LOCAL, UNSIGNED BANDS
The L.A. Rock Scene:
A Dramatic Resurgence
BY ROBERT HILBURN
Times Pop Music Critic
The beat on the local rock scene continues to get stronger.
The lamppost outside the Roxy last weekend was so covered with makeshift posters advertising new groups that a guy had to stand on a ladder to find room for his own band's circular.
The various paper sheets promoted upcoming dates at nearly a dozen clubs, including the Whisky, the Starwood, Troubadour, Madame Wong's, the Cuckoo's Nest, Hong Kong Cafe, Gazzarri's, the Bla-Bla and the Sweetwater.
The thing these clubs have in common is that they all concentrate on the local, unsigned bands that have contributed to the most dramatic rock 'n' roll resurgence in Los Angeles in more than a decade.
Most Telling Sign
But the most telling sign of the local upswing was the name on the Roxy Marquee: THE SCREAMERS!
Seventeen months ago, the Screamers was just one of a dozen bands that performed at a two-day benefit concert at the Elks building near MacArthur Park.
The bands were at the Elks building because other industry showcases around town were closed to them. Most of the clubs that now spotlightthe groups were either not open then or featured other types of entertainment (Madame Wong's specialized then in Polynesian revues).
The Starwood did try new groups on slow nights, but the Roxy booked only bands that had record company support. The reason was simple: there wasn't enough audience for the new bands. Without record company subsidies, the Roxy would lose money on an engagement.
Explains David Forrest, who books acts at the Whisky now for owner Elmer Valentine:
"The rock audience was satisfied in those days with the veteran, big-name groups. They weren't looking for anything new. We booked Devo and Mink DeVille into the Santa Monica Civic on New Year's Eve of 1977 and we only did two-thirds of a house. We had 1,000 empty seats.
"But that's all changed. People are into new things now. The've seen people like Elvis Costello and the Police and Joe Jackson and they want more. Devo came back to the Santa Monica Civic a few weeks ago and what happens? They sold out two
"That's why all these clubs have opened. There is an audience for bands. The record companies sense this and they have been signing the groups, which in turn brings other bands here from around the country. L.A. is now a nurturing place."
The Whisky has gone form experimenting with one or two unsigned groups a week to the eight it'll feature this week.
But the most dramatic breakthrough for the local bands was the Screamer's three-day engagement at the Roxy. It was the first time one of the unsigned bands was headlined that the city's most important pop club.
Because of the Screamers' veteran status on the scene, it was only fitting that Elmer Valentine, who books and co-owns the Roxy, slipped the four-piece into his schedule first.
"We had some open dates and the Screamers did well at the Whisky so we thought we'd give them a chance here," he said before Friday night's show.
"We won't sell out tonight but I think a lot of that is bacause we have tables and chairs in front of the stage. The Screamers audience likes to pogo (the frantic, up and down dance/movement associated with the British punk scene). Next time we bring one of these new bands in we'll probably take out the chairs so they can dance."
The Screamers, whose recent Whisky performance was reviewed at length in these pages by Kristine McKenna, respended to the Roxy challenge Friday night with one the most powerful shows I've seen this year.
Lead singer Tomata du Plenty's hair was greased to stand straight up, giving him the look of a man who had just stuck his finger into an electric socket. His performance reflected the nervous, relentless anxiety of someone whose troubles are even deeper.
Du Plenty, who once spoke of his concert manner as a "human illustration of struggle, anxiety and fear," came on stage wearing a tuxedo, thus giving the outward appearance of someone who has tried successfully to conform to society's expectations.
But certain, unnamed forces won't let him be. By the end of the 40-minute set, du Plenty has gone through the same disintegration of the human will that we associate with such books as "1984." Eventually, the tuxedo jacket, shirt and tie are ripped off, leaving him symbolically naked in his attempt to maintain some dignity and individuality. As if suddenly put in another man's body, he asks in horror: "Who am I?"
While du Plenty's extraordinary power on stage was evident back in the Elks building days, the question surrounding this band was how well the music would develop. The answer Friday was positive. The group-a foursome joined for this engagement by a second (female) singer and two violinists-is one of the rare rock outfitsthat operates without either guitar or bass.
For all the arty elements of its live shows, the Screamers have some catchy, compact songs. Mainly, however, the group's synthesizer/keyboard emphasis (supplied by Tommy Gear and Sidekick Paul Roesaler) makes its music reminiscent of the moody backdrops of a band like Kraftwerk. Despite its energy, the Screamers' instrumental sound is filled with the subtle emotional shifts of a motion picture score as it highlights the commentary in du Plenty's aggressive vocals and movements. It's a challenging, absorbing approach.
The remarkable thing was that another unsigned band matched the Screamers' impact a few hours later. The Motels, who headlined Friday and Saturday at the Whisky, are no longer truly an unsigned band. The outfit has been picked off by Capitol and its first LP is due in September.
But the Motels has been one of the most active and appealing groups on the club scene for months and, thus, part of L.A.'s growing Basin Brigade.
While not as extreme as the rock-as-shock approach of the Screamers, the Motels also has an exceptionally charismatic lead singer in Martha Davis and explores delicate emotional features, most of them tied to romance.
Because of the Motels' songs deal with a more specific, universal concern than the Screamers' more ambitious stance, the Motels reach out on a more personal as opposed to theorectical level.
Davis is such an absorbing figure on stage that it's easy to lose track of the rest of the music and just concentrate on her. More electric than Blondie's Debbie Harry and more consistent that Patti Smith, Davis could become one of the most influential female performers in rock. She mixes a disarming accessibility with haunting intrigue.
At the start of Friday's late show, she sang in an alternately pouting and purring manner similar to many new-wave vocalists. But her style was free of the Smith-like yelps and shrieks that many female singers have adopted recently.
As the set unfloded, Davis began reflecting visually and vocally some of the harrowing and erotic elements in the group's songs-and the effect was riveting. The band-featuring Fretts Ferrari: guitar, Marty Jourard: keyboards+sax, Michale Gonroe: guitar, and Brian Glascock: drums-delivers a taut, disciplined sound, leaving all the flash and dynamics to Davis. The Whisky engagement was the first one in town since the completion of the album, and it suggested the group is rounding into top shape for its first national tour.
Among those lured to the Motels' show with the Kats (a fast-improving, but still uneven group that deals in a lighter, schoolboy brand of pop-rock) was Graham Parker, whose "Squeezing Out Sparks" is one of the top rock LP's of 1979.
"I came Tuesday to see Code Blue (a local band recently signed by Warner Bros.) adn they were great. So, I thought I'd come back and see some other bands. It's great what's happening here-it's like what has been going on in England. There are bands everywhere."
Tom Werman, a record producer who works with best-sellers like Cheap Trick, also stopped by the Whiskey Friday. He wanted to see the Kats, who haven't been signed yet. He, too, was enthisiastic about the local rock resurgence.
"I've been so busy in the studio that I haven't had much chance to see the new bands," he said, standing amidst the crush of people at the Whisky entrance. "But it's real exciting to have all this interest in newcomers."
"The only problem," he added, with a smile, "is there is so much interest that you can't get in the club. I've been standing out here for 15 minutes now."