PREACHIN' THE BLUES
THE GUN CLUB STORYFor some unfathomable reason one of the greatest bands to come out of the U.S.A. in the last 25 years has never seemed to receive the respect it is due. Coming straight out of the L.A. punk scene in 1980, The Gun Club were one of the first to take a really punk attitude to roots music. True, they had been predated by several bands like The Blasters, NRBQ, etc. but these were really way too respectful of the material they were recreating. The Gun Club, according at least to bandleader Jeffrey Lee Pierce's autobiography Go Tell The Mountain, set out on a mission to destroy.
A three-part epic by Stevo Olende
Instead, they appear to have fathered, or at least heavily influenced, the whole No Depression alternative country genre. Don't let that put you off; most progenitors of similar influence are stellar compared to their bastard offspring. Take Nick Cave's (one of Jeffrey Lee's personal friends) work with both the Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds as a prime example. There was a short lived reissue campaign afoot over the last year with Buddah records having re-released Mother Juno and Pastoral Hide and Seek/Divinity in December and Rhino reissuing Fire of Love, viewed by many as their classic recording in January. This was actually the 3rd time it had been re-released in the space of a year. For a little recognised band there also appear to be a plethora of bootlegs doing the rounds. One classic one Moonlight Motel was also re-released under a different title last year.
Here is my version of their history. Not having been a fellow traveller all the way through their 17 year existence there may be the odd inaccuracy but I think this will at least allow those not in the know some kind of perspective.
Pierce later said in a mid '80's Sounds magazine interview that he had the idea that if he got a band together he could get free drinks etc. bought for him by the press/music business reps around town. This was partially because Pierce had been a writer at Slash Magazine, the L.A. punk fanzine that had grown out of the first L.A. based reggae fanzine Claude Bessy's 'Angeleno Dread.' Pierce had tried to expand the knowledge of his readers, writing as much about '50's rockabilly and '30's blues as the prevailing punk music of the time. He also wrote about reggae under the name 'Ranking Jeffrey Lea.' Doing research for this, Pierce made a trip to Jamaica in 1979 hanging out with Winston Rodney (better known now as Burning Spear) amongst others. I hope that helps to lay to rest any thought of the band being racist as their usage of such iconry as the rebel flag might imply. Doubly strange thought, as both Jeffrey Lee and Kid are half- Mexican.
I talked with Kid Congo Powers recently and found out that he did have some musical history prior to his time in the Gun Club. He'd headed East on a Greyhound bus after hearing about the CBGB's and No Wave scenes going on in NYC. Thinking it was a place with a buzz. He hung out on the No Wave scene where he picked up an idea of musical impressionism that puts a new light on the Gun Club and several other bands of that ilk. After returning to L.A., Kid met Jeffrey Lee Pierce outside a Pere Ubu gig. They'd seen each other around a lot, but never actually met and Kid thought he'd talk to this guy in white plastic coat and boots. This turned out to be Blondie's fan club head Jeffrey Lee Pierce, a motormouth music fanatic from Reseda. He had been out to New York City and hung out on the scene himself, hence the Blondie connections. It was to turn out to be a momentous decision since Pierce instantly thought he'd form a band around Kid as a singer. On Kid declining to take the role of vocalist, JLP foisted this on L.A. scenester Pleasant Gehman. Pierce suggested Kid take up guitar instead. Kid protested that he didn't own a guitar and wouldn't know how to use one if he did. Jeffrey Lee answered by lending him a guitar an amp and LP's by The Slits and Bo Diddley to learn from. Kid was forced to comply.
The first gig the band played turned out to be the only one backing Pleasant Gehman. It was under the name The Cyclones. This line-up had on guitars both Pierce and Kid, who was the head of the Ramones fan club. The rhythm section comprised of Brad Dunning on drums and on bass was Don Snowden, who was the music critic from The L.A. Times. When Pleasant Gehman left after a single performance, Jeffery Lee took over the mic.
For a short time, the band adopted the name Creeping Ritual, a name with pre-Gothic connotations they soon tired of, but not bad for a band attempting to destroy rockabilly. They spent a couple of years playing around L.A mainly at local Chinese restaurants as support to bands from the first wave of LA punk such as X. After tiring of the old band name, they swapped the name The Gun Club from Jeffrey's flatmate Keith Morris for a Jeffrey Lee lyric. At the time, Morris was singer for Black Flag. The song would turn up as the title track on Morris' next band Circle Jerks LP Group Sex.
