Holiday In Cambodia

Album: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)

Songfacts®:

  • This song takes aim at privileged American college kids who don't know how good they have it. A secondary target is the US government, which was doing nothing to stop the genocide in Cambodia, where Pol Pot was in power.

    In the song, lead singer Jello Biafra addresses a kid who has some college under his belt and thinks he's woke. He figures what this kid really needs is a holiday in Cambodia, where he can find out what it's like to be persecuted and enslaved.
  • When playing this song live, Biafra would act like a dumb American kid who suddenly ends up in Cambodia and gets shot. He had stage training, which he put to use in Dead Kennedys.
  • This is one of the few Dead Kennedys songs that was written by the entire band - most were composed solely by Biafra. In our 2013 interview with Biafra, he said it was still his favorite song, and explained how it came together:

    "The original 'Holiday in Cambodia' is more a straight punk song. We called them 'chainsaws' back then, 'chainsaw punk' after the Ramones song ('Chainsaw'). The other guys didn't like it. They didn't want to play it. I was heartbroken, I was crestfallen, they'd never done that to me before. And then Klaus (Flouride - bass player) began noodling around on what became that signature bass line. I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute. That's cool. What would happen if we swiped everything from my 'Holiday in Cambodia' song - verse, chorus, bridge - but used that as the original root rhythm?'

    Actually, we had a three-chord chorus and bridge that came from the original, and then the verse we swapped out. Eventually, Ray (guitarist East Bay Ray) came up with that signature guitar part when he enters the song. It was taking a while; we didn't even play it at our first show, although we knew we had it under our belt. It was a pretty chief song for making me decide I ought to stick with these guys and it might turn into something really unusual, because I was playing around with some other people, too.

    Before we played, I came back out of the bathroom and back to Ray's garage and heard that lick, and I was like, 'Yow!' And Ray told me he'd seen Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett at Winterland when he was a kid, and I took note of that. So when I was trying to get something to put on top of Klaus' riff, I kept trying to get it to fit there, and fit there, and fit there, and finally, it appeared."
  • The line, "You're a star-belly sneech" is a reference to a Dr. Seuss character in his story The Sneetches. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Tina - Boise, ID
  • Despite this being one of the most popular Dead Kennedys songs, this actually caused a whole lot of controversy and turmoil between Jello Biafra and the other band members. In the late '90s, the Levi's clothing company asked permission to use the song in an ad for Dockers; although the other band members were OK with the song's usage, Jello refused, citing his anti-corporate stance and what he believed to be Levi's unfair work practices. This led to the rest of the band suing him for unpaid royalties, which eventually led to Jello losing all publishing rights to the DK catalog. The commercial eventually aired using a Pretenders song - it showed a guy catching a mouse and putting it in a cage when his girlfriend felt sorry for it. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alex - New Orleans, LA

Comments: 19

  • In Response To Melody From Austin Tv from United StatesMelody, I don't mean to sound rude, please forgive me. From what you wrote, a very specific picture emerges. You appear to be that white American college kid, who "been to school for a year or two" who "knows you've seen it all". Leftist college professor Noam Chomsky was silent about the Cambodian genocide. He was an apologist of the communist maniac Pol Pot, who's one of the worse criminals of this century. Chomsky and his friends had tried to convince the American people and international observers that Cambodian refugees' accounts of the genocide of the Cambodian people at the hands of the communists were unreliable. Know this. There were hundreds if not thousands of first hand accounts coming out of Cambodia talking about a mass campaign of violence and repression against everyone in Cambodia who wasn't loyal to Pol Pot. Chomsky and his leftist college-radical clique refused to believe these people. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky's behavior was in the 1970s, he was not the good guy here. When it came down to an actual genocide perpetrated by a politician that Chomsky was sympathetic to - Chomsky failed to pass the test of impartial moral judgment. He remained loyal to his biased agenda. He betrayed human rights. He betrayed his own message. FYI. The Cambodia genocide was one of the most serious genocides in the post Holocaust period. FYI. No small matter. 25% of Cambodia's population was murdered, starved to death or worked to death by the communists.
  • Melody from Austin, TexasIn response to Adam from Calgary:
    His further assertion that Noam Chomsky attributed the deaths of the Pol Pot era to ''nothing but'' a war-induced famine is an outright lie. Mr. Chomsky (and the present writer, who was co-author with Mr. Chomsky of his published works on Cambodia) went to great pains to stress that there was no doubt that the Khmer Rouge was committing serious crimes, although we took no position on their scale (which was very uncertain at the time). We focused mainly and openly on the uses to which the West was putting the Khmer Rouge terror, the removal of history and context, the serious distortions of evidence and the selectivity of attention. These were perfectly legitimate subjects in themselves, justified even more by the fact that the West wasn't even proposing doing anything useful for the victims, and by the sequel in which the ousted Pol Pot was quietly rehabilitated as a Western ''freedom fighter.'' But in the West, to focus on the distortions and hypocrisies of a propaganda campaign is to become an ''apologist'' for the villains of that campaign. Mr. Nordland's review, which rests on one of the myths of the Pol Pot era as well as a now institutionalized lie about our own work on the subject, shows that our effort was and remains on target.
  • Logan from Washington DcJello has also gone on to say its also about how the government isn't focusing on the real issues (such as Pol Pot's dictatorship) and instead focusing on things that weren't problems to begin with.
  • Travis from Victoria, BcBiafra was a country that existed in Africa from 1967 to 1970. In its brief reign, close to a million people died from famine. "Biafra Babies" is a term for those stick-thin children with bloated bellies suffering from starvation and malnutrition. "Jello Biafra" is cruel irony in that it juxtaposes the popular slogan "There's always room for Jello" with children who are starving to death.
  • Adam from Yarmouth, MeThis is one of the best punks songs ever, but I think that the best is debatably Anarchy in the U.K by The Sex Pistols. But that is just my opinion.
  • Aaron from Seattle, WaGreatest Punk song ever.
  • John from Macclesfield, United KingdomThe best lyric in holiday in cambodia, or any other song for that matter ever, has to be "right guard will not help you here". dead kennedys were and still are one of the best punk bands ever.
  • Ziggy from Redding, CaI love this song, but i never knew what it was about until now, and even now that ive read it, its kind of confusing!
  • Rob from Eugene, Or"The US government supported Pot because he was opposed to both the Viet Cong and Soviet communism."

