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Cherry Red And The Dead Kennedys

Cherry Red And The Dead Kennedys

Cherry Red And The Dead Kennedys

Back in 1978 when the Cherry Red label was still very young my initial thoughts were focused on survival. I’d given up my day job and gambled my rather limited savings on investing in a few new acts and putting together some Various Artist compilations. New bands were key and most nights I was out and about at different gigs. I also religiously listened to John Peel’s evening show on BBC Radio 1 which played so many releases by new independent artists.

One evening I caught the end of a song:

When you mess with President Brown
When you mess with President Brown

California Über Alles
California Über Alles
Über Alles California
Über Alles California 

I really liked it.

‘And that was ‘California Uber Alles by Dead Kennedys from San Francisco’ Peel then announced.

A few days later he played it again, I listened carefully.

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles and never frowns
Soon I will be president…

Carter power will soon go ‘way

I will be Führer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
Your kids will meditate in school

California Über Alles
California Über Alles
Über Alles California
Über Alles California

Zen fascists will control you
Hundred percent natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face

Close your eyes, can’t happen here
Big Bro’ on white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back, you say
Mellow out or you will pay

 

The lyrics were masterful, and the band were one of the most powerful of the new punk movement I’d heard so far. The single was on a Scottish label called Fast Product run by Bob Last.  Fast Product had put out singles by The Human League, The Mekons and The Scars and this Dead Kennedys single was their twelfth release.

Meanwhile Cherry Red had released an album by The Hollywood Brats which was originally recorded in 1973 but only released in Norway at the time. Soon after it’s release, Chris Gilbert who managed the singer Andrew Matheson contacted me to query where we had acquired the rights.  I met with him, explained where we had licensed it, and after a few calls all was sorted. Several months later I had a phone call from Chris. His partner Bill Gilliam was the European manager for Dead Kennedys, and they were looking for a British label to put out an album as Fast Product didn’t want to release any albums. I met Bill and he gave me a demo of one of the new tracks called ‘Holiday In Cambodia.’ He also revealed that the band needed $10,000 to record the album.

I played ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ over and over again. I loved the song and had little doubt that an album would do very well. There wasn’t much at all in the Cherry Red bank account and finding $10,000 was going to be a big stretch.  I mused over the situation for a few days and talked about my frustration to Richard Bishop, the buyer at Caroline Exports, the Virgin Records-owned export company. “Why don’t Caroline lend you the money,” Richard immediately offered, “and you give us the export exclusive for three months?” It didn’t take me long to agree and a few weeks later I flew to San Francisco and met the band in the apartment of their guitarist East Bay Ray. They were in party mood as they had pretty much finished the album which I was very keen to hear. They gave me a tape and a tinny portable tape recorder and let me listen to it in the kitchen. It certainly wasn’t the best place to first hear it.

The next day they were playing a gig at a college an hour or so drive outside San Francisco. It was even more chaotic than the many punk gigs I had been to in the UK. In fact I wasn’t sure whether the gig would be cut short. Objects were flying through the air, but singer Jello Biafra seemed completely unphased by the chaos around him. After the show I drove back to San Francisco with Jello, his girlfriend and a driver and as they partied and celebrated what had been another successful gig my thoughts were focused in getting them to the UK and seeing what the audience reaction would be like there.

The album still needed a little more work and remixing so I flew back to London and the master tapes arrived a few week later. ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ was the obvious single (a new version which had been sped up from the original demo – I wish I had kept it but gave it away to a fan!) and it was released to great reviews but little airplay support apart from John Peel and a few regional rock shows. It hovered just under the National Top 75 for about 4 weeks, but didn’t quite crack the Top 75 which would have given it a further sales boost.

I knew the album, ‘Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,’ would do well but wasn’t expecting it to make the National Top 40 at No 33 which it did in September 1980. The resulting thirteen date UK tour was pretty much sold out. The Music Machine in London was their fourth date and where most of the media focus was. They didn’t disappoint.

I wanted to release ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ the only cover on the album, as the next single. I felt it might extend the band’s reach with some wider airplay. Jello was having none of it and made it quite clear that he disapproved. We needed another single to help push the album and in the end we

 settled on a remixed version of another album track, ‘Kill The Poor.’ Jello wanted to come to the cut of the single as he was in London. He had already sent me the tape of the new version, but I managed to forget that and I turned up at the studio without it. Jello was not impressed by the delay as my colleague Theo had to drive back to our office in my flat in Wimbledon to retrieve it. With time to kill I went over to Egton House, which was just around the corner from the cutting studio, to see if John Peel was there and would like to meet Jello as he had really championed the band. In those days the security at the BBC was pretty lax. I knew the guys on reception and could walk up to the first floor where the BBC Radio 1 producers had their offices. Sure enough Peel was there talking to his producer John Walters. I enthusiastically asked him if he wanted to meet Jello but he wasn’t keen. I heard afterwards that he was never that keen to meet artists he really liked and supported.

‘Kill The Poor’ was released and just snuck into the Top 50 at No 49. I had an idea to help promote the single knowing it wouldn’t get much airplay. The Conservative Party had recently held their annual conference, so I took an image of the stage with a banner above the cabinet members saying, ‘Vote Conservative for a better Britain’ and replaced it with ‘Kill The Poor.’ I had already booked space in the main weekly music papers, Melody Maker, Sounds and NME and suspected they wouldn’t be too keen on the image so I made sure the advert copy arrived just before their deadline. They all printed it and the only come back was several months later when the Adverting Authorities Commission announced we had been censored and the punishment was not to run the adverts again. By that time we were onto the next single anyway.

The band were keen to release their future albums on their own label, Alternative Tentacles but they were willing to let us release one more single. It was another track which wouldn’t be easy to get airplay on; ‘Too Drunk To Fuck.’ When we sent out the press release to announce it some papers wouldn’t even print the word, ‘fuck’ and just called it ‘Too Drunk.’

The only airplay it had as far as I knew was on a BBC regional station where an enterprising producer bleeped out all the ‘fucks’ to make it eligible.

The song entered the singles chart at No 36 and I was hoping the BBC would play the B-side (‘The Prey’) on their Sunday Top 40 countdown. I rang the producer and suggested it but he wasn’t receptive to the idea. As it was the first UK Top 40 single to include the word ‘fuck’ in its title, it was of course banned from Radio 1 airplay by the BBC and DJ Tony Blackburn referred to it simply as “a record by a group calling themselves The Dead Kennedys” in the countdown.

Many of you who have read this far will be aware that the band fell out acrimoniously a few years later. Cherry Red did their best to stay out of the disagreements and I always try and see the band play (without Jello) whenever they come to the UK.

Iain (middle) with Klaus and Ray


The legacy of ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’ lives on to this day. Several years ago, I was at a reception at 10 Downing Street (the home and working place for the British Prime Minister) intended for people who work in the music industry. It was organised by Sara Brown, wife of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and was held on the lawn of the back garden of the building. (it is a big lawn and a rather lovely garden). Towards the end of the reception and I was chatting to a woman who worked at Downing Street as an aide to Gordon Brown. We were joined by a music publisher who had drunk a little too much. “You know Iain signed the Dead Kennedys” he blurted out. I was a little unsure how she would react, but to my surprise her face lit up and she proudly announced she had bought the ‘Fresh Fruit’ album and had been to see Jello Biafra last time he was in the UK on a spoken word solo tour. You really do never know where fans are.

- Iain McNay, November 2022