tomata du plenty: primal screamers

by Art Chantry (

PUNK officially hit the northwest about 1976. the first punk club in seattle (that lasted more than one night) opened in 1978. that club was named after the name above the doorway – the John L. Bird Co., which was an old brick warehouse building just off first and seneca in downtown seattle. it was called “The Bird”.

on opening night at the bird, the seattle police department came in swinging batons and breaking heads. people i know got broken arms. what did they do to piss off the cops? nothing. they were just punks. that was enough. if you were a punk walking down the street, people in passing cars would throw things at you. if you didn’t get the pulp beaten out of you by some heavy metal jock, it was a good night. later, when a band called “the enemy” released their first single (called “trendy violence), they used the sound of their lead singer, suzy grant, get her arm broken by the SPD that opening night as the lead in. good times, good times….

AC:i've always been really impressed with how quickly punk emerged. it's almost like it took over the world in 6 short months.

the posters that were created for the bird were by a guy name “franko” (real name, frank edie). they were spectacular images. those posters changed my life forever. seeing Bird posters on the walls simultaneously sent me on the path i still travel today. great stuff. but, that’s not what i’m here to talk about. maybe later, i’ll show you frank’s work. but not now.

i’m here to talk about gary panter. and tomata du plenty. and the screamers. and the tupperwares. and ze whiz kids. and what happened in the late 70′s. it’s how punk cracked open on the west coast with a primal scream. on a telephone pole.

tomata du plenty is one of those lost geniuses, a prime operator, a ‘great man’ of history. sounds presumptuous, but i think it’s true. he was a member of the cockettes and showed up in seattle with motley band of co-horts. they called themselves Ze Whiz Kidz. they lived communally. maybe gay, maybe straight, “whatsit too ya, motherfrucker?!?”

ze whiz kidz were essentially a drag theater troop who dressed in classic outrageous costuming, pre glam, pre punk, pre liberation -24/7 they were the real deal. walking down the street with tomata du plenty or gorilla rose or palm springs or rio de janeiro or cha cha samoa or melba toast was (i’ll bet) a little like walking into a war zone. i sometimes try to imagine what it must have been like, the crap that must have been hurled at those people. but, they were extremely tough. frankly, the toughest, most invulnerable people i have ever met have been drag queens. they’re tough as nails. never fuck with a drag queen, they will take you apart. just the facts, jack.

ze whiz kidz wrote, produced and performed up to 4 (FOUR!) entire plays a day at various cheezy bars and underground clubs (like the double header and shelley’s leg). they made their own music and their own costumes, their own promotions – everything. and they’d always start from scratch on every performance, i’m told. basically, it was pure trash camp, but it was inventive and improv and fun.

one of the things they also did was make their own posters. strangely, as i’ve tripped across and attempted to study the history of classic punk posters, i seem to have found a source point. tomata and gorilla and others seem to have made the first classic scratchy DIY clip and paste punk rock posters. no joke. i know this will be met with extremely vocal derision, but they were actually doing these incredible looking things – looking exactly like jamie reid’s sex pistols graphics – only half a decade earlier. the earliest one i’ve found actually dates back to 1972, but i’ve been told they had been doing these posters for a very long time before that. it’s sort of amazing to see this stuff. did tomata du plenty start classic punk DIY graphix? i dunno, but it’s earliest i’ve ever found (and i’ve looked really hard).

as ze whiz kidz drifted further and further into music, they eventually became a rock band and splintered into a dozen other bands (including punk bands like the lewd and even heavy metal bands). tomata and gorilla headed to new york. there they hooked up with all the hip crowds. they formed a cabaret act and actually got prominent press. they worked with bette midler & the harlettes in the continental baths. they became friends with the stilettos (later morphed into blondie). the

t up with bowie and alice cooper. they hung out at the kitchen and hooked up with the early nydolls (legend has it that tomata costumed and named them). they briefly became hooked up with the warhol entourage. in the book, “this ain’t no disco” (a history of early ny punk), they were hanging out in cbgb’s in the earliest days, the very very very beginning, befriending the ramones, suicide and others. they were everywhere and they were involved.

