by Dave Lang (March 2000)
"The best unrecorded band in the history of rock'n'roll" - Jello Biafra
Getting my head around writing this very article has not been easy. Let me put it this way: how does one write about a band that existed 20-odd years ago and yet never properly released any recordings in their lifetime? Should anyone care about such a band? I swear, I'm not simply trying to be esoteric in writing this piece, because in my book the Screamers were a group that counted. You may have never heard their music, though you've probably seen their logo (the Gary Panter screaming face that's since been used on numerous t-shirts and posters for various organizations and groups), though if you're lucky enough to have ever heard one of their bootlegs floating around the dusty record bins of this planet, or if you're even luckier enough to have witnessed them live in their lifespan, then you'll likely similarly attest that they're not only a band that mattered, but they were one of the BEST. So, who in the goddamn hell am I talking about?
Going by the scant facts that are out there, The Screamers existed from 1977 to 1981, and called Los Angeles their home, but to even attempt to appreciate such a band, and to get a grasp on where they were coming from, I must repeat a fact I've stated before: the West Coast scene of the late '70s was the most exciting and vibrant music scene of its day. This is a fact for many reasons. Firstly, because the bands existed in relative isolation and were given time to develop identities of their own, away from the spotlights of London and New York. Secondly, because unlike London or NY, the major labels based in California had nada interest in local punk, thus the bands had no one to compromise to and a myriad of interesting/essential 7"s to release in the meantime (as opposed to the quick-as-a-flash burnout/dismissal of Television/Richard Hell/Dead Boys, etc.). Thirdly, and most importantly - and this is a point made by many before me - the sunshine'n'happiness myth of California, and the respective hippie/beach cultures of its two main cities, nurtured a strong resentment amongst its beatnik/Dada/art-freak community that would coalesce into a mass of loathing sparked by punk in the late '70's. The sheer oppressiveness of what one should be (surfer dude/and-or hippie pot-smoker) culminated into producing a punk/new music scene that was not only angry, but smart, funny, obnoxious and far more intelligent than the more famous scenes of its day.
So, amongst all this laughter and hatred sprung forth the Screamers, who, along with the Germs, Dils and the Weirdos, make up what one would call the "first wave" of LA punk (Black Flag - despite forming in 1976 - played very few shows in LA until 1978, and are therefore considered part of the "second wave"). However, as with the Urinals (yes, read about them, too), the Screamers stuck out like a sore thumb, because unlike their compadres in the Germs and Weirdos, not only did they not subscribe to the trash-for-trash-sake/kill-the-hippies idiom in an attempt to scare the previous generation of longhairs away from their door, they were also "intellectual" (and no one would ever claim LA as an intellectual town) and had a rather less-than-conventional line-up that consisted of only vocals, drums and keyboards.
Singing we had ex-NY/Seattle "performance/mime artist" Tomata Du Plenty (yes, people actually admitted to such a profession in the late ‘70's - he was also in the Cockettes in the early ‘70's, the legendary San Fran drag theatre troupe, as well as performance-based unit Ze Whiz Kidz in Seattle, and NY-based Slaves of Rhythm in 1974); on ARP Odyssey Synthesiser there’s Tommy Gear; and on drums we had the mythical KK Barrett (who also co-ran the seminal Dangerhouse label, which makes it extra weird that they never released anything proper, but more on that in a minute). Later on was added Geoff Owen McGregor on Fender Rhodes piano, then Paul Roessler took his place, he being Kira of Black Flag’s sister.
OK, now that's out the way, let's talk about their music. Considering the line-up, it's a surprise. If you're expecting maybe Suicide/Silver Apples-type minimalism, you'd be wrong. And if you're expecting proto-synth-pop, you'd also be off the mark. The Screamers' sound is angry, complex and very rocking. Not only is their music warm and loose, but the keyboards alternate between sounding like grinding guitars and wailing church organs. The sheer manipulation in sound is brilliant and like nothing before or since. It's like the missing link between the Stooges, Neu! and Ennio Morricone, without sounding like any of them. There's the knife-edge/performance angle of Detroit's favourite sons, the monotonous churn of Neu! and the overall sense of all-encompassing layers of sound that Morricone has achieved with his best soundtracks.
