THE GUN CLUB – ” Fire Of Love “

Posted: August 24, 2021 in MUSIC
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“Fire of Love” the debut album of the Gun Club, released on this day August 31st in 1981.

London punk turned pub rock into protest music; New York punk reframed noise as art. But compared to those more celebrated first-wave scenes, L.A. punk was both more traditionalist and transgressive, the sound of faded glamour degenerating into fuck-it-all nihilism. The natural response to living in a desperate, dangerous town is to make desperate, dangerous music. While the Germs and Black Flag pulverized punk into hardcore, bands likeand the Blasters approached punk as a rescue mission, by forging a spiritual connection with the primal hoots and howls of ’50s-jukebox oldies.

And then there was the Gun Club, whose ringleader, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, looked so far back into the past—to the emotional bloodletting of Depression-era blues that he wound up seeing the future, opening up a trail that indie rockers and roots artists would travel for years to come. But what makes the Gun Club’s 1981 debut, “Fire of Love”, so timeless. It’s an eternally captivating portrait of a young artist in their purest state—hungry, drunk on attitude, and committed to their vision to the point of seeming supernaturally possessed.

Jeffrey Lee Pierce, wasn’t the most obvious candidate for punk sainthood; at heart, he was more of a studious fanboy than a natural frontman. Born to an American father and Mexican mother, Pierce was raised in the working-class east L.A. community of El Monte before relocating to the Valley suburb of Granada Hills—“the Los Angeles that nobody ever bothers with,” as he called it. A voracious reader and record collector, Pierce became the teenage president of the Blondie fan club and worked the counter at Bomp Records, before making vagabond journeys to New York, New Orleans, and Jamaica. (His time in Jamaica dovetailed with a reggae obsession that saw him review records for L.A. scene bible Slash under the pen name Ranking Jeffrey Lea.) His own musical pursuits were equally impulsive: Upon dissolving his short-lived art-pop outfit Red Lights, Pierce formed a new band with fellow Chicano Brian Tristan after the two attended a Pere Ubu show at the Whiskey A Go-Go in 1979, initially using it as a vehicle to indulge their mutual love of soul and reggae.

That band was initially known as the Creeping Ritual, before Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris suggested a switch to the Gun Club. (In return, Pierce gifted Morris the lyrics to the title track for the Jerks’ 1980 debut, Group Sex.) But the name wasn’t the only thing that had changed. Through friendships with local record-collecting zine-maker Phast Phreddie Patterson and ex-Canned Heat singer Bob Hite, Pierce immersed himself in the blues, embracing it as both the original outsider’s music and as a strategic device to distinguish the Gun Club from his punk peers more clearly beholden to a ’60s-garage/Stooges lineage. “Anything before the ’60s can be fascinating, because so much time has passed,” he explained in a 1982 interview. “The ’60s just completely demolished everybody’s minds, and so people aren’t really aware of most of the musical forms before then … there’s more fresh and wild ideas going on there.”

Today, the concept of punks playing the blues may not seem so radical in a world where Jack White oversees his Third Man Records empire and the Black Keys now play arenas, but in 1980, no self-respecting aesthete would touch the stuff. But in his essay that accompanies Blixa Sound’s 40th-anniversary reissue of the album, drummer Terry Graham observes: “My half-drunk opinion was that Jeffery loved and hated the blues.

Key to this transformation was Tristan’s slide guitar, which yields some of “Fire of Love’s” bedrock riffs. But the guitarist didn’t stick around to see it through. With the Gun Club still playing to mostly empty rooms in L.A., Tristan accepted an offer to replace Bryan Gregory in the far more emerging and popular band The Cramps (where he became forever known as Kid Congo Powers). The loss of his co-founding partner presented an early indication that the Gun Club wasn’t going to be some tight-knit gang, but a fluid entity that would regularly reinvent itself in response to Pierce’s ever-changing whims. ( In the 2006 documentary “Ghost On The Highway”: “[Pierce] was just simply going to stuff his head with knowledge, express that knowledge somehow, and it just didn’t make any difference who was behind him, who was with him doing it, or who was in front of him watching him do it.”)

