I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Screamers: 122 Hours Of Fear


by David Selden
July 17, 2014

History, even punk history, is written by the winners. In the late 70’s, just before the straight edge aggro of hardcore swept the board, there bloomed in L.A a punk scene that was as musically adventurous as its suburban SoCal counterpart was orthodox. The light that burns the brightest often burns only briefly and for three or four years L.A was in flames. Among those fueling the fire were Tomata du Plenty and The Screamers.

David Xavier Harrigan a.k.a Tomata du Plenty, had ran away to Hollywood at fifteen. In 1968 he hitched to San Fransisco where he encountered Hibisicus, the creative director of the pyschedelic gay lib theatre collective, the Cockettes. The previous year a photo, a ubiquitous image of the anti Vietman protests, shows a young George Harris, Jr (a.k.a Hibiscus) confronting a line of national guardsmen. He is calmy placing flowers in the barrels of the six M16s that are pointed at him. The encounter with Hibiscus would inspire Harrigan/Du Plenty to form Ze Whiz Kids, a Seattle-based group that mixed counter-cultural comedy and drag. Between 1969 and 1972 they staged nearly a hundred musical revues.

Du Plenty would then move to New York where, then unknown, he supported groups like the Ramones by performing sets of guerilla comedy between acts at CBGBs. A man for whom “no talent was not enough,” he also found the time to write an advice column for an adult newspaper and run a thrift store.

In 1975, returning briefly to Seattle, he and Melba Toast (later to become Tommy Gear) formed the Tupperwares, the band that would a year later, in Los Angeles, become The Screamers. A visit from the Damned’s David Vanian and Caroline Coon in 1977 catalysed the project. The art glam seeds sown in Rodney Bingheimer’s English Disco, where the strungout remnants of the Stooges rubbed shoulders with The Runaways’ svengali, Kim Fowley, flowered in a neon L.A of sleaze and glamour. A revolution that would insist on being televised.

Like Suicide before them in New York and Metal Urbain in Paris, The Screamers were hip to Artaudi, synthesizers and Situationism. A proto-new wave theatre of cruelty that required a full time stylist. With a lineup comprised of Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear, drummer K.K. Barrett, and David Brown on keyboards (later to be replaced by Paul Roesseler), they explored video, performance art and cabaret. Like the smartest punks, they demanded tomorrow’s music today.

The darlings of this fleeting scene, The Screamers played a private party for Iggy Pop at his home in Malibu in 1977, where he declared them to be “the leaders of tomorrow”. Four months previously at the Starwood, a crazed fan had attacked Tomata with a spiked heelii (this at a 4th of July concert that ended with the desecration of a flag). Along with X, The Weirdos, the Bags and the Germs they were the hottest ticket in town, adored and hated with little room for indifference.

What polarized their audience was du Plenty’s archly psychotic performance, done with a thousand-yard stare like Johnny Rotten’s shock-headed kid brother on Ritalin. A half-mad rant torn from the headlines that had caught the attention of zine writers and scene makers such as Jon Savageiii and V.Valeiv, du Plenty’s aggressive, provocative performances ranged from archly theatrical, pseudo Weimar cabaret to something much more primalv.

For the Screamers, who had no bass player, their shows were driven by the drumming of K.K Burrnett with the ARP Odyssey and Fender Rhodes organ performing the function of the guitar. The absence of the bass was a carefully considered provocation that had won them three consecutive sold out shows at the Whisky a Go Go. The record companies were circling even as Slash Magazine sneered that they had become a parody of themselves before anyone knew who they werevi.

Intensely interested in image and presentation, du Plenty’s developing fascination for video technology lead to the band withdrawing at the peek of the hype to work on The Palace of Variety, a multimedia show to be presented at the Whisky a Go Go in 1981 (6 days after the launch of MTV).

Unfortunately what was to have been the triumphant return fell flat. The year before, Roessler had quit and joined Nervous Gendervii and Darby Crash (of the Germs) had OD’dviii. As documented by Penelope Spheeris in The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, the jocks were taking over the mosh-pits and the writing was on the wall for The Screamers. Too queer, too weird and too out there to ever be loved by the mainstream. Cut short by technical difficulties, the premiere of The Palace of Variety was greeted with a collective shrug of indifference and the band quickly faded.

Du Plenty was to go on to write and direct a number of film projects and musicals as well as find acclaim as a painter. In 1986, Population:1ix, a post nuclear musical featuring Screamers performances made with long time collaborator Rene Daalder, was released. In 2000, in San Fransisco, Tomata du Plenty sadly died of cancer at the age of 52, his ashes interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

An extensive archive of Screamers material can be found at

http://www.synthpunk.org/screamers/

i “In the 70’s you had Iggy and Alice Cooper who were exploring theatre – it was in the air, the whole idea of total theatre, of Artuad. People had started reading Rimbaud again, Baudelaire.”

Martin Rev, interview with David Selden. Dorfdisco 2011

http://www.dorfdisco.de/interviews/martin-rev-suicide-we-have-never-played-the-states.htm

ii "Crazed fan Cheri The Parakeet (or was it Penguin?), attacked Tomata, trying to puncture him with her stiletto spiked heel. When asked to what she attributed this spontaneous act of rage, Cheri calmly responded, "It's the music that made me do it.""

Brian Tristan, Screamers Fanclub Newsletter #1

http://www.synthpunk.org/screamers/

iiiThe new wave laps on the terminal beach. Jon Savage, Melody Maker 1979

iv RE/Search Publications

http://researchpubs.com

v“A Screamers show less resembles a standard rock concert than a new form of therapy. The role of the audience is to play analyst and to observe lead singer; psychotic patient Tomata du Planty as he reveals his innermost fears, desires, guilt complexes”

David Gluuerman, BAM Magazine July 1st 1979

http://www.synthpunk.org/screamers

vi Screamers at the Whisky. Slash Vol. 2 #7 August 1979.

viii A story told in Rodger Grossman’s 2008 film, What We Do Is Secret

http://whatwedoissecretthemovie.com/

ix Rene Daalder, Population:1 1986

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com