The first song the band jammed on was Chicano funk-band War's "Slipping Into Darkness," around this time the band were also playing Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." Both of which were definitely outside of the normal punk canon. In fact, it looks like the original band manifesto was to destroy music. Pierce talks in his autobiography about how they decided to attack the blues since it was the latest 'trend' hitting L.A..
Pierce was to say for years that the two main influences on The Creeping Ritual were the Marty Robbins LP Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and Ornette Coleman. The 'Ornette Coleman influence' apparently mainly showed in Kid's open tuned rhythmic free playing. It acted as a good way to cover up an initial incapability to play properly, if nothing else. Kid has adopted the sound-texturising this enabled him to do as a central part of his playing. I think this is one aspect of what he means by musical impressionism.
Pierce told an interviewer from one of the mid '80's British music papers that when the Gun Club first started, he came into one of the early band rehearsals with a copy of the Marty Robbins LP, touting it as the band's new direction. As they were basically still just a 2-chord ramalama band, unable to really play their instruments too well, this didn't go down too well. GB&TS is a pretty good record musically but for a ramalama late '70's punk band it was a bit difficult to assimilate. It was, true that the elements making up the sound of that LP were very much an undercurrent in their later sound, but they cut out the trite lyrics. (If you want to hear a band that truly did something positive with that musical direction, listen to Thin White Rope's In The Spanish Cave LP where a lot of Marty Robbins' guitarist's licks are, should I say, borrowed, if not stolen wholesale.) The only recordings of the early period with Kid still in the band to have officially seen the light of day were released by ABC in 1983 as The Birth The Death The Ghost, a live album of tracks recorded around L.A. in 1980.
Eventually Brad who felt he was more able to create fliers for the band than play drums and Don who'd had enough of Pierce's's difficult attitude left saying they wanted to "get proper jobs." Don Snowden would later co-write Chess bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon's autobiography. The departing members were replaced by one of post- punks most under-sung rhythm sections: ex-Bags members Terry Graham and Rob Ritter. Graham was a native of Oak Cliff, a region of Dallas, Texas and had been drumming in bands since he was eleven years old. He grew up digging Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell and was a confirmed stoner until he discovered the Ramones in '76. At this, he had a Damascene revelation and moved to L.A. looking to join a band. The band he joined was The Bags, which was to be the source for two more musicians that would go through the Gun Club. The first of these was bassist/guitarist Rob Ritter. Ritter was a guitarist/bassist from Detroit by way of Phoenix, which may be the reason the gang he hung out with got tagged 'the Cactusheads.'
Around this time the Cramps had arrived in L.A. from New York, where they had formed as a band. They had had trouble with their old guitarist Bryan Gregory and were using a guitarist called Miriam who never really fit in. Hanging out with The Gun Club, they poached Kid Congo. During the three years Kid was with them, the Cramps recorded Psychedelic Jungle and the live LP Smell of Female which was legally delayed by problems with the band's contract with their record label IRS. Coincidentally, Ward Dotson, Kid's replacement in The Gun Club, also auditioned for the same role. Ward himself says 'I actually sent the Cramps my photo and my resume (what a joke). I was twenty. They chose Kid and I joined Gun Club.' To quote Terry Graham, Ward 'came from behind the Orange Curtain in Anaheim, California. He was an excellent guitar player who knew his music and its history well. He preferred structure and chords over noise.'
Ward was therefore into a lot of the same influences as The Gun Club. 'Mostly roots stuff. Rockabilly, C&W, old R&B, some blues. Power pop. I was primarily a guitar player, so I cottoned to the guitar oriented stuff, Beatles, Chuck Berry, Flaming Groovies, Johnny Thunders, The Move etc.... Nothing current, have always disliked "new" music. Only bands that had a great reverence for what laid the track.'
