It's hard to be indifferent about Flipper, the punk band that emerged from the East Bay in 1979. With one chord, droning noise in the background, and the bass at the forefront, at best they can be described as pioneering a whole new sound. At worst, they just sucked. "Anyone could play that!" Well, you didn't, sucka. That's the point. Most of us could dribble paint on a canvas like Jackson Pollock, but he got there first. And so it is with Flipper, the band named for thalidomide babies.
The funny thing about this odd little band is how many "important" people would rate them among their all-time top ten -- Henry Rollins, Kurt Cobain, Rick Rubin. Yet most of their catalogue is unavailable or hard to find, and your average Joe has never even heard of them. You might even be able to blame rap-metal on them, since their bass-centric form of punk probably paved the way for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More. Imagine our surprise, then, when those of us who read the club calendar The List saw this entry: March 9, Flipper, 924 Gilman Street. Wha? Is this a Flipper reunion? How can that be, when a few of them have died and the rest reportedly hate each other?
First, some background. The short version is that Flipper formed in 1979 and put out several records with the El Cerrito underground label Subterranean, an arrangement primarily secured with a punk-rock "handshake" agreement. Then the band toured like crazy, developing its reputation for unpredictable shows and clever lyricism. Alas, the members also developed a reputation for enjoying las drogas. Two died of heroin overdoses.
And then things got interesting. In the early '90s Rick Rubin of Def American recruited the band with the understanding it would be putting out more new records. American also would re-release Flipper's back catalogue. A new record, American Grafishy, came out in '92, and '82's Generic was reissued. But did we mention that Def American was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers? That's right, a major label. It also doesn't help Flipper's cred that Steve Tupper, owner of Subterranean, the guy who gave the band its start, claims he lost everything in the sale.
To most Maximum Rock 'n' Roll types, Warner Brothers flat-out stole the master tapes and the little guy got reamed. There is some truth to this, although Steve DePace, original drummer for Flipper, believes Tupper must've made more than his share of money from the band (he says he's never actually seen the accounting) and in fact never paid them correctly in the first place. "The truth is that Flipper owned our own masters," says DePace, referring to a clause in an early contract that he says the band signed with Subterranean. "And it's my opinion," says DePace, "that Tupper not only recouped the costs of putting us out, but he made a lot of money off of Flipper." The drummer admits, however, that he has no way of knowing how many copies Generic, Public Flipper Limited, and Gone Fishin' actually sold. Tupper estimates that he sold about 27,000 copies of Generic alone. DePace also says that Tupper was a softie who doled out most of the band's cash to the dope addicts in the group, which didn't include him or guitarist Ted Falconi.
"That's probably true," admits Tupper. "They were my friends, they needed money, I gave it to them." But he insists that the cash advances were loans meant to be paid back, not money from the band's earnings. Besides, adds Tupper, at the time they didn't seem to question his alleged parsimony. "They never objected to the accounting I gave them before," says Tupper. "They only objected after they went to Def American. Before that, it was fine with them. If he had any objections, he should have told me at the time instead of keeping it to himself."
Tupper, who still runs the struggling Subterranean, says he should have at least been entitled to two percent on each unit Warners sold, since he put up all the money for each of the band's records. Subterranean can still sell Flipper on vinyl. "It was a half-assed compromise," he says.
Whatever side you want to take on this one, one thing is for sure: Flipper made a big mistake. Not only does Def American seem to be sitting on its back catalogue, but after the label moved over to Sony from the Warner stable, it lost the master tapes. According to DePace, no one can locate them. He thinks he may have some safety master tapes lying around, but he's not sure. Fuck. Sony also lost the contracts, he adds.
So, hearing surviving members DePace, Falconi, and Bruce Loose play together again might sound kinda fresh. But, unfortunately, that's not what's happening. Loose hates DePace, in a beef that goes back to the Def American deal. DePace believed Loose was deep into drugs at that time, and so he instructed label accountants to pay Loose only his share of the band's proceeds. Loose was unavailable for comment. Falconi is siding with DePace, so no way are they going to reunite at this point. So what is the Gilman show? Bruce Loose and "some other guys." To be fair, though Loose originally touted it as a Flipper reunion on KUSF, now he's saying it's a cover band. In the words of the late Will Shatter, "ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho ho."
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