You Better Shut Up and Listen!
The story of The Screamers and Tomata du Plenty
By David Jones
Reading time 78 Minutes
Jello Biafra has called them “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll”
Jello Biafra has called them “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” while Henry Rollins insists that they are “one of the greatest bands the world never heard.” So how come we aren’t listening to The Screamers? Simple answer: There’s no discography. At all. This aggressively eccentric, visually daring band rose to the top of Los Angeles’ late 70’s punk scene without ever releasing a record. Not even a single.
The Screamers’ legacy rests more or less entirely on the sharp jolt of their live shows and their unique approach to instrumentation, songwriting and presentation. During the first, late-’70s punk rock wave the Screamers stood apart as one of the genre’s most uncompromising and daring bands, wowing punk kids in Los Angeles and beyond. And yet the band’s logo, the iconic “screaming man,” which has been reproduced without permission on sneakers, bus shelter ads and t-shirts, is more famous than the band itself.
Built on a foundation of synthesizer and keyboards rather than guitars and bass, the Screamers’ music flew in the face of punk orthodoxy. Its sound was noisier and more atonal than most punk bands of the period, applying minimalist concepts derived from Brian Eno and Kraftwerk years before other punk bands ever heard Here Come the Warm Jets.
The Screamers were a first-gen punk band that, in many ways, anticipated post-punk. The band’s radical, often disturbing, yet always thrilling live shows are recounted with hushed reverence by those who were lucky enough to see them. Assaultive and grandly theatrical, the Screamers onstage were punk’s trash esthetes, welding surrealism, German Expressionism, and fucked-up noise into something entirely unique.
Visually, the Screamers drew their greatest inspiration from the bleak, angular portraiture of Viennese painter Egon Schiele. Frontman Tomata du Plenty resembled Schiele himself onstage, with his spiked hair, lithe frame, grotesque facial expressions and mime-like gesticulations; while the band’s staging and lighting techniques applied the stark chiaroscuro palette of films such as Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Du Plenty, The Screamers’ chief conceptualist, was born David Xavier Harrington on May 8, 1948 in Queens, New York, the son of Irish immigrant parents who gave him his nickname. Du Plenty’s family moved west to Montebello, California when he was ten. A renegade teen spirit, du Plenty shortly thereafter ran away from home, hitchhiking across the country before finally landing back in California.
In 1968, sensing adventure afoot in Northern California’s counter-cultural swirl, du Plenty made his way to San Francisco, where he joined an early incarnation of the gender-fluid drag theater group the Cockettes. A communal troupe led by a glitter-loving theatre refugee named Hibiscus (George Harris), the Cockettes won a small but fierce cult following with their outrageous midnight musicals “Tinsel Tarts in a Coma” and “Pearls Over Shanghai,” staged in the Palace Theater in the seedy North Beach district. The mostly male cast dressed in glamorous, flowing vintage dresses and gowns from the 1930s and 40s, or appeared thoroughly naked, their faces, beards and bodies covered in glitter makeup. The Cockettes were Tomata’s initiation into the new, performative theatrics of gender and identity, and his tenure in the group would have a profound influence on his art.
In 1970 Tomata left San Francisco for Seattle, where he founded Ze Whiz Kidz, a comedic, co-ed, drag-based theatrical group much in the mode of the Cockettes. Roger Downey notes in a history of the group that Ze Whiz Kidz broke down social barriers both within Seattle’s segregated gay community, and between the city’s straight and gay cultures in general. After Halloween and New Year’s Eve 1971 shows at Eagle’s Auditorium, and an opening performance for Alice Cooper entitled “Puttin’ Out is Dreamsville,” which Downey called “so bizarre that even the headliner freaked out,” Ze Whiz Kidz found a semi-permanent home for their act at the bottom of the Smith Tower. In a basement bar called the Submarine Room, they put on dozens of shows with titillating titles such as “Fistful of Douche Bags,” “Desire’s Playthings” and “Chi Chi Paree’s Topless Revue.”
Tomata moved to New York City in 1972 with former Cockette Fayette Hauser. The two shared a tenement apartment across the street from a men’s shelter in the Bowery, and performed theater in the form of ridiculous/inspired drag comedies, the first of which was titled “There’s Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes.” Tomata and Hauser also took part in two “Palm Casino Reviews,” large-scale shows put on by Sheyla Baykal at the Bowery Lanes Theater, whose cast included fellow ex-Cockette John Flowers, Screaming Orchids, John Hey, and a number of Warhol factory scenesters.
Tomata, Hauser and former Whiz Kid Gorilla Rose began to perform their drag comedies at CBGBs, a newly opened club in the Bowery around the corner from their apartment. Owner and ex-Marine Hilly Kristal had just begun to book proto-punk musicians like Patti Smith and Television at the fledgling club, as well as comedy acts. Tomata and company rushed into the conceptual space between punk and absurdist theater, mounting skits such as “The Slaves of Rhythm” and “Spit,” with rock bands as their opening act. For their Halloween 1974 production, “Savage Voodoo Nuns,” the support bands were unknown and unsigned bands Blondie and the Ramones. Ze Whiz Kidz were the headliners.
Tomata and Fayette left New York in the summer of 1975. Hauser moved to Los Angeles, where she worked on a PBS television series starring her brother Tim’s band, the Manhattan Transfer. A year later Tomata would visit Fayette in Los Angeles, a trip that would change his life.
A year later, du Plenty moved back to Seattle, embarking on a new musical project called the Tupperwares featuring local musicians Rio De Janeiro (David Gulbransen) and mutual friend Tommy Gear (Tommy Tibbits), known at the time as Melba Toast. “Tomata and I had known each other for many years prior to the inception of the Tupperwares,” Gear told writer James Stark. “Originally it was sort of a lark. It was more in the context of an art expression of some sort rather than in terms of a serious band or real music. Initially none of us played instruments.”
The Tupperwares’ song “I’m Going Steady with Twiggy” reflected Tomata’s fascination with the endearingly disposable qualities of junk culture, especially the cult of bubblegum pop music. In numerous interviews Tomata would cite kiddie rock acts the Monkees, Shaun Cassidy, and the Bay City Rollers as inspirational figures.
“He had this love of lowbrow, or love of kitsch and camp,” filmmaker and artist Lucas Reiner said. “I made this kind of 1970’s-retro film starring David Cassidy [The Spirit of ‘76] . . . Tomata came to a screening of it that we had. Afterwards, as he was walking out, he was saying [mimics Tomata’s voice], ‘That was a great flick’ – he called movies ‘flicks’ [laughs]. So that was high praise, indeed. That was the most important review I ever got. It was a bit campy, and I think he appreciated that.”
On May 1, 1976 the Tupperwares helped organize what is considered punk’s first DIY show in Seattle, along with the Telepaths and another young band called Meyce. The gig, dubbed “the TMT show” after the first initials of each group, established an alternative to the usual rock bar band circuit that ruled the city at the time.
A few months later, Tomata, Tommy and Rio resolved to move to Los Angeles. “I remember those guys saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond,’” said Penelope Houston, future Avengers frontwoman and a close friend of the band. “I was like, ‘That’s such a drag for Seattle. You guys are moving off to L.A., but when you get there won’t you be a small fish in a big pond?’”
“We finally got to the point where it wasn’t enough to stay in Seattle and do these quirky performances,” Gear told an interviewer years later. “We really wanted to challenge ourselves. We also thought if this is successful here, maybe we should take it a step further and see what happens somewhere else; we have nothing to lose.”
A distinct change in band name, attitude and fashion
A distinct change in band name, attitude and fashion followed the Tupperwares’ move south. The group dropped their original moniker after being admonished by the home products company to stop using it. “We got a letter from the Tupperware lady,” recalled Tomata to Larry Roberts. “It was an innocent kind of group. We were bubblegum-y, actually. I was a Bay City Rollers fan at the time.”
