Though they encountered numerous line-up changes, label problems and breakups, Chicago's Screeching Weasel remains one of the most important bands in American independent punk music. The brainchild of Ben Foster (a.k.a. Ben Weasel), Screeching Weasel formed in 1986 with vocalist Foster, guitarist John Jughead, and drummer Steve Cheese. Foster was inspired to start the band after seeing the Ramones, a group of New York City punks who would prove to be a lasting influence on Screeching Weasel's style and ethos. Known as a biting critic of the upper class, Foster was, at the time, a budding columnist for the staunchly independent Maximumrocknroll magazine and from that ethos he drew his own political philosophy.
In the band's first incarnation, Foster attempted to play bass while singing. But after failing miserably, they took on Vinnie Bovine for bass duties. Bovine soon proved to be a hassle for the band, and they dumped him not long after, replacing him with Warren Fischer. That year Screeching Weasel recorded their self-titled debut for Roadkill Records. Naturally, the band aimed to support their new release with a tour, but Steve Cheese opted out of the band as he was unwilling to go on the road with them. He was temporarily substituted by Aaron Cometbus and then permanently replaced by Brian Vermin.
In 1988 the band released Boogadaboogadaboogada! on Berkeley's Lookout! Records. This record would yield a track that later was featured in a Best Buy TV advertisement, much to the chagrin of Screeching Weasel's hard-nosed punk fans. As it turned out, the band had no knowledge of the song's placement in the ad.
The band played a few shows out in Lookout!'s Bay Area city and toured the East Coast later that year. Upon returning from the tour, however, Fischer amicably left the band. His spot was filled by Danny Schafer (a.k.a. Danny Vapid), a former member of the Chicago area band Generation Waste. But as luck would have it, Schafer and Vermin left at the end of 1989. By 1990, Screeching Weasel had broken up—for the first time.
In April of 1991, the band reformed. Schafer was back in the lineup, but this time on guitar. Added to the new roster were drummer Dan Sullivan (a.k.a. Dan Panic) and bassist Dave Naked. However, as would typically happen with new members, Naked didn't pan out and was subsequently replaced by someone known only as Gub for the remainder of that year's tour. Naked was then permanently replaced by Johnny Personality for the recording of that year's My Brain Hurts. At the end of the year they toured in support of their new album but after recording Ramones, Personality left the band, not to be replaced. Schafer moved over to bass and Foster took on guitar-playing responsibilities. When asked about the band's continual lineup problems, Foster told Contemporary Musicians that he thought members would join the band thinking it would be a "stepping stone to being famous." When that didn't work out, they would quit. He also admitted that the group dynamic could be awkward at times. "I think it was clear I was the primary songwriter," he said. This type of working relationship would often lead to personality conflicts.
Late 1992 and early 1993 saw the release of a couple albums for Screeching Weasel—Wiggle and Anthem for a New Tomorrow, the latter of which is widely regarded as one of the bands' best efforts. Schafer was the band's first casualty of 1994, leaving them yet again. Green Day's Mike Dirnt joined temporarily and helped them record How to Make Enemies and Irritate People before Screeching Weasel's second official breakup in 1995. That year they also released the rarities collection, Kill the Musicians, and in its liner notes told their fans, "Stop writing us. We broke up."
Around this time, Foster formed the Riverdales with Schafer and Sullivan, and they went out on the road with Green Day for one tour. Of the Riverdales' style, Foster commented to Todd Martens of the Daily Trojan, "The Riverdales are more of a straightforward party band. We don't have anything to say. We don't have any messages.…" This was just one of many instances in which Foster's fans turned on him, calling him a sell-out for his non-political stance and his quick grab at a few extra bucks. However, Foster contests the notion that Screeching Weasel ever was an explicitly political band. "There's nothing I can do about it," he told Martens. "I'm not 17 or 24 anymore and yes, my views have changed, but what hasn't changed are the basic values that this band is founded on—the ideas that you don't have to f*** people over to be successful, that you don't need to be dishonest with anyone to get what you need, and you don't need to do business in a way that major labels do." Of the notion that the Riverdales were an alternate, or watered-down version of Screeching Weasel, Foster told Contemporary Musicians, "We took that band really really seriously.… We toured more with that band than Screeching Weasel ever did."
