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 fifth and final installment of Dead Kennedys week!
For the last installment of Dead Kennedys week, check out this video of the DKs playing the Mabuhay Gardens in 1979, as they were refining the songs that eventually appeared on Fresh Fruit. The video was made by Joe Target (aka Joe Rees) of Target Video. Over the late 1970s and well into the 1980s Target recorded hundreds of performances at the Mab and other venues (including its own studio). Target shot Crime playing San Quentin State Prison as well as the legendary performance of Mutants and the Cramps at the Napa State Mental Hospital, and they videotaped pretty much every other important punk show in San Francisco in those years.
This clip – which is part of just one of the twelve full Dead Kennedys concerts Target has in its vaults – is an indispensable primary source for the punk historian. For one thing, it is relatively rare to find footage of the band playing this song, probably the most controversial one on the album. This is the song that brought the band to the attention of Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center. Like a lot of people, Gore and the PMRC did not bother to listen to the song, and just assumed that it was somehow advocating the killing of children; I put the song in historical context (in what SF punk Al Ennis called the “golden age of serial killers”) and explain its real meaning in the book.
But this video is also really useful because it shows a representative example of Dead Kennedys interaction with the audience. We see many of Jello Biafra’s trademark performative moves – the mocking of the audience, the miming – but we see the audience response, too. As I note in the book, there was something both thrilling and threatening about the band’s show in these years. We see Biafra run and/or dive into the crowd repeatedly – at a time when few performers did this and the term “mosh pit” had not yet been coined – only to be knocked down or pushed back on stage. I like the parts where, on the one hand, an audience member helps Biafra, gently, back to the stage, and on the other hand, when another just flips a sustained middle finger at Biafra toward the end of the song. DK shows were meant to be a challenge to all concerned, a kind of test of the community’s commitment, and we get to see all of this in this three minute clip.
Videotape is, alas, not a durable technology. Joe Target keeps his massive archive – only a fraction of which has been digitized – in his own archive high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Nothing would be better than if that archive could be acquired and preserved in a premiere repository so that punks, scholars – anyone – could see these amazing video documents of a rebel culture that was so important to so many people. If you know anyone at a major repository that might have an interest, contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org. And check out the Target web site, the Target video blog and on Facebook.
– Michael Stewart Foley