After going through what Tomata described as a “series of ridiculous names” based on Italian movies, the band decided upon the heavier sounding Screamers. “Tommy and I heard about punk rock in England . . . So, we started dressing like these pictures in English fanzines that we got in the mail from these girls in England.” Gear expanded on the band’s beginnings in an interview with James Stark: “When the Screamers came to Los Angeles from Seattle, the punk thing was sort of happening in England and New York City. At the time, in a very conscientious way, we decided to embrace or have a sense of solidarity with that emphasis.”
Tomata and Tommy got jobs in L.A. and began to plot out the Screamers’ unique, twin-keyboard approach to punk. Much of the shift in musical and thematic direction was attributable to Gear. To all outward appearances, Tommy was the antipode of Tomata. Where du Plenty had an extroverted, accessible public persona – he would inevitably greet people with a broad smile and his catch phrase: “Hiya, I’m Tomata” – Gear was aloof and intellectual. The press took quick note of the band’s twin poles: Visiting British rock journalist Jon Savage, for example, described Tommy as “Moody, ferociously bright and highly ambitious, he is most obviously at the heart of the Screamers” and referred to Gear as “the boss, the Director” of the band. Writer Kristine McKenna further noted: “Du Plenty is inarguably the focal point, but one gets the feeling that the ominous Gear is the Svengali behind it all.”
To aid in his exploration of “new and exotic” tones, Gear bought an Arp “Odyssey” Synthesizer, a keyboard that helped mold the future sound of the Screamers. Developed in 1972 by Alan R. Pearlman (his initials make up the brand name ARP), the ARP 2800 “Odyssey” was a 37-note, analog duophonic synthesizer with twin oscillators and a ring modulator. The new synth enabled Gear to experiment with creating his own tones and sounds using waveforms. Tommy would use the ARP to dramatic effect in Screamers songs such as “Punish or Be Damned” and “I Wanna Hurt,” in which he executed high, whining pitch bends and swirling, eerie keyboard wails. Tommy’s tuning of the ARP’s twin oscillators during Screamers’ sets, and its ear-shredding sound, became one of the band’s sonic trademarks.
Tommy and Tomata settled into the heart of Hollywood in a two-story, turn-of-the-century craftsman house at 1845 Wilton Place, the former crash-pad of the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously), the all-girl group featuring Pamela De Barres and part of the Frank Zappa retinue. The “Wilton Hilton,” as the Screamers’ household became affectionately known, was easily accessible by bus or by foot – an essential feature for Tomata, who didn’t have a driver’s license. He could walk to his favorite hangouts, a nearby donut shop or newsstand, and take a bus to the Sunset Strip.
The Wilton Hilton became a home away from home for touring bands passing through Hollywood. When Blondie gave their debut Los Angeles performance opening for the Ramones at the Whisky in February 1977, the Screamers hosted the after-show party at the Wilton Hilton. The Cramps’ guitarist Kid Congo Powers, who briefly lived there in a walk-in closet, immortalized the Wilton Hilton on the Cramps’ second album, Psychedelic Jungle, the cover of which depicts the band hanging on the railing of the upstairs hallway.
Robert Lopez, at the time teen guitarist of the Zeros and who later toured the world under the name “El Vez, the Mexican Elvis,” marveled at Tomata’s and Gear’s ability to bring together such a diverse range of people under one roof. “They made Hollywood even more romantic ‘cause they’d have wonderful parties,” said Lopez. “There’d be Rastafarians there, punk rockers, movie stars, hippies, weird actors and people like that. It was like a New York Factory, and [Tomata] was like our Andy Warhol . . . bringing all these people together: gay, straight, black and white, and mixing it all at this great house on Wilton.”
The Wilton Hilton was haunted by the (free) spirits of its countercultural past – perhaps even literally. Fayette Hauser claims that while staying overnight she had a visitation from the ghost of Miss Christine, the GTO’s leader, who died of a drug overdose in the early 1970s. “Almost everyone who stayed at that house had some kind of an experience,” claimed Hauser. “It was spook central, absolutely!” In keeping with the Wilton Hilton’s spooky theme, the walls and ceilings were painted black, and Tomata’s room was covered in black plastic.
In February 1977 the Screamers completed their lineup with the addition of keyboardist David Brown, a West Virginia native, and drummer K.K. Barrett. Barrett, a transplanted Oklahoman, had attended college in Stillwater and played in bands such as the Fugitives and Mondo Combo along with his roommate, guitarist and future lead singer of the Randoms, Rand McNally (Pat Garrett.) Said Barrett, “I had just learned how to play at the beginning of ‘75. I was hanging out in this house and there was a set of drums, so I just started playing them. Our friends were, these musicians that were playing in a cover band. They were doing shit like Elton John and Paul McCartney – dreadful stuff at frat parties and these little cow towns. Me and my roommate somehow got into this band and kind of corrupted them: started playing some originals and some of this other stuff [such as the Ramones’ ‘Beat on the Brat’].”
K.K. left Oklahoma in December of 1976 after breaking his leg, which had gotten pinned between a parked car and his band’s touring wheels – a milk truck – when it unexpectedly rolled downhill. Barrett decided to recuperate at his parents’ house in Santa Maria, California. Once he recovered, he and fellow Oklahoman and Mondo Combo bandmate Steve Allen (later founder of power pop band 20/20) moved together to Hollywood, where they found an apartment in the Villa Elaine, once home to Dada artist Man Ray. Pat Garrett followed the pair to L.A.
Within a week of moving to Hollywood, K.K. met Tommy Gear and Tomata du Plenty. “I started going to shows and I just ran into these guys [the Screamers],” said Barrett. “I ran into them at the Whisky and played them a tape of the crazy stuff that we were doing in Oklahoma. I didn’t even know they were looking for a drummer and I don’t know if they were sure they were or not, because they had a rhythm machine they were playing with; an early Roland rhythm machine, the kind you play like a home organ. . . I just said, ‘Well, I’m a drummer.’ And all of a sudden, I was in the band.“
The Screamers liked not only Barrett’s drumming and willingness to experiment sonically, as evidenced by the four-track recordings, but also his antagonistic attitude. “[K.K.] had a lot of pent-up aggression,” Tomata told writer Bob Taylor. “He was elbowing people and sort of pushing and shoving. It was a good indication to me that he had a good potential as a drummer. His crowd behavior was his audition.”
Within a month Barrett recorded a demo tape of the band in one of the Wilton house bedrooms on the same crude TEAC 2340 four-track machine he had used in Oklahoma. The demo featured five songs: “Mater Dolores (Mother of Sorrow),” “Magazine Love,” “Anything,” “Peer Pressure,” and “Punish or Be Damned.” It remains one of the Screamers’ only non-live recordings.
Given the homemade nature of the April 1977 five-song demo tape, the sound is surprisingly good, the songs well played and fully realized. A standout is “Mater Dolores (Mother of Sorrow),” a favorite among Screamers fans that has been covered on record by El Vez and other fans of the band. K.K. described the Screamers’ recording process: “Tommy, David and I played live with the Roland rhythm machine blasting through a bass amp behind me. We left two tracks for vocals, which Tomata overdubbed.”
The Screamers were embracing electronic drum beats at a time when drum machines were regarded as the enemy of “authentic” rock music. On “Mater Dolores,” the listener can clearly hear the rhythm machine pound away behind K.K.’s drumming. The song even boasts a featured solo during a break at the end of the second verse, with Tomata chanting: “Loco en cabeza, Loco en cabeza.”
David Brown’s distorted-sounding analog keyboards, in tandem with Tommy Gear’s electronic synthesizer, created the aural texture of the Screamers – a sound that came not from an effects pedal but from Brown tinkering with the keyboard itself.
