Dead Kennedys in the West:
The Politicized Punks of 1970s San Francisco

The New Punk Generation Made the Hippies Look Past Their Prime

When the Sex Pistols, the signature band of the British punk scene, broke up following their San Francisco concert in January 1978, punk rock entered a new era. The Clash, who went on to become the best of all punk rock bands, had not yet released an album in the United States, so there was no natural successor to the Sex Pistols. It was the moment for US punk, the rumblings of which had become hard to ignore by 1978. Already bands like the Avengers were gaining some fame and followings in the Bay Area, but in early 1978 American punk rock was still primarily based in New York.

Early New York punk bands like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, and the Dictators were reasonably well known in that scene, but the best known of all the American punk rock bands at that time was the Ramones. While the Ramones were a great band that played fast-tempo catchy tunes and helped create the American punk rock gestalt and aesthetic, they were also very much a New York band. The Ramones had their roots in Queens, made their mark at CBGB’s, and had a distinctively New York feel and sound.

This left an opening for San Francisco’s punk rock movement, with its more political feel and West Coast vibe, to become more visible and significant in the broader American context.

The Sex Pistols, who until they broke up were by far the most recognized punk band, had often been as much about marketing as about music, beginning with the name itself. The Sex Pistols always sounded like a name that had come from a Malcolm McLaren-sponsored focus group or company meeting. You can almost picture McLaren throwing names around that combined sex and guns, two ideas that always sell. Other ideas might have been “Whoopie Guns,” “Shag Muskets,” “Shtup Uzis,” or “Screw Rifles.” On balance, “Sex Pistols” was a great name for a punk rock band. It got people’s attention, sounded just intimidating enough, was memorable, and, because of the word “sex,” had some real shock value.

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But it did not have the power or shock value of Dead Kennedys, the San Francisco band that was coming together around the time the Pistols played Winterland for the last time. It is difficult to imagine the effect the Dead Kennedys’ name had in 1978. People who knew nothing about punk rock, or even popular music at all, were outraged and offended at the name Dead Kennedys. It was the kind of thing conservative San Franciscans in their thirties and older talked about as a sign of the youth apocalypse.

Joel Selvin, the longtime San Francisco Chronicle music critic, told me Dead Kennedys had “absolutely the most offensive possible name.” What made the name so uniquely distasteful was that rather than simply use profanities or sexual or violent images, Dead Kennedys went right to the heart of something so many good liberals, as well as Catholics, held sacred. Dead Kennedys started their musical journey fewer than 15 years after the assassination of President Kennedy and only a decade after the murder of his brother Robert. Those memories were fresh, particularly among liberal Democrats and, in the case of Bobby Kennedy, the hippies that were about half a generation older than Dead Kennedys and their punk rock fans.

When I spoke with Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray in 2017, he conceded that the band’s name was in poor taste, but he also said that “the assassinations were in much more poor taste than our band.” He explained further: “We actually respect the Kennedy family. . . . When JFK was assassinated, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when RFK was assassinated, the American Dream was assassinated. . . . Our name is actually homage to the American Dream.”

Dead Kennedys were distinctly Northern California and helped put a Bay Area imprint on punk rock. They played San Francisco all the time, frequently appearing at free concerts, particularly those with a political agenda, such as the Rock against Reagan concerts in the 1980s. Their guitarist was Raymond Pepperell. He was from Oakland and had attended UC Berkeley, so naturally he was known as East Bay Ray. To fans in other parts of the country, this probably just sounded cool, but every kid in San Francisco knew what this meant. Most of us had a friend or two who lived in Oakland, Berkeley, or somewhere else in the East Bay and who had to confront the ongoing hassle of getting to the city for shows, borrowing BART fare back, needing a place to crash many nights, and the like.

Dead Kennedys were not the only San Francisco punk rock band around in 1978, but they are the one most remembered today. Dead Kennedys played their first concert at the Mabuhay Gardens in July 1978. By that time, the Mab had already been the hub for San Francisco’s nascent punk rock movement for over a year. Dead Kennedys went on to play the Mabuhay frequently in 1978 and in later years as well. On November 22nd, 1978, in the Middle of a month that would turn out to be one of the most important in modern San Francisco history, Dead Kennedys observed the 15th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination by playing the Mab.