He was to prove a good replacement at least in terms of playing. Later it was discovered that his personality did not fit in with Pierce's, which would lead to major arguments. Soon after Ward joined the band, he brought in a girl guitarist called Annie who was much liked by the rest of the band but only approved of by Pierce for lascivious reasons. Ward: 'Yes I brought her in, and Jeff approved only because he (had) designs on banging her. When that eventuality failed to transpire, she was on her bike.'
The sound for the first LP Fire Of Love was a combination of punk, rockabilly thrashes, country and blues, with a smattering of jazz. It sounds on first hearing like 2-chord rave-ups but on closer hearing, this is somewhat deceptive. It owes a great deal of its atmosphere to Ward Dotson's guitar playing as does its follow up Miami. One very strange thing here for a punk LP is Ward's extensive use of slide guitar. Ward says he was influenced by 'The Sun Sessions by Elvis, I mean Scotty Moore's playing, I was trying to cop all his licks at that time. I knew Jeff's "real" musical tastes and he too loved pop, ala girl groups, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Roy Wood, plus all the obvious ones (country blues, Iggy, etc....)'. There is one interesting thing about the sound of this record: the space given to each individual musician. Nobody appears to be carrying anybody else; it's almost like N.Y. punk-heroes Television in everybody's reliance on weaving in with everybody else.
Fire of Love was recorded in a surprisingly short time, I think setting a precedent with the band. Certainly anything later with a showier production does so to its detriment. Ward: 'Yep. I think Fire Of Love was done in two days, live with a few overdubs.' Production was shared almost equally between Tito Larriva (more on him later) and Flesheaters singer Chris D. Fire Of Love was released on Ruby records, Chris D's subsidiary of Slash magazine's self-titled label in 1981.
The obvious indications of Rockabilly influence extend to the LP title, taken from the Jody Reynolds song as well as the track "For The Love Of Ivy" (which is about Poison Ivy Rorschach of the Cramps) and the music of "Ghost On The Highway." The blues comes through in what I take to be the classic appearance here of a frenzied performance of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' the Blues," a helter-skelter ride of slide-led rave ups interspersed by sudden silences. This is probably the clearest demonstration of a jazz influence as the guitars phrase like horn players. The blues influence is also present in the spacious cover of Tommy Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water" (this may be better known by many in its guise as Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked Her For Water and She Gave Me Gasoline") here it stretches out to 6 mins 10 seconds and not a moment too long to my reckoning. Country is present in the form of "Promise Me" complete with violin played by Tito Larriva of first wave L.A. Punk band The Plugz (who later became The Cruzados) who also composed the soundtrack music for Repo Man and now fronts Tarantula: it's their more Latinate Gun Club-esque sounds that back the saloon scene in the Tarrantino-connected movie From Dusk to Dawn.
The album's lyrical imagery is plundered from voodoo, '50's EC comics and the blues. But if you check the lyric section of Go Tell The Mountain, you see a level of real poetry. There is also a hopefully ironic level of Pierce trying to be as KKK racist as possible, noticeable on "For the Love of Ivy," which has caused a lot of confusion over the years. But as Terry Graham says in the interview I did with him, "we assumed our fans would get it. We were the last people to take someone by the hand and explain everything we were doing and saying and displaying so that we wouldn't be misunderstood."
One thing I don't remember noticing for myself was that the mastering cut out the bass, which is something Pierce talks about in his autobiography. In fact, one thing you do notice on this LP is that when you do hear the bass, it is totally 'on the one,' i.e. Ritter seems to have a jazzman's grasp of structure. On the Terry Graham compiled CD Early Warning, the live parts show Rob Ritter was far more prominent live, seeming to take a lot of the solo-space- strange since that's normally a guitar role. Explainable though in that to quote Ward, 'Rob was as good a musician that I ever played with. He and Terry were unbelievable together. Rob was an extremely talented guy who was also about as dark as someone could be. Add heroin to the picture and you're not long for this place'.
Around this time, Pierce started saying in interviews that he harboured a dream of working in the Smithsonian Institute's music department researching early American recordings both blues and country. Jim Duckworth, who would later frequently stay at Pierce's home, talks of his room as almost a blues shrine. Jim's also talked of Pierce being into Prince and Michael Jackson, artists you wouldn't at first suspect. Although there appears to have been a funk influence throughout the band's career possibly partially thanks to Rob's prominence.