Not surprisingly, Screeching Weasel reformed in 1996, with Foster, Schafer, Sullivan, and Jughead rounding out the continually revolving cast of oddly named characters. This time however, their intentions weren't as punk as many of their hardcore fans had wished. Admittedly, Foster was after a bit of money when Screeching Weasel released Bark Like A Dog. "…The reason we got back together, initially, was because we thought we could make a lot of money," he told Martens. "But it turned into a situation where that wasn't happening. Not only were we not making money, but we were losing money and we ended up paying for the entire recording ourselves." Bark, released on Fat Wreck Chords, came hot on the heels of controversy and lawsuits with their former label, Lookout!. Foster approached Fat Wreck Chords with the album already completed and they agreed to take it on as their own. Still, Foster was reluctant to switch labels even though things went sour with Lookout!. "It's like when you leave a girlfriend. Even if she's the most horrible person in the world and you can't stand her, you're always thinking, 'Yeah, but what if I don't find somebody even as good as her?'," he explained to Martens. The move paid off though, because Bark Like A Dog became one of the band's best-selling records.
Again though, lineup changes plagued any semblance of commercial success for Screeching Weasel. Right after Bark Like a Dog, Sullivan and Schafer left, being replaced respectively by Dan Lumley and Mass Giorgini. Zac Damon joined as a second guitarist and Foster returned to his vocals-only position for 1998's Television City Dream. The next couple of years would see the release of Beat is on the Brat, and Emo —the last pair came on the once-estranged Lookout! label. In 1999, though, Damon left and the band continued on with Foster, Lumley, Giorgini, and Jughead.
In the year that followed, Screeching Weasel released Teen Punks in Heat and another collection, Thank You Very Little, on Lookout!. Screeching Weasel basically ceased to exist after 2000, and while Foster, Schafer, and Sullivan went back to recording as the Riverdales—they released Phase Three in 2003—fans continue to speculate about future Screeching Weasel reunions.
For the Record …
Members include Ben Foster , vocals; John Jughead , guitar; Steve Cheese (left band, 1988), drums; Vinnie Bovine (left band, 1987), bass; Warren Fischer (left band, 1989), bass; Aaron Cometbus (left band, 1988), drums; Brian Vermin (left band, 1989), drums; Dan Schafer (left band, 1997), bass, guitar; Dave Naked (left band, 1991), bass; Dan Panic (left band, 1997), drums; Gub (left band, 1991), bass; Johnny Personality (left band, 1992), bass; Mike Dirnt (left band, 1995), bass; Mass Giorgini , bass; Zac Damon (left band, 1999), guitar; Dan Lumley , drums.
Group formed in Chicago, IL, 1986; original members: Ben Foster (a.k.a. Ben Weasel), John Jughead, Steve Cheese; underwent numerous personnel changes over years; released self-titled debut on Roadkill, 1987; released Boogadaboogadaboogada! on Lookout!, 1988; disbanded, 1990; reformed and released My Brain Hurts, 1991; released Wiggle and Anthem for a New Tomorrow, 1993; released How to Make Enemies and Irritate People, 1994; disbanded, 1995; released Kill the Musicians, 1995; Foster started the Riverdales, 1994; Screeching Weasel reformed and released Bark Like a Dog on Fat Wreck Chords, 1996; released Television City Dreams, 1998; released Beat is on the Brat, on Lookout!, 1998; released Emo, 1999; released Teen Punks in Heat and Thank You Very Little, 2000.
Addresses: Home— Chicago, IL. Record company— Lookout!, 3264 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703, website: http://www.lookoutrecords.com.
Screeching Weasel, Roadkill, 1987.
Boogadaboogadaboogada!, Lookout!, 1988.
My Brain Hurts, Lookout!, 1991.
Ramones, Selfless, 1992.
Wiggle, Lookout!, 1993.
Anthem for a New Tomorrow, Lookout!, 1993.
How to Make Enemies and Irritate People, Lookout!, 1994.
Kill the Musicians, Lookout!, 1995.
Bark Like a Dog, Fat Wreck Chords, 1996.
Television City Dreams, Fat Wreck Chords, 1998.
Major Label Debut, Lookout!, 1998.
Beat is on the Brat, Lookout!, 1998.
Emo, Lookout!, 1999.
Teen Punks in Heat, Lookout!, 2000.
Thank You Very Little, Lookout!, 2000.
Daily Trojan (University of Southern California), November 19, 1996.
"Screeching Weasel," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com, (March 10, 2004).
Screeching Weasel Official Website, http://www.screechingweasel.com (March 10, 2004).
Additional information for this article was gathered in an interview with Ben Foster in April of 2004. Information was also provided by Lookout! Records publicity materials, 2004.
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