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.