Driving home late Wednesday night through Hollywood, my car got stopped by police and bodyguards outside of Amoeba Music, the greatest store on planet Earth. There was, to put it mildly, a melee and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Did someone have an early release iPhone? Maybe it was Paris Hilton, post-Larry King Live? All I could gather was screaming, flashes, cell phones, exhortations of love, and hundreds of people on both sides of the Cahuenga Blvd. My car, in the left hand lane, was forced to stop to let a limo out from behind Amoeba. Whatever. I was in no hurry. All I could see through the windows was a hand wave to the crowd; well wishes and love being exchanged from crowd to celebrity, and back. A force feedback loop of emotions from admiration to adoration. It was like something out of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
I started thinking about the scream, and where it comes from. There is something so primal about it that we can all relate and vicariously thrill to the scream as it comes from a place we don’t normally inhabit or take part in within the structure of our normal day-to-day activities. (Possible exceptions: dealing with bad drivers and unruly kids.) From our infancy, to adolescence, to adulthood the scream represents different things. It starts off as communication, followed by rebellion, and finally back to communication, albeit in art form.
Rock music, to its eternal credit, has been a prime source for great screams almost since its inception with Little Richard (“Rip it Up,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” etc.) being the best early example of screaming in tune. This emotion, this simple raw release that was so new in music at the time, was a key reason the kids got hooked on the rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Teen frustrations over school, girls/boys, parents and general expectations weren’t new, they’d just never been expressed in quite the same way — in public, on the radio, and without any sense of shame. All those pent-up emotions suddenly could be taken out and given a dusting simply by letting go of one’s self, all in the space of a 2:35 single. New music, new beats, new instrumentation, and a real, primal scream embedded at a critical point to achieve maximum emotional effect.
The collision of teen angst and rock ‘n’ roll provides us with some of the best screams this side of a torture chamber, haunted house, or primal scream therapist’s office. (A movement from the ’70s where patients would find their inner pain and express it. Loudly. Google it.) Some great recorded screams have certainly stayed with me and, when appropriate, helped get me through the good times and the bad times. Part of the appeal, after all, is that shared emotion. It’s therapy on a budget.
It may be a bit like talking about great scenes within great movies, but here are some favorite screams from over the years. Highly personal, by no means comprehensive and in no particular order as they rank only according to the mood, which defines their utility. For starters, Roger Daltrey’s (The Who) scream in “We Don’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next is the Mt. Everest of screams. Many try, few succeed in topping it. Sure, you’ve heard it 8,368 times — minimum — but it still is the standard by which all great screams are judged. If you were born yesterday, it’s near the end, after the drum break. (And congratulations for learning to read so fast.)
Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) “Half a Canyon” Wowee Zowee
At 2:46 in, the song does an emergency break turn following this most excellent scream.
Gene Simmons (Kiss) “Strutter” Alive
Short and sweet, but it comes at the tail end of the song that kicks off one of the greatest live albums in rock history. For those keeping score at home, it starts at 2:44, right out of Ace Frehley’s perfect, short, sharp guitar solo. Runner up, “Black Diamond” Peter Criss.
Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance) “Sleep” The Black Parade
Perhaps the best song on their latest, most excellent album. Turn it up at 3:35, for a wailing scream that is actually buried under layers of guitar. Then crank it up to 11 at 4:00 when the last guitar overdub is punched in. This is where teenagers the world over learn how to air guitar. (If there is one thing that My Chemical Romance proved with The Black Parade, it’s that bands influenced by the likes of Queen or Bowie have more going for them than bands influenced by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Two great bands, but with awful legacies: See Nickelback and Staind.)
Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) “Monkey Wrench” The Colour and the Shape
A radio staple for sure, but this a huge personal favorite — virtually the entire bridge is delivered in the form of a screaming verse. I can’t really think of another song with this structure either. Start listening at 2:33, beginning with the line “One last thing before I quit”… ending on a prolonged “… and now I’m freeeeeeeeeeee!” Sheer genius. And kudos for being able to scream in
tune for the entire verse, Dave. No surprises where you picked up that trick. (Virtually the entire Nirvana catalogue is a primer in scream therapy.)
Black Francis a.k.a. Frank Black (Pixies) “Monkey Gone to Heaven”
“Then GOD IS SEVEN!” Need I say more.
John Lennon “Mother” Plastic Ono Band
Taking primal scream therapy with him to the studio was John Lennon on his Phil Spector-produced solo debut recorded in 1970. When he starts with the “Mama don’t go … daddy come home…” lines, they build in intensity throughout the song with each reading unique and heartbreaking at the same time.
Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) “I’m Gonna Crawl” In Through the Out Door
Robert Plant, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain. These people all scream perfectly, and in tune. Plant is one of the gods to which all screamers aspire and his approach, sometimes, can be a bit heavy throated. But on this song, he shows restraint. At 4:42, Plant releases a mild scream; the beauty of it is his tempered approach. No “Whole Lotta Love” histrionics here. Just subtle and sweet, a perfect coda for a so-so album that became their studio swan song.
Prince “The Beautiful Ones” Purple Rain
Every line delivered in the last minute or so of this song is pretty much a scream. One of Prince’s most overwrought songs, but his vocal take more than makes up for any heavy handedness.
Other great screams, in verse or otherwise:
Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate ) “Then She Remembers” Days of Wine and Roses
Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü) “Turn on the News” Zen Arcade
Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) “Territorial Pissings” Nevermind
Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) “Unsatisfied” Let it Be
When I got home Wednesday night, I told my wife how I got stopped outside of Amoeba to let a limo out. “Oh, that was Paul McCartney,” she said.