David N. Green

3 December 1987



               Screaming, as a mode of expression, has its roots in all cultures, be they North American Indian, African, East Indian or European Folk.  Along the rock and roll lineage these roots extend, via the blues (especially jump blues), back to African tribal culture.  The following discussion covers the origin and history of the scream in rock and roll music.  An attempt has also been made to group the screams and screamers into four general categories for discussion, namely: early rock and roll, the emotional scream, the virtuoso scream and the applied scream.

               According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the noun of "scream" can be defined as "a loud sharp penetrating cry or noise".  This definition is somewhat weak in its descriptiveness for this particular study.  The active verb definitions are however quite applicable, and include:  1. "to voice a sudden sharp loud cry"  2. "to produce harsh high tones"  3. "to speak or write with intense hysterical expressions"  4. "to produce a vivid startling effect".  It is interesting to note that as music progresses from the basic rock and roll of the early fifties to the grandiose art-rock compositions of the middle seventies, the function of screaming shifts, or at least expands, from definitions 1 and 2 to definitions 3 and 4.  Webster's dictionary defines the "screamer" simply as "one who screams".

               Furthering the set of definitions will facilitate easier discussion of some scream topics.  The HARMONIC scream is defined as that which relates to the harmony of the music or has some component of tonality.  The TRUE scream is essentially atonal.  The LYRICAL scream observes the lyrical content of a song and the PURE scream does not. 



Early Rock and Roll


               In the thirties the blues artists began to develop a more aggressive and forceful approach to their music.  Singers became less sad, and more mad, about their blues.  This increased energy (not hostility) was channelled into a new driving rhythm, resulting in the Rhythm and Blues.  Singers like Robert Johnson and Joe Turner are credited with the development of this style.  The term "jump blues" was used to describe blues with lyrics containing phrases like "rock'em" and "shake it", which were common in the blues performed by R&B artists such as Joe Turner. Early rock and roll was essentially modified (if at all) jump blues, with an enhanced driving rhythm that frequently included drums.  The screamers of early rock and roll are frequently referred to as shouters.  This is perhaps a more appropriate title to use when comparing these early artists to the more intense screamers in later rock. 

               The bigger, louder and newly electrified (literally) sound of the back-up bands in the fifties meant that the singers had to really shout to get their messages across.  "Rock Around The Clock" [1] by Bill Haley and the Comets is a good example of this newly amplified sound.  Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were three of the most popular rock and roll shouters of the fifties.  Elvis Presley wasn't just crooning when he sang "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog" [2], although he could sing a soulful ballad.  Little Richard, probably the most famous of early rock and roll screamers, was constantly screeching and whooping with excitement as he banged out (on the piano) tunes like "Good Golly, Miss Molly" [3].  Jerry Lee Lewis spent much of his vocal performance pounding on his piano and shouting directly at the audience [4].  Most of the rock and roll screamers of the fifties and early sixties were shouting because of the excitement of the music, to be heard, or just for the fun of it.  Deep emotion and feelings were not usually a major factor in the drive of the early rock and roll screamers.  (There are definitely exceptions from this era; some of whom will be mentioned later.)  Screaming in rock and roll was due more to attitude and excitement than anything else during this early period.  Screams with this same basic drive can be found in later rock and roll as well.  John Fogerty often used a "crackling" scream in songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band" [5].  The Beatles "Hey Jude" [6] was full of exuberant screams.  Joe Walsh offers a parody of these types of screams on the album "The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get" [7]. 



