At the rate they're going, Dead Kennedys are likely to end up spending more time in court than they logged onstage over their nine-year career, which ended in 1987.
The latest chapter in the legal battle was written two weeks ago when frontman Eric Reed Boucher or, as he's more commonly known, Jello Biafra sued his former bandmates for misrepresenting themselves by touring with what he calls a "Biafra impersonator" (Dr. Know's Brandon Cruz) and leading promoters to believe that Biafra is performing on the recent Dead Kennedys tour by using his image in photos promoting the gigs.
"I don't object to them playing cover versions of the songs," Biafra said on Tuesday (March 26). "Anybody has a right to do that. But they've engaged in deliberate bait-and-switch tactics. We've had witnesses report that [Cruz] was imitating my voice and stage moves rather than what he did in Dr. Know. And their agent was very evasive about who was and who was not in the band."
Biafra filed the suit in Alameda Superior Court and named guitarist Ray Pepperell (East Bay Ray), bassist Geoffrey Lyall (Klaus Flouride) and drummer Darren Henley (D.H. Peligro) as defendants. In the suit, he also accuses them of not dissolving their music partnership assets, even though they were ordered to by a San Francisco court in 2000.
"I didn't want to sue them, but it was the only recourse I had left to stop them from turning Dead Kennedys into their own little Enron," Biafra said. "They made it clear they don't intend to stop what they're doing or be honest. And on top of that they have not paid me a dime in Dead Kennedys royalties for over a half a year."
Guitarist Pepperell said he was perplexed by the lawsuit. "Brandon is not an imposter," he said. "He has a substantial career as the singer of Dr. Know, and since the beginning, he's been billed on the shows as himself."
The guitarist acknowledged that some promoters mistakenly pulled old photos from the Internet when they publicizing the new gigs, but that such actions were committed without the knowledge or permission of the band. And since December, the band's Web site has credited Cruz and posted his photos.
"I don't know why [Biafra] is making baseless and imaginary charges," Pepperell said. "For us, we're concerned about his behavior. It saddens us."
This is Biafra's latest attempt to prevent his former bandmates from exploiting his name. When word of the band's first concert LP, Mutiny on the Bay, surfaced last year, Biafra issued a statement decrying its release as well as his former bandmates' campaign to bring the Dead Kennedys back to life.
"I have now had to ask them to please remove my name and likeness from all their releases and promotional material," Biafra's statement read. "Don't get me wrong, I'm as proud as ever of the Dead Kennedys and grateful for how much we mean to people, but I'm totally embarrassed by what they're trying to do" (see "Dead Kennedys Remastered, Reissued And Recorded Live").
Whether he truly feels he's suffered financially or he's just ticked off that his former bandmates replaced him with former child star Cruz who performed alongside Bill Bixby in the '70s sitcom "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" the singer is seeking punitive and compensatory damages over $25,000.
Even if Biafra wins, his reward will seem paltry next to the $200,000 a jury ordered him to pay Pepperell, Lyall and Henley in May 2000 for unpaid royalties (see "Biafra Ordered To Pay Ex-Dead Kennedys $200,000").
That case was originally filed in 1998 and stemmed from a handshake agreement in which all four members agreed to share equally in the group's royalties (see "Dead Kennedys Prepare To Square Off In Court" ). Biafra hit his former partners with a countersuit that alleged they were trying to punish him for not allowing them to use the Dead Kennedys 1980 single "Holiday in Cambodia" in a Levi's TV advertisement. He also accused Pepperell of skimming merchandising and other funds, but the jury unanimously sided against the singer. Biafra appealed the decision last year and expects that case to return to court this summer.
Even amidst all the process servers, lawyers and judges, it's hard to forget that Dead Kennedys were one of hardcore punk's most influential outfits, merging scorching, uptempo songs with equal doses of politics and sarcasm. Some of the band's more memorable output includes "Kill the Poor," "Too Drunk to F---" and "MTV Get off the Air."
The band's jones for juries may have kicked in after the highly publicized 1987 lawsuit in which an angry mom sued them for distributing pornography to minors because their 1985 album, Frankenchrist, contained a poster by H.R. Giger depicting a collage of genitalia. Almost overnight, the case turned the band into guardians of freedom and Biafra into a well-versed spokesman for First Amendment rights. The case was dismissed after ending in a hung jury. Perhaps if his new case winds up in court, Biafra won't feel like hanging the jury yet again at its conclusion.