“This is when the original Fender Rhodes had tone bars in it, and had a sparkle top,” said Brown. “So, the outside was ok, it’s just that a lot of the things had gotten broken inside. I was working as a piano tech at Berklee School of music, so I just stole a bunch of new pickups and things from them and put this thing back together. . . . I mean, I say I stole things from work: frequently what I did was remove these pickups that had been shorted out and replace them with other ones that still worked but were really dirty from having been in the school lab for years you know where they smoked cigarettes . . . it was very crunchy . . . the built-in distortion was all over the place.”
Gear drew stylistically from an array of sources, chief among them keyboardist-producer Brian Eno’s work as a solo artist and with Roxy Music, and the Krautrock of pioneering German synthesizer band Kraftwerk and fellow Düsseldorf duo Neu, thus making the Screamers one of the earliest punk bands to embrace the more radical flank of art-damaged rock. “Bowie, Eno, Kraftwerk – they’re accomplishing what we are trying to do – to bring some kind of sensuality to electronic music,” Gear told New York Rocker interviewer Evan Hosie. “Brian Eno has done the most [to make] electronic music more human and . . . more widely accepted.”
With Brown playing chords, arpeggios and runs on his deranged Fender Rhodes, and Gear adding spooky, swirling, aggressive synthesizer sounds and melodies, the Screamers felt no need to include more conventional rock instruments such as bass or guitar. “We were very critical and antithetical to the whole L.A. commercial scene, the rock band scene and guitar-hero, guitar-god kind of phenomenon,” said Tommy Gear. “That’s one reason why we became a synthesizer band. We were trying to do something unique, against the grain of the cliché classic rock and roll band.”
“With regard to the music, the direction those guys wanted to do, there was kind of a divergence of pathways from the beginning,” said Brown. “I was more analog, and Tommy was more electronic. I come from this background where I’m always like ’sucking hind-titty,’ as we say in West Virginia, to these people that are actually trained as musicians. I’m always trying to hear it and play it but can never earn any respect or work for myself doing it because I feel this sort of shortcoming. Really, Tommy in particular and Tomata to some extent, too, were finally opening the idea [to me] of ’Have you ever seen the New York Dolls?’ Sometimes the level of competency is not really what’s at stake.”
Lyrically, the band delved deep into subject matter – religion, social fascism – that was controversial even by the standards of early punk rock. “Mater Dolores” depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary as driven mad by her sanctity. Tomata du Plenty, who grew up in an Irish Catholic household, was intimately familiar with the subject matter.
“Half of [our songs] were from Catholic damage,” joked K.K. Barrett. In the song’s extended verse du Plenty intones about the Virgin mother: “She longs to be someone else, not the chosen one/No angels in the boudoir, no voices from the clouds/Why won’t the Vatican leave her alone?/Litanies of millions ring in her ears….No one seems to notice she’s crazy in her head/Loco en cabeza, loco en cabeza.”
“Mater Dolores” ends with a chromatic descending chord progression that became a trademark feature for the Screamers. The song concludes with the keyboards tagging the chords three times, adding a melody with the final repetition. Chromaticism was an important element of the Screamers’ musical palette, much more so than the more traditional rock ‘n ‘roll and blues-based progressions of Southern California contemporaries the Weirdos and the Zeros, and the more folk/country-based Dils.
The demo also includes “Peer Pressure,” the Screamers’ most famous song and an enduring anthem of alienation. Journalist Jon Savage, a fan of the band and author of the British punk history England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond singled out the song for inclusion in a MOJO magazine best-of compilation for “post-punk” bands. “These early LA punk kingpins hit on a high concept – synthesizers with chunky live drums and punk/performance art vocals – that was way ahead of its time. ‘Peer Pressure’ is an early classic, a ‘70s update of the Seeds’ ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’ with abrasive synth throbs and pointed lyrics about the perennial teen problem.”
“Peer Pressure” is a showcase for one of the Screamers’ chief songwriting tools: the chant, a powerful repeated vocal/lyrical hook without melody. This technique allowed Tomata du Plenty to play to his strengths as a frontman – his lyrics and the intensity of his vocal delivery – while downplaying his weakness, which was certainly his tone-deaf singing.
Paul Roessler, third and final keyboardist with the Screamers, noted: “[Tomata] didn’t sing, he screamed . . . he never hit a note the whole time I was in the band. He never actually sang a note.” In the case of “Peer Pressure,” however, the title phrase’s catchy alliteration and its repetitions throughout the song make it a hooky anthem. In a sense it was a proto-rap device, talking or shouting lyrics in lieu of singing. During live performance Tommy Gear chanted along the lines with Tomata, and audience members familiar with the lyrics joined in. Tomata revealed to Lee Lumsden in Chatterbox: “Actually, we don’t really write songs, we write more like anthems.” Much of the Screamers’ material featured chant-like choruses, including “G.O. Guy,” “Vertigo,” “122 Hours of Fear,” “Violent World” and “Magazine Love,” among others.
During the spring of 1977, while the Screamers honed their skills practicing and recording in preparation for live performance, a new magazine called Slash emerged that helped establish and legitimize the fledgling punk scene in Los Angeles. While not strictly the first fanzine to cover punk locally – Bomp, Back Door Man, Lisa Fancher’sStreet Life and the Xeroxed “/”: Fanzine for the Blank Generation pre-dated it – Slash would become the authoritative document of the era because of its large format (11 x 14 inches as opposed to standard 8 1/2 x 11 inches), eye-grabbing graphics and inspired writing.
For Slash’s first issue, editor Philomena Winstanley arranged an interview with the Damned’s lead singer Dave Vanian at the Screamer’s Wilton Hilton headquarters. It was the Damned’s dates at the Starwood April 18 and 19th 1977, in conjunction with the Weirdos/Zeros/Germs show at the Orpheum earlier that week, that marked the true birth of punk in Los Angeles.
Slash’s photographer and co-publisher Melanie Nissen also wound up doing a Screamers photo shoot that day. “We glommed our way into the pages,” said K.K. Barrett. “We had this big photo spread in the middle of it and we’d never even played anywhere; [we got the spread] just because of going out and dressing up and posing everywhere. So, they said, ‘Who are you guys?’ and we said, Oh, we’re this band’ . . . and they said, ‘Well, can we take pictures of you?’ We fed them a bunch of lies, which really became the format for so many bands starting.”
To celebrate the first issue, Slash magazine threw a party at publisher Steve Samiof’s studio apartment located in the back half of a storefront at 5103 W. Pico Boulevard with The Screamers as the entertainment. Excitement in the punk community was high, as no one had yet seen them play. Germs guitarist Pat Smear recalled, “There was a flier for the Screamers’ show that had pictures of them and actually said, bragged, and used it as a selling point, that they had spiky hairdos like Johnny [Rotten] and Sid [Vicious] . . . It was crazy. Yeah! Everybody went to see that.”
Over two hundred curious people squeezed into the small studio that night. Response to the Screamers’ debut was overwhelming. “ We played about seven or eight songs with this little tiny P.A.,” said Barrett, “and the place was just jam-packed with people drunk off their ass. Nobody could hear anything or see anything because it was all head to head to head – no stage, no nothing. Then people realized that we really were a band, because the magazine had come out about three weeks before and they had seen the pictures: ‘Yeah, yeah, but can they play? They haven’t played anywhere.’ So, we played, and I don’t know whether anyone could tell or not, but there was enough of a commotion that we got their attention anyway.”
The Screamers rode the momentum of their Slash party performance into their first club gig, at Hollywood’s Starwood club on July 4, 1977. The band lived up to the hype, opening their set with Tomata shouting the first song through a bullhorn. Tomata and Tommy sang a duet of Sonny and Cher’s 1960s hippie anthem “And the Beat Goes On” featuring updated lyrics for the Blank Generation: “History has a turned a page! Anarchy was the current rage!”
