Label of love: Alternative Tentacles

Founded by Califonian punks Dead Kennedys, this indie bastion has braved backlashes and court cases to survive under the sole ownership of their outspoken frontman Jello Biafra

Eric Reed Boucher renamed himself Jello Biafra in 1978 because he "liked the way the images collide in people's minds". And for the past 30 years his label Alternative Tentacles has flung musical Molotov cocktails at the masses. "Anything I can do to jar people's brain sediment, I'll do," says the tireless agitator.

From UK anarcho-punk to lysergic Texan country, Biafra's madly eclectic taste in music is the common denominator behind every release and he's committed to ensuring his idiosyncratic tentacles continue to reach out for strange new things.

Biafra began blowing minds in San Francisco when he joined Dead Kennedys and self-released California Über Alles in July 1979, which brutally satirised the green, liberal and anti-war state governor Jerry Brown – a little unfairly – as a "zen fascist". Initially, it failed to make headway in their backyard but in the UK the band became an overnight success, thanks to an influential Edinburgh indie label.

"It was just a stroke of dumb luck that Bob Last of Fast Product flipped over the record and wanted to release it," Biafra says. "I've always been very grateful to him and Jim Fouratt, the New York promoter who played Bob the record. Otherwise we might have disintegrated within a few months."

Alternative Tentacles was founded by DKs to release their music, and by 1981 it had assembled most of the players in the emerging North American hardcore punk scene for a compilation, Let Them Eat Jellybeans, aimed at British and European audiences. The following year, DOA, TSOL and 7 Seconds all had their own releases through the label.

It was a poster by a world-renowned Swiss artist that killed the Kennedys in 1986. HR Giger's genitalia-filled Landscape XX, inserted in the DK's fourth album Frankenchrist, led to a trial for obscenity. The DKs won but the lengthy court case split the band and left Biafra as sole label proprietor.

As the pro-censorship brigade sharpened their muskets, AT unleashed the Butthole Surfers on the world with their mini-album Brown Reason to Live, and baited the rightwing majority further with the Crucifucks and the Dicks. Post-Kennedys, Biafra discovered his oratory worked well without music and found himself shaking up the university lecture circuit. To date, he has released eight full-length spoken-word albums and recently took on Noam Chomsky.

The late 80s formed AT's purple period – with Alice Donut, NoMeansNo,
the Beatnigs and Victims Family joining the fold. There were also three brilliant post-Kennedys sonic assaults with Biafra fronting DOA, NoMeansNo and his Lard project with Ministry's Al Jourgensen. But by the mid-90s Biafra found himself at war with the scene he helped create.

The punk zine Maximum Rock'n'Roll, based in the Bay Area but covering the scene worldwide, took AT to task for working with EMI-owned distributor Caroline. It went on to ban AT ads and reviews, and provoked a backlash against Biafra. A gang of punks chanting "rich rock star" severely beat up Biafra at a local gig in 1994.

"Of course, it was easy to label me as a sell-out because I was part of the neighbourhood," says Biafra of the MRR row. "It was one crab trying to pull another crab back in the bucket. For me, using a major distributor is more like the martial arts principle of using the enemy's strength against them. I want my work to be available in remote small towns and cultural ghettos. People have to have that opportunity."

Undaunted by punk reactionaries, AT continued to harvest esoteric and extreme crops of fresh artists. But from 1998 to 2001, Biafra spent most of the time battling his embittered former Dead Kennedys. A judge eventually ruled the band's music was no longer the property of Alternative Tentacles. Eight years on, Biafra urges people not to buy DK albums, repackaged on another label minus their deliciously offensive Winston Smith artwork.

Biafra described losing the Kennedys from Alternative Tentacles as "like getting some of your limbs blown off". "I've used my own money to keep the label afloat. Now many of our label peers are down to one or two employees or pulling the plug altogether. That scares the living shit out of me in some ways, but I think we're better equipped because we already know how to survive hard times."

"It got awfully tempting to just crack up once and for all and turn into Syd Barrett after what they did to me," he admits. "But I have so many unrecorded songs and ideas that I can't not continue to make new work."

He's about to start recording a new album, due out in autumn, tentatively titled The Audacity of Hype with an as-yet-unnamed band featuring Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and the guitarist from AT noise terrorists Victims Family.

A glance at AT's latest release schedule shows the label isn't just surviving, it's in rude health. The bigger sellers are anarchist ska-punks Leftover Crack (a vinyl-only deal), Pansy Division, queens of queercore whose latest oeuvre That's So Gay is out at the end of March, and a retrospective from former Bristol squatters and crust-punk pioneers Amebix, now reformed and playing gigs when vocalist Rob "The Baron" Miller can tear himself away from his Isle of Skye swordsmith work.

Biafra, currently calling for bankers to be thrown in jail and for citizens to hold Obama to account, won't give up the struggle, nor will he give up his ideal of finding a home for uncompromisingly non-mainstream acts.

Tantalising tentacle: a glance at the label's highlights

NoMeansNo: Wrong (1989)

The pun-loving Wright brothers left Alternative Tentacles a few years ago to set up their own Wrong label after recording a brace of incredibly taut and disciplined punk-jazz albums. Their fourth LP is their most direct. Feel the power of the Tower, and revel in the nihilism of The End of All Things.

Jello Biafra &the Melvins: Never Breathe What You Can't See (2004)

Sludge-metallers the Melvins were dragged headlong into punk fury for two albums, while offering Biafra a wider musical palette on which to transmit his distinctive vocals. Never Breathe … (along with Sieg Howdy!) was one of the most acute statements attacking Bush's "war on terror", while also caustically mocking Islamic fundamentalism on tracks such as Caped Crusader.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club: Cipher (2008)

The Denver, Colorado band have been described as "country gothic" for
their apocalyptic Americana imagery, and have got progressively warped
under the wing of AT. Combining fervent-sounding gospel with punk and much more, Slim and co's main mission seems to expose the hypocrisy of Christianity, including calling Jesus a liar and a sinner for not returning to Earth as he promised on Everyone is Guilty #2.


Owen Adams

The GuardianTramp

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