The Gun Club

TrackAlbum
She's Like Heroin To MeFire Of Love
Ghost On The HighwayFire Of Love
Carry HomeMiami
Mother Of EarthMiami
Walking With The BeastThe Las Vegas Story
The Stranger In Our TownThe Las Vegas Story
Bad AmericaThe Las Vegas Story
The Breaking HandsMother Juno
Sorrow KnowsDivinity
Idiot WaltzLucky Jim
Bonus Track
Fire Of LoveMiami

The Gun Club photo 1

(l-r) Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Terry Graham, Rob Ritter

 

 

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Gun Club playlist

 

The Gun Club on The Tube in 1984

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

The Gun Club were one of those bands – Orange Juice are another notable example – who developed a sound that was uniquely their own through amalgamating a disparate range of musical influences. In their case, these influences included blues and folk artists including Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Howlin’ Wolf and Tommy Johnson, early Sun-style rockabilly, rock’n’roll (especially Bo Diddley) and country artists like Hank Williams and Marty Robbins. Along with these ‘Americana’ style influences, however, the band’s lead singer, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, was also an enthusiastic fan of punk/new wave bands such as Blondie (he was president of their fan club in Los Angeles) and The Fall and of reggae acts like Bob Marley (in the late 1970s he wrote reviews of new releases in the genre under the name of ‘Ranking Jeffrey Lee’).

In his teenage years, Pierce was also a self-confessed ‘record nerd’ whose musical tastes also ran to bands like the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘glam rock’ artists – especially Marc Bolan and Roxy Music – surf pop, and singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan. At this time, Pierce was also a voracious reader and the strong ‘gothic’ influence on his own later work owed a good deal to his admiration for writers like Malcolm Lowry and William Faulkner. From William Burroughs he also drew an interest in what author Casey Rae has described as the “seedy underbelly” of American culture. By synthesising these wide-ranging influences, Pierce eventually developed a world view and a musical style that was entirely individual to him while also deeply respectful of the traditions from which it was derived.

Pierce’s shift from writing about music in fanzines such as Slash to making it himself owed a great deal to his friendship with Brian Tristan (aka Kid Congo Powers). At the time they met in 1978, Tristan was head of the Ramones Fan Club in L.A. He also shared a taste in slightly esoteric fashion with Jeffrey Lee (the first time he met him, Pierce was wearing a “white vinyl trench coat” along with “white cowboy boots”). Soon afterwards Jeffrey decided that they should form a band together, even though Tristan did not know how to play guitar. They got around this obstacle by Pierce teaching him how to do so. Augmented by Brad Dunning on bass and Don Snowden on drums, this version of the band had a brief existence under the name of the Creeping Ritual.

When the latter two left the group, they were replaced by the far more technically proficient duo of Rob Ritter and Terry Graham. With the addition of Ward Dotson on slide guitar – whose arrival coincided with the departure of Kid Congo Powers to join the Cramps – the first and to some people the definitive line-up of the group was established. They were fortunate that their emergence coincided with the arrival of a vibrant club scene in Los Angeles. This scene centred on several outstanding new groups which included acts of the calibre of the Blasters, Los Lobos, Lone Justice and X. A shared feature of several of these acts was that they combined a reverence for various aspects of American popular music (for rock and roll, for example, in the case of the Blasters and – as we have seen – the blues with the Gun Club) with what could be described as a punkish or post-punk attitude.

The addition of Ritter, Graham and Dotson had also given the band a much tighter sound, although its musical vision continued to be largely determined by Jeffrey Lee. A key part of that vision was his resolve to try and capture some of the spirit/essence of the blues without slavishly imitating those musical masters who had created the genre. On the Gun Club’s brilliant debut album, Fire Of Love – first released in 1981 – he more than achieved this objective. While the album contains numerous self-penned classics (including songs like Sex Beat and For The Love Of Ivy), its high points also include inspired covers of Robert Johnson’s Preaching Blues and Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink Of Water. One of the striking features of the album is the duet between Pierce’s unique voice (in the liner notes to the Slash Records reissue of Fire in 2014, Chris D. has memorably described his singing on the record as involving “screaming, shouting, yodelling and generally warbling”) and Dotson’s ghostly slide guitar. Pierce’s singing sometimes reminds me of Paul Westerberg’s description of Johnny Thunders’ guitar playing as sounding “like an animal in pain”. For me, Jeffrey Lee often achieved a similar effect through his voice. The Australian musician, Spencer P. Jones, has described his vibrato as being “akin to being tortured or burnt or electrocuted or a combination of both” – in a good way, of course.

Fire Of Love also displays Pierce’s ability to completely inhabit the characters he describes in his songs. Many of these seem to be extremely troubled souls as, indeed, Jeffrey often appeared to be. My two choices from the album, She’s Like Heroin To Me and Ghost On The Highway, both show the ferocity of attack the band had at this time.

 

The latter also always reminds me of the sound that Bob Dylan and Bob Johnston achieved on Highway 61 Revisited. Like Dylan’s mid-60s work, the Fire Of Love album showed Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s ability to conjure up a kind of mythic vision of America, while at the same time criticising its contemporary reality.