The Starwood show featured another new component: David Brown’s Klaxophone. Brown’s startling musical invention was a keyboard he built from car horns. As early as 1973 Brown was building the Klaxophone – its name a portmanteau of “klaxon” and “phone” because its sound resembled a saxophone’s reedy quality – as a student at Berklee College of Music. “The idea growing up there was this tremendous angst not only because everyone kept telling me what a terrible musician I was and I wanted to play, but also if you get into a band the electric guitars just overwhelm you,” Brown said. “I mean the keyboards back then didn’t have the presence to punch through. Anyway, suffice it to say the idea of [the Klaxophone] was for me to punch through and be louder than any fucker.”
For its Starwood backdrop the group hung four American flags, a move that impressed the club’s management as an assumed gesture of patriotism. At set’s end, however, the Screamers defaced the flags with black spray-paint, which nearly gave the Starwood’s owner an aneurism. Immediately following their Starwood debut, the Screamers were banned from the club for life.
Being shut out of one of the key venues in L.A. was no small matter
Being shut out of one of the key venues in L.A. was no small matter; the Whisky and Starwood were the only two clubs in Hollywood booking punk rock, which meant the Screamers had effectively cut their gigging options in half. Fortunately, the show also helped establish a new live home for the Screamers: local scenester Brendan Mullen was so impressed with the performance that he decided to open The Masque, a punk club that would become a major locus of the local scene and The Screamers’ primary venue.
The Screamers followed the Starwood show with a trip north to San Francisco. Good friend Penelope Houston, the Tupperwares’ bodyguard in Seattle and an emerging leader in the San Francisco punk scene as singer of the Avengers, put the show together with her band opening. Houston credits a visit to the Screamers in Los Angeles with jumpstarting her songwriting career and inspiring her to follow her own path.
Houston: “The Avengers got together, and we did a show in a warehouse in San Francisco. We did all cover songs – Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Rolling Stones – and then between that show and our next show, which was probably three weeks or something, I went down and visited Tommy and Tomata,” recalled Houston. “They were doing the Screamers at that point and I stayed at their house and talked to them for a while. That one visit to them made me realize that we had to write all our own music and we couldn’t do Lou Reed songs and Rolling Stones anymore. Somehow they impressed upon me the fact that, sure, other people have written a lot better songs, but you’ve got to do your own thing. No matter how dinky they are, you’ve got to write your own songs and do it.”
In the summer of 1977, the Screamers also received the ultimate punk rock validation – a private invitation to play for Iggy Pop. “His fan club called us and said, Iggy would love for you to come out and play,” said Tomata. “We drive out to his home, and this guy I had known in his fan club said, ‘Oh, Jimmy wants to meet you’ . . . I walk down this long hallway, and there’s an absolutely naked Iggy Pop in his room. And he comes right up to me, he hugs me, shakes me, shakes my hand, and says, ‘I’m so glad you guys could come today. Whatever you want to eat, whatever you want to drink, drugs...’”
The Screamers brought their P.A. and played for a handful of people in the living room of Iggy’s Malibu beach house. “We had to perform, do our show, and the only one who got up to dance was Iggy!” Tomata continued. “He danced in front of us. And then he ran back, he ran into this other room, came out with his marking pen, and starting writing on this white placard, and he held it up and danced in front of me, and it said, ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders.’ It was just . . . he was wonderful . . . so fucking wonderful.” Pop paid the band with a rubber check.
By summer’s end, things began to unravel between the Screamers and David Brown. “I was not allowed to really contribute anything at all,” he said. “They would come to me and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ Invariably, I would get voted down, so it was almost like [Bre’r Rabbit’s] briar patch: I would tell them the opposite of what I thought if I actually wanted to motivate them to do something.”
Following a headlining gig at the Whisky, Brown and the Screamers parted ways. Brown: “It was just, ‘Well, we’ve been talking about it and . . .’ They were going about it like it was Screamers Co. or something: ‘It’s really amused us that you’ve been here, but . . . ‘ Totally ignoring the fact that it had been at least 30 percent my idea six months before . . . but it was just like, ‘Well, we don’t need you anymore.’ So that stung for a couple seconds, because we were doing so well.“
In response, David Brown formed his own funk-infused punk band, Black Randy and the Metrosquad. He also started the early Los Angeles punk rock record label Dangerhouse Records, releasing a series of seminal punk singles between 1977 and 1979 by the Avengers, the Dils, the Alley Cats, the Weirdos, the Bags, X, the Deadbeats, the Randoms, the Eyes and Rhino 39. Beverly Hills high school student Jeff McGregor of the Snot Puppies would replace Brown as the Screamers’ second keyboardist.
Having secured McGregor, the Screamers returned to the live circuit at the end of 1977 with two historic shows at the Masque, co-headlining with the Weirdos. The flyer for the December 16 and 17 Slash magazine benefit shows featured a newspaper headline that read: “Weirdos & Screamers Together at Last.”
The Screamers debuted three new songs during the Masque and Whisky shows: “Violent World,” “Vertigo” and “Better World.” All three showcase the group’s use of chromaticism as a musical device. Tommy Gear had mentioned searching for something dark and exotic in his early writing with the Tupperwares; he had found it with David Brown’s distorted analog keyboards, insertion of tri-tones, diminished arpeggios and noisy breaks, as well as his own experiments with high and low-pitched oscillators and spooky-sounding, synthesized wave-forms. New keyboardist Jeff McGregor replicated Brown’s distortion with a fuzz box.
The Screamers also expanded their stage show. At the Masque, the group hung a chicken wire fence between themselves and the audience. For one of the Whisky shows in January, the Screamers put up a 50-foot wide wall of black plastic, which Tomata ripped through during the first song. “The whole point of the stage show was to focus the audience and to separate us from the other people,” said K.K. “We didn’t want to be a band that came out in our street clothes and played a show. I know that has sort of become the punk ethic . . . but we didn’t think of ourselves as ‘punks’ so much either. We wanted to say, ‘This is a performance, and this is the only place you’re going to get it.’“
Later shows would include more elaborate stage props, such as a gigantic yellow construction-site scaffolding that Tomata climbed, and in another performance, three large gray photo backdrops with the band members underlit, casting 20-foot long shadows, German expressionist style.
In keeping with the Screamers’ dark themes, Du Plenty described his persona as “a human illustration of struggle, anxiety and fear.” Tomata onstage was a man riddled by anxiety and tension, fighting against external and internal stressors on the songs “Peer Pressure,” “Violent World,” “Punish or Be Damned,” and “Better World.”
Filmmaker Lucas Reiner: “When you think of the Screamers the word that comes to mind is ‘struggle.’ If you see photographs of the Screamers . . . there’s all this attention to their hands – how their hands are posed. This comes from expressionist painters like Beckman, Kokoschka, Schiele, and the attention that they rightly paid to their portrait sitters’ hands – what their hands were doing – as a way to individualize the character. . . . I remember a lot of Tomata’s hand gestures onstage – like in ‘Punish or Be Damned’ or ‘Vertigo’. In a lot of his dances, hand gestures were very expressive.”
Tomata not only borrowed gestures and poses from Egon Schiele; he modeled his entire onstage persona after the painter’s personal style. Like Schiele, Tomata cropped and spiked his dark hair and shaved off his sideburns. Eschewing more typical Malcolm McLaren/Vivienne Westwood punk fashions, du Plenty also wore button-up collared shirts, often accompanied by ties (bow or long), vests and jackets. Comparing pictures and footage of Tomata during the Screamers era with Schiele’s self-portraiture and photographs, it is impossible to miss Tomata’s deliberate emulation.
