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Over the Wall – # 11

September 15, 2009

This week, a look at an American obscurity who, if they’d caught on with bigger audiences, could possibly have been a phenomenon.

Edition #11 – Getting Frantic on the Panic Train: The Screamers.

One of the earliest groups on record in the L.A. punk books, The Screamers are an interesting example of what a band could do with punk in America before hardcore. They were born of the same scene as groups like X, The Weirdos, and The Germs – there is actually a scene in the film What We Do Is Secret featuring an impersonation of them – and were one of the most original outfits of their time.

The two founding members, keyboardist Tommy Gear and performance-artist frontman Tomata du Plenty, set up in L.A. in 1977, eventually completing their lineup with drummer K.K. Barrett and second keyboardist Paul Roessler, and over the next three years drew attention for intense performances and their raw electronic sound. In the years before synthpop became a prevalent new wave mode, electronic music was primarily experimental, often abrasive, and less a fixture of the landscape in America than in Europe. The Screamers were one of the only American examples of what was, at the time, just starting to be referred to as synth punk. Their sound was loud, with two distorted keyboards providing a thick fuzz, and pounding drums driving it along. The focal point though, was du Plenty: his appearance, his throat-shredding vocal delivery, strange lyrics, and his contorting stage presence.

Many of the pre-hardcore L.A. bands were arty and unique, but as a band that did away with guitars and replaced them with not just one, but two keyboards, The Screamers went beyond. For an American band, they were certainly non-standard, and one can only wonder what sort of reception or influence they would have had if they’d managed to get it happening for themselves. Sadly though, they didn’t, and they were gone, never heard from again, by 1980.

To say they were never heard from again would be erroneous, though, as, over the years, The Screamers became a serious cult band. Often praised by numerous California punk figures who had seen them during their brief run, their reputation as one of the best unrecorded bands of the era grew over the years, and although they never officially released any recordings, a number of demos and live recordings have been circulated. Now, in this day and age, when anything that ever existed is online somewhere, said recordings have found new audiences. Another aspect of the internet that has brought the band renewed attention is video. The Screamers recorded a lot of video for a band of their time, place, and sort. There was apparently even talk of them doing some kind of video album, which would have been way ahead of the curve at the time. Doing a search for them on Youtube will yield a number of videos, which give a good sense of how explosive the band was, and how visually and musically exciting their performances must have been.

In the end, and for reasons that nobody is quite able to explain, The Screamers just never got where they were going, which is a shame because they would have been an important band. They remain one of the better-documented lost groups of the period though, and are survived by quite a bit of recorded material, but not the iconic Tomata, who died in 2000.

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