Screeching Weasel are an often overlooked but seminal band in the development of the Ramones-influenced late eighties/early nineties “pop-punk” sound that eventually propelled Green Day to the status of one of the biggest bands in the world by 2005, and also gave rise to manufactured UK punk-lite pop groups such as Busted and McFly. Formed in 1986 in Palos Heights, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, after singer/songwriter and guitarist Ben Foster went to a Ramones gig, Screeching Weasel blended a short, fast three-chord style with the hardcore style of bands such as Black Flag and Minor Threat. The band also followed a rigorously anti-corporate do-it-yourself approach similar to that of the straightedge bands, albeit eschewing the straightedge ethic. Lyrically the band moved beyond the straightforward anti-establishment ranting of many of its contemporaries, favoring a content that was often obnoxious, sleazy and witty, and occasionally introspective and relationship-oriented, of the type usually associated with emo bands.
The band recorded its first demo in December 1986, with Foster (now called Ben Weasel; band members mostly adopted Ramones-esque pseudonyms) on vocals, Steve Cheese on drums, Vinnie Bovine on bass and Jughead (John Pierson, who along with Weasel was the only other mainstay in the band) on guitar. Six months later the same lineup recorded their self-titled debut album for Underdog Records, released in 1987. Shortly thereafter Bovine was fired due to drug problems and replaced by Warren “Fish” Ozzfish, the first change in a long series that would see Screeching Weasel go through almost as many bassists as Spinal Tap did drummers. Ozzfish remained in the band through their first tour and recording of the band’s second album, “Boogadaboogadaboogada”, which was released by Lookout! Records. Screeching Weasel was the first non-Californian band to release a record on the label. Ozzfish departed in January 1989. In the meantime, Cheese had also left the band and was replaced by Brian Vermin on the recommendation of Dan Schafer, singer in a Chicago hardcore band called Generation Waste. Schafer himself replaced Fish to become the band’s third bassist. Adopting the name Dan Vapid, he and Weasel together became the main songwriting force of the band. After a six week tour in the summer of 1989, the band split up for the first time, although they reformed for a reunion gig with a lineup that featured Weasel, Vermin, Vapid, Jughead and additional guitarist Doug Ward.
Screeching Weasel reformed in 1991. During the hiatus Weasel and Jughead founded the short-lived if delightfully named Gore-Gore Girls, whose bassist, Dave Naked, now joined Screeching Weasel, with Dan Vapid moving to rhythm guitar. Dan Sullivan, rechristened Dan Panic for Screeching Weasel purposes, became the band’s new drummer. They recorded “My Brain Hurts,” the band’s third full-length album. Personal differences between Vapid and Panic led the other members to oust the latter after three months’ service and replace him with Johnny Personality, with whom Weasel had previously played in The Vindictives. In this constellation the band recorded a five-song demo and also the 1992 release “Wiggle.” The album featured two songs that Weasel co-wrote with the Queers’ Joe King. Other Weasel-King collaborative efforts were recorded by the Queers.
Following the release of Wiggle, Personality left the band to continue with the Vindictives. Vapid moved back to bass and Weasel took up the rhythm guitar duties for the first time. This lineup recorded the band’s fourth album, “Anthem for a New Tomorrow,” generally considered by their fans to be Screeching Weasel’s best. It was also with this lineup that Screeching Weasel toured for the final time in the spring of 1993. Dan Vapid left the band in 1994, but with Mike Dirnt of Green Day playing bass the band recorded the songs that had already been written and rehearsed for that year’s “How to Make Enemies and Irritate People.”
With the album completed, Screeching Weasel broke up for a second time. Weasel, Vapid and Panic formed a new punk outfit, The Riverdales, while Jughead concentrated on acting, improv and theater direction. The Riverdales released an album on Lookout! and supported Green Day on the “Dookie” tour. Rather than record the second Riverdales album, and despite growing tensions between Weasel, Vapid and Panic, Screeching Weasel was reformed shortly after the tour, with Jughead returning on guitar.
The postponement of the Riverdales album led to a protracted legal entanglement with Lookout!, so the band recorded the album “Bark Like a Dog” without a contract, financed out-of-pocket by Weasel and Jughead. The album was released by Fat Wreck Chords in 1996, and is the most polished, both in terms of sound and songwriting, of the Screeching Weasel catalog, as well as being one of the most well-received in terms of reviews and sales. In the meantime, Lookout! dropped its lawsuit and, in a sign that the animosity had passed, helped Weasel and Jughead to set up the imprint Panic Button. The first release on the new label was a six-song Screeching Weasel E.P. “Major Label Debut”, released in 1997 with Weasel and Jughead joined by Mass Giorgini, a long-time Weasel friend and recording engineer on bass, Dan Lumley, formerly of Squirtgun, on drums, and former Zoinks frontman and guitarist Zac Damon on rhythm guitar and backing vocals. In 1998 this same lineup recorded “Television City Dream,” an album of short, fast and hard punk rock.
During this period Ben Weasel’s personal life was in turmoil, but the band still managed to record another album, “Emo.” The album was recorded live in the studio with almost the same personnel as “Television City Dream,” but with Weasel returning to guitar in the absence of the now-departed Damon. The album was released in 1999 on the Panic Button label, and is a stylistic departure from the previous albums; not only was it recorded live, but, as the title suggests, the lyrical content is of a more melancholic, personal nature than previous Screeching Weasel material.
The album “Teen Punks in Heat” was recorded by a lineup of Weasel (vocals), Jughead (guitar), Pillip Aaron Presley (guitar and backing vocals) and Dan Lumley (drums), and released in 2000. Screeching Weasel broke up again in 2001. The band reformed for a one-off reunion gig at Chicago’s Fireside Lounge in 2004.
In addition to ten full-length albums, Screeching Weasel released several E.P.s and “Beat is on the Brat”, a 1992 vinyl-only song-for-song cover of the first Ramones album, re-released by Panic Button on CD. The band also released two compilations of B-sides, live material, demos and outtakes, “Kill the Musicians” (1993) and “Thank You Very Little” (1999). In addition to his recording career, Ben Weasel was also a prolific writer, publishing the ‘zine, “Panic Button”, as well as writing a column in MaximumRockNRoll (a scathing letter he wrote to the magazine appears on the sleeve of Sonic Youth’s Masterdick single). A collection of his columns and essays, Punk is a Four Letter Word, was published in 2002, and he also published a semi-autobiographical novel, Like Hell, in 2001. Jughead also published a fictionalized account of punk band life, Weasels in a Box, in 2005. With the collapse of Lookout! Records, Ben Weasel reacquired the copyrights to Screeching Weasel’s back catalog, which was then re-released by Asian Man Records in 2005. “Weasel Mania”, a Greatest Hits retrospective, was also released in 2005.
© Douglas Cowie 2006