A gold or platinum record doesn’t just happen: Even if an album, single or EP passed 500,000 (gold) or 1,000,000 (platinum) sales or their equivalent in the streaming age, it must be certified by the Recording Industry Association of America, which is a whole process that involves submissions and research and certification and other bureaucratic official-ness.
It’s something most commonly associated with chart-topping acts, but as years and sales and streams accumulate, some unexpected artists and albums pass that threshold… including an album and a group that were hardly met with open arms by the record industry establishment when they debuted in 1979: the influential and controversial San Francisco-based punk quartet the Dead Kennedys and their debut album, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” which was certified gold by the RIAA on Friday.
Formed as a quintet in 1978, the group eventually streamlined to vocalist Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer Ted (not their real names). As part of the West Coast wave of U.S. punk (alongside Black Flag, Circle Jerks, DOA and others), the group reached for and attained a level of politically themed, left-wing shock value that was nearly unprecedented even in those times: Their first single, “California Uber Alles,” portrayed the state’s then-governor Jerry Brown as a Hitler in waiting; their second, “Holiday in Cambodia,” made a grim joke out of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia; and their 1980 debut album, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” featured such titles as “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Chemical Warfare” and “I Kill Children.” Subsequent albums and singles like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “Too Drunk to Fuck” and “Frankenchrist” followed.
The band’s music was based around Biafra’s shrill and piercing voice and Ray’s snarling guitar, but obviously the subject matter was what drove the controversies around the band — many record stores refused to stock it and radio airplay unsurprisingly was virtually nil. However, the group played to sold-out houses on tour and became one of the most influential American bands of their ilk and era, particularly on politically-leaning hard rock bands: Dave Mustaine of Megadeth sported a DKs logo on his guitar in the mid-‘80s, long before the fusion of punk and metal was common, and over the years their influence could be heard in such far-ranging groups as Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Green Day, Bad Religion, Faith No More and many others.
The album was originally released in October of 1980 on the band’s own Alternative Tentacles label but was later picked up the I.R.S. Records, which was founded by Miles Copeland, manager of the Police at the time and brother of the group’s drummer Stewart Copeland. Biafra began clashing with that label almost immediately (initially over the altered cover) and over the years clashed with them and just about everyone, including his erstwhile bandmates. He parted ways with the band in 1986, which has continued with Ray, Flouride and, since 2008, singer Ron “Skip” Greer.
Biafra continues to run Alternative Tentacles and has continued his musical legacy in characteristic form — as detailed in a 2021 Variety interview — fronting a band called the Guantanamo School of Medicine, whose latest album is titled “Tea Party Revenge Porn,” and his twitter feed is filled with both band messaging and left-wing activist posts very similar in theme to his DKs days.
He has yet to comment on the gold certification — surprisingly, it is not the group’s first, its 1987 compilation “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” was certified gold in 2007 — but the band did on its twitter account: “It’s a Gold Album for Dead Kennedys! 43 years after its release on September 2, 1980, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” has finally been certified Gold (yesterday, the 15th), by the RIAA!,” the post enthused, before continuing with a dubious claim that Black Flag and Minor Threat fans would doubtless dispute: “This is possibly the most influential independent album in American punk rock history.”