The Screamers

Jon Savage, “Jon Savage on Song: The Screamers – 122 Hours of Fear,” Guardian Music Blog 27 July 2010

Thanks to YouTube, this 70s synth-punk band who never released a record have finally found an audience

The clip begins with a frontal shot of a helicopter: the sound of its take-off bleeds into descending synthesiser notes. A caption comes up: “Screamers.” The second image to be seen is out of focus, a pink/brown blur against a sea green background. The ominous notes continue, with an abrasive synthesiser counter melody. Live drums come in, upping the tempo to manic punk.

The blur comes into focus: it’s the back of a spiky-haired head, jerking to the manic tempo then resting stock-still. The camera pans out while the music churns. Suddenly, it stops and the figure turns round: “Be quiet or be killed,” it screams, and you see the close up of a face contorted with fury and frustration. Ninety seconds in, the tension is broken and the song starts.

Taken from a headline in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner about the hijacking of Luftansa flight 181 in 1977, 122 Hours of Fear is sung from the point of view of a hostage; a similar theme to R.A.F by Brian Eno and Snatch. This was, after all, the era of the famous shoot-outs at Entebbe and Mogadishu, where the hi-jackings of an Air France and a Lufthansa flight respectively made global news.

The Screamers’ singer, Tomata du Plenty, takes you right into the chilling scenario. His background in performance art gives him total control: his sculpted, swept-up 50s psycho hustler face keeps firmly within the camera position, lapsing from anger into stillness in the space of seconds. He is simultaneously within and outside the song: this is not arch, but conversely even more involving.

At 2:15 minutes, the camera pans out further, and you see the band. KK Barrett, a blond-haired drummer in a striped T-shirt, provides the visceral element, while two synthesiser players — Paul Roessler and Tommy Gear — encompass the stage moves that lie between willingness to please and total hostility. The camera pans back as du Plenty jack-knifes on to one knee.

There are several seconds of silence: “You’d better shut up and listen,” du Plenty yells and the furore starts again. The rest of the clip is more like a standard live run-through, with the musicians bobbing along with the rhythm, but at the end the camera returns to the singer, who stares at the lens with a gaze that runs from gurning speed psychosis to a certain, pained vulnerability.

This remarkable promo was shot at San Francisco’s Target Video in September 1978. Although they were inner circle members of the Los Angeles punk scene, the Screamers — like all of their peers — did not have a record deal. In fact, they never would, despite a heavily defined image, the vaunting ambition that they exhibited in interviews and the acres of press they attracted.

The Screamers were at the absolute cutting-edge of their time and place. There were other synth-punk groups, such as Suicide, Throbbing Gristle and the Normal, but they were based in New York and Europe, and were moving towards making slightly smoother, electro-pop records. Their nearest equivalent were the fabulously abrasive Metal Urbain from Paris.

There were other reasons for the lack of music industry interest. The era of mass synth success, of Soft Cell and the Human League, was at least three years away, and the confrontational nature of 122 Hours of Fear, (If I Can’t Have What I Want, I Don’t Want) Anything and Punish Or Be Damned was not likely to get punk-hostile record companies flocking.

Plenty of other Californian punk groups, such as the Germs, the Avengers and the Dils, were in the same boat, and they released classic independent 45s. But when I talked to the Screamers right after the Target video shoot, Tommy Gear summarily dismissed the whole idea: “What’s having a record? If I had a couple of thousand I could go out and make a record, what’s that? It’s nothing.”

The interview was strange. Consumed with the power of his concepts, Gear was extremely sarcastic, before deciding to relent just enough to show flickers of charm. Tomata du Plenty was dreamy and light, prone to gnomic epithets such as: “I think advertising is more exciting than the product most of the time.” KK Barrett was the voice of reason; well, somebody had to be.

I didn’t mind the barrage too much, having gone through far worse with Devo. It was expected then. But I thought that they were getting a little over-determined, especially when Gear started talking about the group in terms of the Monkees: “One thing we might want to do is to project ourselves as a video-projection instead of doing a performance. So we can get the money without having to be there.”

The Screamers kept on talking, having these fabulous ideas, while the world passed them by. As the first wave of the Los Angeles punk scene disintegrated around them, they held out for that perfect deal that never came. They never released a record, and disappeared into yellowing fanzine pages, decaying handbills and old VHS copies, an example of what might have been.

Until the advent of YouTube, that is. Type “the Screamers” into the search option and you’ll find an array of live and studio footage, including 122 Hours of Fear. The total hits for the clips add up to more than 100,000, which is probably 95,000 people more than ever saw or heard the group throughout their career. In the 21st century, the Screamers have finally found their audience.

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The Silent Call of Conscience

Simon Critchley,”Being and Time, Part 7: Conscience,” The Guardian 20 July 2009

“…What gets said in the call of conscience? Heidegger is crystal clear: like Cordelia in King Lear, nothing is said. The call of conscience is silent. It contains no instructions or advice. In order to understand this, it is important to grasp that, for Heidegger, inauthentic life is characterised by chatter — for example, the ever-ambiguous hubbub of the blogosphere. Conscience calls Dasein back from this chatter silently. It has the character of what Heidegger calls “reticence” (Verschwiegenheit), which is the privileged mode of language in Heidegger. So, the call of conscience is a silent call that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myself….”

Inalienable Silence

Tom McCarthy, Calling All Agents (London: Vargas Organisation, 2003). 4-5.

