1501 Powell Street, Suite 6
Although it is perceived by many as a "punk" label, having released records by Dead Kennedys and others [Alternative Tentacles] is actually best known for its impact on the world of underground culture.
Alternative Tentacles Records, based in Emeryville, California, is an independent record label owned by Eric Reed Boucher, better known by his stage name, Jello Biafra, former front man for the seminal punk band Dead Kennedys. Although primarily known for releasing albums by the Dead Kennedys and other punk bands--such as Butthole Surfers, D.O.A., 7 Seconds, Winston Smith, NoMeansNo, Neurosis, and Voice Farm--Alternative Tentacles has also released rock and roll, Brazilian hardcore, bent pop, faux-country, and spoken word records from such anti-establishment writers as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Since the breakup of Dead Kennedys, Biafra has also recorded a number of spoken word records issued by his record company. All told, the label has released about 250 albums, of which more than 150 are still in print. In addition, through its Web site Alternative Tentacles sells books, magazines, videos that reflect the tastes of underground culture, as well as such mundane merchandise as coffee mugs and T-shirts.
A Child of the '60s
Biafra was born in Boulder, Colorado, in 1959. His father was a psychiatric social worker and his mother was a librarian. Biafra was a precocious child, early on displaying a fascination with language. According to his father, when Biafra was only three years old, "he would startle visitors at the door saying he looked like a Pithecanthroprus erectus." He also became interested in music at an early age, delving into his father's large ethnic record collection. However, relations between the two grew contentious, with Biafra enraging his father by comparing him to Stalin and Nixon. The youngster also became an outcast among his peers. Years later, he recalled, "My heroes in those days were Batman villains. My other friends wanted to be nurses and firemen, but I thought the Riddler and Penguin were much better role models." In high school, Biafra rebelled against the country-rock music that ruled the local radio waves, often visiting used record shops where for pocket change he bought records based on interesting covers and liner notes. Many of these records turned out to be seminal influences on the rising punk music scene: the Stooges, MC5, 13th Floor Elevators, Nazz, and Les Baxter. As a teenager, Biafra began using his gift for language to write song lyrics.
In 1978, Biafra enrolled at University of California-Santa Cruz but quit after just two months. He told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 1986 profile, "I was going through the usual teenage anguish stuff. I couldn't see going to college and picking a career out of a hat and hating my own guts, because what I really wanted to do was perform. I've always loved loud, raw music." After attending a Ramones concert, Biafra, at the age of 20, decided to form his own band. His band mates shared his taste for unusual names: guitarist East Bay Ray, bass player Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.R. Peligro. Biafra turned in part to the news in the coining of his own stage name. He latched onto "Biafra," the African nation which had become the face of international poverty and starvation, and combined it with Jello, which he believed epitomized U.S. corporate culture. He explained to the Chronicle, "I thought that the two images of Jello and Biafra colliding in the mind were exactly the sort of confrontational question I wanted to raise. Plastic America and its overseas results." Moreover, he liked the sound of it. For the name of the band, Biafra turned to a notebook where he jotted down ideas and considered such possibilities as Smegma Pigvomit, Mucus Melanoma, and Calvin Colostomy before settling on Dead Kennedys. Referring to assassinated politicians was offensive to some, but to Biafra the reference was to a self-absorbed, cynical society that resulted from the murder of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam war, and the Watergate scandal.
After a week's worth of rehearsal, Dead Kennedys made its first appearance in 1978 at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens. The band soon developed a strong following. Biafra proved to be a dynamic performer, often becoming physical with his audience, overturning tables and spilling beer. Despite Biafra's punk antics, the band's songs transcended punk's basic antisocial themes. Rather, Dead Kennedys dealt with politics, poverty, religion, the environment, and later on criticized the punk scene itself, especially the fashion. Dead Kennedys wore jeans and sneakers, eschewing the boots, torn jackets, chains, Mohawk haircuts, and safety pins that would characterize so many bands claiming to be punk. In many ways, Dead Kennedys were the American version of England's Sex Pistols, minus the bondage trappings, and represented an anti-corporate, anti-conservative worldview. The songs were caustic, often humorous, guitar-driven, and manic-paced, forming the foundation of what become known as punk's hardcore sound. Where Biafra and Dead Kennedys differed from many of the punk bands they inspired was in their aversion to the drug scene, which would lead to the downfall, and sometimes death, of many punk musicians.