    Not to be picking nits here, but the US supported the Lon Nol government which was in power for a little while before Pol Pot. Lon Nol was anti-communist, ut was also a horrible leader who mismanaged things terribly. When Pol Pot took over he escaped with a ton of US dollars and retired in a nice suburb in Hawaii somewhere. Pol Pot wasn't "anti Viet Cong" or "anti Soviet Communism" per se, rather he wanted all foreigners out of Cambodia, and for cambodia to return to its former greatness as the Angkar kingdom, hence setting back the clocks to "The Year Zero." Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, was quite friendly with the Viet Cong early on during the formation of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war, but he had some ideological disagreement with them at some point, and when he took power, they were foriegners anyway, and so would have been expelled from the country or killed. The agricultural reform thing is right though. Pot wanted to destroy everything "modern" and return to the agrarian economy of the Angkar kingdom. Brief history lesson there, I knew majoring in history wouldn't be totally worthless.
  • Elisabeth from Toronto, CanadaWhat on earth is that second songfact supposed to mean? "Pol Pot melted people which is called a biafra, so when they came out they looked like jello"? Alec from Sewell, NJ is right, Jello Biafra is meant to contrast American wealth and waste with starvation in third world countries.
  • Adam from Calgary, CanadaA very poignant message in the reference to Pol Pot, one that also proves how pointless music is for political discourse. So many fans of Jello Biafra--who buy his spoken-word discs--are into Noam Chomsky & worship him as a god. However, Noam once wrote that the Khmer Rouge atrocities were made up by the CIA, something he's never aknowleged, or apologized for.
    ACS
  • Jay from Geneva, Cheezland"Pol Pot melted people which is called a biafra" - well that is a claim that really needs to be backed up. Pol pot did loads of things, maybe "melt" people ( I wonder how that is done), but I am pretty sure (as othe rpeople here, that the referrence is about the secessionist state of southerne Nigeria.
  • Jello from Sarnia, CanadaThis is a really good song by one of the best punk bands ever...
  • J from Nyc, NyThe best line in this song is, "it's a holiday in Cambodia, don't forget to pack a wife."
  • Pete from Joliet, IlIt was the civil war in Nigeria. I recall him stating in an interveiw that his name came from the Biafra war. I assume that the name "Jello" comes from the zero nutritional value in Jello which is ironic next to the name "Biafra", tagging a war partially resulting in starvation.
  • Alec from Sewell, NjNo the actual truth is that Jello Biafra got his name from the food product Jello and the short-lived starving country Biafra from Nigeria. It's meant to be ironic since Jello has no nutritional value. Anyway, I always thought they were contrasting the dumb ignorance of American college kids with the conditions in Cambodia. Pol Pot's regime was largely about agricultural reform. He abolished technology and forced Cambodians to work in the fields. This was the main cause of the deaths of about 2 million people. The US government supported Pot because he was opposed to both the Viet Cong and Soviet communism.
  • Zachary from Charlotte, NcAnother DK song that is easily one of the best punk rock songs of all time, it makes its points and above all else sounds good
  • Justin from Arleta, CaI heard that Biafra was a short lived country, and that Jello, was chosen due to it's non-nutritional value, not because pol-pot melted people. But hen again prove me wrong.
  • Frank from Mars, MeEither that, or the civil war in Nigeria. Duh!!!
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