"Why are these songs not taught in schools?" So asked Jack White in 2008, citing "Sex Beat", "She's Like Heroin to Me", and "For the Love of Ivy". Careful examination of them, as much of this fiery 1981 debut which pioneered post-punk roots music, may provide a self-evident answer why impressionable tots may not want to be exposed to sex, drugs, and promises of a third element added after to the first two: death. But it all sounds like fun, ten tracks that wallop on this reissue as exciting, entertaining, and evil as ever.
Jeffery Lee Pierce's howling vocals, backed by Ward Dotson's slide and lead guitar, and two recruits from Los Angeles punks The Bags, Rob Ritter on bass and Terry Graham on drums, fire this album up. Produced half by Chris D. of The Flesh Eaters and half by Tito Larriva of the Plugz, it carries a ramshackle feel that the original vinyl (which I happen to have bought on release from Chris D. himself as he used to man the checkout counter at L.A.'s Rhino Records; his clever cover art appeared only on the import as Slash Records preferred a tamer tribal design instead of his chortling or menacing voudou themes) with hiss and crackle and a very low budget conveyed vividly.
This remaster, from Superior Viaduct, heightens the impact of the raw sound. While on its Ruby Records vinyl what Robert Christgau dismissed as the "tunelessly hooky allure" provides for me the merit rather than the drawback of this, after all, punk-era indie LP, it may not satisfy purists. Pierce's poetry: "we sit together drunk like our fathers used to be" survives his slurred phrasing and the band's clunky playing. His cover of "Preachin' the Blues" combines Robert Johnson's and Son House's lyrics, showing an intelligent rendering of this classic blues song, updated with Dotson's ringing slides up and down the frets, and a skittering drum roll from Graham, before Pierce enters, growling.
Following a rockabilly "Sex Beat", these two track signal the band's intentions: The Gun Club wanted to be taken seriously, not only to amuse, by its punk-blues fusion. Pierce could be lighthearted, but he also could hone his voice and guitar into a threat, making sex seem less a release than a sentence imposed on his intended partner, or target. "We can fuck forever/ but you will never get my soul", the object of his affections is assured in "Sex". At the end of "Preachin'", he yowls with similar glee, sure that his calling, one that gets him off the hook of having to do real work for a living, is now attained.
Larriva's plaintive violin backs "Promise Me" with a slower pace, droning as the fiddle's few notes sustain under the slide guitar; the band's use of dynamics on this album merits acclaim. Sequenced well, it mixes tracks from Larriva's and Chris D's productions, adding variety in tone and volume. Therefore, "She's Like Heroin to Me" showcases Pierce's knack for boastful blues swagger and surprising snips of poetry as when his earnest voice and unsteady pace make him more rather than less believable. "I know my special rider/ I can feel her in the dark." He presents himself as both superhero and everyman, as capable of transport on whatever kind of horse he may summon at night.
"For the Love of Ivy" wobbles as the rhythm section pounds out the basic patterns, while Pierce opens with "You look just like an Elvis from hell." The song meanders despite its relative brevity, but it too conveys the sense of a band exploring new ground musically as it figures out its innovations. Pierce's boasts continue, and akin to an antagonist in a Quentin Tarantino flick, I find them less disturbing than Christgau did. Pierce may be seen as a precursor of complex racial appropriation, or not. It may be for shock value, or it may be drug-fueled and drink-sodden macho posing. After all, both the blues and punk shared this lyrical and musical stance. The Gun Club figured this out first.
You can hear him hiss "shh" as the song concludes, a feature of the remaster. "Fire Spirit" closes what was side one with a mid-tempo "Fire Spirit". This allows the band to regain its place in a manner anticipating Pierce and a changing line-up in later years, when the band lost its early edge even as it attained a better grasp of alt-rock standards. They achieved European and overseas success, but in our native Los Angeles, I can attest at this time as one who longed to see them (but was barely too young for the over 21 clubs they preferred), that an eager following abroad was less reciprocated here.
A chugging guitar introduces "Ghost on the Highway" with another rockabilly song to start a side of the vinyl original. "It is not an art statement/ to drown a few passionate men" is likely not a sentiment to be found on either punk or blues records preceding it, I reckon. The offbeat nature of Pierce's lyrics, declamatory and allusive, offer a twist on either genre, and they embed themselves in the songs beneath their busy or lazy melodies. He ends with a moan, and the listener shares his loss.
Side two settles in more. "Jack on Fire" takes the slow burn approach. Again, Pierce adopts a series of claims as he confronts his lover to be: "Me and you a temporary debut." "Some Creole boys were lying dead." "I used his blood to paint my costume." "You will make love to me tonight." "It will be understood that I am bad." "For every day is Judgement Day to me." It's meant all in jest, surely. Or maybe not. For like a skilled front man, Pierce keeps us guessing his next move. It draws us in deep.
True to its title, "Black Train" trundles on, as Graham's drums begin. Ritter's bass was always the least-prominent instrument on this rather primitive recording, and the remaster while it sharpens the soundstage and allows Pierce's voice a better place at the center, apart from the music, doesn't sufficiently boost the lower registers here. The record feels tinny, if as a lo-fi homage to past masters.
The bass pops up more amidst the swampy feel and grinding, bayou critter percussion from Graham, echoing in the quieter "Cool Drink of Water". It sounds the most improved, sonically, on this reissue. This covers another Johnson, Tommy, in the most languid track. "I wanted water/ She gave me gasoline" is quite a couplet, too. It does take its time, as a blues song may, but it's a needed respite.
"Goodbye Johnny" closes with a farewell, gliding away on slide guitars again. They alternate with slashing ones, and Ritter's bass rumbles along. It serves as a fitting reminder of both a sawed-off, hard-bitten punk sensibility and a bluesy, drawn-out compulsion to sink deeper into cloudy depths.
This record has often been reissued, but it has been a decade or so since it has appeared on CD. Take this opportunity to add it to your collection. New generations need to hear this, and so should you. (In slightly edited form to Amazon US 8-11-2014; Also slightly revised 8-25-14 to PopMatters)