The new wave laps on the terminal beach

(by Jon Savage, Melody Maker, 1-6-1979)

IT'S a truism to say that you have to decide which is real - you or Los Angeles - but like most truisms, it has its roots in truth. So once you've decided but quick - as most everyone does - that YOU are real, then obviously Los Angeles isn't.

   Just sit back in your car and cackle at the human menagerie littering the streets and lining the or cackling back at YOU from their cars.

   Naturally this near-total dissociation from your environment, aided and abetted by the fact that fantasy have been for so long intertwined (in Hollywood especially.) that nobody knows what's what and who gives a damn anyway. Most often a total and appalling negation on your part of any responsibility for your actions to other people and the environment itself. Kill City, where the debris meets the sea: the psychic and physical garbage is everywhere.

   All this Sodom and Gomorrah stuff is all very refreshing after dull old Europe where you can rarely escape the sense of responsibility (there, that word again!) to yourself and others at large, through living in a closely-knit society where every action somehow matters, but it's . . . disturbing.

   Oh yes, the sun is fine and the avocados are plentiful and the fruit is huge and everyone looks beautiful and sunkissed after the pallor of Northern Europe, but . . . well, the Hollywood sign from where I'm staying reads "OD" in its terminal stages of collapse and who am I to demur?

   Beneath the overripe surface there's this . . . underswell. The City of the Angels is very strange and very beautiful - very "American" in its endless suburbs, fantastic white Thirties modernist cream-cake buildings - and finally plain psychotic.

   In LA you can get anything you want (and that means anything): in this humid hothouse the sicko sensibilities so accurately dissected by Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon flower and bear strange, twisted fruit. Bringing in the old Manson/Beach Boys duality would be merely facile if not for the fact that no-one will talk about it, ever: indeed mentioning the subject at all is a crass breach of normally laissez-faire Angelino etiquette.

   The conclusion is the somewhere out there, in Beverly Hills, Silverlake, Santa Monica, Venice, it still goes on.

But we're not here to worry about that, so let's go up the hill to scenic Griffith Park observatory, to look at the lunar landscape. In early evening, under a blood-red moon, the city pulsates endlessly, massive and terrifying. Airstrip One.

   But Hollywood is strictly Media City, Film, records, television, video, and the innumerable service industries that grease the wheels of the entertainment monolith - restaurants, costumiers, technicians and engineers of every description, dealers, hustlers and on and on.

   The result of this extraordinary and enviable media access and concentration is mostly to spiral the town's solipsism and basic lunacy: when everything is media ("simulating reality" but in fact reinterpreting it and creating a dream in "reality's" guise), it's hard to work out even what real is. And who cares, guy?

   Swiveling a little to the right, you can see the Capitol Tower, its Fifties Skyline architecture making it one of the most stylish and recognizable buildings in the huge mass-media complex hex that makes up the Wonder of Hollywood. This is what most people think of as LA, when in fact downtown LA is several miles away, dull woods of steel and glass where nobody ever goes except to service the needs of one of the other two Angelino industries, finance. Bucks. The rest of the plentiful bucks supply comes from the other industry - oil.

   Often the participants fall prey to endemic occupational diseases: a glib facility, a tripping out on their own cleverness at being INSIDE the machine that churns the fantasies that eat millions up, an enduring contempt for the "audience" (hicks), and a flat refusal to see their actions in any kind of wider context or to even acknowledge that there might exist a wider context. I mean, man, "not my problem."

   In the extreme, most Angelinos are so TV-damaged anyway - that they're actively relishing the thought Of the Big Earthquake (astrologically scheduled for 1982) in the absolutely deffo expectation that it'll beat the movies hollow. Then they'll serialize it.

OK: after the short guided tour around various pertinent aspects of their assumed environment, we can at last get to the Screamers.

   Back on the top of Griffith Park, if you follow Hollywood Boulevard east-wards, crossing over the Hollywood Freeway, before Hollywood proper trails into Silverlake and the East LA barrio, you might be able to detect North Wilton Place.

