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While part of the Big Idea behind punk rock was to rewrite the rules of what a rock band could do, surprisingly few groups bothered to challenge the basic framework of the traditional rock band — most punk bands consisted of two guitars, bass, and drums, just like the majority of the acts they were supposed to render obsolete. One of the rare exceptions to this was the Screamers, who were among the most radical (and, surprisingly, also among the most popular) of the first wave of L.A. punk outfits. Refusing to bow to the hegemony of the guitar, the Screamers’ lineup consisted of two heavily distorted electronic keyboards (Tommy Gear on ARP synthesizer, and usually Paul Roessler on Fender Rhodes electric piano), a violently metronomic drummer (K.K. Barrett), and a howling maniac on lead vocals (Tomata du Plenty). While the absence of guitars certainly gave the band a sound all its own, even the most cursory listen to the music makes it clear this wasn’t synth pop or experimental art music — this was punk rock in all its ranting glory. By all accounts, the Screamers were one of the most popular bands on the Los Angeles scene between 1977 and 1980, where they could sell out most clubs for two- or three-night stands, and nearly every account of the early California punk movement testifies to their influence and importance.

However, beyond a handful of gigs in New York, they never played outside the West Coast and, for a variety of reasons, the band never put out a record. “In a Better World” is a gray-market collection (reportedly created with the participation of two former members of the band) that compiles a number of live performances and rare studio demos from the Screamers. If the fidelity isn’t terribly consistent, it’s at least adequate and sometimes quite good and, between the band’s wild, blaring sound, du Plenty’s remarkable stage banter, and the passionate energy of the songs — sometimes comical (“Magazine Love,” “I’ll Go Steady With Twiggy” ) and sometimes sinister (“122 Hours of Fear,” “I Wanna Hurt” ) — this set finally offers hard evidence that the band’s legend had a very real basis in fact. Just as California punk was generally faster, wilder, and less arty than its New York counterpart, the Screamers were the L.A. scene’s relative corollary to Suicide, and “In a Better World” makes clear they were just as smart, just as innovative, and just as gifted as that fine band. Until the day that a fully authorized Screamers anthology comes along, this set will fill the void quite nicely.

-Mark Deming,

The Screamers-IN A BETTER WORLD (2001 compilation)
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