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This prompted outrage, which was summed up best by the longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who understood the cultural complexity of the city better than most. Caen’s comments reflected the consensus in San Francisco, and probably nationally, of everybody over about the age of 40: “Just when you think tastelessness has reached its nadir, along comes a punk rock group called the Dead Kennedys which will play at Mabuhay Gardens on Nov. 22nd, the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Despite mounting protests, the owner of Mabuhay Gardens says ‘I can’t cancel them NOW—there’s a contract.’ Not, apparently, the kind of contract some people have in mind.”

If you were an adolescent in San Francisco in 1978 or a few years later, hippies were the authority figures.

For years now, nose rings, unnaturally colored hair, torn clothes, and other remnants of the early days of punk rock fashion have been mainstream. In most major cities, nobody looks twice at a 60-something professional with a few piercings and an interesting haircut and hair color, but at the beginning of the punk rock era things were very different. When I spoke with Penelope Houston, who had been the lead singer of the Avengers, she described the reaction to unnaturally dyed hair in San Francisco in the early years of punk: “I dyed my hair peacock blue [in 1977], and people would just stop in the streets and their mouths would fall open.”

Jello Biafra, the lead singer of Dead Kennedys, expressed a similar sentiment about that period during a 2018 interview: “Punk was just exploding . . . [and] scaring the shit out of all the right people.” Punk reveled in its newness and ability to shock and was always more oriented toward becoming an all-encompassing movement for a few, rather than a broad trend for the many. Central to being a punk in San Francisco in 1978 was the idea of doing something dramatic to your appearance that made you stand out, and frequently draw hostile attention, in other communities. This forced punks to look to each other for support and to be careful about their interactions with the larger city.

The generational appeal of punk was also very important. The kids that embraced punk rock were half a generation younger than the hippies and about half a generation older than the young people who, in the 21st century, helped turn San Francisco into a global center of tech and innovation. In a baseball parallel, our generation was also too young to have seen Mays and McCovey slugging in their prime, but we were well into adulthood by the time our Giants won three World Series between 2010 and 2014. Even in 1978, part of our anger was because the generation before us still dominated the culture with boring stories of the Summer of Love and even of Willie Mays.

Additionally, while hippies may have been freaks in 1967, and remained outside the establishment in some parts of the country as late as 1978, in San Francisco it was different. If you were an adolescent in San Francisco in 1978 or a few years later, hippies were the authority figures. The bus driver who looked at you with disdain because of your haircut or clothes often had a ponytail and a beard. The schoolteacher who told you to sit down and sit still wore a peasant blouse and ate sprouts for lunch. The couple walking behind you in Golden Gate Park that looked at you with a little fear because of your black leather jacket smelled of patchouli and reminisced about the Summer of Love. This meant that to rebel against authority and the failures of the system also meant to rebel against the newly formed hippie establishment.

Moreover, for many San Franciscans, even those with progressive political ideas who had no problem with long hair and hippie culture generally, punk rock was perceived as genuinely menacing. Concerts were covered in the media as violent events. The leather, chains, and studs that punks wore looked dangerous, and punks were viewed as capable of erratic, even violent, behavior. Joseph Torchia captured, and in fact fed, this fear of punk rock in an article in January 1978:

Swearing and spitting, bleeding and hitting the audience with violence as well as vibrations, masochism as well as music—it’s all part of a new wave of rock ’n’ roll that one man has called rock ’n’ raunch. They call themselves the Sex Pistols or the Nuns or the Mutants or the Weirdos or any name that will conjure up the decadent, the perverse, the violent, the grotesque yet carefully groomed image they thrive on. . . . “Punk” said one black-eyed teenager at the recent Sex Pistols Concert. “If you don’t get the f—out of my way, I’ll show you what Punk is.”

Interestingly, despite writing a piece that sounds like it could have been written by Archie Bunker after taking the wrong subway from Queens and ending up at CBGB’s, Torchia gives the last line of the article to a punk woman he interviewed at the Sex Pistols concert on January 14th. The woman offers a definition of punk that is a great summary of the vibe of early punk rock in San Francisco and punk rock in general: “‘You want to know what punk is?’ she yelled. ‘I’ll tell you what punk is—it’s something you’ll never understand! It’s something the media will never be able to explain! It’s loud and it’s rough and it’s hot and it’s violent and sexual and it’s me,’ she said. ‘It’s goddamn ME.’”