The Emotional Scream


               True emotion, feeling or "gut" reaction was often the source of the rock and roll scream, the previous examples not withstanding.  Two artists of the fifties (and sixties) that come to mind in this category are Ray Charles and James Brown.  Although not specifically rock and roll artists, these two figures show their soul/gospel/R&B based rock and roll sides once and a while.  Ray Charles usually conveys to the listener the feeling of a musician very close to his music [8].  James Brown, "Mr. Dynamite", has a from-the-gut type of vocal attack which declares a no-nonsense approach to his performance; although his lyrics themselves are often nonsense [9].  The rock and roll shouters and screamers mentioned thus far have been predominately black.  This is certainly no more a rule than is gender bias.  Janis Joplin is another example of the emotional rock and roll screamer.  Joplin has been popularly described as the reincarnation of one of the most famous of blues singers, Bessie Smith.  Joplin's screams are much more scream-like (true and pure) in their form, but still very similar to, say, those of Ray Charles in their essence.  Joplin sounds as if she really feels the flesh rip when she sings "Take another little piece of my heart" [10].  One final example of the emotional aspect of the scream is taken from The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" [11].  Here Roger Daltry's pure scream is not as much a personal statement as it is an extension of the resolve that comes from the attitude and performance of the song.



The Virtuoso Scream


               The virtuoso scream is a legitimate phenomenon in rock and roll music.  Many different types of screamers offer what can be classified as the virtuoso scream.  These screams usually have some clearly outstanding features, such as those relating to aspects of duration, dynamics, purity, tonality and applicability.  This level of development of the scream is frequently associated with the hard-rock, eclectic and avant-garde styles of music.  Examples of these types of screams can however be studied for the sole purpose of observing the nature of the virtuoso performance.  The following examples of virtuoso screams should also help illustrate some of the different types of screams that can be identified.  Arthur Brown is one of the premiere art-rock screamers.  His screams are usually associated with musical direction or purpose, however they are often performances in themselves.  The song "Nightmare" [12] contains many insanely and hysterically screamed passages.  One particular scream in this song illustrates the difficulty involved in trying  to categorize some screams.  It begins as a harmonic-lyric scream and quickly transforms into a true-pure scream.  The harmonic-pure scream is also demonstrated well by Arthur Brown, in the song "Faster Than The Speed Of Light" [13].  This level of scream is the basis for the "premiere" title of Arthur Brown as a screamer.  Frank Zappa'a bands have attracted some of the most talented of contemporary musicians.  His performances are, for the most part, instrumental in nature.  Vocals, or at least lyrics, usually take a back seat to the instrumental performance.  There are however some outstanding exceptions with some of the musicians employed by Zappa; the crowd gives an ovation for a single scream during the live performance of "Love of My Life" [14].  One of the most famous of rock and roll screams is found at the beginning of the Beatles' "Revolution" [15], and is the epitome of the true-pure scream.



The Applied Scream


               Musical direction is one of the most diverse, and possibly significant, topics for an analytical discussion of rock and roll.  Screaming is but a small part of this very involved topic.  The scream is probably best discussed in terms of its "function" in rock and roll music.  From a study of screams throughout rock and roll history, it seems apparent that the phenomenon of the carefully applied scream does not surface until the middle to late sixties.  The end of the sixties saw the scream become a standard functional tool of many art-rock musicians (and others).  The present discussion distinguishes three major areas of the applied scream; desperation or despair, insanity or unbalance and functional composition. 

               Situations of desperation and despair are the oldest and most frequent instances of the applied scream.  These types of screams are quite natural in their purpose, and are rooted in the early blues (and late blues for that mater).  Janis Joplin's version of "Ball and Chain" [16] is an excellent example of the "hurting" feeling that can be induced by a scream.  Rather than singing a shorter song with constant "strain", Joplin induces "pain" at will.  Atomic Rooster is a sometimes-avant-garde art-rock group that has made its way from the eclectic rage of the early seventies to the present day, despite personnel changes.  The Atomic Rooster song, "Banstead" [17], is a modern-day throwback to the "power-blues" type of vocals of the likes of B.B. King and Muddy Waters.  The roughness of the vocals in this song hits the listener in such a way that the rather common message of the song seems much more vital. 