   Screamers Tomata Du Plenty and Tommy Gear (pen names, it's safe to assume) live in the upper half of a detached building, rotting Porsches in the driveway. The area features lowish-rent accommodation and small movie production companies; the local papers insist on calling it the unfashionable side of Hollywood, but it's HOLLYWOOD all the same. The Screamers seem to take to it like ducks to water.

   It's difficult to know what exactly to make of the West Coast "punks" or whether, in the circumstances, it should even be given that name. (No.) It's very easy and tempting for English writers to dismiss it as a copy, a joke revealing more about their chauvinism and ignorance than anything else.

   Once you've been out there, you're forced to recognize, at least, that although some of the trappings are similar (and indeed on occasions that trappings are all that are there), the groups are working within an entirely different context, and are to be taken seriously, facing and trying to come to terms so they are with and entirely different set of problems. As ever, the similarity of language blinds you to the fact that you are on the other side of the Atlantic.

   Let's just say that with the exception of the Dils, transplanted to the more rigorous atmosphere of San Francisco, that the two premiere (in longevity, and competence) Angelino "new" bands are the Screamers and Weirdos.

   Not that this means very much in biz terms: although both groups live within walking distance (in Los Angeles, this means very close) of the heart of the "industry," as far as any attention they might have got, they might as well be on the other side of the moon. (The current state of the "art" is revealed when you switch on fab KMET: a constant diet of Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Crosby Stills and Nash - 1969 for ever.)

   Here the full nightmare of the hippie generation in control is laid out for all to see. When the majors can push losers like Van Halen and Foreigner and make millions, they're hardly going to take notice of some spiky-haired bunch with weird names worrying about stuff like "artistic control," making statements and generally out to threaten their raison-d'etre (if only on the basest fashion level), now are they?

   ABC say they HATE punk rock and who's to argue? Warners consider themselves badly burnt by the whole Sex Pistols episode, and all the local groups bitch about them "spoiling it for us." Stories fly around the circuit about high-level directives from the Prez of the United States to the Prezzies of record companies saying "No Punk Rock" and good ol' Linda Ronstadt hangs out with the ambiguous Jerry Brown.

All this madness is hard to conceive of over here, where the whole thing's been well wrapped up and packaged and sold successfully. The stubborn refusal of the Biz to recognize the new groups under their nose has had some interesting effects: some groups have obviously split up, disillusioned (no gold at the end of the rainbow), others pursue their development with greater determination.

   More in San Francisco than LA, the fact that groups have been kept out in the cold has strengthened the rebel (rather than the commercial) promise for their formation: benefits (for Striking Miners, against the anti- gay Proposition Six) are common. In LA, all these difficulties are compounded by the fact that what there a to react against is so diffuse.

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   It's difficult, actually, to get too upset on the groups' behalf, or at least too self-righteous. After all, sooner or later the companies will not only recognize that there's money be made here, but that they'll need new fodder for the existing machinery. Most of the bands will instantly accept the proffered contracts, and events will take their usual course: one set of consumer expectations and standards exchanged for another.

   It may take two or three years, though, and the Screamers just aren't prepared to wait that long. They're ambitious, talented and they want it all NOW. And they'd sell their grannies (if they have any left) to get it.

   Early September saw them up north in San Francisco, Oakland to be precise, spending a week at Target Video doing promotional videos. An example of the extraordinary media access out there: Target's rapidly expanding catalogue contains mostly bands nowhere signing record contracts.

   This is stage one of the Screamers' big gambit to got record-company action: stage two is to hit New York, where they sold out CBGB's just before Christmas. (Stage three is no doubt to visit England: much of the interview I conducted with them has me being interviewed about the UK).

   The morning is spent watching a live video of them at the Stardust in Los Angles - even on the small screen a clever, powerful, electric performance - and hearing them run through a comparatively new song, "122 Hours Of Fear."

