The tale of the “Lost Tapes”: The Dead Kennedys’ abandoned first recording session for “In God We Trust, Inc.”

By on March 11, 2016

In God We Trust, Inc.: The Lost Tapes captures the first attempt by the Dead Kennedys to record songs, in 1981, for a 12″ EP meant to acknowledge and showcase the influence of the fast-paced and thrashy hardcore punk which had germinated in the Washington D.C. area, and so they booked studio time at the tiny brick-walled Subterranean Studios at Target Video, a 12,000 square-foot studio located in San Francisco’s Mission District, and recorded eight songs on June 19, 1981. Now available on Night Flight Plus.

This video, however, shows the band having fun in the studio, recording “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now,” the so-called “lounge version” of their song “California Über Alles” (the DK’s first recording, released in June 1979, originally a pointed, satirical attack on Jerry Brown, the Governor of California from 1975-1983), which in this jazzier, slower version (at first), transplants then-President Ronald Reagan as a substitute for Brown, ratcheting up the crypto-fascist lyrics after first describing a wonderful new alcoholic concoction that sounds to us like a recipe not-too-disimilar to the purple Kool-Aid punch served to the over-900 members of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown:

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Last call for alcohol.
Last call for free speech.
Drink up, your Happy hour is now enforced by law!

Don’t forget this year’s house special, the Trickie Dickie Screwdriver.
It’s got one part Jack Daniels, two parts purple Kool-Aid, and a jigger of formaldehyde from the jar with Hitler’s brain in it we got stashed in the back.


Happy trails to you,
Happy trails to you

I am Emperor Ronald Reagan
Born again with fascist cravings
Still, you made me president!

The S.F.-based DK’s — Biafra (vocals), Klaus Flouride (bass, vocals), East Bay Ray (guitar) — had also recently added an explosive new drummer, D.H. Peligro (real name: Darren Eric Henley), who brought to their sound an energetic, amped-up feel that rivaled the D.C. bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi, Teen Idles and others that for a few years (1979 and 1980) had been releasing their own 7-inch EPs on the D.C.-based Dischord Records.

Those 7-inch Dischord EPs had featured typically seven to ten short/fast songs each, and they were having a big impact across the country, and the DK’s had been inspired to write songs which sounded like they might have come from the same organic East Coast scene.

The band also wanted to document what might end up being a historic session, and so they allowed filmmaker Eric Goodfield to have Joe Rees of Target Video videotape them for a punk documentary he was making at the time. Rees was a punk rock video maker of some repute at the time.

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The Target Video warehouse, by the way, was the scene of many after-hours parties, often playing host to touring out-of-town bands after their gigs (like the Sex Pistols, the Cramps, and many others), usually with DJ’s spinning punk singles and Target videos projected on to 20 ft. walls.

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Mike Fox, the session engineer that day, was also a member of various punk bands, including the Tools, Sick Pleasure and Code of Honor, and had co-founded the Subterranean Records imprint — San Francisco’s first hardcore label, the U.S.’s first industrial label — in the summer of 1979, in his living room in Berkeley, CA, with fellow Berkeley resident Steve Tupper. The studio set-up had originally been what Fox called a “thrown-together 4-track studio” he had first constructed in his Richmond, CA garage.

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Each of the eight tracks put down on tape during that singular session were recorded live, in stereo, to 1/2-inch 8-track tape, without any overdubs, typically starting with drumstick clicks and count-offs preceding the songs, which are all vintage DK attacks on organized religion, Neo Nazis, President Ronald Reagan, the pesticide Kepone and governmental indifference which vastly worsened the effects of catastrophes like the Minamata disease.

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The live, raw and rough mix was sent direct from the studio’s recording board into the video input of the camera, which made for very loud, and powerful direct sound, and Rees also kept his camera running between takes to catch the band’s studio banter, having a few laughs and lots of fun while discussing the song arrangements and other DK-related ephemera while swigging from bottles of Löwenbräu dark beer. As only Jello and Klaus had microphones in front of them, theirs are the only voices you hear from the band members.

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Unfortunately, when the band took the tape to Mobius Music, located on Sanchez Street in San Francisco, to mix the recordings, it turned out that oxide surface on the 1/2-inch magnetic tape that Fox was using was already peeling during playback, thereby destroying the recordings on the tape, which meant that they wouldn’t stand up to the mixing session and they would have to be abandoned.

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And so, the band would be forced to go back into the studio again just a few months later — on August 22nd, this time at Mobius — to record the same songs a second time.

Those new recordings, and subsequent other recordings, were eventually released by the DK’s label, Alternative Tentacles Records, as their In God We Trust, Inc. EP., with a great cover design (by Jello and their designer Winston Smith) featuring a golden Jesus crucified on a cross of dollar bills, with a background of a shiny metal material.

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The videotape which captured the band during this riotous first session remained in Goodfield’s collection until the DKs asked him if he would release it to help them celebrate their planned 25th anniversary, and so, in July 2003, that’s what happened, and that’s how we ended up with In God We Trust, Inc.: The Lost Tapes.

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Five of the eight songs recorded that day were restored for release on the DVD, with rough video mixes of the remaining three — no live footage could be found for “Hyperactive Child,” the DVD’s first track (it was the third song, sequentially, on the EP) — and the DVD also includes additional live performances of songs from the original 12-inch EP, spanning a time period from 1979-1986.

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Those alternate versions include “Hyperactive Child” (studio version overlaying live montage); “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (live at the Ritz, Austin, Texas August 7, 1982); “Kepone Factory” (live at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, California October 10, 1979)” “Dogbite” (live at the Ritz, Austin, Texas August 7, 1982); “Religious Vomit” (live at the On Broadway, San Francisco, California June 16, 1984); “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” (a lounge jazz remake of “California Über Alles,” live at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, California April 4, 1981); “Rawhide” (a cover of the theme song from the 1960s TVshow, recorded live at the Island, Houston, Texas August 18, 1984); and, “Moral Majority” (live at the Keystone, Palo Alto, California February 17, 1986).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • John Lowry

    Fantastic archival document. Thank goodness for Joe Rees and the rest of these guys.