Dead Kennedys Week – Day 3: Search & Destroy

To celebrate the upcoming release of our 105th 33 1/3 on  Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, author and historian Michael Stewart Foley will discuss the archival research involved in writing about the San Francisco punk scene. Each day, he’ll be highlighting one amazing hidden source, and so, today,  we bring you the third installment of Dead Kennedys week!

If you know your American punk zines, you know that Search & Destroy, started in San Francisco in 1977 by V. Vale (with financial help from Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), is generally regarded as the best. Aesthetically, it was peerless. A broadsheet published in bold and angular black, it could mix, in equal parts, surrealist imagery, propaganda poster graphics, art house photography, and IBM Selectric text. Vale and his coeditors took a Warholian approach to interviewing local punks and artists, as well as international artists coming through town. They set such a high standard that no one else could match it.

For me, as a historian, the value of Search & Destroy as a primary source is hard to overstate. It ran for only eleven issues, ok, but those eleven issues capture a period of American punk history that few other sources can equal. And thanks to distributing S&D all over the country – and to Europe – Vale and his colleagues inspired countless other zine writers and editors to start their own. If everyone who saw the Ramones in 1976 and 1977 started their own band, it seems like damn near everyone who read Search & Destroy wanted to start their own zine.

Part of what I love about Search & Destroy is the way it deliberately privileged political discourse and, therefore, brought intelligent political engagement to its punk readers. Not only did it feature a regular “Politics of Punk” column, but most of the interviews conducted by Vale and others got the artists talking about their own political views – their assessment of the state of the nation, of the problems facing young people, and their ideas for solutions. If you think of punk as a subculture defined by nihilism and transgression for transgression’s sake, you’ll be surprised at the thoughtful and articulate analyses offered by punks in the pages of S&D.

Vale and his co-editors provided a political platform not only for San Francisco bands like the Dils, Avengers, Negative Trend and Dead Kennedys, but also for bands from other parts of the country as well as from England. The interviews with Devo, Iggy, Pere Ubu and Black Randy are among the best ever given by those artists.

So by the time Jello Biafra came to San Francisco, Search & Destroy had already established itself as the nation’s premiere zine. Like a lot of aspiring punk artists, Biafra dreamed of one day being interviewed by Vale in the pages of S&D. In the fall of 1978, that dream came true. Biafra doesn’t remember it quite this way, but Vale says that Biafra came to the interview with notes – not quite talking points, perhaps, but at least with ideas that might be worth covering.

The Dead Kennedys interview below, along with the accompanying images and song lyrics, is so rich, you almost have to read it through several times.

If you were lucky enough to go to the Emerald Tablet this past weekend, for the Punk Rock Sewing Circle’s Early Warning spoken word event (a precursor to the Final Warning event coming in September) you may have been lucky enough to score a complete run of S&D from Vale himself. If you missed it, you can still get copies from RE/Search publications. And while you’re there, check out all the other cool stuff he’s got.

– Michael Stewart Foley

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