Gary Panter, an artist who first attracted attention in Slash magazine with his “Jimbo” cartoons and has since been shown in museums around the world, immortalized Tomata’s Egon Schiele-inspired look in a stark black and white portrait of the lead Screamer’s screaming, spiked-hair visage. Panter’s image of Tomata’s screaming head has become one of the most iconic and ubiquitous images in punk history. “It’s more famous than we are,” said K.K. Barrett, laughing. “It shows you what . . . brand patching does. Think about it – it’s that and the blue circle [Germs insignia] and the Black Flag bars . . . and how simple and continuing those symbols are.”
The logo has seen perpetual use, without Panter’s or the band’s consent, in numerous newsprint advertisements. “Oh, they use it all the time,” said Tomata about the logo. “I see it on Insult Line, 976-INSULT. It’s a phone number you can call to be insulted, and they used my face. . . . and when I called the INSULT line, I said, ‘Please stop using this. I said, ‘That’s a portrait of me.’ And he says, ‘Oh no, that’s our boss, Irving. That’s Irving’s picture.” The image was also used by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) – an organization dedicated since 1987 to raising worldwide awareness about the AIDS epidemic – an appropriation of which Tomata was, in fact, quite proud.
From the beginning of Jeff McGregor’s stint with the band, the Screamers had let the keyboardist know they were keeping their options open. “It was always kind of understood that it was going to be an interim gig for him,” said Lucas Reiner, regarding McGregor.
K.K. Barrett detailed the paces the band put their keyboard prospects through, making them play music without any kind of strict tempo, playing atonally, and forcing them to deconstruct a top 40 song and play it in its most bare-bones form, because “those questions pretty much defined what we’re about – a combination of all those: Top 40 music, atonal music, music without a rhythm. They always knew too much ‘cause they were classically trained or something or had their fingers beaten with John Thompson books. And you just had to say, ‘play less, play less, play less! Play wrong notes, hold them longer, you know, hit harder!’”
They finally found their man in Paul Roessler, a keyboard prodigy who discovered punk rock as a friend of Darby Crash and Pat Smear at Hollywood’s University High School’s experimental school-within-a-school, IPS (Innovative Program School). For school, Roessler had written a forty-minute piece of music called “The Arc,” merging his classical training with a progressive rock sensibility. The young keyboardist had an eclectic background, having grown up with his younger sister and fellow musician Kira (later the bassist for Black Flag during that band’s most experimental era) in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Carl Roessler, had helped found the computer program at Yale University.
In May 1978, with Roessler on board, the Screamers embarked on their first major tour up to the Pacific Northwest. Following two shows at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and a show in Portland Oregon’s Beaver Hall, which rock critic and historian Joe Carducci hailed as a shaping influence for the Portland scene (“us lumberjacks had never seen anything like it”), the Screamers returned to Seattle. On May 19, the group played a gig sponsored by the Bird, Seattle’s first punk rock club, in a larger space called the Carpenter’s Hall, along with the Telepaths and the Enemy. For Tommy and Tomata, who hadn’t been back to Seattle since their days in the Tupperwares, the shows were a homecoming. To commemorate the occasion the Screamers started their set off with a revamped version of Tupperwares’ favorite “Eva Braun.”
More than any other song in the Screamers’ repertoire, “Eva Braun” shows their Krautrock influence. Beginning with its title and subject matter – a reference to Adolf Hitler’s consort – the song emits a distinctly Germanic feel. Featuring a throbbing rhythm in the keyboard against a mechanical, driving pulse played by the Roland rhythm box, “Eva Braun” brings to mind the sound of signature Kraftwerk tunes such as “Radioactivity” and “Trans Europe Express.” (Kraftwerk famously also used an ARP Odyssey on their recording of “Autobahn.”) Musically, “Eva Braun,” like Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express,” is built simply on two main motifs and a key change. The lyrics are just a couple odd declarative sentences: “Eva Braun, she’s the blonde, what a blonde, with the man with the little moustache. She’s the girl with the red gloves on.”
During their live performance in Seattle, the band left the stage in the middle of the song with the rhythm machine pounding away and the ARP repeating a high-pitched pattern. After several minutes they returned to play one more verse then ended the set. Tommy Gear explained, “The interesting thing is that the energy and the power isn’t lost in the song when the people leave; the machines still maintain it. It builds in power and then when we leave the stage, they continue without us . . . It’s like, machines should control machines, and people should control people . . . It’s a far-flung idea – that musicians shouldn’t play their instruments. We’re still evolving so maybe someday we’ll have an entire set like that.”
When the Screamers returned to Los Angeles from the tour, the “anti-chops” band was tighter than ever. Soundman Geza X, on tour with the group, convinced the Screamers to record their set live to a four-track tape machine. Coupled with their April 1977 4-track demos, and a few later tracks recorded in 1979 with producer David Campbell in the summer 1978, the Geza X sessions would be the only formal recordings the Screamers ever made. Unfortunately the master tapes were erased; but a tape dub of the recordings has been bootlegged as Screamers Demos ’77-78. The sessions featured fourteen songs total, basically all the Screamers material at the time except for “Eva Braun.”
Notable among the performances is the early Screamers song “Don’t Pay the Whore (Government Love Affair).” The band begins with a plonky chord progression and Tomata’s spoken lead-in: “First you makeup/Then you breakup/And then you hang around outside her door/Your love affair with the Government is over/But you still keep getting butt-fucked . . . Don’t pay the whore.” The Screamers end up thrashing through an amped-up, Crass-style, proto-hardcore song that expires after 70 seconds. Other standouts include a cover of the Germs’ “Sex Boy” and an authoritative version of the band’s signature song “Punish or Be Damned.”
“Punish or Be Damned” was a showcase for K.K. Barrett’s cubist approach to drumming. Paul Roessler explained: “Just like Tommy and Tomata, every decision K.K. would make in his drumming had thought and intellect put into it. He wouldn’t just think about how parts fit musically but, ‘How does this fit conceptually?’”
Barrett, who sometimes augmented his drumming with mallets and maracas, explained his approach: “Here’s a band that doesn’t have a bass player, so there’s no bottom end. I have to make up all this bottom end by playing eighth notes on the kick drum and then later on the floor tom. I’m always bashing on the floor, riding the floor tom rather than riding the ride cymbal to get a thunderous low end going so that it doesn’t sound like we’re this tinny little wet noodle. That’s why I started playing with mallets and maracas, to get more stick size on the drums to make it louder, to make it lower. At one point I even had two bass drums. I had one bass drum that I played [regularly with foot pedal] and I had a bass drum that was the floor tom that I played with a marching band mallet, to just keep up this low-end rumbling all the time.”
In September 1978 the Screamers returned to Mabuhay Gardens to record what has become the definitive – indeed, the only long-form – visual document of the band. Videotaped for posterity by a small independent company called Target Video, The Screamers Live in San Francisco: September 2nd, 1978captures the group at the height of their performance prowess in a tight, powerful 30-minute set.
Live In San Francisco begins with a red skull and crossbones graphic over a shimmering silver background that slowly fades into Gary Panter’s Screamers’ logo of Tomata, on which the title credit is superimposed. Paul Roessler’s ominous keyboard intro line to “122 Hours of Fear” – a song inspired by an infamous, and then rather recent, plane hijacking – repeats, as the Panter image crossfades to the real du Plenty, seen in profile with his head bent down, the image slightly blurred. A third and final repetition of the intro plays as Tomata continues to hold his head down, the image slowly coming into focus, and the camera pulls back to show K.K. behind Tomata on his drum kit. The intro cuts short with a bar of 2/4 on Paul’s E flat bass note.
