With their distinctive logo and unmistakeable house sound, Alternative Tentacles have remained one of the most resolutely independent record labels of the last fifteen years.
In fact, they're so goddamn independent that they've well nigh devolved themselves from the system completely: it's often hard to find their records in high street record shops, and what with our beloved independent record shops being forced to sell disproportionate amounts of shite in order to stay afloat, this outlet too is often denied the company. AT has therefore opted to go its own way, selling by mail order, and as you read this article, the label is making its first foray into the new and fertile world of the internet market. Yes, now you can download a 30-second sound-bite onto your harddrive, and, having been overwhelmed by the sounds of one of the coolest labels around, you can pay by credit card for the featured album to be delivered to your door.
It wasn't always so hi-tech. Alternative Tentacles was founded in 1980 by Jello Biafra, lead singer of seminal San-Fran punks Dead Kennedys, who looked after things Stateside, and Bill Gilliam, who nurtured the label's U.K. base. Having released numerous recordings by Dead Kennedys, the real launching point for the label was a compilation of US hardcore bands, 'Let Them Eat Jelly Beans.' The impact of this compilation helped AT establish a label identity, so that soon bands were coming to them. AT released material by hardcore giants like Bad Brains, Butthole Surfers, and Black Flag. Since then, a house identity has quickly developed, as was the intention when the label was founded. The AT sound is rooted in US hardcore of a more fun-loving party-animal style than the straight-face straight-edge hardcore of DC punks like Fugazi, but this is not to say that a serious message is not present - indeed, the label stipulates that the music should have some kind of message. Dead Kennedys set the tone with their quirky hardcore riffs and in-someone's-face lyrics, which poked fun at government and general public alike. Since then, the sound has been picked up and developed in different ways by bands like the jazz-hardcore Canadian geniuses NoMeansNo, New York r'n'b punks Alice Donut, and punk-hop lunatics the Skatenigs. One of the best bands to have emerged recently from the AT scene is Hissanol, a collaboration between two musicians, one living in Canada, the other in Amsterdam. Beats even Pavement for long-distance musical partnership, and what a partnership it is: 18 songs of sometimes crazy, sometimes breathtakingly serene music which veers between traditional hardcore noise-thrash and jazzy keyboard ambles.
Other aspects of the house identity should not be forgotten either. The cover art of Winston Smith and John Yates not only satirised America's political and social image, but it provided instant AT-album spot-ability on a level only matched by 4AD. One famous example is the Khmer Rouge-staged execution featured on the cover of DK's single 'Holiday in Cambodia.' A house humour has also sprung up, as any random scan of album titles will tell you: Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death, Stupid People Shouldn't Breed, Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy?...
But the path is never straight, my children. You can't just set up a label putting out cool and subversive music and hope to get away with it, for you shall be grabbed and thrown into the firepits of holy righteousness. Well, maybe: it damn near happened to Jello Biafra when Dead Kennedys released the album Frankenchrist with an HR Geiger (of Alien fame) picture entitled 'Penis Landscape' on the inside cover. A 13 year-old mini-punk's mother saw what her son had brought home from the record shop and called the LAPD to complain, as you do. She left it at that, but the DA got hold of the case and took it to court. This happened in 1986, at a time when now vice-president Al Gore's wife Tipper and a bunch of her mates had formed the Parents' Music Resource Centre to campaign against music they thought unsuitable for children, claiming to campaign against vulgarity but really campaigning against political subversion and atheism. So a lot of political muscle was flexed on the case, and Jello Biafra's apartment was raided at 6 00 am one day in an attempt to find incriminating evidence to sway the court against him. It didn't work. Having taken 9 months to reach court, it took two and a half weeks before the judge took advantage of a hung jury (in favour of AT) to throw the case out of court. Tipper Gore was later humiliated on the Oprah Winfrey show when Jello Biafra spilled the beans on her involvement in police harassment of AT in general and specifically Biafra, and the aftermath of the case saw the No More Censorship Defence Fund raise $10 000 towards AT's $80 000 legal costs. Money was raised from all over the world, and the case proved a valuable precedent for rap groups later under threat for inflammatory lyrics.
If you wish to experience the joy of Alternative Tentacles music, demand an order-form from your local independent record store, look them up on the internet via the World Wide Web's list of record labels, or send for a catalogue at this address: Alternative Tentacles Records, 64 Mountgrove Road, London N5 2LT. Among the finest albums to have been released by the label are 'Plastic Surgery Disasters' by Dead Kennedys, 'The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed' by NoMeansNo, and the 'virus 100' compilation which celebrated the label's 100th release, strangely enough. This album featured bands as varied as Faith No More, the Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy, and L7, who all queued up to pay tribute to this very fucking fly label. Happy listening, and may AT's tentacles long caress your ears...