Miami, the album which the Gun Club released in 1982 after their brilliant first album, was not, perhaps, quite as good as its predecessor. It is, however, still a very fine record. It also contains some of the group’s very best songs. These include my two selections, Carry Home and Mother Of Earth. In general Pierce rarely wrote what could be described as ‘conventional’ love songs. Usually, they had a slightly disturbing or obsessional quality to them, which gave his songs in that vein an added edge. Carry Home is a good example of this. Its melody also had a stately quality to it and this is brought out even more clearly in Mark Lanegan’s excellent slowed-down cover version. For me at least, Mother Of Earth ranks as Jeffrey Lee’s greatest song. Its stark beauty reminds me of some of Johnny Cash’s early Sun records. I’ve always thought it was a pity Cash did not record it on one of the Rick Rubin albums.

 

There are fine cover versions of Mother Of Earth by the great Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey of The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds fame, and – one which Jeffrey would have particularly appreciated – Blondie.

By the time of the Gun Club’s third album, The Las Vegas Story (1984), Kid Congo Powers had returned to the fold, while Patricia Morrison had replaced Rob Ritter on bass. In a way, the album reminds me of some of Phil Ochs’ later albums where his own mental struggles became inextricably linked with his concerns about the political/social direction in which the US was heading. There is also a general sense of paranoia and a kind of existential dread on those records. A similar thread runs through Las Vegas, with songs like Walking With The Beast – with its ominous Bo Diddley style beat – and The Stranger In Our Town. Both songs show Pierce wrestling with some very personal demons. By contrast, Bad America, portrays a Burroughs-like dystopian vision of the future of the US.

My last three selections come from the band’s later work, when Pierce began to explore new musical territory and moved away – in part at least – from the band’s ‘punk-blues’ origins. The group had also become much slicker musically, with both Kid and Jeffrey having enormously improved as guitarists through long years of touring. The Breaking Hands – from the band’s superb 1987 album, Mother Juno – features one of Pierce’s most beautiful melodies. It also benefits from a finely layered arrangement, which perhaps reflects the influence of the album’s producer, Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins. For comparison’s sake, here’s a fine cover of the song by Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell.

In an interview quoted in Pierce’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he referred to the fact that he wrote “a lot of despair songs. They’re ‘Oh-God-why-have you-forsaken-me-songs with themes about shut-off emotions and a loss of faith. That’s just part of the human condition, being so jaded that the soul dies.” Both of my final selections, Sorrow Knows and Idiot Waltz, fit this rather bleak description. However, despite their subject matter, both have a stark beauty and honesty about them which makes their effect ultimately uplifting rather than depressing. Both also display Pierce’s supreme skills as a songwriter.

 

Whatever his personal problems were – especially in the later part of his life – Jeffrey Lee Pierce left behind a hugely impressive body of work. The best of it had a power and a depth which few of his contemporaries could match. Throughout his career, he also maintained a quirky individuality which was extremely refreshing given the bland uniformity which characterises much of the modern music industry.

 

Bonus Track

In his excellent Toppermost on Jody Reynolds, Dave Stephens described Fire Of Love as “a slow moody rocker”. Its moody quality is probably what first drew Pierce towards it. There was also a slightly gothic and over-the-top edge to the song – even in Jody’s version – which was ‘meat and drink’ to the Gun Club. As a result, their cover is, I think, the definitive one:

 

 

 

The Gun Club photo 2

(l-r) Patricia Morrison, Ward Dotson, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Terry Graham – photo: Ed Colver

 

Jeffrey Lee Pierce (1958–1996)

Rob Ritter (1955-1990)

 

The Gun Club Wikipedia

The Gun Club Discography

The Gun Club Chronology

An Oral History of the Gun Club by Ryan Leach

Jack On Fire: Jeffrey Lee Pierce by David Antrobus

The rootless cosmopolitanism of Jeffrey Lee Pierce by Leonard Nevarez

William S. Burroughs And The Tragic Event That Changed Rock ‘N’ Roll
by Steve Gotcher (NPR 2019)

Blondie’s Chris Stein on Gun Club

Preachin’ the Blues: The Gun Club Story
A three-part epic by Stevo Olende (Perfect Sound Forever 2002)

Ghost On The Highway:
A Portait of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club
directed by Kurt Voss (full documentary on YouTube)

Dave Alvin Talks Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Part One

Dave Alvin Talks Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Part Two

Kid Congo Powers interview in Bored Out, Part One

Kid Congo Powers interview in Bored Out, Part Two

Jeffrey Lee Pierce/Gun Club 1989 TV Special (YouTube)

The Journey Is Long: The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project CD

The New Perfect Collection: The Gun Club – Miami

The Gun Club biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Blondie, Johnny Cash, Cocteau Twins, Cramps, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bo Diddley, Doors, Bob Dylan, Fall, Rowland S. Howard, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Mark Lanegan, Leadbelly, Bob Marley, Blind Willie McTell, Phil Ochs, Orange Juice, Ramones, Jody Reynolds, Roxy Music, T. Rex, Johnny Thunders, Velvet Underground, Paul Westerberg, Hank Williams

TopperPost #987

2 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Oct 1, 2021

    Brilliant music, brilliant Topper and many thanks for the name check – I went back to confirm and, yes, I did say the right thing, so, brilliant cover. And your thought process re. Mother of Earth is absolutely spot-on: there’s even something like a Luther style boom chicka boom in there to make Cash feel at home with the song.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Oct 3, 2021

    Thanks for kind words Dave. As I researched this piece, I was more and more impressed by Jeffrey Lee’s musical vision and his strength of will. And agree that Johnny would have nailed “Mother of Earth’.

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