Tomata turns around to face the audience, microphone now in hand, and barks the command: “Be quiet or be killed!” Following the song’s opening chorus-chant, Tomata abruptly goes down on his knees (like the pilot portrayed in the song) holding a frozen expression for a long moment while the band, without warning, stops playing.
The audience is uncomfortable with the silence; someone yells, “You suck!” Tomata, in character once more as a terrorist airplane hijacker, jumps up to his feet again and shouts: “You better shut up and listen!”
The title and subject matter of “122 Hours of Fear” were gleaned from a sensational newspaper headline at the climax of what has been referred to as the “German Autumn.” In the fall of 1977, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 737 airplane in Palma de Mallorca bound for Frankfurt, and demanded the release of “their comrades,” the Baader-Meinhoff gang, from Stammheim prison. In the second verse Tomata addresses the Landshut’s pilot by name: “Danger, danger, danger Mr. Schumann/We are in a hurry Mr. Schumann/What are the odds, dear Jürgen/Am I disturbing you?” The Screamers go through one more extended chorus with Tomata going back down to his knees onstage. This was punk rock as Brechtian provocation, and it was sui generis.
The powerful performance on September 2, 1978
The powerful performance on September 2, 1978 was not lost on Jello Biafra, lead singer of the opening band that night, the Dead Kennedys. Biafra, who counts himself a die-hard Screamers fan, can be seen in the front row of the audience at the Mabuhay show. Henry Rollins was also smitten by The Screamers. “When I got to LA in 1981, I was very curious about the local bands as I had some of the records by bands like the Germs, the Weirdos, X, etc.” Rollins recalled. “ I had heard about the Screamers from Jello Biafra but had never heard them. . . . After I saw a Screamers live video . . . it occurred to me that they should have taken over the world. The band's frontman Tomata Du Plenty, even from the little bit I have seen of him, is one of the most riveting front men I’ve ever seen.”
In the fall of 1978 the Screamers embarked on an ambitious cross-country tour of the East Coast and Canada, an unheard-of feat at the time for a West Coast punk band. Few clubs of the day would take the chance on booking punk; it would take years for hardcore bands Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys to carve out a national punk touring circuit. Instead, The Screamers ploughed their own furrow and booked gigs across the Midwest on their way to the east coast.
The Screamers played two shows in New York: one in October at CBGBs, where years before Tomata had performed comedy sketches with the Ramones and Blondie as his supporting acts; followed by a later engagement at Midtown’s only cool rock club, Hurrah, in November. In addition, Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie also set up the Screamers with a loft party gig, at which the band played in a freight elevator.
At their Hurrah gig the Screamers had a surprise visit from King Crimson leader and Brian Eno collaborator Robert Fripp, who was then living in New York. K.K. recalled: “When we were doing our sound check, Robert Fripp out of the blue comes up and says he wants to play with us. We’d heard he’d been playing with Blondie and sitting in with different bands around town. We said, ‘Let’s practice and see what happens,’ and it worked.”
During the live show that evening, Fripp joined the band when they returned to the stage following the instrumental break of “Eva Braun” and finished the set with them. “He played about seven songs with us, and that was a very trippy thing,” said K.K. “Then he invited us to his penthouse the next morning and cooked us all . . . breakfast.” Fripp was so taken with the band that he invited Tomata to sing on his upcoming solo album Exposure. Du Plenty, for unexplained reasons, turned Fripp’s offer down.
In late 1978 the Screamers collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder. As part of a collective with Jan de Bont (who later struck gold directing Hollywood blockbuster Speed), documentary filmmaker Frans Bromet, and future “star-chitect” Rem Koolhaas, Daalder had won awards for his films in Holland during the 1960s. “I was used to this whole notion of everybody doing everything . . .you just shot and put it together,” said Daalder of his experience in the filmmaking group. “So, I learned to do everything that had to do with film, music, mixing, whatever, just from doing it. It was a democratic group, so we actually made movies by drawing lots and that determined who was going to be the director or the writer or the cameraman or the actor.”
Daalder moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to apprentice with B-movie director Russ Meyer, through whom Daalder got a job directing the horror cult classic Massacre at Central High. Daalder discovered punk rock through the Sex Pistols when Meyer recommended him, along with Roger Ebert, to write the screenplay for a movie that ultimately became The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. When the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren came to America in early 1978, Daalder’s house in Hollywood was used as the band’s West Coast headquarters. Rene heard about the Screamers through Fayette Hauser, who was then seeing McLaren: “She had been hanging a little bit with Malcolm and myself, and she said, ‘You should go check out the Screamers.’ So . . . I didn’t even go see them (live), I went to see them at the house . . . on Wilton.”
At the time, Daalder conceived of creating a multimedia movie and music project utilizing the local talent on the West Coast punk scene. Rene’s friend and assistant producer, Dutch actor Carel Struycken, recalled: “Right at this time there was this explosion of these bands and also a big influx of kids who were coming to Los Angeles for this very reason and they were all great kids just as characters. So, we realized that it was kind of the ideal casting environment because you had all these characters that were already . . . you didn’t have to sort them loose from your everyday standard person because they’ve already done that themselves.” Daalder approached Penelope Houston of the Avengers, Robert Lopez of the Zeros, Al Hansen (Fluxus artist and grandfather of pop/alternative music icon Beck), and after meeting him and seeing Tomata perform, asked the Screamers frontman to play the lead role. The project was tentatively titled Mensch.
Daalder also helped the Screamers put together their new live show. Tommy Gear explained to New York Rocker’s Steve Ellman: “It is conceived of as an operetta. The order of the material is important, and the set is done in one piece. We’re thinking in theatrical terms more than recording.” Daalder helped structure the narrative arc. In addition, the Screamers recorded instrumental backing tracks with string arranger David Campbell to be played on stage, and augmented their four-piece band lineup with two violinists and another singer, Sheela (Sheila) Edwards.
The Screamers had long wanted to incorporate a feminine presence into their stage show and music. Tommy Gear noted: “We wanted to involve the female element and we didn’t quite know how. . . . We came upon Sheela, who’d lived in New York and Hollywood and was originally from Las Vegas. We worked and rehearsed the material and it worked out very well. She’s quite unique.” Edwards, whom the band met on the punk scene as one of the habitués of the Canterbury Arms Apartments, had strong vocal chops and some stage experience singing with an R&B group called the Sillies.
Edwards had a volatile, at times violent personality, and when drunk was capable of going full hellion. “Sheela was really drunk, hardcore . . . aggressive, you name it,” said Daalder. “She was a phenomenal talent but completely raw.” Carel Struycken, whom Daalder put temporarily in charge of Sheela, told me: “For a short time I was sort of assigned to be her handler],” laughed Struycken. “Every moment of the day I would think, ‘What do I have to do now?’ I remember moments that I would have to get to the show, and she was locked in the bathroom of her apartment and making a scene. All of a sudden you would hear this smashing of glass and then . . . nothing. Then she cut her wrists with glass . . . it would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then she’d say, ‘What do you know about life? Nothing!!!’ That’s who she was. There was no acting there.”
For three nights in May 1979, the Screamers unveiled their new stage show at the Whisky A Go Go. The weekend shows (two performances a night) sold out, as the band had not played in Los Angeles for nine months. Jan De Bont and Carel Struycken filmed the shows for Rene Daalder, who released excerpts entitled Screamers at the Whisky on Rhapsody films later that year.
The Screamers opened the show with “Why the World? (Need a Head-On),” which, much like the exposition section of a symphonic or operatic work, set the mood for the ensuing performance. Musically, the composition of “Why the World” was much more sophisticated than earlier Screamers songs, largely due to David Campbell’s violin arrangements. Lyrically, “Why the World?” established the angst underlying Tomata’s character as the show’s protagonist.
