The Screamers were fronted by Tomata du Plenty, who was born David Harrigan near Coney Island, NY, in 1948. In the '60s, du Plenty moved to San Francisco, where in 1968 he became a member of the Cockettes, a gender-bending performance art troupe that combined high-camp hippie theatrics with boundary-straining gay and straight sexual humor. After the Cockettes broke up, du Plenty relocated to Seattle, WA, which in the '70s had a thriving underground theater scene. Du Plenty soon became a member of Ze Whiz Kidz, a performance group specializing in bizarre lip-sync routines. After the group broke up, du Plenty spent some time doing comedy performance in New York City, where in 1975 he and his partners scored a few gigs at a bar called CBGB. There, du Plenty saw a handful of new bands such as the Ramones and Blondie; upon retuning to Seattle, du Plenty hooked up with drag performer Melba Toast and formed a New Wave-ish rock band called the Tupperwares. (Legend has it the drummer for the Tupperwares was one Eldon Hoake, who would later become infamous as el Duce of smut metal titans the Mentors.)
Before long, du Plenty and Toast relocated to Los Angeles, where they threw themselves into the burgeoning punk rock scene, which had yet to fully bloom in L.A. Toast changed his name to Tommy Gear and along with du Plenty, formed the Screamers with K.K. Barrett and David Brown. The band's lineup immediately set them apart; Gear played an ARP Odyssey synthesizer and Brown a Fender Rhodes, both run through distortion boxes and amped up to a wailing volume. Barrett contributed furious minimalist drum patterns, while du Plenty's wildly theatrical performance style and ranting vocals certainly lived up to the band's name. On the basis of a demo tape and a set of photos, Slash, L.A.'s first punk fanzine, lionized the group and they played their first show at a loft party in early 1977 to approximately 500 people. The Screamers soon became the hottest band on the Los Angeles punk scene, alongside the Weirdos and the Germs, and the group's ambitious and striking live shows, which employed props, unusual lighting, and video screens, also won them a great deal more attention from the mainstream press than their peers. After a number of successful gigs at L.A.'s first punk venue, The Masque, the Screamers began getting regular bookings at the Whisky and the Roxy, the two most important rock clubs in town, and the group seemed poised on the verge of major success.
The Screamers, however, had some trouble holding on to a stable lineup; while du Plenty, Gear, and Barrett stayed in the group until the end, Brown was replaced by Jeff McGreggor in late 1977 and Paul Roessler took over for McGreggor in mid-1978. More importantly, the group didn't release a record and no one seems sure about why. Some have suggested the Screamers were holding out for a big-money record deal, others have said major labels weren't sure if the group's appeal would
translate to vinyl, and many felt the band's highly visual live show demanded a medium that, in an era before VCR's could be found in every home and MTV was not even a gleam in some cable programmer's eye, simply didn't exist. (In fact, the only authorized release of Screamers material was a VHS video of a gig staged at the studio of the underground multi-media group Target Video). In addition, the band's massive popularity at home and in San Francisco gave them enough opportunities to play that they very rarely performed outside California, and beyond a pair of one-off New York dates and a short tour up and down the West Coast, the band remained, despite their influence, a strictly local phenomenon. In 1980, filmmaker Rene Daalder began working with the Screamers on a long-form video project called #Population One, but Daalder's vision did not always mesh well with that of the group and the members had already begun to tire of performing and creating new music. In 1981, with the first wave of Hollywood punk bands fading away and the suburban hardcore scene beginning to rear its head, the Screamers quietly disbanded. Tommy Gear dropped out of the music scene, K.K. Barrett became a production designer for motion pictures (his credits include #Being John Malkovich), and Tomata du Plenty became an artist, doing faux-naïve paintings that he often sold for 25 dollars, saying he preferred selling a thousand at that price to selling one piece for 25,000 dollars. Du Plenty died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2000. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
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