The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Dead Kennedys Jerry Brown

The Dead Kennedys were a punk band that formed in 1978 led by Jello Biafra (real name Eric Reed Boucher). As a point of information, Biafra was a breakaway republic from Nigeria in the 1960s engulfed in war and then a horrific famine. During a skinny phase at college, I was briefly nicknamed ‘Biafra Boy’. You get the drift. Shock value. The first hit single from the band was the very catchy California Über Alles – a song that characterised Democrat-run California as a hippy-fascist state. The lyrics were sung as if by the then Governor Jerry Brown who was the archetypal west coast liberal Democrat – a fact that made him fair game for the Dead Kennedys.

Even though we all enjoyed the song at the time – Brown hardly seemed the most obvious target for punk hate. He’d beaten the Republicans in 1974 in the wake of Watergate. The previous Governor of California had been none other than Ronald Reagan, ruling for two terms. When the single was released in 1979, Reagan was about to successfully fight President Jimmy Carter to become the next President of the United States. As with Thatcher’s victory in Britain, this would usher in over a decade of right-wing political rule. So, California to us looked like an island of liberalism in a conservative Republican sea.

That said, being a bit of a Marxist myself at the time, the Democrats were more than capable of presenting themselves as a target for punk ire. Smug, establishment, wealthy and every bit as plutocratic as the Republicans. On the plus side, Brown opposed the death penalty and was a strong environmentalist. In this second gubernatorial term from 1978 he became a greater supporter of LGBT rights appointing America’s first gay and lesbian judges. On the debit side, he was a fiscal conservative and took a tough stance on immigration into the state. But viewed from London under Tory rule – whatever Brown’s shortcomings, we would have preferred that to the Thatcherite hell we were experiencing.

However – The Dead Kennedys found themselves living under an establishment liberal regime and decided to poke fun at it. The lyrics were deliberately absurdist such as:

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

And the idea that Californian liberals might open concentration camps for those who refused to mellow out…

Now it is 1984
Knock-knock at your front door
It’s the suede denim secret police
They have come for your uncool niece

Come quietly to the camp
You’d look nice as a drawstring lamp
Don’t you worry, it’s only a shower
For your clothes, here’s a pretty flower

Biafra has spoken about this song as a cautionary tale about overambitious politicians and credulous voters looking for strong leaders. But it’s a leap to imagine that Brown – no matter how ambitious he was – had a fascist regime as his endgame. However, as a piss take of the hippy counter-culture and the way it had become everything it previously hated in the 1960s, it was a genius song. The hippies and New Agers were now in the driving seat – rulers not rebels. And as none of us had any time for hippies circa 1979, we just enjoyed the needling of sanctimonious liberals.

In subsequent interviews – 2002 and 2013 – Biafra conceded he may have overdone the lambasting of Jerry Brown.

This is a Jerry Brown election leaflet in my collection of political paraphernalia.

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