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The Screamers: The Great Lost Band of the First Wave of L.A. Punk
Being ahead of your time can be a risky career move. Take the case of the Screamers. When punk rock hit Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, there was no band bigger than the Screamers.
They could sell out two or three night runs at the most prestigious clubs in town, including the Whisky a Go Go and the Roxy. Robert Fripp sat in with them on stage, Devo raved about them, and the Dead Kennedys cited them as a key influence. They’re still remembered as one of the most unique bands of the era, a group that looked and sounded like no one before or since.
So how come you’ve probably never heard of them? Screamers superfan Jello Biafra unwitting summed it up when he called them, “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Screamers never got around to making an album, and their efforts at documenting themselves with video and film projects may have been prescient, but hobbled by their timing: they broke up just as MTV was getting off the drawing board.
There was also the matter of guitars – the Screamers didn’t have any. Bandleader Tommy Gear played a cheap synthesizer cranked up to an earsplitting volume, an electric pianist (the group went through several) accompanied Gear with his instrument amped up and run through a distortion box, drummer K.K. Barrett bashed out frantic rhythms on a small drum kit, and lead singer Tomata du Plenty mesmerized the audience with his wildly theatrical stage moves and barking vocals.
The result wasn’t synth pop or new wave noodling, but wild, raucous and ranting punk rock, even without guitars. But while the no-strings lineup made sense once folks saw the band, it also meant they were the only band of their kind, at least in their early days.
The Screamers were an unusual band, and their backstory was just as unique. In the early ’70s, Tomata du Plenty was an associate of the notorious radical hippie drag performance group the Cockettes before he headed to Seattle and joined an outré gay cabaret troupe called Ze Whiz Kids, which also featured Tommy Gear (then calling himself Melba Toast).
Ze Whiz Kids evolved into a pop group called the Tupperwares, but when du Plenty and Gear relocated to Los Angeles in 1977, the Hollywood punk scene was being to jell, and the playful sound of the Tupperwares gave way to the manic attack of the Screamers.
As Barrett said in the essential L.A. Punk oral history We Got The Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen, “If it was all Tomata’s thing, we would have been much too light and wimpy, and if it was all Tommy’s thing, we would have been … Rammstein. We were right down the center between the two of them.”
After the Screamers made their debut at a party for Slash magazine in 1977, they quickly became the toast of the L.A. scene, and by 1979 they were the town’s biggest unsigned act.
However, for all their local popularity, the group was reluctant to tour, and only made their way out East for a handful of dates in the fall of 1978. Small labels offered the band recording deals, but idea man Gear had other plans – he wanted the group to release video albums instead of LPs.
The Screamers were fascinated by the idea of making videos that would make it easier to control the sound and images they sent out to the world, and they began making primitive performance videos in 1978.
By 1979, they had teamed up with Rene Daalder, a filmmaker best known for the cult favorite Massacre at Central High. With Daalder’s help, the Screamers had grand plans of staging elaborate multi-media shows and Daalder wanted to build a movie around the band’s talents. (Daalder’s zeal might have been inspired by the Screamers inexplicable absence in Penelope Spheeris’s classic documentary on early L.A. punk, The Decline … of Western Civilization, which also failed to include fellow scene luminaries the Weirdos and the Controllers.)
Gear quipped in We Got The Neutron Bomb, “The Screamers’ greatest downfall was that we were easily bored,” and as the band took off 1980 to strategize and work on their projects with Daalder, things began to fall apart.
When their long awaited multi-media extravaganza, titled “The Palace of Variety,” finally debuted at the Whisky on July 9, 1981, the elaborate show, which featured only Barrett and du Plenty on stage, received savage reviews from critics and a lukewarm response from fans. The three night run of “Place of Variety” would prove to be the last shows the Screamers would ever perform, and it was 1986 before Daalder’s film starring Tomata, Population: 1 finally premiered.
After the Screamers called it a day, Gear left the music business and was little heard from, while du Plenty occasionally worked in the theater before making a name for himself as a visual artist; he died on August 21, 2000.
Barrett unexpectedly has enjoyed the most successful post-Screamers career, becoming a successful production designer in the film industry. Barrett’s credits include Being John Malkovich, Lost in Translation, and Where the Wild Things Are; he earned an Oscar nomination for 2013’s Her.
And while the Screamers’ recorded legacy has still not appeared on LP or CD (outside of a handful of bootleg releases), a concert DVD, Screamers: Live in San Francisco September 2nd, 1978, was issued in 2004. And a few decades after the fact, the Screamers final seem to have found their proper medium in YouTube, where numerous clips of the band’s performances can be found, several racking up better than a quarter-million views.
Time may have finally caught up with the Screamers, but no band since has duplicated their raw, electrified magic.