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Punks at War 

Dead Kennedys, Alternative Tentacles, and the lawsuit that threatens punk's most enduring and provocative partnership.

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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It was January 1978, and the Winterland was packed, and the Sex Pistols had just played their last show anywhere, and it had ended with lead singer Johnny Rotten cackling these choice parting words: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Cheated wasn't the half of it. The Sex Pistols were the most famous band to come out of a British punk scene that was just beginning to find its footing in the U.S. The band's breakup wasn't just a musical event; followers lost a cultural-political icon. Without the Sex Pistols -- that sneering bunch of self-proclaimed anarchists who lived to challenge conventional notions of what a rock band should be -- American punks would have to figure things out for themselves.

At North Beach's Mabuhay Gardens, the figuring had already started. While radio stations were clogging themselves with ELO and the Eagles, the Mabuhay was showcasing bands and music that were not just alternative, but challenging. Many of the bands took stylistic cues from the Sex Pistols and Ramones, but others, including Flipper and the Residents, experimented wildly, bent on befuddling their audiences more than entertaining them.

It was a culture of self-determination, where "do it yourself" was the operating credo. Who said you had to suck up to some big label to get your records out? Who said that Rolling Stone was the only music magazine on Earth? Fanzines such as Search and Destroy and Punk Globe sprang up to document the scene, both within and outside the Bay Area. Mainstream media outlets started to take a peek at what these strangely dressed folks were up to. Record labels (like 415 Records) started putting out singles and compilations.

And by 1978, a transplant to San Francisco from Boulder, Colo., name of Jello Biafra, ne Eric Boucher, had decided he wanted to do more than just watch his favorite bands; he wanted to be up there on the Mabuhay's stage too.

Biafra had saved some money, and so he gathered up three musicians -- guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro (who replaced early drummer Bruce Slesinger). Biafra, who wrote lyrics, wanted to put forth a band that was political; San Francisco was providing ample material. This was the time of the Jonestown massacre, and Dan White's murder of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (and that's not to mention White's infamous and absurd "Twinkie defense").

And so the Dead Kennedys -- and, simultaneously, Alternative Tentacles Records -- were formed. The story of AT and DK is, to a remarkable extent, the story of punk rock in San Francisco.

"[Alternative Tentacles] was a dream more than a business plan," Biafra said in a telephone interview in early June, speaking from a downtown San Francisco office. "It was something I felt we had to do to document all the great music that was going on that wasn't being recorded. I saw these amazing bands like the Avengers, Negative Trend, the Sleeperz, Dils, Offs, Mutants, UXA, Crime, Nuns -- all of 'em breaking up before they put out what would've been some of the best albums any band's ever made.

"I knew that if I ever had any money, I wanted to do a record label to correct the situation, to help fix that."

Alternative Tentacles wasn't envisioned as the relatively wide-ranging label it is today. Back in 1979, it was just supposed to release a single, "California Über Alles." But on the strength of that single and the Dead Kennedys' live shows, the group with one of the more politically sacrilegious names in America got a reputation as one of the most interesting bands in San Francisco.

Even if the group didn't quite fit the cliched definition of punk rock. And it didn't.

The Dead Kennedys didn't spike their hair, and while most punk bands of that era marched in a strict lock step -- both in terms of sound (three-chord, Ramones-y blasts) and politics (sobersided anti-Reaganism) -- the Dead Kennedys instead played rockabilly-on-benzedrine fusillades and often spoofed pop songs of the day. Singing in nasal, piercing tones, taking lyrical shots at whomever struck his momentary fancy, Biafra gave punk something it thought it wasn't supposed to have: a sense of humor.

"California Uber Alles," for example, posited a "suede-denim secret police" state, controlled by then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, where people would "jog for the master race." "Holiday in Cambodia" disemboweled snotty post-grads who proclaimed their hipness and whined about their bosses, suggesting that the whiners would "work harder with a gun in your back/ For a bowl of rice a day."

Biafra was always the most visible and vocal member of the band, quick with a snappy line and good for a prank, the most famous being his 1979 run for mayor of San Francisco. Though parts of his platform addressed what he considered legitimate concerns -- he lobbied for, and still supports, legalizing squatters' rights -- much of his candidacy was decidedly goofball, calling for the public auction of city positions, the establishment of a legal board of bribery, and the requirement that Financial District workers wear clown suits. When Dianne Feinstein called for a cleaner city, Biafra was vacuuming leaves off her front lawn the next day.

In a city that felt worn and cynical after the Jonestown and White incidents, Biafra's campaign proved a tonic; he finished fourth out of 10 candidates, getting approximately 4 percent of the vote.

Biafra, the Dead Kennedys, and Alternative Tentacles thus earned reputations as the leading provocateurs of punk rock. To this day, the Dead Kennedys account for more than half of Alternative Tentacles' record sales. As Biafra puts it, "Alternative Tentacles remains one giant prank against the mainstream entertainment industry and the agendas of the corporations that own it."

But this irony-filled approach to life in and around the recording industry has led Biafra and his la-bel into a series of legal troubles.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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