Born Eric Boucher, c. 1959, in Boulder, CO; father a psychiatric social worker. Addresses: Record company--Alternative Tentacles Records, P. O. Box 419092, San Francisco, CA 94141-9092.
In 1986, Dead Kennedys vocalist and Alternative Tentacles label founder Jello Biafra became the target of a First Amendment case when a controversial poster by Academy Award-winning artist H.R. Giger was included with the Dead Kennedys' album Frankenchrist. The poster, according to Biafra in Billboard, "[depicted] the putrefication [sic] of our consumer culture. If we thought it was harmful or exploitative, we never would have used it to begin with." Although Biafra was acquitted of the charges, he commented about the repercussions of the case in a Billboard guest editorial: "Any time artists have to so much as think twice about what they say in their songs out of fear of legal or career consequences, that's censorship in its ugliest form: muzzling of the mind."
Jello Biafra was born Eric Boucher in 1959 in Boulder, Colorado. According to an Alternative Tentacles publicist, his stage name was created during the late 1970s and derived from the Central African Bight of Biafra, which was receiving considerable news coverage at the time. The singer coupled it with the name of the famous gelatinous confection because he thought it "sounded good."
Biafra's early influences included composer Carl Orff and his father's extensive ethnic record collection. In high school, bored with the predominantly country-rock music on the radio, he began purchasing records with sleeves he found interesting, as well as others from the bargain bin at a local used record shop. Biafra reminisced in Incredibly Strange Music Volume II: "Looking back, this was the advantage of living in a country-rock town: Stooges for a dime, MC5 for a quarter, 13th Floor Elevators, Nazz, and Les Baxter for free...." Jello was also inspired by a rock-hating music critic from the Denver Post who "seemed to have obsessive and detailed kowledge of music he didn't like.... When he trashed someone like Black Sabbath he'd ... compare them to other bands he loathed, thus giving me that many more names to look for.... Just imagine my sense of accomplishment when he devoted an entire scathing column to Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables!"
Biafra formed the Dead Kennedys in 1978 in San Francisco after seeing a Ramones concert. The band's debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was released on IRS Records, distributed by A & M. Due to A & M's initial reluctance to release the album, it was instead distributed through a label called Faulty Products. Bob Laul, national sales director for IRS and Faulty Products vice president spoke to Billboard in favor of the band: "A & M thought the (group's) name was in bad taste, but we think of them as the American Sex Pistols." The Dead Kennedys' ferocious, guitar-driven sound and politically sarcastic lyrics inspired numerous hardcore punk-rock groups.
In 1979, the outspoken Biafra was challenged by a friend to run for mayor of San Francisco. His platform included banning automobiles from the city limits, auctioning off high city positions in public, establishing a legal board of bribery to set fair prices for liquor licenses and building code exemptions, legalizing squatting in vacant buildings, and requiring Market Street businessmen to wear clown suits. He attracted much mainstream media coverage and came in fourth out of ten candidates.
Through the Dead Kennedys' albums, Biafra continued to hone the band's musical attack, drawing inspiration from such unlikely sources as surf-guitar instrumentals, bluegrass, exotica and lounge music, and bizarre rock-hybrid records that he had acquired during tours around the world. He explained in Incredibly Strange Music Volume II, "Especially for someone who's trying to make their own music, roots are not enough--why not explore the roots of the roots? There are plenty of garage and surf-instrumental bands who never ask themselves: 'What were the people who created the original music listening to?'...When I first came to San Francisco there was an unspoken edict: if you want attention, don't hide behind formulas; every band must be different."
Jello Biafra founded the record label Alternative Tentacles during the early eighties to release albums by the Dead Kennedys and its cohorts, thus avoiding the inherent distribution problems associated with major labels reluctant to release controversial material. In 1986, however, inclusion of an H. R. Giger poster with the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album prompted Los Angeles City Attorney Michael Guarino to prosecute Biafra and his label for distributing harmful material to minors.