One problem that The Gun Club had in their early days was that they always seemed to be based elsewhere than their audience were. This may be the most decisive factor in their never breaking big. By the time of Miami, their 2nd LP they were signed to Animal Records, the record label that Chris Stein of Blondie fame had set up. This was based in New York while the band remained living in L.A.. Stein also signed up as their producer.
According to Terry Graham, Miami was recorded in a "tiny room in a second rate studio somewhere in New York and sports the famous "muffled" sound so favored by tiny rooms in second rate studios". This probably added greatly to the atmosphere here; that combined with Ward's slide guitar seem to underpin the sounds here. To sum up the contradictions of this record, the band captures the claustrophobia of wide-open spaces in a cramped studio in New York.
Producer Chris Stein is said to dislike heavy guitar based rock, which adds to the confusion in the production. He winds up with a ghostly presence in the sound pretty different to the way the band would come across live. It winds up sounding like the country LP the Doors never cut.
Pierce's vocals were getting stronger and he is still using the blues moan he picked up from Tommy Johnson. He would later recommend that I listen to Howlin' Wolf, an artist who was renowned for his trademark howl. Pierce's lyricism was becoming progressively mystical on tracks like "Like Calling up Thunder" and "Brother And Sister" but a rock and roll pulse still underlies everything. He approaches dirty realism on "Texas Serenade," a depiction of a suburban killing. The best track on the album is probably "Mother of Earth," a song where the narrating character is a drifter tired of 'eating and leaving but can't go back no more.' One little known fact about this track is that Billy Idol, who was hanging around with Pierce a lot in L.A. at the time, said that "White Wedding" was an attempt to copy it. Don't let that put you off, this is beautiful. Mark Tomco of Rubber Rodeo adds pedal steel guitar to both this and "Texas Serenade" adding a further psychedelic swirl.
(Mark Lanegan, ex of Screaming Trees fame, has recently done a cover of album opener "Carry Home" and says that Pierce is probably his single greatest influence. They were due to work together before Pierce died in '96.)
Debbie Harry (I hope she needs no introduction) appears, as a backing singer on various tracks on the LP under the pseudonym "D.H.Lawrence Jr." JLP would regale original Gun club drummer Brad Dunning with tales of misery about his unrequited love for Debbie. He had slept on her floor throughout his parents' divorce; he was also the head of her L.A. fanclub. The Blondie reunion album No Exit contains a track about Pierce in the shape of "Under The Gun."
Miami was originally due to be called "Triggernometry," after a book on Old West gunfighters. To quote Graham again, the new title Miami " was chosen because JLP liked places like Miami, Las Vegas, New Orleans.... places where the seamy underbelly is more readily on display. Candy stores for terminally inquisitive miscreants and carnival trash. Such places were/are fair reflections of the activity inside Pierce's's head. A psychic requirement for all Gun Club temp workers."
The cover versions here include "Fire of Love" - continuing the r+r tradition of putting the title track of an album on the next LP. This version sounds heavily like the version the MC5 used to do around 1970- check the Total Energy release Teenage Lust for proof. Also here is a lyrically-changed version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run through The Jungle." The original was about Vietnam; I'm not sure what this one is about. It starts with a lyric taken from a blues about the underground railway "some are coming on passenger, some are coming on the freight, others will come walking none have time to wait," then goes on to mention a heroin O.D. before Pierce starts up with his trademark non-verbal moan. The lyrics were originally thrown in from a Willie Brown track because Pierce could never decipher Fogerty's. The band first jammed the song at somebody's birthday party thinking of it as a one-off, but Stein insisted they cut it for the album. There is also what sounds like a miscredited cover of The Revolutionaries' reggae track "Watermelon Man"; I wondered if it might be some distant cousin of Herbie Hancock's tune of the same name but Ward said ' No. I ripped the music off from a Link Wray tune.' I'm still not certain that that isn't just a new guitar line to an otherwise older tune. I read a promotional interview where Jeffrey Lee said that Stein (who plays congas here) had managed to make this track sound like Dr John of Gris Gris fame.
People have said that Miami's production was not 100% sympathetic here. I hear a guitar line buried in the mix of the original vinyl that can only be heard through headphones. Apparently, the original U.S version of this LP was very shoddily mastered. This is strange considering that Pierce was at every stage of the mixing of it. Nevertheless, this is actually my favourite of their LP's.