So Tomata Du Plenty stands stock still, his hair vabour-rubbed UP, as the camera pans in. The music begins, slow and harsh: Gear plays an ARP Odyssey synth (only recently having discarded the book of words he used to have propped up so he could play the thing), Paul plays a Fender Rhodes electric organ (and was brought as an accomplished musician into the group to give it that extra musical gloss), and KK plays drums (occasionally they use synthetic percussion).

   And than Tomata whips around and (yes!) SCREAMS: "Be quiet or be killed!" The music breaks out in full flood - itchy, dramatic, discordant like old horror-movie scores . . . very strong.

   Tomata's strident vocals make more sense when combined with the visual input of his stage persona: extraordinary mobile, he-ll prowl the stage, a Victorian villain, within a split second falling to the ground and gibbering spastically, or just stare psychotically - adding up to a brilliant mime and pastiche or various stereotypical poses.

   The other visual foil is Gear. as both KK and Paul are busy playing their instruments and getting on with the business of making noise: he'll stand erect and rigid behind his ARP, oozing arrogance, jackknifing into violent movement. It's hardly pretty, but compelling all the same. And, in the astute combination of the right proportion of the familiar and the novel, highly, saleable.

   The Screamers hope so. They're really quite concerned about that particular aspect. In person, they're articulate, sharp as razors, witty, and charming when they want to be. Realizing the importance of the English Interview, they're on their best behaviour throughout.

   Without entertaining any illusions about the mechanics of the situation, I still like them a lot: these guys, though, remind me of Devo in the respect that they want REAL BAD to become stars, and no doubt they'll make it. (But look what happened to Devo.) At least they don't get their motives confused.

   The interaction is interesting enough: in the interview most Of the talking is done by Gear and KK, who'll rush in with lightening interjections wisecracks; Tomata is light and frothy, charming - his voice hoarse from constant reruns for the camera Paul is silent: he speaks twice and both times Gear jumps on him instantly.

   Gear is the boss, the Director. His are the authoritative statements. Moody, ferociously bright and highly ambitious, he is most obviously at the heart of the screamers.
A few quick details: Tomata & Gear moved from Seattle with the transcendently named Tupperwares, chopped and changed and formed the Screamers with KK and David Braun (now involved with local label Dangerhouse) in February 1977. They recorded a demo tape of five songs - including the classic 'Peer Pressure" - in a bedroom April 1977, and played live for the first time in May of that year.

   Presumably the idea of doing those videos is to present some sort Of attractive, readily-comprehensible package to the record companies? It seems a good idea because what seems to be happening here is like a two-year gap - between you and the record companies - and I don't think most groups can afford to wait that long...

   Gear: "I don't really think that any bands that are at the same kind of punky level like the English bands are going to be absorbed by the big companies. The bands that have been absorbed have had to take what they're doing and put it in another language. In England, I don't think they had to translate it like that. That's why we're doing this whole video thing, putting it into a record company in a language that they'll understand and maybe relate to . . . 'meaningfully' . . . Did you feel it was coming across as sterile, visually, or do you think . . .'

   It is a cold medium, it's very strange. There's a process which makes it into a dream, crystallizes it into a very powerful image.

Gear: "I think that one of the things that is going to be successful in our video is that we can inject a certain sense of humor in them. We talked about this today; I want in a song, to do it like the Monkees - instead of playing instruments and being very cliché, to do something that might be related to the song in a real off-hand way. That would take a lot of planning, but I think that'd be very powerful. 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."

   You must have already had some offers from record companies?

   Gear: "Yes many offers for off-beat kind of things, we don't feel compelled . . . I mean, why should we? 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. It's the power of the record that's meaningful, not the piece of plastic."

   Tomata (dreamily): "Oh, but I do like the packaging. I'd love to have just packaging."

  Gear: "One guy approached us for a deal . . . he wanted to do, not a record initially, but first do the cover only and just give the cover away as promo without any record in it."

