Punks at War

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

"Biafra was obviously the media person," Ray retorts, "but a media person is not the whole thing that makes a band. ... I set up the label and ran it for the first three years, and I'm given no credit for it right now. Keeping the Dead Kennedys independent, and the fact that Biafra has a nice big mansion on Diamond Heights, is a direct result of my efforts."

"If Biafra weren't the label, he would be carrying the fucking flag up the hill," Given says, "screaming about corporate greed."

Werckman calls the dispute "pathetic on both sides."
There is plenty of time for additional recrimination and response. The case is scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 27.

In punk rock, as in most genres of popular music, scenes come and go. And if punk in San Francisco has never died off, it also has never again approached the fertile creativity that it enjoyed in the late '70s and early '80s. In 1982, around the time that Alternative Tentacles stopped being the Dead Kennedys' vanity label and began releasing other records in earnest, the late Tim Yohannon and a group of others founded the fanzine MaximumRockandRoll in San Francisco, one of the leading arbiters of punk ideology (even though many feel that its view of punk rock is strict, misguided, and, at this point, outdated).

In 1994, the fanzine banned Alternative Tentacles from advertising in its pages, and refused to review its record releases, claiming that it was no longer punk. From its very beginning, the fanzine's letters page was rife with complaints about the "true" definition of punk. Every month, with each new issue, the complaints continue.

But there's another view: Ralph Spight, who sings and plays guitar in San Francisco's Hellworms and has been part of the local punk scene since the early '80s, credits Alternative Tentacles for being both loyal and daring. "Some of them sold pretty well," Spight says of his AT recording efforts with the bands Saturn's Flea Collar and Victim's Family. "Some of them didn't. But on any other label in the world, doing the things I've done, I'd be dropped."

And AT's openness to experimentation makes it more "punk" than new bands aping the old look and sound.

"Sometimes I get really excited about the bands going on around here, and then sometimes I get really bored," Spight says. He sees a punk scene that threatens to go stagnant and become just another musical style -- which would leave it far, far away from its radical roots. "I'm pretty jaded about it all," he says.

Although it has released records from local groups such as Neurosis and Zen Guerrilla, Alternative Tentacles has increasingly focused on aggressive and noisy bands outside the confines of the Bay Area, and new labels have stepped in to cover local punk music. The most famous, Berkeley's Lookout, has functioned for 11 years, supporting bands like Green Day and Operation Ivy (members of which would later form Rancid). Molly Neuman, Lookout's general manager, praises Alternative Tentacles for proving that the do-it-yourself ethic can work. "[Alternative Tentacles] demonstrated that independent music can survive without tons of media support and attention, without radio, without MTV, and can still survive outside of the mainstream music industry's standards," says Neuman.

Neuman says she hasn't kept up on details of the Alternative Tentacles/Dead Kennedys case. But when asked about it, she makes the same comment, three times.

"It's a shame."
Neuman is right in saying that Alternative Tentacles helped establish the model for how an independent rock and punk label might operate successfully. To perhaps oversimplify, that model is analogous to a shopping mall: If you have one or more successful and familiar "anchor" bands, people buy the smaller acts, too. The label's name and logo become a brand and a signifier of quality. That's part of what differentiates the independent record label from a major: Nobody buys a Ricky Martin album because he's on Sony, just like Miles Davis; but Alternative Tentacles record buyers, knowing the Dead Kennedys' history, might be more likely to buy a record by, say, the Causey Way.

The Causey Way, one of AT's recent signings, is an upstart, Devo-esque band from Gainesville, Fla. Says singer Causey, somewhat waggishly, "We were approached -- 'courted,' as they say -- by some of the majors, but no one understood the integrity of our mission like our brothers and sisters at AT. I have only wonderful things to say about Jello Biafra."

This "shopping mall" system of independent marketing has worked for Washington, D.C.'s Dischord, home to Fugazi and Minor Threat; Chicago's Touch and Go, for which famed producer Steve Albini records and performs; Southern California's SST, which mainly sustains itself on '80s albums by Black Flag and HYsker DY; and, of course, Alternative Tentacles, home to the Dead Kennedys -- at least for now.

As the former members of the Dead Kennedys prepare for the trial that would resolve their dispute (at least in a legal sense), Jello Biafra continues to oversee new Alternative Tentacles releases, which have recently included spoken-word albums by leftist cause celebres such as the late environmental activist Judi Bari, A People's History of the United States author Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and alleged cop murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as musical offerings from bands at various positions on the punk spectrum.

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