The Dead Kennedys formed in June 1978, after guitarist East Bay Ray (real name Ray Pepperell) advertised for band mates. The original DK lineup consisted of Jello Biafra (real name Eric Boucher) on vocals, East Bay Ray on lead guitar, 6025 (real name Carlos Cadona) on rhythm guitar, Klaus Flouride (real name Geoffrey Lyall) on bass, and Ted (real name Bruce Slesinger) on drums. Their first concert was on July 19, 1978, at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. They played numerous shows at local venues afterwards. Because of the band's provocative name, they sometimes played under pseudonyms, including "The Sharks", "The Creamsicles", and "The Pink Twinkies". 6025 quit in March of 1979 due to musical differences, and being diagnosed with schizophrenia. In June of 1979, the band released their first single, "California Über Alles", on Alternative Tentacles. They followed with a well received east-coast tour.
On March 25, 1980, the DKs were invited to perform at the Bay Area Music Awards in front of music industry big-wigs to give the event some "new wave credibility" in the words of the organizers. The day of the show was spent practicing the song they were asked to play, the underground hit "California Über Alles". In typically subversive, perverse style, the band became the talking point of the ceremony when after about 15 seconds into the song, Biafra said, "Hold it! We've gotta prove that we're adults now. We're not a punk rock band, we're a new wave band." The band, who all wore white shirts with a big, black S painted on the front, pulled black ties from around the backs of their necks, to form a dollar sign, then tore into the previously unheard "Pull My Strings", a barbed, satirical attack on the ethics of the mainstream music industry. As well as containing the lyrics "Is my cock big enough, is my brain small enough, for you to make me a star", the song also sent-up The Knack's biggest new wave hit, "My Sharona". The song was never recorded in the studio but this performance, the first and only time the song was ever performed, was released on the posthumous compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death... and the band was never invited to play the awards show again.
During the spring of 1980, they recorded and released "Holiday in Cambodia". In the fall they released their debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. It reached #33 in the UK Albums Chart.
In January of 1981, Ted announced that he wanted to leave to pursue a career in architecture and would help look for a replacement. He played his last concert in February. His replacement was D.H. Peligro (real name Darren Henley). In May, the band released the single "Too Drunk To Fuck". The song caused much controversy in the U.K. as BBC feared the single would reach the Top 30; this would require a performance of the song on Top of the Pops. However, this never came to be as the single peaked at #31. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. (1981) and album Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982) showed a development in musical style, and their music became a political force, pitting itself against rising elements of American social and political life such as the religious right and Ronald Reagan. The band continued touring all over the United States, as well as Europe and Australia, during the 1980s and gained a large underground following.
The release of the album Frankenchrist in 1985 caused a fervor with the newly formed PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), and in 1986, the members of the DKs, along with other parties involved in the distribution of Frankenchrist, were brought to trial for "distribution of harmful matter to minors" due in part to an H.R. Giger illustration included with the album. Biafra says that during this time government agents invaded and searched his home. The band members were each faced with up to a year in jail and a $2000 fine. In 1987, the charges were dropped after a three-week trial. The album, however, was banned from many record stores nationwide.
In January of 1986, the DKs decided to break up to pursue other interests. They played their last concert on February 21. During the summer they recorded Bedtime for Democracy, which was released in November. In December, the band announced their split. Biafra went on to become a highly active political force, appearing on numerous television shows and releasing a number of spoken-word albums. Ray, Flouride, and Peligro also went on to solo careers. In 2001 they reformed, without Biafra, and continues to tour.