Torchia was not the only person in the media who presented punk to readers and viewers as something menacing that threatened to draw their children into a maelstrom of violence, drugs, and danger. Michael Fox, a mainstay in the punk rock scene in the late 1970s and beyond, remembered how the media portrayed punks as “a bunch of people who just want to beat up each other, and it’s just horrific.” Ginger Coyote, whose work in punk rock includes being part of the band White Trash Debutantes beginning in the late 1980s and being the longtime editor of the punk publication Punk Globe, shared a similar recollection: “Television was making it [punk] shock . . . sensationalism.”

Coyote also pointed out that this coverage had the unanticipated effect of “creating a buzz, which made people want to go and see it.” Coyote’s recollection captures something vital about those early days of punk. The media efforts to portray it as something shocking, ugly, and threatening worked with parents and even with many kids, but many other young people were drawn to punk precisely because it felt shocking, ugly, and threatening. By 1978, much of the music scene could not be described that way.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash may have been fine singers, but there was nothing threatening or empowering about going to one of their shows and running into your parents’ friends, or singing a Grateful Dead tune to yourself and hearing your moderately cool English teacher sing along for a few beats. Those bands may have been youthful and rebellious in the 1960s, but by 1978, and into the 1980s, they were part of the establishment, musical and otherwise.

One of those kids drawn to punk was Jennifer Blowdryer, who was a high school student in Berkeley when she first encountered punk rock sometime around 1976 or 1977. In her 1997 memoir, White Trash Debutante, Blowdryer, whose name is taken from her first band, Jennifer and the Blowdryers, described the pull that punk had for her and many like her and how attending shows as a teenager made her feel: “The important thing was that I was not at high school. Instead of trying to fit in with a disdainful and far more attractive peer group, I was in a huge room full of oddly dressed people who were focusing not on me or something I didn’t understand, but on a ridiculous and malicious stage act I adored. I was hooked.”

When I met with Blowdryer in a café in New York’s East Village, she recalled her first experience with punk 40 years earlier: “I think I saw an article. My big sister had Creem magazine, and I just knew that I had to get there. I was underage. I didn’t have any money. I’d have to take a bus to get in. It was like a magnet to me, punk rock. Wherever it was, I had to go there.” Jello Biafra’s reflection that “99 percent of the punk rockers back then, we were kinda outcasts even from other outcasts back then . . . [and] we had a passion for this fresh, new, and super-high- energy primal kind of music,” also demonstrates that punk wasn’t for everybody but that some young people got it right away and found themselves becoming increasingly drawn to a movement that was much bigger than just the music.

Disco was also an important part of the music of the time, particularly among African American and gay San Franciscans, but despite its important role in the culture, many thought it lacked the edginess and anger of punk. Ginger Coyote described her own views on disco and punk:  “After a while, you get sick of hearing ‘Love to Love You Baby’ and all that crap on the radio, so you’re really happy that there’s something that’s coming in that’s driving, that’s got some energy, that’s got some force.”

Disco fit into San Francisco differently than the rock of the period because of its appeal to gays and African Americans, and it was a much more radical and groundbreaking genre than was recognized at the time, although its radical attributes fueled much of the “Disco sucks” backlash throughout a large segment of white straight youth culture at the time. Nonetheless, most of those who found their way to punk understood disco as Coyote described it and did not see it as a significant enough break from the arena rock, glam rock, and stadium rock that was dominating the airwaves.

When Penelope Houston and I spoke in an East Bay café in 2017, she described the incident that drove her to become a punk singer: “My friends were putting a band together, and they had a warehouse South of Market. They had a PA set up. . . . I put some records on, and I started singing along. And I was like, ‘Ahhh, I’m so f**king loud. This is incredible.’ They came back. I said, ‘I’m your singer.’ . . . They let me join.” In the rock and roll version of this story, the other band members or somebody from the industry hears the singer and recognizes her great voice, but in punk rock things were different.

