Graded on a Curve: Screamers,
“Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977”

As one of the first punk bands to ditch guitars for electronics, Los Angeles’ Screamers are deservedly legendary, in part because the choice of instrumentation wasn’t an attempt to streamline or soften their sound. Additionally, they broke up before releasing any recordings. While numerous bootlegs eventually surfaced, their audio quality was predictably non-optimal, so that the arrival of “Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977” is reason to celebrate, as its five songs are sourced from the original reel-to-reel tapes. Issued by Superior Viaduct in black and red vinyl editions, both are already sold out at the source, which means folks desiring a copy will only find it in stores starting on May 14. Happy hunting!

The above might give the impression that Screamers were unjustly neglected while extant, but that’s not really accurate, as the video footage of their 1978 show at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens captures a commanding performance in front of an appreciative crowd. Released first on VHS by Target Video as Live in San Francisco: Sept 2nd 1978, in 2004, the half-hour set was given a DVD upgrade with bonus footage. As Jon Savage mentions in his liner notes for this EP, it was that DVD (and its uploading to YouTube) that helped to spark fresh interest in the trailblazing group.

Spawned from an outfit called The Tupperwares, upon leaving Seattle for Los Angeles in 1976, they briefly adopted the moniker Gianni Bugatti and then settled on Screamers. By the next year, when the demos reissued here were recorded, the lineup consisted of two keyboard players, Tommy Gear and David Brown, with drummer K.K. Barrett and galvanizing vocalist Tomata du Plenty.

Barrett replaced Rio de Janeiro, whose obvious pseudonym, along with that of du Plenty (real name David Harrigan), point to the drag queen street theater roots of the group (Tommy Gear’s prior moniker was Melba Toast). Indeed, Du Plenty was a former member of the Cockettes in San Francisco; after leaving that troupe and moving to Seattle, he formed Ze Whiz Kidz in a similar vein, from whence the more musically focused Tupperwares emerged.

The gist of the above background is that Screamers came to Los Angeles with experience and distinctive connections to prior subcultures rather than being simply oppositional in nature. And by extension, this only makes du Plenty’s pure punk vocal fury and the sheer abrasive velocity of the instrumentation all the more impressive. Screamers weren’t a bunch of fringe-dwelling oldsters hopping on the punk bandwagon. They were the real deal, but weirder than most, and with du Plenty’s theatricality an additional welcome twist (it’s no shock that Jello Biafra was a big Screamers fan).

After having struggled for attention in Seattle (lack of venues, apathy from the local press), Screamers grew savvy in establishing their presence in L.A. before playing a single show. Crucial to the self-promotion was Gary Panter’s artwork for the band, reproduced on the sleeve pictured above and enduring as one of punk’s truly iconic images.

Really, Screamers’ one arguable misstep was in holding out on releasing a record, a decision that reportedly related to a desire for their debut to be issued only on video. Given the intensity of their Mabuhay Gardens show and the clips filmed live in studio by Target, the idea of releasing a video album made artistic sense, but it ultimately hindered them while active.

Unsurprising for the era, labels were either resistant to the video album idea (or just to Screamers uncompromising sound and queer-friendly stance) or simply unable to invest in the concept: recording a video album was one thing, but getting it released was another, as VCRs were still in their infancy. Therefore, without a recording to wind its way through the fledgling independent network of music distribution, Screamers’ popularity during their existence was largely limited to California.

But while kiboshing the issue of their music on a standard 7-inch, LP or (non-video) cassette, thankfully, Screamers weren’t averse to recording, with a handful of demos, the Target video footage (which will likely remain the strongest testament to their creative potency) and a handful of other live sets having cemented their cult stature.

And now, here’s “Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977” to further ensconce the band’s good standing with a document that’s audio quality is equal to their reputation. While some might opine that the increasingly commonplace sound of synth-punk has retroactively lessened the power of Screamers’ work, after soaking up the tracks that comprise this EP, I disagree with that assessment pretty strenuously.

“Magazine Love” and “Anything” dish the rage and abrasion with prime results, but it’s really “Punish or Be Damned,” all five minutes of it (in 1977!), that highlights a disregard for orthodoxy and solidifies why Screamers still matter. Musically, the song connects like a mix of pre-Warners Devo and the Neue Deutsche Welle (which hadn’t happened yet) with a hint of Suicide, but with du Plenty’s increasingly irritated vocal barking planting its flag firmly in Cali punk soil.

“Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977” thrives in that stretch of time before punk became burdened with norms, which leads me to an observation in conclusion. In the midst of a rant against ceaseless waves of conformity that is “Peer Pressure,” du Plenty intones that some of those in his peer group are queers, an admission that was far from palatable during this era (and to be sure, many at the time would’ve deemed it downright unacceptable).

But it reinforces how Screamers were shaped by the gay subculture of the time and that the early punk scene was far more inclusionary than some have portrayed it. Yes, there were instances of shock value and closed-mindedness that haven’t aged well, but the punk landscape was far from polluted by urchins in swastika t-shirts with tubes of Testors jammed up their nostrils singing about raping mothers and killing babies.

As evidence, please consider the intellectually rigorous and gloriously relevant “Screamers Demo Hollywood 1977.” Savage really hits the nail on the head when he states that the Screamers’ time is now. Here’s your chance to catch up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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