Agony Shorthand

Monday, April 12, 2004
SCREAMERS : “MASQUE 1978” / WEIRDOS : “REHEARSAL/DEMOS 1977” CD…..I’ve got a friend who shares my inextinguishable obsession with Late 1970s Los Angeles punk rock, and the fountain of musical genius that followed it in that locale in the early 80s. As an LA resident and music accumulator of some renown, he trolls the weekend record swaps in hopes of building a definitive archive of the finest recordings scraped together in that hallowed era, lately with a great deal of success. It appears that LA punk hit the bootlegger’s radar in a big way the past couple years. Maybe it’s the GERMS’ recent renown (which includes an upcoming Hollywood feature film), perhaps the handful of books published on the era, or even that Rodney Bigenheimer thing that opened on Friday nationwide. In any event, there’s some gold to be found at LA record swaps, my friend has learned. There’s a guy who apparently shows up every weekend with new unearthings of 1977-79 Masque habitues. Among the artifacts he’s unearthed from various public servants/ardent capitalists is this split CD from first-wave punk heroes THE SCREAMERS and THE WEIRDOS.

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally come around to the opinion that The Screamers just really weren’t all that, “y’know what I’m sayin’?”. I mean, if this was 1977 and we were all in Hollywood, I have no doubt that I’d be rushing out to each and every show, because Screamers performances not only appeared to be quite the spectacle and a true event for the scene to rally around, the band played years-ahead-of-the-time, pumped-up, loud synthesizer-based punk rock that snarled and sputtered in a terrifying (and often exhilarating) manner. Hell, they really invented their subtle flavoring of this sound, a formula not copied for many, many years (early Cabaret Voltaire and even their predecessors Chrome notwithstanding). But singer Tomata du Plenty annoys the hell out of me. What a pompous would-be poet; man, if I had to repeatedly listen to him shout out his own lyrics between songs and pronounce his words like a five-year-old (“fear” = “fee-yuh”), I’d probably be doing what I’m doing now – writing smarmy asides and hiding behind a barely-read fanzine. Anyway, for a while there The Screamers were the unheard holy grail – everyone knew who they were, but no one had ever heard them, since they left behind zero records. Then came a rare 45 on Seymour Glass’s Stomach Ache records with a few demos on it that was pretty good, and after a few years’ wait, the floodgates opened and all sorts of Screamers demos & live tapes came pouring out. It’s mostly strong, better on demo than live I think, with a few real aggro classics (“Mater Dolores” and “If I Can’t Have What I Want”), but at times dripping with pretentiousness, and overall a little boring after the continued pummeling. This one’s mostly live, but like so many of these things, it’s not exactly as advertised – there’s an OK studio version of “If I Can’t Have What I Want” tacked on after the so-so live set, and then some odd 20-second acoustic piece of a woman singing and dedicating the song “to Tomata” before the WEIRDOS stuff kicks in.

Ahh, the Weirdos. Now we’re talking. What a powerhouse. Listening to this helped me realize (again) that in their earliest incarnation, they were easily one of the top 10 punk rock bands ever, right up there with fellow Californians CRIME and THE BAGS, and often surpassed both for sheer wall-to-wall sonic roar. Unlike a Screamers’ performance, which appeared to be more akin to a lecture or an art opening, the Weirdos were all about fun, just letting it rip and maximizing audience enjoyment (and I’ve seen the videos to prove it, and saw the band in 1985 on their first of many reunion showcases). Some of this sounds like the same practice tapes that led to the posthumous bootleg “Ranting in a Rubber Room” double-7”, but I could be wrong – nevertheless, every song is gold. “Message from the Underworld”, “Neutron Bomb”, “Teenage”, “Do The Dance” and this incredible start-stop number (really fast and short) that I don’t know the name of (my research assistant believes it may be called “Scream Baby Scream”). The recordings are raw and unkempt, just the way you like ‘em, but mixed loud and in the red. Makes me almost want to violate my curmudgeonly maxim about reunion shows (e.g. “I don’t go to them anymore, hrrrmph”) – a maxim that’s loosening every year (2002 it was Mission of Burma, and in a few weeks, The Urinals supporting The Fall!). Then I remember that these sounds were recorded 27 years ago, and the center begins to hold once more.