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Somewhere Between Rammstein and Twiggy

Photo by Eric Blum

From 1977 till their demise in 1981, the Screamers were the biggest attraction on the late-’70s L.A. club circuit. As early as February 1978, their sound was described by journalist Kristine McKenna as “techno-punk,” and the band have since been feted as heroes of both techno and industrial music. Their logo — Gary Panter’s hair-raising screaming-skull caricature of singer Tomata du Plenty — is essential iconography of the pre-digital Xerox Revolution. At their peak, they were able to sell out three and four consecutive nights at the Masque, the Whisky or the Roxy, two shows per night. If any band did half that volume in ticket sales nowadays, there would be a major- label bidding war, but for reasons discussed below by many of the players, the Screamers never released any recordings.

Cast of Characters:

Trudie Arguelles: member of Plunger Sisters, mother of three, married to K.K.

K.K. Barrett: Screamers drummer, now production designer on movies

Gerry Casale: Devo guitarist and keyboardist

Rene Daalder: filmmaker, screenwriter

Tomata du Plenty: Screamers vocalist, artist, died in 2000

Tommy Gear: Screamers songwriter, keyboardist, now in New York editing a photo book

Fayette Hauser: artist friend of Tomata, now a wardrobe stylist

Penelope Houston: former Avengers singer, now a solo artist living in Oakland

Jenny Lens: photographer

Gary Panter: artist, now living in Brooklyn

Kid Congo Powers: ran Screamers’ fan club, now professional musician

Paul Roessler: Screamers keyboardist, now a painter and solo artist

Andy Seven: Arthur J & the Goldcups saxman, now works for the City of L.A.

Phil S. Teen (Phil Miller): friend of band, now a fisherman

Geza X: band soundman, now a record producer

Screamers logo by Gary Panter

PHIL S. TEEN (A.K.A. PHIL MILLER): The Screamers began life in Seattle as the Tupperwares with Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear and Rio de Janeiro all fronting the band with a 15-year-old drummer named Eldon Hoake, who’d go on to notoriety as El Duce of the Mentors, the X-rated king of porno metal.

FAYETTE HAUSER: After a spell with the Cockettes Troupe in San Francisco, a bunch John Waters called “the first drag queens to make transvestism and transsexuality hip on the street,” Tomata became a wheel in an early-’70s Seattle-based cabaret act known as Ze Whiz Kids who performed regular gigs at the Exotic Paradise Room in the basement of the Smith Tower in Seattle.

PENELOPE HOUSTON: In Seattle I was hanging out with the Screamers when they were the Tupperwares. It was a tiny, just-forming scene. Guys with skirts and glitter eye makeup. Kind of a post-glam gay scene, but there were also these garage rock bands forming around the same time, and the two scenes kind of converged. It was performance art, theater and music all rolled into one . . . and they lived it as well.

TOMATA DU PLENTY: I wound up in Seattle after I left New York in 1975. And I got involved in the Tupperwares. It was a lark. Once we became the Screamers, Tommy said, “Let’s go to L.A. and see how far we can take this.”

TOMMY GEAR: It wasn’t enough to stay in Seattle to do these quirky performances. We wanted to challenge ourselves — take it a step further and see what happens somewhere else. We had nothing to lose.

PENELOPE HOUSTON: Tommy and Tomata relocated to L.A. without Rio, who wanted to stay in Seattle, and the make-over into the Screamers came together pretty quickly, as soon as they hooked David Brown and K.K. [Barrett] into it.

K.K. BARRETT: We were totally photo-op whores from the beginning. Before we’d even played, they ran this photo shoot of us in Slash. The magazine had a coming-out party, and we were invited to play at this storefront loft space. We’d been rehearsing pretty solidly for a few months, and so we were pretty tight. The place was packed. Everybody was drunk.

ANDY SEVEN: They came on, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard before. In 1977, outside of Kraftwerk and maybe Suicide, you never saw a band with no guitars, and this one had just two small keyboards and a drummer backing up a lead singer. This was radical, it was completely new to everybody.

K.K. BARRETT: That night the Screamers were kind of baptized, legitimized by the growing new punk scene-makers of Bowie club kids barely out of high school and the older, mid-to-late-20s art swingers from Venice.

GARY PANTER: When Tommy and Tomata entered a room, it was really electrifying. They just came in like exploding heads!

TOMATA DU PLENTY: I didn’t know how to sing. I just yelled.

K.K. BARRETT: The personal dynamic between Tommy and Tomata was good cop/bad cop. Tommy was the meanie to Tomata’s likable clown. It was this lighthearted thing and then this boot stomp at the same time, this pop sensibility and then this dramatic drill mentality. Tommy would write “Punish or Be Damned” and “Violent World” while Tomata would write “I’m Going Steady with Twiggy.” If it had been all Tomata’s thing, we would have been much too light and wimpy, and if it had been all Tommy’s thing, we would have been . . . Rammstein. We were right down the center between the two of them.

TRUDIE ARGUELLES: I was scared of Tommy. He was very stern. When you got to know him, when you were partying with him, he’d get real goofy and start ä dancing around and be much more faggy, and funny and laughing, then an hour later he’d freeze and go back into this teeth-gnashing Nazi pose where he just wanted to be in charge of everything.

