all kinds, from 1950s and 1960s ethno-pop recordings by the likes of Les Baxter and Esquivel to vanity pressings that have circulated regionally, to German crooner Heino (for whom he would later participate in the documentary Heino: Made In Germany); he cites his always growing collection as one of his biggest musical influences.
Biafra became a spoken word artist in January 1986 with a performance at University of California, Los Angeles. In his performance he combined humor with his political beliefs, much in the same way that he did with the lyrics to his songs. Despite his continued spoken word performances, he did not begin recording spoken word albums until after the disbanding of the Dead Kennedys.
His ninth spoken word album, In the Grip of Official Treason, was released in October 2006. Biafra was also featured in the British band Pitchshifter’s song As Seen on TV reciting the words of dystopian futuristic radio advertisements.
Biafra was an anarchist in the 1980s, but has shifted away from his former anti-government views. In a 2012 interview, Biafra said “I’m very pro-tax as long as it goes for the right things. I don’t mind paying more money as long as it’s going to provide shelter for people sleeping in the street or getting the schools fixed back up, getting the infrastructure up to the standards of other countries, including a high speed rail system. I’m totally down with that.”
In 2000, the New York State Green Party drafted Biafra as a candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, and a few supporters were elected to the party’s nominating convention in Denver, Colorado. Biafra chose death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal as his running mate. The party overwhelmingly chose Ralph Nader as the presidential candidate with 295 of the 319 delegate votes. Biafra received 10 votes.
Biafra, along with a camera crew (dubbed by Biafra as “The Camcorder Truth Jihad”), later reported for the Independent Media Center at the Republican and Democratic conventions.
After losing the 2000 nomination, Jello became highly active in Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, as well as in 2004 and 2008. During the 2008 campaign Jello played at rallies and answered questions for journalists in support of Ralph Nader. When gay rights activists accused Nader of costing Al Gore the 2000 election, Biafra reminded them that Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center wanted warning stickers on albums with homosexual content.
After Barack Obama won the general election, Jello wrote an open letter making suggestions on how to run his term as president. Biafra criticized Obama during his term, stating that “Obama even won the award for best advertising campaign of 2008.” Biafra dubbed Obama “Barackstar O’Bummer”. Biafra refused to support Obama in 2012. Biafra has stated that he feels that Obama continued many of George W. Bush’s policies, summarizing Obama’s policies as containing “worse and worse laws against human rights and more and more illegal unconstitutional spying.”
On September 18, 2015, it was announced that Jello would be supporting Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the 2016 presidential election. He has strongly criticised the political position of Donald Trump, saying “how can people be so fucking stupid” on hearing the election result, and later adding “The last person we want with their finger on the nuclear button is somebody connected to this extreme Christianist doomsday cult.”
On February 28, 2020, Jello announced that he would be supporting both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential election. “I personally like Warren slightly better than Bernie because: 1) She’s done her homework. Bernie too, but not to quite the same depth or degree. 2) Think about it — who really has a better chance of actually beating Trump, and helping flip Congress and state legislatures? It’s Elizabeth Warren, hands down.” He went on to say that he considered Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg “almost as bad as Trump.”
On April 12, 2020, Jello expressed disappointment that Bernie Sanders had suspended his campaign for the 2020 Democratic Nomination.
For me a thinker, a watcher, a critic, debater – people we need on the other side that create political awareness and rebel against the (failed) system…
Check him out(or not):
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, poetpas