Despite a lack of support from the music industry, Biafra was acquitted. Costs and stess resulting from the case broke up the Dead Kennedys and nearly bankrupted Alternative Tentacles. In a Billboard guest editorial, Biafra advised: "A continued lack of backbone plays right into the hands of those who say making love on record or in the movies is more dangerous than cops who kill suspects on TV shows. Any compromise to cultural vigilantes just encourages them to go further. This will ultimately hurt even the major labels right where it stings the most--in the pocketbook."
After the Dead Kennedys disbanded, Biafra collaborated with numerous like-minded musicians and began touring solo with a spoken-word act. His monologues follow a similar vein to Dead Kennedys lyrics, but their pacing and lack of thunderous musical backing enables the words to sink deeper. His diatribes, which concern such subjects as censorship, anti-establishment pranks, and grass-roots politics, attract a dedicated following. One of his most popular pieces, "Grow More Pot" from the I Blow Minds For A Living album, is a well-researched argument in favor of the industrial use of hemp, complete with an anti-smoking caveat in which Biafra quotes U.S. Department of Agriculture reports and back issues of Popular Mechanics.
Jello Biafra remains as vigilant as ever, providing an alternative to mainstream information outlets. He warns in Incredibly Strange Music Volume II, "One of the worst forms of censorship going on today is: depriving people of basic information so they can make informed decisions about what to do with their lives and everybody else's lives."
by James Powers
Jello Biafra's Career
Formed Dead Kennedys punk rock group, c. 1978; ran for mayor of San Francisco, c. 1979; founded record label Alternative Tentacles, c. 1980; recorded and toured with the Dead Kennedys, c. 1978-1986; toured and recorded as a lecturer, c. 1987-1996.
- Selective Works
- (With the Dead Kennedys), Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, IRS, 1980, reissued, Alternative Tentacles.
- (With the Dead Kennedys), In God We Trust, Inc., Alternative Tentacles, 1981.
- (With the Witch Trials), The Witch Trials EP, Alternative Tentacles, 1981.
- (With the Dead Kennedys), Plastic Surgery Disasters, Alternative Tentacles, 1982.
- (With the Dead Kennedys), Frankenchrist, Alternative Tentacles, 1985.
- (With the Dead Kennedys), Bedtime for Democracy, Alternative Tentacles, 1986.
- (With the Dead Kennedys), Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, Alternative Tentacles, 1987.
- No More Cocoons, Alternative Tentacles, 1987.
- High Priest of Harmful Matter--Tales from the Trial, Alternative Tentacles, 1989.
- "Die For Oil, Sucker," Alternative Tentacles, 1990.
- (With D.O.A.), Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, Alternative Tentacles, 1990.
- I Blow Minds for a Living, Alternative Tentacles, 1991.
- (With Lard), The Power of Lard, Alternative Tentacles, 1991.
- (With NoMeansNo), The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, Alternative Tentacles, 1992.
- Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police, Alternative Tentacles, 1992.
- (With Lard), The Last Temptation of Reid, Alternative Tentacles, 1992.
- (With Tumor Circus), SelfTitled, Alternative Tentacles, 1993.
- (With Tumor Circus), "Meathook Up My Rectum," Alternative Tentacles, 1994.
- (With Mojo Nixon), Prairie Home Invasion, Alternative Tentacles, 1994.
- Carducci, Joe, Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Redoubt Press, 1990.
- Robbins, Ira A., ed. Trouser Press Record Guide 4th edition, Collier Books, 1991.
- Vale, V. and Andrea Juno, Incredibly Strange Music Volume II, RE/Search Publications, 1993.
- Periodicals Billboard, March 14, 1981; May 9, 1981; June 14, 1986; September 5, 1987; September 12, 1987; October 10, 1987.
- Nation, October 24, 1987.
- Rolling Stone, July 17, 1986; January 29, 1987; October 8, 1987.
- Variety, April 1, 1987; August 26, 1987; September 2, 1987.
- Village Voice, April 29-May 5, 1981; July 1, 1986.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Alternative Tentacles publicity materials.