Graded on a Curve:
The Gun Club,
Fire of Love

The Gun Club underwent myriad changes in personnel during their existence, but the one constant element was founder Jeffrey Lee Pierce. In 1979 he formed a group whose impact is still being felt today. The best place to begin investigating Pierce’s achievement is at the beginning, and on July 8th doing so becomes a whole lot easier through Superior Viaduct’s compact disc reissue of The Gun Club’s classic 1981 debut Fire of Love.

Whenever OFF! undertakes a tour there’s undoubtedly a smattering of older heads reliably if reluctantly finding themselves getting a little misty around the eye sockets when the band pencils in “Jeffrey Lee Pierce” for the set list. Deservedly so, for that song, all 1:21 of it, is a tribute to an important if undersung rock contributor, and not by a fan but from a close friend. Indeed, the intro to the cut on Live at the 9:30 Club finds Keith Morris steeped in emotion, his preamble roughly as long as the track itself.

Now, some folks might get a bit miffed over certain umpteenth-generation hardcore whippersnappers only knowing of Jeffrey Lee Pierce because Morris wrote a song about him. But easy there, partners. We all tend to occasionally idealize and even embellish our paths of musical discovery, mainly due to the reality sometimes being as bland as simply plucking a cassette from a discount bin. That was this writer, fishing a severely marked-down copy of the third Gun Club album The Las Vegas Story from a massive box of cut-out tapes in a mall chain store back in 1987.

Perhaps somewhat more interesting is what led me to make that purchase. I first learnt of The Gun Club through an article published in an anthology/anniversary issue of Flipside magazine. Having been exposed to punk not long previously, restlessness over the music’s generic inclinations had already set in, and simultaneous to the almost daily unearthing of new delights.

Reading up on a bunch of glam-damaged Los Angelino punks obsessed with the darker aspects of the blues made me suddenly feel considerably less freakish as a mid-‘80s teen; instead of doing the couch potato thing with MTV’s rotation, I was far more disposed to cuing up a comp of prime Elmore James sides while writing bad poems in the basement.

A major part of my epiphany came via the Flipside piece’s mention of Robert Johnson, though The Gun Club’s degenerate junky B-film punk-blues was 1,000 miles of rural dirt roads and skuzzy back-alleys from the Johnson adulation emanating from Eric Clapton and other senior blues-rock figures. No, The Gun Club’s contemporaries were fellow L.A. bands like roots punkers X, original Americana killers The Blasters, and their closest hometown brethren, Psychotronic-punk mainstays The Flesh Eaters.

Along with the blues, an indisputable touchstone for Pierce was the glorious trash aesthetic of The Cramps, The Gun Club often cited as an early example of/influence upon the movement known as psychobilly. Pierce also had a huge impact on the indigenous rock of Australia and Sweden, and his band is additionally a signpost for the subsequent punk-blues activity of Jon Spencer, Jack White, and naturally their numerous cohorts/followers.

In ’87, the year the group was revived for the fourth Gun Club LP Mother Juno, they seemed a bizarre oddity, at least to this observer; listening today can produce substantial admiration that Pierce had this sound figured out at the dawn of the ‘80s. But at the time of creation the circumstances were anything but grandiose. Their inclusion on ‘81’s Keats Rides a Harley compilation (sharing space with such forward thinking but modestly scaled acts as The Leaving Trains, Human Hands, Meat Puppets, and 100 Flowers) shows that Pierce was just another punk searching for an escape from staleness of genre.

Fire of Love is immediately notable for its full-bodied sound. Co-producers Tito Larriva of The Plugz and head Flesh Eater Chris D. certainly deserve credit, but engineer Pat Burnette was a crucial factor in Slash Records’ sub-imprint Ruby’s uncommonly high ratio of top-notch LPs; he worked on The Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses and The Flesh Eaters’ two albums for the label, plus the Germs’ non-Ruby (though Slash) (GI) and material from the Angry Samoans and The Blasters.

Opener “Sex Beat” is loud, well-balanced and lacking in unnecessary flair, capturing Ward Dotson’s gnarled-up strumming and Pierce’s overheated pulp-novel pontificating as drummer Rob Ritter and bassist Terry Graham, formerly of Dangerhouse Records’ heavy-hitters The Bags (with future Gun Clubber Patricia Morrison), lay down a sturdy, tense rhythm.

“Sex Beat” is one of The Gun Club’s most recognizable numbers, and for good reason. It molds two steaming handfuls of The Cramps’ visionary garbage into a statuette of a snotty L.A. punker overwhelmed by the allure of aberrant coital behavior and infuses that figurine with life through a soundtrack raw, vibrant, and cohesive. But second cut “Preaching the Blues” really begins asserting Fire of Love’s groundbreaking qualities.