Houston was not excited about how good she sounded, but by how loud she was. The band members did not invite her to join; she announced her intention and they agreed. However, Houston was not merely a loud singer; she was a very good one too, bringing irreverence, anger, and energy to her music. John Gullak echoed the antimusicianship feel of the early punk rock days. His remark that “I’m not a musician, but I play one in the Mutants” sounded self-deprecating when he said it to me in a 2018 interview, but his admission that when the band started in 1977 he “couldn’t play an instrument” was an accurate reflection of his musical background at the time.

Even in 1978, punks got involved in progressive political causes. This included the rare foray into electoral politics.

One of the major ways in which Bay Area punk rock was different from punk in New York, London, or even other American cities like Chicago and Los Angeles was that it was more explicitly political. Bands such as Dead Kennedys, the Avengers, the Dils, Verbal Abuse, and Code of Honor sung more about radical politics and criticism of the conservative movements that grew into Reaganism in the 1980s than did their East Coast, Southern California, or London cohorts, who frequently had more of an angry, nihilistic feel. This was particularly true in the late 1970s.

One of the reasons that San Francisco punk was more political was because of its distance from New York or Los Angeles. As Howie Klein described it to me in 2018, “No matter how cool you were, you’re in f **kin’ New York, you’re in f **kin’ LA, and you’re looking to the industry. San Francisco didn’t have that. There was something about San Francisco that was devoid of the industry. People weren’t trying to kiss up to record executives.” Henry S. Rosenthal, the Crime drummer made a similar point, describing Los Angeles punk as “very different from here [San Francisco].” He continued: “The bands that came out of LA we perceived as being more commercial, poppy, less politically engaged, less authentic.”

The political ethos of San Francisco’s punk rock movement was not just expressed through the lyrics of the Dils, Dead Kennedys, the Avengers, or myriad other local bands. Even in 1978, punks got involved in progressive political causes. This included the rare foray into electoral politics, such as the “Nix on Six: Save the Homos” event at the Mabuhay Gardens to oppose Proposition 6, at which the emcee was Harvey Milk, or Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra’s 1979 mayoral campaign, as well as direct action and providing support for other progressive activists.

San Francisco punks also raised money for striking coal miners and took positions on local issues—for example, standing with the elderly Asian American residents of the International Hotel who were being evicted so that the hotel could be torn down. Rosenthal explained to me how “it was different here, because these bands who took on a political bent and decided to get involved in things like the coal miners’ strike and ‘No on Six’ and all that stuff. There were these local issues . . . that the bands latched onto [and] drove that process.”

In mentioning the punk involvement in the coal miners’ strike, Rosenthal was referring specifically to a big benefit concert to raise money for striking miners in states such as Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, so it was not so much a local issue. The concert was held at the Mab on March 20th, 1978, during the same period that the board of supervisors was voting on Harvey Milk’s gay rights ordinance. The concert at the Mab featured an extraordinary lineup of some of the best bands in San Francisco’s punk scene at the time, including the Avengers, the Dils, the Mutants, Negative Trend, the Nuns, and Tuxedomoon.

Tickets were cheap, $4.00 in advance and $4.50 at the door, so it is not likely the benefit raised much money, but it demonstrated a commitment on the part of the punks that went well beyond their own interests or political battles. Alejandro Escovedo, the guitar player for the Nuns, made the connection for the benefit of a reporter from the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “When you read about the coal miners’ strike, you start to think it’s the miners’ fault, not the owners’. We’re combating the same thing in the media problem. The whole punk thing has been totally warped by the media.”

Michael Stewart Foley argues that the San Francisco punk scene was uniquely political: “By the time Dead Kennedys started playing the Mabuhay in the summer of 1978, San Francisco had established itself as the most political punk scene in the country. . . . No other scene saw punks joining with other activist groups to fight evictions of people who were decidedly not punks. No other scene saw punks holding benefits for striking Kentucky miners, striking railroad workers, falsely convicted Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, the ‘No on 6’ campaign, the city’s Gay Day Parade.”

