The Phantom Limbs
125 N.W. Sixth Ave.
Alternative Tentacles Records began in the late ’70s, launched by singer Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, to release recordings from the burgeoning punk rock scene. It quickly grew into a pioneering independent music label and throughout the ’80s its bands were among the most recognizable and influential. The Dead Kennedys grew during this time as well and can lay claim to being one of the largest of the first wave of West Coast punk rock bands, and to many who grew up in this era, a first introduction to punk rock. The DK’s actually played their instruments well and wrote catchy songs featuring Biafra’s left wing lyrics and critique of Reagan-era America. Whether you loved them or hated them they were an undeniable force in underground music.
And then everybody grew up. Biafra, who did everything from get naked on stage to run for mayor of San Francisco with a platform that businessmen be required to wear clown suits downtown and neighborhood police face election by that neighborhood’s residents, concentrated more on his activism and speaking engagements. The other members faded to near obscurity.
The DK’s, once revered for their sense of absurd and progressive politics, turned into a memory. That memory continued to sell, though, and so too did their records, T- shirts and stickers which remained a rite of passage as significant as skateboarding and sneaking out of your parent’s house to drink beer.
In the early ’90s everything changed when underground music became the mainstream and assaulted the charts. For every hundred kids who went to the shopping mall to buy a Stone Temple in Chains record there was a handful digging deeper and seeking out independent labels that continued to release edgy music and push boundaries. Even labels that were decrying the corporatization of punk rock were benefiting greatly from its popularity.
Then in 1999 the bomb dropped. The Dead Kennedys, who had lampooned the excesses of arena rock and show business found themselves in that most “Behind the Music” of events – a legal battle. Bass player Klaus Fluoride, drummer D.H. Peligro and guitarist East Bay Ray sued Biafra, claiming they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back royalties that his label had not paid to them.
Suddenly a label and band that had talked so much of integrity and decried capitalist greed were involved in a very public lawsuit and media war of words. Each side claimed they were interested in preserving the legacy of the band and its music but the bitter public comments made by everyone involved only tarnished them further. Biafra claimed the lawsuit only came about because he wouldn’t approve the use of a DK’s song in a jeans ad while the other three alleged back they had never been adequately paid and their music was entirely controlled by Biafra and Alternative Tentacles, and was only used as a vehicle to promote the label and Biafra’s solo projects and speaking engagements.
Things got uglier, the accusations more personal. The lawsuit seemed to offer an end of innocence for a label and band that had meant so much to so many. The legal fees alone for either side could have funded the start-up of an indie label. The ruling went the way of the musicians and the money involved was close to a quarter of a million dollars. Additionally, the band name and recordings were handed over from Biafra and his label to his former bandmates.
Biafra took no time in counter-suing and the war of words continues as the three original members have launched an American tour with Brandon Cruz of Southern California also-rans Dr. Know at the mic. Alternative Tentacles proved it could be as shifty with the money as any major label, the musicians of the DK’s proved they could be as exploitive as any classic rock band and punk rock proved it could be as asinine as Bad Company.
But as disappointing as all of the bickering, was the obvious fact that Alternative Tentacles was falling from glory.
Certainly labels have a shelf life and must evolve over time, but a label whose roster has included the Butthole Surfers, NomeansNo, the Beatnigs and so many other classic bands was becoming near impertinent, concentrating on dated-sounding reissues and even more dated sounding new releases. If the lawsuits were tarnishing the DK’s image, the time they were consuming was killing the record label.
With this in mind, I received a press release for Oakland’s newest Alternative Tentacles band the Phantom Limbs. They are indeed edgy and discordant and have no trouble taking chances. The press kit stated something about a cross between the Screamers and Gilbert and Sullivan, so they even have pretension and it’s dark enough to please the Goths, yet heavy enough to swing your whitey dreadlocks around. And the live show is supposed to be over-the-top, featuring a singer named “Hopeless” doing his best to shock. I’m not ready to call this a return to form for Alternative Tentacles, but it is a step in the right direction. The label has far too important a past to not look towards the future.