The California dream is not always fuelled by preachers who love the cold, Mama Cass and the hippy troop putting flowers in their hair and soaking in the sun and the freedom of the best (and sometimes worst) State of the Union. Or at least the one where life seems as if it will turn into a movie at any second, whether that movie is Kalifornia with a psycho Brad Pitt going on a murderous night crawling rampage, or some eternal summer where innocence and happiness and overcoming and survival race for the hallmark card ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ Forest Gump fuzz-fest, where all bullets are in the buttocks, where Nam wasn’t that bad really, and the lame turn into college football stars, and all the nets come up full from the other side of the boat in some hokey jesus-like allegory.
The reissue of Miami, Gun Club’s mostly critically panned album, perhaps, but one that holds that California charm, despite being resolutely named Miami for no reason I can discern. It was recorded in New York, by Blondie guitarist, Chris Stein, by a resolutely Los Angeles punk band. The swampy blues-punk twisted and dazed vibe might have something to do with it – Los Angeles or New York? Let’s call it Miami, hot, sweaty, humid, sun bleached pop punk. CBGB’s cool by way of Skid Row and the Whiskey A Go Go. Miami is the ultimate cowpunk psychobilly blues jam.
Gun Club were LA punks, but not punk as you know it, Jim Jims! This was not socially aware Clash style commentary on the state of the streets. It was not Ramones 1234 2 minute pop-on-carbona jams. Despite the Blondie guitarist producing the album, it lacks that Andy Warhol popart cuteness. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a Blondie superfan, he was the president of her fanclub and obsessed in a way that would be creepy if he wasn’t so damn cute and talented. Jeffrey Lee was the ultimate fanboy, with his pins and his newsletters and his devotion to the punk grrrrl de jour with her sexy cute to hell with it punk riot act.
Pierce married his obsession with the delta blues with neo punk sensibilities. The bluesy two or three chord riffs of Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, married to a driving beat and electric guitar, with Jeffrey Lee’s Nico-like drone vocals, just off key, yet reliably flat, made for a unique sound. Fire of Love, Gun Club’s first album threw itself at two Robert Johnson tracks – Preachin’ The Blues, and Promise Me, and instead of attacking them as the white bluesmen tended to – with a straight attempt at re-creation of the original mood and sound, plus some kickass guitar (a la Clapton and Stephen “One thing the blues AIN’T IS FUNNY!’ Stills), Pierce and his Gun Club cohort came at them bringing some louche LA degenerate punk clang and clash, overwhelming drum-driven percussive melodic pop punk jangle and smacked out uber-drone of Pierce’s unique vocal style.
Pierce won over Harry, who believed in his music and his potential, despite being a somewhat unlikely punk hero: slightly chubby, a little freaky, gentle-voiced, always singing just off-key, but reliably evenly off-key, in a Nico-esque deep drone. He was a purveyor of sunbleached blooze, alcohol soaked, smack-fueled gritty speed-driven punk. He should have been in New York, but it wouldn’t have suited him. Pierce was a pure Los Angeles via the Delta blues genius crossroads devil dealing three chord slammer.
Miami (1982) was reissued in December 2020, and Fire of Love (1981) reissued July 23rd this year by Blixa Sounds. I would have preferred the reissues to be released in the original order, but then I am overly concerned with details like that. Fire of Love has ten live bonus tracks. Miami comes with 18 bonus demo tracks. Both ar worth the price of admission.
Fire of Love is the quintessential Gun Club album. Sex Beat and She’s Like Heroin To Me define their sound and refusal to adhere to worthy-punk, and remain bleached hair rebels, devoted to the beat and the vibe. The energy pours out of album, tumbling over itself in the way out of the speakers on it’s chaotic way to ears and brains. The stilted jittering juddering of She’s Like Heroin To Me, pounding bump and grind of Sex Beat, marrying blues durty sexy lyrics with punk anarchic sound, and the straight blues gone LA-bad of Ghost on the Highway, the high lonesome howl of Cool Drink of Water, and its swing and wail all sound as fresh and strange, as boundary pushing and exhilarating today as they did when first released. Fire of Love has aged well.