One major drawback though is the red on green writing of all sleeve details. This makes reading the credits a major pain; but this sleeve is extremely evocative of the music inside. The back cover shows a hand swinging a cross pendant -a missionary bringing the word? Since Rob Ritter had already left, there are only three musicians depicted on the front cover- stark talking heads against two isolated palm trees on Santa Monica beach. Terry Graham is slightly to one side as Ward Dotson is eclipsed behind a black clad JLP in front of a pair of Palm trees. Ward was to find himself fired by the end of the year. Terry Graham was fired with him. So I wondered if there was any significance to this? Ward doesn't seem to think so: 'Jeff had a massive ego, everyone knows that. He also did most of the work and all of the hustling, he can be out front.'
JLP had seen the 'vision' behind the band as purely his own so didn't like giving credit where it was due. Pierce was finding it progressively difficult to get along with Ward Dotson with whom he had frequent arguments, during which he was finding Terry Graham backing up Dotson. Ward says almost the opposite -but then I don't think he subscribes to an idea of St Jeffrey. I wouldn't either, people like that don't make great music, or are at least the exception rather than the rule (thanks bofus).
Ward: 'Jeff kicked us out of the band because I could no longer tolerate his idiotic behaviour. He could be charming when he wanted to or when he had to, but that would make me resent him even more. He was also a huge liar; sometimes he'd lie just for the hell of it. This may all sound whimsical or romantic, but you try being in a van with someone like that and you're going to start dreaming of killing him. I don't care how good a songwriter he was.'
Pierce's solution was to sack them both. Ward says 'I didn't take Terry with me, but I should have formed a band with him immediately following that. Terry was a great drummer and he wanted to do something, instead I went with my drug buddies. I quit or was kicked out because I could no longer swallow the ridiculousness of the situation. I also wanted to do my own thing so it was going to happen eventually. I just wanted to go to Europe one more time.'
The monopolistic view of Pierce's importance still causes major chagrin with the two surviving members. Graham says that the Dotson/Graham line-up of the band was far more of a 4-way deal than Pierce ever made it out to be.
I asked Ward how writing was done? And how much input the band had? Ward: 'We rehearsed infrequently; we all lived in different cities. We were all good enough musicians to get the basic structure down and then the songs would take shape on stage. It was Jeff's hustle so he controlled what material we did. The band breathed all kinds of life into them. Musically we did what we wanted as long as it sounded "right." And we were very cognizant of what Jeff was after and what the band should sound like.'
Rob Ritter had already departed for 45 Grave an early LA gothic metal band, which was to give him the surname that he was known by until his O.D. several years later: Rob Graves. Before leaving the band, Ritter first taught all his bass-lines to his ex-Bags bandmate Patricia Morrison. She had already been through two bands: The Bags and Legal Weapon. She would stay with the band until the 1984 breakup and is currently a member of the Damned (and also married to singer Dave Vanian).
I asked Ward about Rob Ritter's departure. Ward: 'He left because he'd rather play with his friends (45 Grave) than succeed with the Gun Club. He told me he just could (not) stand Jeff. I wanted to quit when he left. The best part of being in Gun Club was soundcheck with Rob & Terry, just jamming and fucking around.' I'd read that Rob Ritter returned at one point as second guitarist, so I asked Ward about that.Ward: 'Not really, he played one show with us because I wasn't going to be able to make the show and then I could, so Rob and I played guitar.
There is a great CD bootleg called Death Party that compiles two previously released semi-bootleg LPs sourced from tapes belonging to Ward Dotson and Terry Graham. I asked Ward about those. What is the story of those 2 semi-bootlegs Sexbeat 81 and A Love Supreme? 'Jeff tried to make some quick cash and then Terry and I tried to retaliate. I was not paid after leaving the group. I only wanted what was due me and if that meant selling tapes to a record company, so be it. Terry and I hated Jeff so much we really didn't care what actions we took as long as it meant we might be evening up the score, financially that is. Too bad really.'
See Part Two (of three) of the Gun Club story
Also see Jay Hinman's write-up of Fire of Love
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