Appreciation: Drummer D.H. Peligro was the bright light and backbone of the Dead Kennedys

A black and white photo of D.H. Peligro in a white tank top smiling behind a drum kit
D.H. Peligro, drummer of The Dead Kennedys
(Nikko Myers)
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The Dead Kennedys were already punk-popular when drummer D.H. Peligro joined the San Francisco-based group in 1981. The band’s debut album, 1980’s “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” melded surf rock and Bay Area psychedelia in a way that disproved the trope about punk musicians who couldn’t play their instruments. Not well, anyway.

Peligro — born Darren Henley — died Friday at his Los Angeles home. According to a statement issued by the band, police “stated that he died from trauma to the head caused by an accidental fall.” He was 63.

Peligro’s arrival in the Dead Kennedys (also featuring bassist Geoffrey “Klaus Flouride” Lyall, singer Eric “Jello Biafra” Reed Boucher and guitarist Raymond “East Bay Ray” Pepperell) was part of the burgeoning American hardcore scene, a new punk sound that fostered bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains and the Misfits playing faster, louder and harder than their original releases. With Peligro, Dead Kennedys issued the 1981 “In God We Trust, Inc.,” an eight-song release that added increased tempos to the band’s cacophonic creations — in the best possible way. Only two of the eight songs are longer than two minutes (“We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” which clocks in at four minutes and 29 seconds, and a two-minute-and-11-second-long cover of Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide”), but maybe that was the point. Get in and get out. Or, perhaps, it was impossible to play as fast and as hard as Peligro did for longer than 90-second bursts.


The 13-minute-and-54-second EP was followed by 1982’s “Plastic Surgery Disasters,” a magnum opus of American hardcore. The 14-track album opens with a Stooges-inspired freakout and a woman asking, “Why are you such a stupid a—?” before launching into “Government Flu.” Listeners immediately hear a new Dead Kennedys — faster, more musical and more willing to experiment than the group’s prior releases. Peligro counts off the track, which begins with 15 seconds of an arena rock-influenced intro before transitioning into four seconds of Peligro using both hands on the hi-hat with an accompanying steady kick drum. The song explodes into chaos led by East Bay Ray’s apocalyptic-sounding lead and Biafra’s quaking vibrato. It’s Peligro, however, who guides the foursome through that chaos.

“The drummer I called ‘Dangerous Darren’ appeared in Southern California with the Dead Kennedys at a flashpoint when an emerging subgenre dubbed ‘hardcore punk’ was veering toward an Aryan skinhead look,” original Circle Jerks drummer Lucky Lehrer says, “but fans didn’t care about appearance. D.H. was enthusiastically embraced. His speed, creativity, precision, force and stamina puts him in an elite category among hardcore drummers.”

For some musicians, being called heavy handed would be considered an insult. For Peligro, it’s the ultimate compliment. Just listen to how hard he hits the intro roll on “Terminal Preppie” and how his right hand washes the hi-hat like a combination of Ringo Starr and Tommy Ramone. The main riff in “Trust Your Mechanic” centers around Peligro’s drumline-influenced rolls while “Forest Fire” highlights his ability to swing on the ride, before, in typical Dead Kennedys fashion, descending into aural madness. The album closer, “Moon Over Marin,” a song more akin to “Kill the Poor” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” (both from “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables”), proves Peligro wasn’t limited to performing hardcore. He could play Dead Kennedys odd take on pop music too.

Peligro performs on 1985’s “Frankenchrist” and 1986’s “Bedtime for Democracy” and had been part of the Dead Kennedys (sans Biafra) live performances since the group reunited at West Hollywood’s Key Club in 2001. Some fans have scoffed at the notion of a Biafra-less Dead Kennedys, but others embraced the opportunity to hear three-fourths of the classic lineup because the band was always about the sum of its parts and the strength of each member. Sure, audiences would have preferred to see Biafra onstage, but there aren’t many 1980s American hardcore bands still playing with 75% of its classic lineup. Fans attended recent shows because Peligro, East Bay Ray and Flouride were vital to the Dead Kennedys’ sound.

In 1988, Peligro played in Red Hot Chili Peppers after the departure of founding drummer Jack Irons. He does not play on any RHCP official releases but is credited as a co-writer on three tracks from 1989’s “Mother’s Milk.”

“My dear friend, my brother I miss you so much,” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea wrote on Instagram. “I’m devastated today, a river of tears, but all my life I will treasure every second. The first time I saw you play with the DK’s in ’81 you blew my mind. The power, the soul, the recklessness. You are the truest rocker, and a crucial part of rhcp history. D H P in the place to be, you live forever in our hearts, you wild man, you bringer of joy, you giant hearted man.”

D.H. Peligro
D.H. Peligro, the late drummer of the Dead Kennedys.
(Brill / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Peligro released three solo records (1995’s “Peligro,” 2000’s “Welcome to America” and 2004’s “Sum of Our Surroundings”) and a 2013 memoir titled “Dreadnaught: King of Afropunk.”

“Their Alternative Tentacles debut is by far the best solo album by any of the ex-DKs,” Biafra wrote at “Like ‘Fresh Fruit..’ gone Bad Brains, in the best possible way.”

Being a part of Red Hot Chili Peppers would be the pinnacle of many musicians’ careers, but Peligro will be remembered primarily for his role in the Dead Kennedys.

According to the Dead Kennedys’ Facebook page, Peligro’s arrangements “are pending and will be announced in the coming days.”

“He was a powerhouse of a drummer with a heart even bigger than his sound,” Flouride told The Times. “A dear friend as well as a bandmate for over 40 years.”


East Bay Ray echoed that sentiment. “It‘s said that a wound to the heart is where the light comes in,” he said. “D.H. Peligro had more than his share of wounds and yet he was able to share his bright light with others. Now that light is gone.”