   Tomata: "Not give it away - he wanted to fly over the beaches and drop hundreds of thousands of . . . "

   Gear: "And then he wanted us to record the album after that live in a supermarket and then sell it, market it like K-Tel, only ads on TV - don't waste a dime on anything but TV."

   Tomata: "Wait now. Why didn't we go with him?"

   Gear: "Because he was the drummer in Canned Heat . . ."

   KK: "But advertising really works! Why are they selling all the shat that's in the shops? Because people obviously believe they NEED it, for some odd reason."

   Gear: "People don't NEED the Screamers. They don't need our records - our music."

   Tomata (again, dreamily): "I think advertising is more exciting than the product most of the time."

   Gear: "Last night we all went out dressed as weekend hippies - Tomata was wearing a huge sign that said 'Kill for peace' - nobody thought we were funny. They all looked at us - like 'You guys punk?' We were obviously ridiculous - paisley shirts and this huge peace sign . . ."

   What did you think (erk) punk means in LA?
   Tomata: "It's like a summer sensation that's lasted several months. It's like a trend."

  KK: "it was a good point. For some reason people have to have reason to tag onto, and make a group, and play like this. Thousands of musicians that are competent in Los Angeles, they're totally useless because they're just like . . . carpenters, you can find them and throw them away, they're interchangeable. They're not imagination forces. But all of a sudden musicians started coming together and making bands because there was some new interest or new heading . . ."

   Gear: "There was no real niche, like the Tupperwares for example, there was no real niche for them to fit in; and then suddenly there was a new niche."

   KK: "It's actually growing in Los Angeles. We see at least a 50 per cent turnover in our audiences. Some of the people that were faceless come back and they have a new assumed identity. We get secretaries, young executive types . . ."

   What sort of audiences do you want? The maximum possible?

   All agree immediately.

   KK: "We're aware that the record-buying public gets their standards at a certain age, where they give us and they stop looking for something new and just go with things that they know will entertain them. Even if the artist gets terrible, they'll still sell to those people. We realize you have to get hold of the audience before they get to that point. Whey they get to that point, they'll trust you - a blind faith that just keeps going on and on."

What do you think you're expressing, or trying to do?

   Gear: "What we're doing is mood music in a way - in that we want to affect the audience's feelings in some way. We want to make people feel dancy and happy as well as maybe a bit depressed or provoked . . . I think being manipulated in their moods is what people crave."

   Near the end of the interview, Tomata admits to being fascinated by the Bay City Rollers market. I have this image of them doing it brilliantly: Tomata up front softening all the chicklets up, scaring them quite a bit but not too much, confusing them . . . KK meanwhile flexes his biceps behind the drums, blond hair bobbing . . . Paul stands behind his organ, looking about to burst into tears, so young and cute, they want to mother him . . . and Gear, stiff behind his ARP, doesn't move hardly, at all, and then suddenly GLARES at them, KILLS them dead with his eyes, they dissolve in orgasms on the hard seats . . .

"I get so sick of the fashion and the fascism / Makes me crazy - wanna try a little smashism" - from Gear's "Privilege"- style solo extravaganza: "If I Can't Have What I Want, I Don't Want Anything."

 The Screamers seem so Angeleno in their brilliant facility, media sophistication and solipsistic veneer.

  I'm not sure that they're quite a cynical, manipulative or in control and they'd like to seem: under the veneer, cracks of real intelligence and idealism appear. But not so strongly as to prevent them from being the first out of the 1977 crop of LA bands to reap considerable commercial and critical success, and no doubt Go Hollywood.

   At the present, the Screamers have everything going for them: strong, catchy (or "saleable") material, an electric stage act, strong visual image and identity, and a loyal audience. But I'm not sure either, whether they're quite as clever as they think they are in relation to the record companies that they're courting, or the dynamics of the Record Biz Machine.

   There are lights a great deal harsher than the Kleig lights they're used to, and I hope they don't founder on the rock of their own ambition.