Holiday in Cambodia by The Dead Kennedys

Today I am writing about another one of my favorite songs, Holiday in Cambodia written by Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys.

Jello Biafra was born Eric Reed Boucher in 1958 in Boulder, Colorado, which may explain a lot about the future Biafra. His mom was a librarian and his dad a psychiatric social worker. Even as a child he was interested in international politics. He watched the news constantly and one of his earliest memories is of John F. Kennedy being assassinated in 1963.

By 1977 he had become a roadie for a punk band named The Ravers. In 1978 he responded to an advertisement by a guitarist named East Bay Ray that stated, “Guitarist wants to form punk band”. East Bay Ray and Biafra formed The Dead Kennedys. He started using the stage name Occupant but soon switched to a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the short-lived African state Biafra.

Biafra, the African state, was officially called the Republic of Biafra and was a secessionist state in West Africa that existed from 1967 to 1970 during the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra mostly consisted of the homeland of the Igbo peoples. After two and a half years of war almost 2 million Biafran civilians died from starvation caused by a total blockade of the region by Nigeria. Almost 3/4 of the 2 million civilians that died were small children. Biafra surrendered in 1970 and became a part of Nigeria again.

Back to Jello Biafra… he wrote all the bands lyrics. Since Biafra couldn’t play any instruments very well, their bassist Klaus Flouride suggested that he sing the parts to the band. Biafra would sing the riffs and melodies into a tape recorder and then the band would make the music from that. I haven’t heard of anyone else doing it this way. I’m sure there are but I haven’t heard about it.

The Dead Kennedys first single, California Uber Alles, is an amazing song that I almost wrote about instead of their second single, Holiday in Cambodia, but I chose Holiday in Cambodia because it’s Biafra’s favorite Dead Kennedys song and the story of Cambodia is more interesting to me.

Biafra starts out by singing

So, you’ve been to school for a year or two. And you know you’ve seen it all. In daddy’s car, thinkin’ you’ll go far. Back east, your type don’t crawl.

Biafra is talking about the silver spoon, over-educated, white college students.

He then sings

Play ethnicity jazz to parade your snazz
On your five-grand stereo. Braggin’ that you know how the n*****s feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

Biafra is slamming seemingly well meaning activist, college kids because they think they understand the poor, urban, ethnic groups while they have stereos that cost five-grand. Biafra is known for using over the top language and here he uses “the” racial slur to emphasize the inherent racism in the behavior of the silver spoon, white college students.

And then we move onto what Biafra sings would help these types of people

It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear
Brace yourself, my dear.

Biafra tells them they should spend some time with the people that they talk about needing help and that takes us to the chorus…

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but it’s life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife.

This song has so much stuff in it… Cambodia, at the time Biafra wrote this, was experiencing one of the worst atrocities in history inflicted upon a country’s people. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, CPK, or the Khmer Communist Party was a party led by Pol Pot and its followers were generally known as the Khmer Rouge, which translates to Red Khmers. I will get into the atrocity in a bit but we will continue with the song for now.

Verse 2 gets back to talking to the so-called activists of the time:

You’re a star-belly sneetch, you suck like a leech
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch so you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you

This verse and the reference to a star-belly sneetch is brilliant. The Sneetches is a book by Dr. Seuss where some Sneetches have stars on their bellies and some Sneetches do not. The star-belly Sneetches discriminate against the Sneetches that do not have stars. They think they are better than the Sneetches that do not have stars. Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes around and charges the Sneetches without stars $3 to put a star on their belly. Of course this makes the original star-belly Sneetches angry so McBean charges them $10 to take the star off. After going back and forth and giving all of their money to McBean, they eventually realize that Sneetches are Sneetches, none better or worse. Go read The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss if you have not, it’s a good read.

Then Biafra brings back up the Khmer Rouge…

Well, you’ll work harder with a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers till you starve. Then your head is skewered on a stake

The Khmer Rouge was mostly made up of poor, uneducated peasants from the country who believed that all people that lived in the city were evil and enemies of communism. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 and force evacuated everyone from the cities and made them work on farms and in labor camps. People were forced to work 16 hours per day and were only given one bowl a rice. Many, an estimated 1.7 - 2.5 million, peopled died from starvation or being systematically murdered. Approximately 1.3 million of those deaths were from execution. That was roughly one-third of the population of Cambodia.

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack.

The Khmer Rouge regime imposed black unisex clothing in an effort to enforce equality by making people indistinguishable from each other. The last line of the verse is saying that if you didn’t do what you were told you would crack, meaning you would be tortured until you cracked. Biafra uses crack to bring some levity but the actual meaning is not funny. Once again, Biafra being over the top with his lyrics.

Pol Pot, born Salish Sat, was the leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge government was toppled but amazingly enough Pol Pot lived fairly peacefully until 1998. He was put in house arrest in 1998 just before he died. In his last interview he told Nate Thayer that his “conscience is clear” and he said, “I want you to know that everything I did, I did it for my country.” He rejected the idea that millions had died saying, “To say that millions died is too much”, You know, for the other people, the babies, the young ones, I did not order them to be killed. He died of heart failure a little later and was never convicted for any of his crimes against humanity.

Contact Ronnie on any of the following:

All content ©2024 Ronnie Lutes