Jeffrey Lee Pierce was haunted. Not so much by alcohol or drugs, though those did play a role in deteriorating his health. No, he was haunted by ghosts, the devil and his own mortality. He had a reputation for being a wild and self-destructive figure, going in and out of alcoholism, and made some of the wildest, darkest music of the ’80s with his band, Gun Club. Formed in the LA punk rock scene from which X, Circle Jerks and The Germs were born, Gun Club are typically credited as inventing `psychobilly,’ with their hellacious hybrid of punk rock, country and blues that went to the extremes of all three. And their debut, Fire of Love, just might be one of the scariest punk rock albums ever.
Gun Club were musically similar to bands like X, but where John Doe and Exene Cervenka told noir stories of seedy Los Angeles life through a Raymond Chandler filter, Pierce & Co. were like a cross between Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Marie LeVeau, telling stories of death, sex and drug use through demon-possessed howls and fiery slide blues punk. The album’s artwork depicted voodoo priests over a purple background, and apothecary shelves with different vials depicting various images for each song—Elvis with bat wings for “For the Love of Ivy,” two gyrating youngsters for “Sex Beat,” and a curvaceous vixen inside of a syringe for “She’s Like Heroin To Me.” These images alone should give the listener some indication of what he’s in for.
The album starts with “Sex Beat,” Gun Club’s most well-known song and statement of living for sensation out of the feeling that most actions are meaningless and empty anyway. Musically, it’s simple and repetitive, playing on a four-chord progression, which becomes intensified with a second guitar speeding up during the second verse. Even in a song of salacious hedonism, however, Pierce’s tormented side comes out, describing the act as if speaking about a tribal ritual: “You make my tropical apartment’s bed/your sacrificial pool/my body in the water/and my heart is in your hands/so this is how you choose to send me/to the judgment land.”
In “Preaching the Blues,” the band takes on Delta blues with their own revved up sensibility, playing it truer than Clapton ever could and with more conviction, even if it didn’t exactly sound like traditional blues. This song, however, was actually a Robert Johnson song, originally titled “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”. There was a song by Son House called “Preaching the Blues,” but was a totally different song. In Gun Club’s hands, “Blues” was as passionate and sweltering as they come, Pierce howling like a wolf over Ward Dotson’s careening slide riffs. Similarly, “She’s Like Heroin to Me” features wild slide work, as well as a locomotive drumbeat courtesy of Terry Graham. Pierce takes on the familiar comparison of love to addiction with a pain and torment that Robert Palmer could never muster in similar similes: “I’m looking up and God is saying `what are you gonna do?’/I’m looking up and I’m crying `I thought it was up to you!‘”
From there, it only gets more frightening, particularly on “For the Love of Ivy,” of which certain parts are nearly atonal, and Pierce howling like a demon. This song is an odd combination of themes, paying tribute to Poison Ivy of psychobilly peers The Cramps, and telling the story of a Klansman on a killing spree, as Pierce sings, “gonna buy me a graveyard of my own/kill everyone who ever did me wrong.” “Fire Spirit” is more of a straight-up punk song, albeit one that kicks much ass, while “Ghost on the Highway” tells a tale of a love affair with a murderous woman over blazing chorus riffs.
Gun Club’s style played an influence on many others, particularly garage-a-billy outfits like The Legendary Shack Shakers, Lion Fever and The Rock-A-Teens, as well as others like 16 Horsepower, Sons and Daughters and the Fever, who all incorporated Gun Club’s gothic punk-blues into their sound in various ways. Though the band went through various lineup changes, they never officially broke up until Pierce’s death in 1996. He had spent much of his life succumbing to alcoholism, though at the time of his death he was dry, despite having a bad liver. His actual cause of death was a brain hemorrhage, claiming his life at 37 years of age. As the sound of Fire of Love lives on, one can only assume that Jeffrey Lee is out there somewhere, roaming on the highway, and preaching his blues.
X – Los Angeles
Cramps – Songs the Lord Taught Us
16 Horsepower – Low Estate
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.