“To me . . . the pinnacle [of Screamers’ performance] was ‘Why the World?’” said Lucas Reiner. “There was something cathartic about it… Tomata onstage performing, singing, dancing and acting, he was kind of this mythic figure that was existential. I don’t know how else to put it, it felt like their reach, the scope of their lyrics, of their songs – it’s weird to call them ‘songs’ because it was more like background music to what they did – the scope of the music felt like it was far-reaching. It was something about life at the time and the struggle of the individual, embodied in the character of Tomata, to live in this kind of violent, chaotic, alienating world.”
Following “Why the World?” was “Nervous,” which featured Tomata pantomiming anxious gestures, scratching himself, compulsively touching his head, hair and neck, posing with distorted, open-mouthed expressions, and speak-singing the lyrics: “Something below the surface/Deep inside, makes me nervous.” In the third song of the set, “Mensch,” Tomata yells at K.K. Barrett, “Stop the beat! I am a Mensch . . . I only dance when I want to dance.” Next, Sheela eerily appeared onstage like Tomata’s anima, and the two performed “She Frightens/Thru the Flames.”
The centerpiece of the Screamers’ stage show, however, was an older song, “I Wanna Hurt,” recast as a duet between Tomata and Sheela. Musically, the song represented the Screamers’ minimalism taken to extreme, utilizing only two alternating chords for the entire song, and one quarter note pushed forth in unison by the piano and drums. The only variation comes from the rhythm machine playing an eighth note pulse against the piano and drums’ quarter notes, an occasional kick pattern flourish, and Roessler’s and Barrett’s push-and-pull accents.
Behind the pounding piano and drum beat Tommy Gear’s ARP Odyssey synthesizer emits eerie whines, ghost-like wails, and arching pitch bends. The lyrics depict a masochistic, unrequited love. Tomata sang: “I cover my eyes/I reach out a hand/I touch a face/And that face keeps burning my brain/burning my brain!” and then he repeats the chorus mantra “I wanna hurt” four times. At the song’s climax Sheela grabbed Tomata, kissed him aggressively on the mouth, and then disappeared into the darkness. Steve Ellman of New York Rocker wrote of Sheela and Tomata’s performance, “This pair put across visions of anguish and alienation that, for my money, equal the intensity of something like Iggy doing ‘Gimme Danger.’”
The Screamers’ dramatization of “I Wanna Hurt,” and for that matter their entire stage show, enacted theatrical concepts derived from Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, combining performance and music in a manner unheard of for an underground band. In her review of the Whisky show for the Los Angeles Times, Kristine McKenna wrote that the Screamers were “easily the most aggressively adventurous band to come out of L.A.’s new wave scene. Their performance goes beyond the realm of entertainment into primal experience, and Saturday night they were so good they were scary.”
The Screamers repeated the show in San Francisco
The Screamers repeated the show in San Francisco at the end of May, and in New York in July, finally returning to Los Angeles for sold-out shows at the Roxy Theater from July 19 to 21, 1979. The Screamers’ shows at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip, the club co-owned by Elmer Valentine (also owner of the Whisky A Go Go) and filmmaker-entertainment mogul Lou Adler, represented a coup for punk and underground bands in the Los Angeles scene.
The Screamers were the first band not signed by a record label to be allowed to play at the Roxy Theater. It would also prove to be the band’s last stand, their final shows. The thing that had set the Screamers apart – unsigned L.A. punk band makes good – was now becoming a major liability. Lacking any institutional financial support, the Screamers began to fray.
“I was the Screamers’ soundman during the whole kind of peak period,” says producer Geza X Gedeon. “One of the main reasons I was doing it was because I was such a fan of theirs. I could not believe that ultimately they did not get a deal.”
The Screamers endured a constant struggle to be recognized outside the punk community that had embraced them. “We thought we were popular enough at the time that we would get signed even though there was no place to put it,” said K.K. Barrett. “When record companies would talk to us, they'd say, ‘Well, I don't know how to market this, there's no parallel. It's not melodic, although it was kind of melodic, it's extremely dissonant, the guy really can't sing,’ which is true, but in a lot of good bands people can't sing. It was just like that. But I could understand from a marketing point of view, where somebody thought they couldn't sell it compared to . . . what are they going to put it with? You want to lump it with the Ramones? Well those records aren't selling; we don't want to sign another Ramones. And that was kind of the only parallel at the time. The offers weren't forthcoming.”
The band instead turned their attention to working on video projects with Rene Daalder. The concept was to make two 12-minute long, pre-MTV videos using laserdisc technology. As Tommy Gear told the New York Rocker: “It would be real exciting to release video before audio recordings. That may be the standard in the future.” The band collaborated with Daalder musically and lyrically on two songs for the project, “If My Heart Could Sing It Would Hit the Right Note” and “Now I Gotta Face.”
In order to work on his film and the videos Daalder leased a space on Heliotrope and Melrose in Hollywood, a former vitamin warehouse. Assistant Producer Carel Struycken explained: “The first obstacle that we ran into was that there was no sound stage where you could also do 24 track recording at the same time. Rene’s idea was to record everything live to get the raw sense of it all . . . and to record it to 24 track at the same time. So, while the movie was being shot, you could have the rhythm track going because synch was still a problem in those days. It seemed like the most logical thing to do at the time was just lease a space and build our own studio.”
K.K. Barrett, who had carpentry skills, worked with Struycken to build the combination sound stage/recording studio with occasional help from Wall of Voodoo’s Bruce Moreland. The construction took a number of months, during which Tommy Gear often came in and worked on new material for the movie. “He had made himself a little workspace,” said Struycken. “There were a bunch of cubicles that were used in real office spaces. While we were breaking the whole thing down, he had to negotiate through glass that was still lying on the floor and the nails and go to his little workspace with his synthesizer and work.”
Not long after the studio on Heliotrope was built and filming had begun, the owner cancelled Daalder’s lease. “Now the whole thing became even more of a burden, it became a nightmare in some ways,” Daalder recalled. “It was when I had shot maybe one-third of the movie. Two-thirds were never done. But what we had done was a bunch of videos. So, then it was ‘Ok, fuck can I make something out of this.’ That’s how ultimately Population One came about, where I just tried to string along a bunch of stuff that we had sitting there.”
The original plot line of Population One – which centered around a re-interpretation of Screamers’ material in a German expressionist setting – was revised to a story wherein Tomata du Plenty is the only survivor of a nuclear explosion and reflects on his life from a bunker. “When Rene figured out that he couldn’t finish the movie the way he originally planned it, he had to frame it a different way, so a story within a story,” said Struycken. “We had to shoot a lot of extra footage. Everything that happened inside the bunker was not originally planned. We shot all of it in Tomata’s loft.”
Deeper problems surfaced midway, when Tommy Gear first quit the movie project, and then the band. According to Daalder, the relationship between Gear and Tomata had become so strained at that point that the two were barely talking to one another. Another contributing factor to Gear’s unhappiness may have been that the film project was becoming more a vehicle for Tomata as an actor-performer rather than the band. “[Population One] was different: it was really not the Screamers . . . even though most of the people in the band were involved in it, it was not a representation of the band,” said K.K. Barrett. “It was a whole different thing. It was more like musical theater.”
Gear also faced writer’s block while working on the film’s music, perhaps because of the outside scrutiny. “All of a sudden there were arrangers, and I don’t think Rene was happy with the things that Tommy was coming up with,” Barrett continued. “I think that Tommy was resistant to all the interference and judgment. No one had told him what should and should not be done before. I think eventually he just said, ‘Forget it. Fuck it,’ and walked off.”
Meanwhile, du Plenty, for his part, clearly preferred working on the film to trying to salvage the band and his artistic collaboration with Gear. “Tomata wanted to continue writing songs with Rene and David Campbell,” said Barrett. “So somewhere along the line Tomata was more interested in this [than the band], because he had come from kind of an improv theater-street performance background.”
