Dead Kennedys’ Cover of Elvis’ ‘Viva Las Vegas’ Was Meant to ‘Shock’ People
Sometimes, the best classic rock covers are the most unexpected ones. Dead Kennedys covered Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and that changed their live shows forever. Band member Jello Biafra explained why his band decided to put their edgy spin on an Elvis song and why that made them different from other bands of the time.
Dead Kennedys’ cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’ was meant to confuse fans
“Viva Las Vegas” remains one of the most famous songs from Elvis’ movies. Dead Kennedys recorded the song with some lyrical twists. Dead Kennedys’ version features the lines “Oh, I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got / Lady Luck’s with me, the dice stay hot / Got coke up my nose to dry away the snot.” Those are not the sort of lyrics the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll would sing.
In the 2014 book Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years, Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra discussed the band’s choice to record “Viva Las Vegas.” “‘Viva Last Vegas’ began a Dead Kennedys tradition that I’ve carried on to this day of picking very unlikely cover tunes, something that will send a shock wave through the crowd – ‘What the hell are they playing that for?'” he said. Dead Kennedys went on to record versions of David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and The Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — songs whose original versions are a far cry from Dead Kennedys’ hard-rock style.
Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra said covering Elvis Presley made his band different
Biafra contrasted Dead Kennnedys’ choices of cover songs with those of their contemporaries. “We never covered ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ or ‘Folsom Prison Blues,'” he recalled. “And we didn’t follow all the ’70s bar bands and cover Chuck Berry’s songs — to the point where it would ruin Chuck Berry for life for a lot of people.
“It was [Dead Kennedys’] Ted who suggested covering ‘Viva Las Vegas,'” he added. “Being mostly unfamiliar with Elvis at the time, I’d never heard the song and I’d never even heard of the movie. And once I heard it I thought, ‘Yeah, that would be pretty funny.’ Let’s do it.”
How ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and Dead Kennedys’ cover performed on the charts
Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” reached No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying on the chart for seven weeks. The tune appeared on the compilation Elvis: 2nd to None. That compilation reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and stayed on the chart for 16 weeks.
Dead Kennedy’s “Viva Las Vegas” did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, none of the band’s classic punk singles hit the chart. The cover’s parent album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, did not hit the Billboard 200. The band’s only album to chart in the United States was Iguana Studios Rehearsal Tape – San Francisco 1978. That record hit No. 17 on Billboard’s Independent Album chart for a single week.
Dead Kennedy’s “Viva Las Vegas” was not a hit but it created a tradition for the band.