               The concept of insanity or unbalance in society and within the individual has been explored extensively by the eclectic and art-rock stream of musicians through use of screams.  The psychedelic and liberation movements of the sixties spawned much of this rather severe (compared to the fifties) use of the scream.  The Beatles "Helter Skelter" [18] evokes a frenzied terror that could be associated with the psychedelic or even psychotic frame of mind.  The over-stressed vocals seem like those of someone undergoing severe withdrawal from something.  "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" [19], a late sixties song by Pink Floyd, portrays an inner world of insanity.  Roger Waters (the source of the scream) carries this idea through Pink Floyd themes of the seventies and into his own projects in the eighties.  From The Doors' first album came the song "The End" [20].  The foreboding feeling of a terrible end to everything is instilled in the listener by this song.  Within the song's main context runs the concept of the purposefully driven insanity of a man (or all of man).  The screams are those of a young man at the peak of his psychosis.  (From the philosophic point of view it might be argued that the young man is quite close to reality.) One further example of the insane or unbalanced idea is illustrated again by Pink Floyd, with the song "Comfortably Numb" [21].  The function of this frustrating-painful scream in this song is quite straight forward if one follows the storyline within the song (and on the album from which it comes).  The most significant technical aspect of this scream is that it illustrates the ease with which this painfully-disturbed sounding scream can be artistically (and appropriately) placed into the song structure, which leads into the following discussion of screaming in composition.

               Art-Rock musicians have cultivated the scream for use as a tool in composition since the beginning of the formation of the art-rock concept itself.  The song "Whole Lotta Love" [22], by Led Zeppelin, contains screams and other guttural sounds that separate it from other music in it's time (1969).  The song centres around Robert Plant's moans and groans during a break in the main "drive" of the song.  The vocal "noises", although not very musical, are original enough to separate Robert Plant's vocal style from most commercially successful performers of the time, and provide encouragement for many similar heavy-rock screamers of the seventies and eighties.  "Sheep" [23], by Pink Floyd, contains some technically and artistically interesting studio "tricks" with the vocals.  In various sections of this piece an extended vocal line is transformed or blended into a synthesizer tone that reveals its presence only after the subtle change has taken place.  In this case the voice has simply become a new source for studio experimentation.  This experimentation is perhaps a natural extension of some of the more bizarre screams of the sixties and early seventies.  The scream probably reaches one of its highest levels of application in the song "Conception" [24] by Arthur Brown.  This rather eclectic piece is based almost entirely on three screams, without which there would be no song.

               An encyclopedic history of screams and screamers could certainly not be incorporated into a study of this scope.  The majority of artists using the scream have of course not been mentioned, and the screams that have been discussed tend to cross categories. Appreciation (and classification) of this kind of vocal work is best accomplished through listening (and screaming!).




Reference Recordings


[1] Bill Haley and The Comets, "Rock Around The Clock", 1955.

[2] Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog", 1956.

[3] Little Richard, "Good Golly, Miss Molly", 1958.

[4] Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On", 1957.

[5] Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Travelin' Band", 1970.

[6] The Beatles, "Hey Jude", 1970.

[7] Joe Walsh, "The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get" (album), 1973.

[8] Ray Charles, "What'd I Say", 1969.

[9] James Brown, live 1981, "Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine", 1970.

[10] Big Brother and The Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), "Piece of My Heart", 1967.

[11] The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again", 1971.

[12] Arthur Brown, "Nightmare", 1968.

[13] Arthur Brown/Vincent Crane, "Faster Than The Speed Of Light", 1980.

[14] Frank Zappa, "Love Of My Life", 1981.

[15] The Beatles, "Revolution", 1968.

[16] Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), "Ball and Chain", 1967.

[17] Atomic Rooster, "Banstead", 1986.

[18] The Beatles, "Helter Skelter", 1968.

[19] Pink Floyd, "Careful With That Axe, Eugene", 1971.

[20] The Doors, "The End", 1967.

[21] Pink Floyd, "Comfortably Numb", 1979.

[22] Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love", 1969.

[23] Pink Floyd, "Sheep", 1977.

[24] Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come, "Conception", 1974.