The Alternative Tentacles Name in the Late 1970s
Dead Kennedys saved their money and in June 1979 produced the band's first single, "California Uber Alles," coining the name "Alternative Tentacles" to serve as the label. By self-producing, the band was pursuing an alternative to the "tentacles" of mainstream record companies. The single was a success, drawing attention to the band in America and especially Europe, where punk was more popular. Ironically, it also led to a record deal with IRS Records, which released Dead Kennedys' first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. It was intended for distribution by A&M, which thought the group's name was in bad taste. As a result, a small independent label, Fault Products, distributed the album, and upon its release the band launched an uncommonly successful tour of England and Europe for an American punk band. A major part of the interest generated by Dead Kennedys was due to Biafra's engaging persona.
Before the release of Fresh Fruit, Biafra accepted the challenge of a friend and ran for mayor of San Francisco in a crowded field of ten candidates, a race won by Dianne Feinstein, who would go on to become a U.S. Senator. The little known 21-year-old conducted the campaign of a talented, seasoned prankster and attracted considerable media coverage. His platform called for the banning of automobiles within city limits, auctioning off important city positions, establishing a board of bribery so that fair prices for liquor licenses and building code exemptions could be established, and forcing all businessmen to wear clown suits from the hours of nine to five. His motto, not surprisingly, was "There's always room for Jello." Nevertheless, some of his ideas were serious, such as the legalization of squatters rights. Although he won less than 3 percent of the vote, receiving 6591 votes, Biafra placed fourth, which by all accounts was a surprisingly strong finish, enough to prompt the Board of Supervisors to ban "funny names" from future ballots. More importantly for Biafra and Dead Kennedys, his campaign caught the attention of the British press, which set the stage for the band's European tour in the fall of 1980.
Biafra applied the Alternative Tentacles name to an independent record label he and the members of Dead Kennedys started in 1980 (a year later, the band was made into a partnership known as Decay Music), intending it as a European-based operation that would release and promote the albums of American punk bands, primarily based in the Bay area, unknown to the market. A compilation album called Let Them Eat Jellybeans was released, followed by singles from such bands as Black Flagg, D.O.A., Bad Brains, Flipper, TSOL, and Voice Farm. Alternative Tentacles releases made their way back to the United States as import copies, which led to the label becoming a domestic business. Although at first it was essentially a vanity label for Dead Kennedys, in 1982 Alternative Tentacles began to release the work of others, such as Butthole Surfers, the Dicks, the Crucifucks, D.O.A., and TSOL. Early on, distribution and promotion was handled by Faulty Products, but when the company went out of business in 1982, Alternative Tentacles forged a distribution arrangement with another upstart San Francisco label, Mordam Records, an association that would continue into the mid-2000s.
Biafra regarded himself as a poor businessman, but he proved to be dedicated and hardworking, reportedly putting in ten to 14 hours a day. According to the 1986 Chronicle article, "His three employees respect him, but think he's a curiosity. 'He's probably the most unusual boss I've ever had,' says Debbie Dordin, general manager of the company. 'Well ...' She laughs. 'He's ...' She laughs again. 'He's on his own timetable. He's meticulous, eccentric and weird. He's conscientious, but he's definitely not a businessman. His input into the company is mostly artistic. As far as a day-to-day influence, that's left up to us.'" Nevertheless, the Alternative Tentacles had a solid reputation with bands, punk and otherwise. The label was dedicated to treating artists fairly, was known to be scrupulous in paying royalties promptly, and never signed bands to contracts, allowing them to work with outside labels. Despite its unusual way of doing business, Alternative Tentacles was successful enough that other labels sought to buy it, distribute its records, or establish package deals with some artists, but Biafra was never interested in pursuing those avenues. According to guitarist East Bay Ray, however, Biafra was merely the media person and that, in fact, Ray was the one responsible for setting up the label and running it for the first three years.
Alternative Tentacles faced a turning point when it became an object of a criminal pornography charge of distributing harmful matter to a minor pressed by the City of Los Angeles, a case that threatened to drive the label out of business. The charge was related to the Dead Kennedys' third album, Frankenchrist, which included a poster by Swedish artist H.R. Giger, best known as the Academy Award-winning set designer for the film Alien. The poster reproduced a surrealistic landscape by Giger featuring ten sets of male and female genitalia engaged in sexual intercourse.