K.K. BARRETT: Tommy and Tomata were at this show at the Whisky. I think it was Johnny Cougar in a jumpsuit or something. They were both wearing black wraparound sunglasses that old ladies wear in Miami Beach and their hair was spiked up. I decided I had to meet them. I said, “What are you doing?” and they said, “We’ve got this band.” But it wasn’t a band yet, they were kind of collecting people. David Brown — this genius abstract piano player from the Berklee College of Music who invented the core Screamers sound, the wonderfully corrupted timbre of a Fender Rhodes electric piano fed through a Big Muff distortion box — was already in. I told them I’d played in bands in Oklahoma. We exchanged phone numbers. Tommy and Tomata lived at 1845 Wilton, at Franklin, which got nicknamed the Wilton Hilton.

KID CONGO POWERS: I lived at the Wilton Hilton. I had a closet made into a room, and I used to do the Screamers’ fanzine newsletter on a manual typewriter. The Wilton Hilton was great. The interior was all black . . . they had parties all the time . . . they would listen to Nico all day, Kraftwerk and Neu! and Goblin. They knew all about Krautrock and gay underground art.

TOMMY GEAR: Popular music had suffered a tyranny of guitars. It would be like classical music if they were to feature one instrument alone. The synthesizer is a very versatile instrument, but it’s only ever used as a sound-effect device.

TOMATA DU PLENTY: It’s the whoopee cushion of music.

GERALD CASALE: Devo loved the Screamers. We thought the Screamers were fucking unbelievable. You see a band that you’re creatively and intellectually inspired by and envious of, and we were like “Why didn’t we think of it?” They were so way ahead of their time. It was almost as if what they were thinking about, what they were after was, like, “Firestarter” by Prodigy, but this was the summer of ’77. They were using rudimentary synths and sequencers but with punk energy and aggressive lyrics and theatrical staging with German expressionist lighting.

TOMATA DU PLENTY: I was so involved in the stage act. It was my only focus, the performance, it really was. I didn’t do very much of the business, and I have to give credit to Tommy Gear. He did most of that work. I was free of that responsibility so that I could devote all of my time to going out there and making a total fool of myself, which was actually a lot of hard work.

JENNY LENS: The Screamers were very theatrical, very fun . . . and they were visually ahead of everybody else — on and off stage. They threw the best parties, and always put on the best shows. The only problem was they didn’t make any records . . .

TOMMY GEAR: The Screamers’ greatest downfall was that we were easily bored.

GARY PANTER: I don’t remember if the Screamers asked me to do their logo or if it was me who asked them. Every once in a while I’ll see a version of it. There have been tattoos of it. ACT UP uses it as a giant banner . . . It’s like “Keep on Truckin’,” or the punk rock “happy face,” or the fish with feet . . . an image that just got away . . . and took on its own life.

K.K. BARRETT: Following a nine-month hiatus, the Screamers returned to the Whisky in May ’79 for six sold-out shows over three nights. We augmented the regular lineup, which now included Paul Roessler on keyboards, with two violinists and a backup singer named Sheila Edwards, sometimes known as Sheila Drusela.

PAUL ROESSLER: I was just a kid, a trained musician who’d had my head twisted by hanging around Darby Crash and the early Germs scene at Uni High. We’d hooked up with Rene Daalder, a guy who could raise money and talk them into doing stuff but was unable to create anything that had any impact. Rene played the members of the band against each other, and he finally just isolated Tomata from everybody, making Tomata the star of a terrible movie, Population One.

TOMATA DU PLENTY: It’s a story about the last person left on the planet after a nuclear holocaust.

RENE DAALDER: Tommy and Tomata were thinking about where to take their act next. They didn’t feel much like performing in the future. I had this strong conviction that music videos were going to be big in the near future. I had gotten even deeper involved with the punk scene, which among other things seemed highly cinematic. The Screamers had already solved one of the main problems of rock & roll movies, which invariably corrupt the raw energy of the musical talent by the inevitable stylization a fictional film imposes on them. The Screamers had already taken care of that stylization themselves.

K.K. BARRETT: We tried to make music videos before MTV. If we’d just stayed with the music, I think we would have been right on course, but getting stars in our eyes sunk the boat.

RENE DAALDER: We decided to build a studio to make music videos to replace the opening acts at club performances. We also planned to record music for the soundtrack to a low-budget musical movie. Tommy was accustomed to being a rather authoritarian and autocratic taskmaster. The Screamers were ultimately a much more important concept to him than they were to Tomata, who — even though we didn’t realize it at the time — had become kind of exhausted with the whole experience. All the screaming had been taxing his voice to the point that it became increasingly difficult to put out the inordinate amount of energy it took to project the raw energy everyone expected from his stage persona. [Offstage] he certainly didn’t carry an ounce of the same aggression he expressed onstage.

PAUL ROESSLER: They thought they’d never really be able to capture the experience of the Screamers just with recordings. They wanted to do film and video years before MTV. They hooked up with Rene, but in the process it broke up the group, after he tried to turn it into something that was no longer a rock band.