by the time they came back to the west coast, they wore leather jackets and sported brian jones haircuts and played iggy tunes (as well as their own tunes left over from ze whiz kidz old stuff) they christened themselves ‘the tupperwares’ (gorilla had left for LA by this time). they actually set up the very first classic “punk rock” shows in seattle – a full year before the sex pistols very first performance. that’s how early this was. tomata brought punk to seattle.

they started a scene that even included early ‘zines and fashion. but, seattle was too sleepy to hold them and the band soon moved to los angeles (leaving behind the seeds that became the “seattle grunge scene”) and renamed themselves “the screamers”. there they became one of the very first prominent punk rock bands in the west coast. whenever there was a an article in the paper or tv spot on the news, they’d run an image of the spectacular looking tomata. i mean, by this time, he was already a seasoned pro.

the screamers only played synthesizers (and screamed, of course). it was as much performance art as it was music. early punk was much more experimental than it later became, acts like the screamers could become a major band. i doubt that they would be accepted today. but that’s ok. there was never anything like them ever before, nor will there ever be anything like them again. many infamous punks cite the seeing the screamers as THE reason they became punks in the first place. many still cite the screamers as maybe the greatest punk band ever (jello biafra is one.)

the screamers are today known as one of the truly great monumental primordial lost punk bands. they never recorded anything. the best stuff that remains are some crude demo tapes (that have been released endlessly on bootlegs and, later, professional labels). apparently, true to their convictions, they were (actually!) “holding out for video.” they were that weird and that ahead of the game.

this image of tomata is by the very young fledgling beginner designer/cartoonist/illust​rator/artist named gary panter. he was living in los angeles at the time (after growing up in oklahoma and before moving to new york), married to a woman (nicole) who managed a number of these early crazy bands in los angeles punk. when he was asked to create a poster image for this band, he took it on as ‘just another gig’. he had seen them perform and simply drew his impression of tomata. the results were iconic. it’s one of the greatest images in the history of DIY punk style. a virtual punk branding mark, endlessly copied and repeated everywhere across the world. if punk every had a “happy face” this was it.

to understand the impact of this image, try to imagine the mid-70′s. disco was king. the top of the charts were the carpenters and the eagles and “lobo” singing ‘me and you and and a dog named ‘boo”. long hair. bell bottoms, ecofreaks, jesus freaks. the theaters still had saturday night fever and star wars playing in them. ford was president and we were all nodding off on quaaludes and cheap red wine. zzzzzz……

suddenly (and i mean SUDDENLY), overnight, all up and down the west coast of the united states – WHAM!, this BIG SCREAMING FACE was assaulting you. as you drove, as you walked, everywhere you turned – there was tomata du plenty SCREAMING angrily straight at YOU, ya jerk! it was like like the rudest awakening imaginable, like, out of the blue, being punched in the face by a street crazy. it really hard to try to imagine how powerful this image was back then. it was an urban assault that terrified the west.

from that point on, there was fear of punk rock. granted, we had all heard about those dirty crazy nasty kids in new york (but, weren’t ALL people from new york like that anyway?) we’d read about the wild men in london with safety pins in their faces fighting cops with beer bottles (but that was like the “third world” right? so far away?). but, here it was, this INFECTION actually jumping into our faces in our own back streets! it was beyond fear – it was pure dread.

from that point on, LA, the west coast, america was never quite the same. this was the battle colors of the revolution (what revolution?) very bad craziness…

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One Response to tomata du plenty: primal screamers

  1. mitch lindborg says:

    thanks for the update. I saw ze whiz kidz with alice cooper at the paramount theatre. it was wild! I moved to l.a. in the 80s, but never saw the screamers, just the graphic by panter. still have it and have made stickers with it on my copier. iconic!

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