This is one of the major ways in which the punk scenes in San Francisco and New York differed. San Francisco punk rock veered more toward the politically radical and away from the more generalized nihilism of the New York scene. Scott Stalcup’s assertion is accurate regarding the scene on the East Coast, but much less so regarding San Francisco: “Another difference between British and American punks was the American bands’ disdain for taking any political stance. . . . Those on the East Coast looked inside and saw nothing. Their message was not of peace and love, but of boredom and frustration.”

The miners’ benefit was both a major way that San Francisco punk distinguished itself from punk in other cities and a significant event in San Francisco’s punk rock community. Many of the best Bay Area punk bands played at the event. Dead Kennedys were not on the bill, but that is presumably because they had not played anywhere yet. Because so many good bands were part of the benefit, more bands wanted to be part of it, and naturally everybody who was a punk wanted to go to the concert. To a great extent, punk in San Francisco became and remained politicized because the top bands were political. As Klein observed, “If you wanted to be one of the cool kids and you wanted to be part of it, you had to be on that miners’ benefit thing. . . . That seems like a San Francisco kind of thing where politics are very cool.”

San Francisco punk rock veered more toward the politically radical and away from the more generalized nihilism of the New York scene.

While punk in San Francisco was more political than in other places, it still had elements of the anger and frustration with the larger culture that characterized the movement elsewhere as well. Punk rockers of that era were far from being earnest progressives working dutifully for social change. Most would have chafed violently at being described that way. Their politics were a kind of high-energy, left-of-center anarchism not overly burdened by a deep understanding of political history or theory. Alex Ogg described punk politics as “restrained hysteria reminiscent of Jonathan Swift.”

In a 1978 interview with Howie Klein in BAM (Bay Area Music), Tony Nineteen of the Dils, a band that was originally from Southern California but nonetheless an important part of the San Francisco scene in the late 1970s, captured the radicalism, grandiosity, and anger that drove punk politics: “What we see as the over-riding political characteristic of punk is a means to threaten every existing form of order—musically, socially, politically. Punk has to move from a stance of mindless, stupid outrage to a threat. . . . It’s not good if it doesn’t challenge anything and change anything.”

Forty years later, Michael Fox summarized the politics of punk to me in a somewhat similar manner, describing his goals as the primary songwriter for Code of Honor: “I was interested in bringing up some important questions. I didn’t know how to fix things, but I believed if people got together and participated, to change things. . . without the fascist system smashing us or ending us . . . that was a big deal. I never had an answer really, but we were exploring the questions. . . . The punks didn’t really have an answer other than “Pull your f **king big boy pants on and participate, and maybe we can change this ridiculous fascist country that’s bombing three different countries and women and children every day that I’ve been alive.”

Biafra described how the approach not just to punk politics but to punk sensibilities merged in a way that differed sharply from that of the 1960s: “If I’m gonna do an antinukes song, the last thing we need is another ‘Boo-hoo, nuclear war is bad’ song. . . . What about doing a song from the villain’s point of view? So from the military-industrial complex there was [Dead Kennedys’ song] ‘Kill the Poor.’ ”28 Fox, Nineteen, and Dead Kennedys shared a punk rock politics that was part left-wing, part political paranoia, part anger at hippies, always stream of consciousness, and, while usually weird, frequently compelling. This led to many young people in San Francisco, and later elsewhere, being radicalized by the Dils, the Avengers, MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), and most frequently, Dead Kennedys.

Chris Carlsson, who moved to San Francisco from Sonoma County at the end of 1977 as a young adult, describes how punk in those years was “part of a much longer and strongly politicized culture that flourished in San Francisco during the mostly forgotten interregnum between what we might call the ‘the long sixties’ and the Reagan restoration.” Carlsson adds, “Dozens of songs left little doubt about the repudiation and refusal at the heart of the radical subculture during the time.”

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Excerpted from San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third-Place Baseball Team by Lincoln A. Mitchell with permission from Rutgers University Press.

Lincoln A. Mitchell
Lincoln A. Mitchell
Lincoln A. Mitchell is an adjunct associate professor of Political Science at Columbia University, where he also serves as an associate scholar in the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He has authored many books on the former Soviet states, democracy, and baseball, including Baseball Goes West: How the Giants and Dodgers Shaped the Major Leagues (2018). He has also written extensively about San Francisco’s history in Instant City, Roads and Kingdoms, Parts Unknown and the New York Observer.





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