She’s Like Heroin To Me, is the track I always play to people who don’t know Gun Club. The track is what happens when Van Morrison’s Gloria gets on the junk and hangs out with Jeffrey Lee Pierce. She ‘comes down from the top of the stairs” , and makes our hapless punk hero feel alright. “They will never fill her heart” Pierce sings, “she cannot miss a vein”. She is the the ultimate lucky charm: no missed shots, no frustration or digging around for relief, the “train: down the “mainline”. The perfection in the lyrics, the sound, the attitude, the marrying of punk and blues, the call and answer of the guitar and the vocals bleeds into perfect three minute run. This call and return blues flowers in For The love Of Ivy (for the love of I.V….a little mainline joke). The track perfects the blues punk chimera, looking like an “Elvis from Hell”, chugging on the engine of peace and love, that makes seekers not want to do anything, not anything of hate, no negative action apart from the self destructive buying of a ‘graveyard all of (his) own’. Saved from evil by the love of Ivy. You have to admire the dedication and refusal to submit to society’s expectations. You know this shit is good when Jeffrey starts yodelling.
Miami is their follow up album and a masterpiece in its own right. The initial issue back in ’82, was panned for its overly compressed tinny empty-sounding production. The lack of bottom-end and the almost fragile sounding plaintive guitar sound did not please the critics. There is only so much a remastering can do, and to be frank the sound should be left alone. The time to fill in the sound was in the recording studio, not years after Pierce’s passing. Jeffrey’s voice was left orphaned by the mix, the guitar and drums trailed behind, nothing was coherent or solid. There is a difference between scuzzy and bitty, and Miami errs on the wrong side of the tracks.
From the driving voodoo incantation of the cover of Creedence’s Run Through the Jungle to the driving hailstorm of Carry Home, Gun Club are still their genius selves, but left stranded by the production. “My burning hand!” cries Jeffrey, playing with dynamics and shock and awe vocals. The lyrically soft refrain of Carry Home stands lost and stark against his desperate vocals and Dotson’s grinding country-edged rockabilly-punk telecaster riffs. There is plenty of Californian surf in the guitar, but with enough CBGB’s grime to take any hint of beach-boys sheen right out of it. It is neither New York, nor LA, it might as well be Miami – a different overheated creature from the swamp-lagoon entirely.
Texas Serenade, is a cosmic cowpoke, drugged out punk country blues fusion with slide guitar, that does not properly belong on a punk album which demands single coil telecaster bite, yet still manages to hold the crown for the wierdest, most punk renegade track this side of the Rio Grande. Watermelon Man walks on Dr. John’s Guilded Splinters all the way to some New Orleans hoodoo jam, the rattle of the snakes, the poison in the blood, the peyote button pressing psychedelia, punk drive and wailing blues vocals.
John Hardy – a nod towards Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, who never shot an innocent man, and towards Van Ronk’s Hang me Oh Hang Me, with its copycat refrain of “poor boy”, mirroring Ronk’s folk melodic riff. This is folk by way of Sid Vicious and the Ramones, and the storytelling of the folk and bluesmen. “Take me to the hanging, poor boy” Pierce screams into the microphone, rooting himself in the acoustic tradition, whilst dragging John Hardy and the cast of n’er do well’s into the depths of the punk scene clash and buzz. Sleeping in Buzz City, the penultimate track, is an injoke driven by pure stimulant drive and verve, there ain’t no sleeping in buzz city, not when you are ‘taking it from The Man’. Faster, louder, more aggressive, rattling the bones of the blues and taking it to the boulevards and gutters of Los Angeles. The final track, Mother Earth, takes the album into the highways and cheap motels of the road, with a rockabilly punk jangle and rumble. Cosmic cowpoke. I wonder what Gram Parsons would have made of this? It appears to be the logical conclusion to his country psyched out acid and smack soaked tumbleweed perversion of the least cool genre in popular music.
The band seems to struggle against itself an internal battle between punk and country, blues and folk tropes, city punk grime, between up and down, stimulant and opiated drunken travellin’ bluesman gone bad pushing the boundaries of what had come before, and looking towards a future which should have been way more successful than Gun Club ever managed. Gun Club drifts river of pain in a land of nod sailboat, towards chugging highway blues, motels and tv’s running on quarters, cactus lights and bar room fights.
The alchemical fusion of punk and blues, the genius of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the musical engine of construction of a world in which Los Angeles is everything, the West Coast punk ritual of halogen lamps and headlights, of 3am Denny’s pancakes and getting slammed on whiskey and hard drugs, forgoing social comment for anarchy and speed and wild abandon. Gun Club cannot miss a shot.