RENE DAALDER: We were assembling a sort of repertory company that would become the cast for the movie Mensch, which would take place in a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari– like German Expressionist setting. Musically it was going to be a reinterpretation of the original Screamers material. The cast would be the Screamers, Penelope Houston of the Avengers and many other stalwarts of the punk scene, as well as Beck’s grandfather, Fluxus artist Al Hansen.

GEZA X: Rene Daalder utterly destroyed the Screamers. He came in and filled their head with these notions. They already had a lot of problems with grandiosity, and how that band maintained equilibrium was a very delicate equation to begin with, where Tommy played leather bitch to Tomata’s puppet, and the two of them had worked really hard at creating this image. I was just their employee, their sound guy and roadie. I admired Tommy and Tomata for working so hard and becoming so successful, but Tommy was the ruler with an iron fist, and when he [ruled], things worked. That was the implicit agreement between Tommy and Tomata — they had this deal going, that was the way the band would work. When Rene came along, he gradually eroded Tommy’s control and first got Tomata into his orbit, and then Tommy also came under his spell based on his premise that they were gonna make rock videos before there were rock videos . . . he was gonna get them a “video record” deal, but you have to understand we’re talking nearly two years before MTV.

RENE DAALDER: I raised the money to build Rhapsody Studios on Melrose, a soundstage facility that included a state-of-the-art recording studio. It was a unique opportunity for everyone. Everybody could use the studio for whatever they wanted, but nobody ever booked a recording session. Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, the Blasters, Chris D.’s Flesh Eaters and others recorded there, but not the Screamers. It was not clear exactly where this lack of initiative came from, but it certainly was not for lack of encouragement on our part.

TRUDIE ARGUELLES: When the Screamers got together with Rene, they thought, “Maybe we’ll be movie stars as well.” And during the production of Population One, things started to break down between them. Tomata was the star, Tommy was doing the music, and K.K. was doing the art direction. Soon they realized this guy wanted things done his way, and then he wanted this, and then he wanted that, and suddenly it wasn’t the Screamers anymore.

RENE DAALDER: One of the reasons the Screamers didn’t do anything together was the fact that Tommy and Tomata had a falling out, the exact nature of which none of us ever figured out. Even though Tommy was trying to come up with new material, without his muse Tomata, very little came out of him.

K.K. BARRETT: Tommy left in the middle of filming Population One. At one point, there were only two of us left, me and Tomata. We did a show at the Roxy called “The Palace of Variety” . . . We were trying to use canned video, canned music and a script. It was the worst thing we ever did. The music was poor, the performance was poor, it was a complete technical failure. Nothing was in sync.

RENE DAALDER: The Palace of Variety was a combination of old material and recent songs, some of them featuring Sheila as Tomata’s female counterpart. Instead of an opening act there was a video show with highlights of the stuff we had done at Rhapsody. We played the Whisky and the Roxy, and Hurrah’s in New York. Some evenings were spectacular, on others things didn’t quite ignite. A few weeks before the first performance, Tomata worried that he wouldn’t have the energy to go through with the shows. His occasional lapses into exhaustion had definitely become more obvious by this time. Later on he told me and my wife, Bianca, that he was HIV positive.

GEZA X: When Rene became involved, the artistic vision of the band got derailed. Rene brought in an acoustic piano and all this high-falutin monkey bullshit. He had them playing to loops run off of a tape recorder — an extremely interesting idea, granted, kind of an early industrial techno twist to that — but it really wasn’t the Screamers anymore. The Screamers’ magic, when they rocked out with those Tinkertoy synths, slowly turned into this low-budget multimedia non-extravaganza that wasn’t really that good, and the band started withering behind it. I sometimes looked at myself as the only buffer zone to keeping some of it the way it was . . . I’ll lament for the rest of my life that I never got to record the definitive Screamers album during their prime. I have some tapes, but they’re almost unlistenable.

K.K. BARRETT: We wanted to do something new and we stuck our necks out, otherwise we were just another band. We were enamored with the potential of rock fame and film stardom at the same time, but Trudie knew right away it wasn’t spontaneous, it was corrupt, it was gold-digging.

TOMATA DU PLENTY: I could tell you all the stupid things we didn’t do. Devo offered us a tour, and for some stupid reason we turned it down! Robert Fripp asked me to sing on his album, and I had to turn that down . . . oh please! I mean, these are just things . . . I was not in my right mind . . . but I was working damn hard, so it’s not that I have regrets. People say, “Well, you should have done a record.” I don’t have regrets about it. Maybe a record will come out. I don’t own the music. Tommy Gear wrote the music. It’s up to him.

Adapted from We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk by Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz. © 2001 Published by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

On Thursday, December 6, at 7 p.m., at Book Soup, Brendan Mullen reads from the book, along with Keith Morris and Cherie Currie. And on Sunday, December 9, at the El Rey Theater, several bands and members of bands from the late-’70s, including the Screamers’ K.K. Barrett and Paul Roessler, perform at a benefit for Flipside fanzine and My Friend’s Place, a drop-in resource center for homeless youth. See Scoring the Clubs for details.