Working my way through a cassette of their material (yes, I don't actually have any of the bootleg LPs or 7"s, just a damn cassette!!), I'm overwhelmed by the sense of urgency in the lyrics and the totally futuristic nature of the music. Going one up on Krautrock, keyboardist Tommy Gear uses his electronics as a weapon, creating bizarre soundworlds that perfectly complement Du Plenty's paranoid rants on peer pressure, magazines and the media. If you think this all sounds dated, then you're right; but if you also think it sounds ahead of its time, then you're also right. Take the live version of "You Don't Love Me, You Love Magazines", where Du Plenty's trademark Lydonesque snarl and Gear's dense keyboard buzz almost has them sounding like a bizarre mix of the Sex Pistols and early Kraftwerk. Or maybe the Stooges-y wail of "If I Can't Get What I Want (Then I Don't Want Anything)", which combines a classic Neu! 4/4 driving beat with a low-end Suicide hum. Then there's "Punish or Be Damned" (I hope I'm right with that title), one of their slower, more grinding tunes, it brings to mind Darby Crash singing for Goblin, with its cheesy swirling keyboards in the verses perfectly steering their way into the hypnotic chorus. There's a good dozen or more numbers, though the classic track, "Peer Pressure," studio or live, is probably their best song. Essentially a Buzzcocksian pop song dressed up like a Ballard novel (bet you've never heard a description like that before!), the naive/dumb lyrics border on the laughable, if only they weren't so on the mark.
Everywhere I look I get pressure from my peers
Some of them are straight, some of them are queer
Some of them are black, some of them are white
Some of them are wrong and some of them are right
- "Peer Pressure"
Their unforgettable stage shows - each gig being seen by the band as an event, with Tomata eyeing each audience member individually and spasmodically flailing about on stage - earned them an instant reputation as one of the best and most original bands in town. Slash magazine hailed them as genius and their legend grew, playing regularly up the coast and even venturing up to Portland and Seattle in 1979 (even rock-crit god Joe Carducci, who saw them in Portland in '79, was bowled over). One of the most fascinating profiles of the band is in the fifth edition of Search & Destroy magazine from 1978. The most interesting aspect of it is a classic S & D trademark: ask totally non-conventional questions, get to the heart of the interviewee, and most of all, visit them at their house and describe their surroundings, what records, books and videos they've got lying around their place. In Tomata's case he's got a bathroom full of Twiggy paraphernalia and Clash/Sex Pistols posters and he's alternating between playing Eno's Warm Jets and Nico's The End. In the interview we also discover that the band are total film buffs (having been extras in various Hollywood flicks of the time; "everyone that's poor in Hollywood has done movie extra work"), magazine/information addicts and way ahead of their time in their passion for "incredibly strange music." In their "recommended records" list there's Neu!, Abba (as with Non and Throbbing Gristle, they appear to have a strange fascination with Sweden's pop masters), John Cage, Velvet Underground, Ennio Morricone, Italian soundtrack oddballs Goblin, La Dusseldorf, Ventures, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Leonard Nimoy.
So why am I telling you all this? Because it paints a picture of some very strange and unique individuals? And that's what's sorely lacking in the current music scene, but let's not get onto that subject. I guess all this talk begs the question of why they never hit the big time, at least in the cult sense of the word. Well, they made the classic error of being a little bit too big for their boots. Seeing worldwide fame as their only foreseeable future (given the news that Brian Eno was supposedly interested in producing them, and none other than superstar Beck's uncle, old '60s Fluxus artist Al Hansen, was their manager - a strange but true fact), they held back on releasing any independent records of their own, recorded a couple of private demo cassettes in the meantime, and waited and waited... and waited. Then split up.