Giger's work reminded Biafra of the work of Hieronymus Bosch, representing the horrible truth of a contemporary society obsessed with greed. However, to a San Fernando, California mother, whose 14-year-old daughter gave her 11-year-old brother a copy of Frankenchrist, as a present, the poster was nothing more than pornography. After failing to get the attention of a television consumer reporter, she turned to the California State Attorney's office, which passed the matter to local authorities. The Los Angeles District Attorney, shortly before he was to run for reelection, agreed with the mother's contention, and on April 15, 1986, Biafra's San Francisco apartment and Alternative Tentacles office and warehouse were raided by vice officers, and a number of copies of the Giger poster were confiscated. Seven weeks later, Biafra and four others were indicted, including the 65-year-old owner of the factory that pressed the album. The defendants faced a $2,000 fine and a year in prison. Although the American Civil Liberties stepped in to help and a legal defense fund was established, the cost of defending the charge placed Alternative Tentacles on the edge of financial ruin. To some observers, the fact that Biafra and Tentacles lacked the financial resources of other music companies made them a convenient target.
The obscenity charges resulted in a lengthy trial, but in the end the jury was deadlocked and the judge dismissed the case. Lead prosecutor Michael Guarino would later admit, "The whole thing was a comedy of errors. ... About midway through the trial we realized that the lyrics of the album were in many ways socially responsible, very anti-drug and pro-individual." Guarino's involvement with Biafra and Dead Kennedy's would not end there, however. He admitted to the Washington Post several years later, "My son adores Jello and plays his music all the time, so my punishment is that I have to listen night after night to everything Biafra has ever performed."
Label Survives 1986 Indecency Charge
Biafra also became the object of attack by the Parents Music Resources Center, co-founded by Tipper Gore. On two occasions, the pair debated contemporary music and the first amendment on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." While Biafra and Alternative Tentacles managed to survive the charges of indecency, the stress of it all contributed greatly to the break up of Dead Kennedys in 1986. According to San Francisco Weekly, Biafra's band mates claimed that Alternative Tentacles was owned and controlled by the entire band and that when it broke up they ceded ownership to Biafra alone through an oral agreement. At the time, it did not appear they were giving up much. The label was short on funds as well as new talent to produce. Biafra drifted into what he called spoken word, essentially monologues in the vein of his lyrics, sometimes rants about censorship, grass-roots politics, and other anti-establishment subjects, but he was also capable of well thought out arguments. Over the years, Alternative Tentacles released several of his spoken word albums. The label also released monologues from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and ventured well beyond punk music to release albums in a variety of styles.
Biafra and Alternative Tentacles would become involved in further legal entanglements in the 1990s. To illustrate the back cover of a 1992 Crucifucks album, the label used a photograph that was originally part of a police public relations campaign to help fend off reductions in the police force. The poster featured a picture of an officer who was pretending to be dead, the text reading, "You wouldn't sacrifice your life for a million bucks." Alternative Tentacles did not contest the charges and a Federal magistrate ordered the record company to pay $2.2 million in damages. The judgment was overturned three months later and the case was ultimately dismissed.
A more difficult legal challenge for Biafra and Alternative Tentacles was a fight between him and the other members of Dead Kennedys, who in September 1998 voted to terminate their relationship with Alternative Tentacles. They claimed that the company had increased the wholesale prices of the group's CDs without telling them and then failed to pay them the higher royalties that resulted. The label manager looked into the matter and agreed that a mistake had occurred but insisted that it was an honest mistake. As a show of his hostility toward his former band mates, Biafra placed the royalty shortage of some $75,000 into a trust account to be released when either he gave his permission or was forced to by a court order. In October 1998, the three Dead Kennedys sued, seeking control of the band's catalog and damages, and the following month Biafra countersued. He contended that the others were upset that he would not agree to allow one of their songs, "Holiday in Cambodia," to be used in a Levi's commercial for its Docker's line. While the three Dead Kennedy's acknowledged that an ad agency had indeed contacted Ray about such a possibility, they had never expressed any interest. Regardless, Biafra claimed he was attempting to preserve the integrity of the band, the record label, and his own reputation. The legal battle between Biafra and the other Dead Kennedy members ended in May 2000 when a judge ruled against Biafra. Alternative Tentacles was ordered to pay nearly $220,000 in damages. Biafra appealed the ruling but eventually let the matter rest.
Alternative Tentacles maintained an office in the United Kingdom until 1997, but closed it down "because employees there were ripping off both AT and our bands--among other things." In 2002, the company moved from San Francisco to offices in Emeryville, California. After 25 years, Alternative Tentacles remained a relatively small business, employing only a handful of people, yet its survival for that length of time was a remarkable accomplishment in itself.
Principal Competitors: Dischord Records; Gearhead Records; Knitting Factory Works.