Fayette Hauser recalled: “Tomata was exhausted. Those shows would totally exhaust him. And I think it was just over for him. He wanted to move on. He wanted to do other things. He was not sold on it as a lifetime occupation and it was just exhausting him. It was too much for him, the shows were too difficult – too difficult for his voice, and too difficult . . . physically, it was just too much.”
His exhaustion was exacerbated by serious health issues; unbeknownst to du Plenty, he had contracted the HIV virus. Daalder: “We didn’t find out until later that Tomata was actually very ill. There was no way that he could pull off what he had been pulling off. . . . He confided that to me one time – it was before the Roxy shows – that energy, that abandon . . . he couldn’t even go there any more, even partially. And he didn’t know what it was. It was sometime before [HIV] became known. And basically, that’s the key to what happened as far as I’m concerned . . . not so much the record deals, and not so much that there was not the support from what we put together.”
Daalder lacked the finances to finish Population One in a timely fashion, but it finally screened in January 1986 and was released thereafter on videotape. A flawed film, it is nonetheless a priceless historical document. K.K. Barrett credits Population Onefor launching his brilliant career in art direction; Barrett would later collect assistant director credits on Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design for his work on Her.
“That’s how I started building sets,” said Barrett. “We started doing these musical projects and saying, ‘Well, who’s going to design the sets?’ Nobody had an answer and I said, ‘I will.’ So that was just trial by fire – not really knowing what I was doing. I had an art background, so I wasn’t clueless, but I didn’t really know the protocol, the nuts and bolts. Anyway, we figured that stuff out.”
Tommy Gear retired from live music performance. After a short stint in New York Gear returned to Los Angeles, where he has been active in academia, and also worked as a consultant to keyboard and musical electronics company Roland.
Paul Roessler continued his musical career as keyboardist with German punk chanteuse Nina Hagen, and local bands Nervous Gender, Geza and the Mommymen, 45 Grave, DC3, Gitane Demone Quartet, and the Deadbeats, as well as leading his own group Twisted Roots.
Tomata du Plenty stumbled into his post-Screamers career as a visual artist by accident. “I broke my leg,” he later told CNN reporter Paul Vercammen during a short 1999 televised piece on his punk rocker-turned-painter career. “I was bored to death and I found a little paint kit in the alley on Hollywood Boulevard.” While recovering from his broken leg, Tomata started painting.
In Big Takeover, du Plenty tells the story of his first art exhibition: “Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster said, ‘You should show this stuff.’ And he was great. He brought me to the Zero One Gallery, which is also on Hollywood Boulevard, and they let me hang my little $10 watercolors all over the place. And David Lee Roth mentioned it on The Tonight Show, and it sort of spiraled. That was 1983, which is neat because it was the year I also found out I was HIV-positive, which made it even better for me, I think. It was like, maybe there’s some reason ...there’s something going on here.”
Tomata’s subject matter included series of paintings of pop culture icons such as Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley; favorite authors including Anais Nin, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Bukowski; and early punk rockers such as the Sex Pistols, the Bags, and X. Kristine McKenna wrote of his artistic style: “Du Plenty’s fluid, vaguely erotic paintings are very much in synch with the Screamers’ music in that they reflect the influence of Egon Schiele, the seminal German expressionist who succumbed in 1918 to the influenza epidemic then sweeping across Europe.”
In the late 1980s Tomata flew to Miami for an art show and decided to stay. Several years later he moved to New Orleans, which he made his permanent home, travelling from there across the country for art openings. “Whatever I can get into three suitcases, I get on a train or a bus, I go to LA, San Francisco, Miami; I do art shows,” du Plenty told Jack Rabid of Big Takeover about his traveling exhibits. “I’ve been doing them mostly like in bars, restaurants, laundromats – wherever I could sell the stuff,” he explained about his decision to eschew art galleries for more informal settings. “I would like to do it just on the street. I’m not really interested in the art world...I don’t cotton to it. I know how to do it myself.” Du Plenty also made a habit of keeping the prices low on his paintings, always bringing a stock of small pieces for about $20 each, “because I think people should have art, I really do.”
By early 2000, however, Tomata was extremely and noticeably sick. During a return visit to San Francisco, his long-time friend, former Whiz Kid and lead singer of the Lewd, J. Satz Baret (AKA Satin Sheets) convinced Tomata to look into treatment for his illness. Diagnosed with AIDS-related cancer, du Plenty underwent chemotherapy and radiation. While Tomata appeared optimistic after his first round of treatment, he shortly succumbed to the disease. Satz, who let du Plenty stay in the apartment building he managed, found his body on the morning of August 21, 2000. Tomata was 52.
On October 8, 2000, Tomata du Plenty’s funeral was held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, presided over by his good friend Chase Holliday. Fittingly, this was the very cemetery that du Plenty and Holliday used to hang out in during the Screamers’ heyday. Brad Dunning, another denizen of the Wilton Hilton who had helped design the cemetery’s renovation that began in 1998, made it possible for Tomata to be interred there. Hollywood Forever calls itself the “Resting Place of Hollywood’s Immortals”; du Plenty is in good company, alongside film legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Fay Wray and Peter Lorre, as well as fellow punk rock pioneers Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone.
Since the Screamers’ disappearance in 1980 there has been continued interest in the band – far more interest, in fact, than when the Screamers were actively playing shows. While the band never released any recordings officially, numerous bootleg singles, albums, CDs, videos and DVDs have emerged. The Target video, Screamers Live in San Francisco, is back in print and available through MVD. There is also an extensive website called Synthpunk.org featuring detailed information, history, and press clippings of the band. Recently, Xeroid Records released a double CD tribute album to the band called The Necessary Effect – Screamers Songs Interpreted featuring groups such as Flux Information Sciences, Luxo Champ, Teen Chthulu, and Akimbo performing Screamers’ classics.
While initially inspiring a small wave of keyboard-synth based bands such as Nervous Gender, the Units, the Extremes, and Wall of Voodoo, the so-called “synth punk” started by the Screamers has given rise to a growing sub-genre linked to numerous bands: Black Ice, the Phantom Limbs, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the Skabs, the Epoxies, Anavan and Black Sunday.
In addition, the Screamers’ brutalist approach paved the way for the industrial groups of the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s like Ministry, KMFMD and Nine Inch Nails. “Electronic music is more subversive than punk ever was,” Tommy Gear told Evan Hosie of New York Rocker, in a remarkably prescient 1978 interview. “Mainly that’s because we’re making no big deal about it...it’s more like osmosis, into their radios, into their culture. One day people will wake up and it’s going to be all around them.”
Most importantly, the Screamers set the standard for against-the-grain, uncompromising originality in punk rock. In a Search and Destroy interview published during the band’s prime, Tomata summarized the Screamers’ penchant for taking chances and being unafraid to change.
“I think risks are very important,” du Plenty said. “I love to see more and more people take risks, involve themselves in chance, it takes a lot of courage. I’m not saying that we are more brave than other people, but I like to be inspired, and I like to inspire.”
David Jones is a musician, writer and graduate of UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures program in Ethnomusicology. He has been involved in the Los Angeles punk rock scene since he was a teenager in the late-‘70s, and has toured, performed and recorded with his own bands Magnolia Thunderpussy and Carnage Asada, as well as class of ’77 punk rock alumni Alice Bag, The Deadbeats and El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Jones has written articles on early LA punk rock for Ugly Things magazine, City Beat, the Encyclopedia of American Folklife, and served as LA punk rock historian for Don Letts’ Punk: Attitude DVD. He is currently at work on a book called Destroy All Music: Pioneers of Punk Rock in Southern California.