Call it classic loserdom, call it tragic, or call it just plain failure to strike when the iron was hot, the band called it quits like many of the Class of ’77 did when hardcore hit big in ‘81. Since then, there’s a couple of interesting stories to tell, so far as what the members have been up to. Singer Tomata Du Plenty, aside from appearing in various independent films (he was even thanked in No Wave guitar god Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstacy, the book on which the film Ed Wood was based), has made quite a name for himself with his artwork, his unique paintings of various music/literary/film stars being constantly exhibited around the US (most recently in San Francisco, with guest speaker Jello Biafra at the opening night), even earning him an interview spot once on CNN! He now lives in New Orleans, after having spent much of the ‘90's as a bartender in Miami.
Roessler played keyboards on the Dead Kennedys’ first album, and alongside Twisted Roots and DC3, the post-Black Flag Dez Cadena band, he also had Crimony, a duo with Mike Watt who put out some interesting works on the great New Alliance label, plus he released a solo album on SST in the late ‘80s (not to mention having worked with everyone from Nina Hagen to Saccharine Trust!).
As for KK Barrett, well, KK actually moved to LA from Oklahoma in 1976 - he being part of the mid-'70s freak scene in Oklahoma that spawned the legendary band Debris' (get the reissue of their great 1976 LP, Static Disposal
, on Anopheles Records), though I guess he finally made it in the big smoke, coz his name pops up in the credits to the fantastic Being John Malcovich as Production Designer. Who'da thunk? Tommy Gear? Your guess is as good as mine right now.
Opinions on the Screamers varied, and still vary, widely. There are those who hail them as unsung genius, like Claude Bessy, Jello Biafra and Joe Carducci, and their many detractors who simply dismiss them as poseurs and dilletantes. I mean, if they really meant it, if they really meant all that talk about causing trouble, media control, taking risks and ruffling up peoples' expectations, then why didn't they do something about it? I can't answer that, but I can say that sometimes a band's charm can simply be that they did fuck it all up. The Screamers could have been huge. Common sense dictates that they should have released at least one 7" on their own Dangerhouse label. Sure, they looked ridiculous with their spiked-up hair, leather jackets and chains; sure, they sounded pretentious when they talked of revolutionizing "new music" and namedropped everyone from Meredith Monk to Nino Rota; and sure, Du Plenty's insane ranting remind one of what would have happened had Pee Wee Herman formed a punk band, but all those so-called "drawbacks" are what made the Screamers such a brilliant case-study in failure. Listening to a cassette of their material and experiencing the sheer compression of sound, the unique interplay between the lyrics, vocals, rhythm and melody - the drive of the songs that for me resembles the kind of tension only found on top-notch discs like Funhouse and Damaged - so far as I can tell, for a brief flash they meant it, had it, and could have been it. For me, that's enough.
Further reading: all issues of Slash magazine from 1977-’82; all issues of Search & Destroy 1977-’79 (reprinted via V/Search Publications in two compendiums); Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave by Belsito and Davis (Last Gasp Press, 1983).
Stomach Ache Records, out of San Francisco, released both a single and double-7" bootleg of the Screamers just two or so years back; you might be able to get your hands on them. Other LP/CD bootlegs are pretty much unnaccountable at this stage. If anyone can land me a copy of the Screamers video on the seminal Target label, great love and riches await them.
Tomata Du Plenty actually has his own website which features various reproductions of his artwork and information regarding what he’s been up to. Check it out at tomataduplenty.com
Thanks to Richard Mason and Chris Stigliano for their help.
ED NOTE: Brendan Mullen reports: "David Xavier Harrigan, a.k.a. Tomata du Plenty, lead vocalist for the Screamers ('77-'81), died in San Francisco on Sunday, August 20, 2000, apparently from cancer. He was 52."
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