“…And yet the Hearings left us with the impression that if (as Gil Scott Heron says) the Revolution will not be televised, then perhaps its nucleus will not be caught on audio tape or broadcast on the airwaves either — or if it will, then it will take the form of silence. For Heidegger, everything stems from the Unspoken: Being calls us, but it does so ‘in the uncanny mode of keeping silent.’ Burroughs’s revolutionary drive extends to a transformation of language that will help cast off the ‘IS’ of identity: this language, he tells us, will be a hieroglyphic one that ‘will give one the option of silence.’ Hollings, discussing Burroughs in an article, writes: ‘Recorded silence only becomes a political act once it is played back.’ There are echoes of Cégeste’s first message here. Hollings was a contributor to Violent Silence (a book about Bataille), a collaborator with John Cage and at the time of the Hearings was conducting research into the erased passages in Nixon’s Watergate tapes. What did he mean ‘recorded silence only becomes a political act once it is played back,’ we asked him. ‘Playing a blank tape,’ he told us, ‘breaking the seal on something and sticking it in a machine and listening to it, is an act of refusal.’ ‘So there is a kind of inalienable silence that is encrypted somehow?’ Anthony Auerbach asked; ‘And this potentially contains the revolutionary moment?’ ‘Exactly so,’ said Hollings. This is the violent silence of Shakespeare’s Cordelia, who tells her father ‘Nothing’ — a single word which leads to general annihilation, wars and madness; or of Stephen Daedalus, self-styled ‘Cordoglio’ who, as he brings about ‘the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame,’ says ‘Nothing!’ ‘Maybe,’ I suggested, ‘our radio project should be a quest for that silence’ — a suggestion to which Hollings answered, in what turned out to be the Hearings’ final exchange: ‘I would strongly recommend it.’…”

On p. 12, McCarthy mentions Burroughs’s “putative hushed-up language”.

On p. 16: “This silent word is so charged and so seductive, Abraham and Torok conclude [in Cryptonomy: the Wolf Man’s Magic Word], that it and it alone becomes the object of the Wolf Man’s love. To keep it safe he buries it inside the crypt ‘like a chrysalis in its cocoon’ and carries it around for all his life, showing and hiding it, saying it without saying it, ‘repeating tirelessly to one and all, especially to his analyst: ‘Here is nothing, hold it tight’.”

“‘Poetry,’ in the words of Auden, ‘makes nothing happen’ — an active construct in which ‘nothing’ designates an event, perhaps even a momentous one. In looking into the abyssal ground, reading its source code and transmitting this nothing outwards, maybe we will find that our culture also [like Freud’s Wolf Man] has a secret, silent word.”

All the Latest

The summer 2010 issue of the brilliant Nude Magazine (issue 16) is out now, and it contains an article by yours truly about Jacno, the founder of the Stinky Toys who went on to become a pioneer of French electropop:

“A look back at the too short life of Denis Quillard (aka Jacno), the artistocratic pop dandy, former Stinky Toy and pioneer of French electronic music.”

Fiction Fatigue

An extract from Robert Collins’s interview with Tom McCarthy:

Robert Collins, “The Novel: Rewound and Remixed,” The Sunday Times 4 July 2010

Less than a century ago, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf took the 19th-century realist novel and forged it into the blinding experimental thunderbolt of high modernism. Ninety years later, with more novels being published than ever, and most of them uniformly aiming for the same realist goal, it’s as if Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and Mrs Dalloway had never happened. Where did the zeal for unfettered innovation go? Even in the brilliantly able hands of David Mitchell, Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan, the novel has regressed almost completely to its realist origins. With commercial expectations in publishing more desperate and unforgiving than ever, the room for experimentation has shrunk to virtually nil.

A recent book, Reality Hunger, by the American author David Shields, has generated febrile literary chatter about the novel’s future. Shields argues that the form, tied to phoney invention and creaky artifice, is no longer a viable medium for the tastes of the hyperconnected age, with its urge towards hybridisation and cross-pollination. Nonfiction — memoir, the lyric essay, rap, all freed from fiction’s dusty strictures — is where it’s at.

You can see novelists showing chronic signs of fiction fatigue. The twice Booker-winner and Nobel laureate JM Coetzee has strayed ever deeper into autobiography in his novels, and has rallied to Shields’s cry: “I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings.” He was joined by Smith, who recently swore off writing another novel and, “out of exactly the kind of novel-nausea Shields describes”, decided to produce a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. “Novels,” she writes, “are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing — especially if you happen to have written one.”

Novelists, catching the mood of despair, are falling like flies, turning to what now appears as the verdant, promising land of nonfiction. This year alone, Chinua Achebe, Jonathan Safran Foer, Siri Hustvedt and Rupert Thomson have published nonfiction debuts. There are, of course, fiction writers of astounding virtuosity out there, such as Mitchell, McEwan or Hilary Mantel. But these novelists are, it is no disparagement to say, going through the motions. Where’s the novelty, the newness, that the novel promised in Joyce and Woolf’s hands? The contemporary novel’s not dead. It’s sleepwalking.

Then along comes Tom McCarthy. Forty-one, and born in London, McCarthy has stood until recently at the outer edges of the literary world. With his third novel, C, a supercharged, fizzingly written Bildungsroman about a morphine-addicted radio operator in the early decades of the 20th century, he is arguably about to take his place at its centre. …