Alternative Tentacles

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Alternative Tentacles was an independent label formed by the outspoken Jello Biafra and his band Dead Kennedys in 1979 to release their first single ‘California Uber Alles’. Initially, the song failed to make an impact back home but became an overnight hit in the UK thanks to promotion by hot label-of-the-moment Fast Product.

Later that year, Jello ran for mayor of San Francisco and finished 4th out of 10 candidates. The 21-year old’s manifesto included banning cars within city limits and forcing all businessmen to wear clown suits from 9 to 5.

In a bid to gain “New Wave Credibility”, the organisers of the Bay Area Music awards invited Dead Kennedys to perform at their event, in front of music industry bigwigs. The band performed ‘Pull My Strings’, which contained the lyrics: “Is my c*ck big enough / Is my brain small enough / For you to make me a star?”

In 1981, AT introduced the rest of Europe to Let Them Eat Jellybeans – a compilation of American bands from the emerging hardcore scene. The following year, DOA, TSOL and 7 Seconds all had their own releases through the label. Dead Kennedys’ follow-up ’81 European tour is credited with breaking open the still-strong underground scenes in Finland, Italy, Germany and even behind the Iron Curtain.

Jellos and co released Frankenchrist in 1985 to the horror of the ultra-conservative Parents Music Resource Centre  (PMRC)- a committee co-founded by Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife) to police music content. Because the album contained a poster of HR Giger (best known for his design work on the film Alien) entitled Work 219 : Landscape XX. Also known as Penis Landscape, the artwork depicted rows of penises entering va-jay-jays. Dead Kennedys were charged with distribution of harmful matter to minors in a case championed by PMRC.

The DKs won but the lengthy court case split the band and left Jello as the sole owner of a nearly-bankrupt Alternative Tentacles. Lead prosecutor Michael Guarino would later admit, “The whole thing was a comedy of errors…. About midway through the trial we realised that the lyrics of the album were in many ways socially responsible, very anti-drug and pro-individual.”  Other DK album artworks that got conservatives boiling included In God We Trust, Inc which features a golden Christ on a cross of dollar bills, and Plastic Surgery Disasters that shows a starving American child’s hand being held and dwarfed by a white man’s hand.

After the Kennedys split, Jello made a switch to spoken word and found himself shaking up the college circuit, giving “lectures” on censorship. In 1998 former members of Dead Kennedys sued Jello over unpaid royalties. Though they claimed it was a dispute over royalties, hostilities began when Jello opposed the use of ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ in a Levi’s Dockers TV commercial.

For the past 30 years, Jello’s taste for the strange and his confrontational nature has led to AT releasing over 250 counterculture albums, of which more than 150 are still in print – from punk deviants B*tthole Surfers, The Crucif*cks, The D*cks and MIA to the bent-pop of Wesley Willis and spoken word of anti-establishment writers Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn – the world will always have room for more Jello.

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