In the late-‘70s Jeffrey Lee Pierce had progressed from being a glam lover of no small fervor into a serious reggae nut. He even traveled to Jamaica for a period, though the trip apparently left him unsure over reggae as an appropriate platform in an American context. Finding something more inherent to home was in order; the blues, or specifically the untamed mystique of roots music in general, was just the stuff Pierce needed.

“Preaching the Blues,” which nabs from versions of the Delta cornerstone chiseled by Robert Johnson and Son House in the 1930s, quickly establishes Pierce’s method. To be clear, his innovation wasn’t without precedent; the at times discomfiting Mississippi excursions of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s Rolling Stones spring to mind.

But thrillingly distinct was how it brandished flailing momentum led by Dotson’s slide guitar, his tone glistening like a freshly polished blade as the rhythm section gallops behind him and Pierce settles into his role with a defiant ambivalence over whether he’s effectively convincing. The song is a dervish, Pierce’s additional guitar kicking it to a higher plateau, and it arguably best sums up its singer’s contribution to the rock canon.

Shifting gears is “Promise Me,” a tune halfway betwixt swampy and pretty, though the lethargic vocals and gnawing violin, courtesy of Larriva and recalling John Cale’s viola circa-’67, elevates it to gemlike status. It leads us to “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” which gives the ’66 garage template a true throttling by introducing more of Dotson’s burning slide and Pierce’s forthright lyrical comparison.

We then move into the exquisite “For the Love of Ivy,” co-written with the great Kid Congo Powers, a member of The Gun Club pre-Fire of Love and also later, his presence helping to elevate the underrated The Las Vegas Story in particular. Powers exited the Club to join The Cramps, which should come as no shock given that “For the Love of Ivy” is an extended ode to that band’s guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach.

And with lyrics such as “you look just like an Elvis from hell,” the rockabilly-stained number can be adequately described as a hat-tip to Lux Interior and The Cramps overall (interestingly, the song “The Fire of Love” turns up not here but on Miami and finds Pierce in quite a Crampsian mood). Next the energetic punk of “Fire Spirit” charges on all cylinders as it gets swaddled in bluesy iconography.

“Ghost on the Highway” extends this motif and adds torrents of Dotson’s slide, Ritter giving his kit a healthy walloping, while the humid stomp of “Jack on Fire” slows the tempo, its narrative heading down to Louisiana and culminating with nicely muffled backing vocals, Dotson again flipping out on his fret board. “Black Train” is appropriately locomotive musically, also integrating moves originated by Link Wray into the equation.

“Preaching the Blues” is bookended by penultimate cut “Cool Drink of Water,” this time less aggressively transforming Delta guitarist Tommy Johnson’s source into a casual mid-tempo lope stretched-out to over six minutes, the ambiance of chirping crickets layered in. The slightly X-like “Goodbye Johnny” (hit and run Pauline?) ends the album, Pierce’s attitude well-balanced with the delivery of the band.

Over the years some have accused the Gun Club (and others) of artistic hijacking and furthermore of questionable taste by playing around with myths, stereotypes, and fabrications. More than once here Pierce employs an incendiary racial epithet; however, in a manner similar to his friend Nick Cave much of the wordplay is based on fictive characters and scenarios. Still, newcomers to Fire of Love should be prepared.

But one look at Chris D.’s well-done cover design for Fire of Love makes plain that the record’s contents outline an unreal world combining the creeping dread/blunt scares of that bane of propriety EC Comics, the eeriness conjured by the films of producer Val Lewton/director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) and a hint of ’68 George Romero in the bargain.

Rock music shouldn’t exclusively revel in the lowbrow, but it does require injections of just this sort of unrefined junk to attain proper equilibrium. Fire of Love is a fine slab of expressive sleaze, desperation and turpitude, and that it’s created by the former President of the Blondie Fan Club only increases its appeal. The Blondie connection was much deeper of course; Chris Stein’s production of ‘82’s follow-up Miami is divisive, and both that album and The Las Vegas Story came out on Stein’s Chrysalis-subsidiary Animal Records.

Jeffrey Lee Pierce wasn’t made for this world, but while he lived in it he produced a whole lot of music. As his life became more chaotic the records were often slapdash or lackluster, but a surprising amount retained at least some level of his inimitable spirit. The best LP he ever made remains Fire of Love; thousands have stolen from it but almost nobody has equaled it on its terms. That it’s back in circulation is a beautiful blow struck in favor of gutsy art making; may a thousand more glean from its spoils.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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