Tristan’s defection to the Cramps also provided a useful yardstick for measuring what made the Gun Club so singular. Pierce didn’t fit into any established punk archetypes: He wasn’t your typical leather-clad tough guy, he wasn’t a goth, he wasn’t some greasy coiffed, rockabilly revivalist. He didn’t have the lithe physique or cool stage-stalking presence of a Lux Interior. With his bottle-blonde hair and surplus-store assemblage of army coats, jackboots, and sabertooth necklaces.

But Pierce had a big mouth and possessed a disarming, mercurial singing voice that was feral and fearful in equal measure. Most crucially, unlike the Cramps, Pierce channelled rock’n’roll. Gun Club songs didn’t exist inside some imaginary B-movie, but in the darkest chapters of American history that sense of psychological torment defines “Fire of Love” as much as any slide-guitar riff or desert-storming backbeat.

By 1981, Pierce had locked in the line-up featuring Graham and bassist Rob Ritter (both of L.A. punk mainstays the Bags) and rockabilly enthusiast Ward Dotson on guitar. Culled from two quickie sessions done on the cheap, “Fire of Love” is a masterpiece of thriftiness and expediency. On their smash-and-grab reclamation of Robert Johnson’s “Preaching the Blues”—the band isn’t so much upgrading the genre for the hardcore era as trying to bash through their repertoire before getting the boot from the studio. The rhythm section pounds the ground so furiously, they practically start to glide across it.

Fire of Love’s crackling live-in-the-studio energy (complete with Pierce’s audible bandleader direction) and natural reverb create a late-night atmosphere. Pierce crafts his lyrics with a painterly touch, constructing a netherworld that channels westerns and old-time religion one moment, porno mags and dive-bar bathroom graffiti the next.

Pierce doesn’t so much sing the blues as mainline them, pushing his nervous energy into more outrageous—and, at times, troubling—displays of bravado. He delivers his signature rave-ups “Sex Beat” and “She’s Like Heroin to Me” like someone who’d pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room even though he knows he’ll get his ass kicked. And while “Jack on Fire” is a comparatively laid-back walking blues, its breathless lyrical procession of Southern Gothic imagery, voodoo mysticism, and snuff-film depravity goads Pierce into one of his most gripping, magnetic performances.

Then, of course, there’s the searing centerpiece “For the Love of Ivy.” The song not only showcases the Gun Club at peak blues-punk fury, but also displays a command of silence, space, and tension that evokes L.A.’s original prophets of doom, the Doors. Part hat-tip to the 1968 Sidney Poitier film For Love of Ivy, part love letter to the Cramps’ cool looking guitar player, “For the Love of Ivy” teeters on the precipice where sexual desire descends into murderous bloodlust, with Pierce unleashing some of the most unsettling screams, If it were the only song Pierce had ever released, “For the Love of Ivy” would still make him a legend. After all these years, each lyric-capping cry of “Hell!” still feels like a fresh jump-scare.

In plumbing the depths of evil, “For the Love of Ivy” also betrays Pierce’s tendency to lose himself in his characters which, in this case, means uttering a particularly ugly line about his deranged protagonist “hunting for n*****s down in the dark.” (A similarly disturbing phrase turns up in the cowpunk odyssey “Black Train.”) Still, its appearance in “Ivy” was and remains especially jarring coming from an artist who devoted so much of his life to studying and celebrating Black music.

“On “Sex Beat,” a razor-sharp country one-two shuffle becomes a howling wind as Pierce’s wasted, half-sung half-howled vocals relate a tale of voodoo, sex, dope, and death. The song choogles like a freight train coming undone in a twister. Here Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, Son House, and the coughing, hacking rambling ghost of Hank Williams all converge in a reckless mass of seething energy and nearly evil intent.

Pierce didn’t need to use racial slurs to alienate people. The same maniacal zeal that attracted musicians into his orbit was also the very thing that drove them away. Though Fire of Love made the Gun Club a hot property in post-punk circles—particularly in New York and Europe—its line-up didn’t even survive the making of the band’s second record, “Miami”. Ritter walked out of the sessions and Dotson followed suit after they wrapped. (Dotson was so traumatized by his experience working with Pierce, From there, the Gun Club’s music would turn more artful and cinematic—even acquiring a dream-pop shimmer on 1987’s Robin Guthrie-produced “Mother Juno” but their internal dysfunction only intensified, as Pierce’s control-freak tendencies and worsening substance abuse problems would see him cycle through a procession of players before he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996 at just 37 years of age.

While Pierce never stopped expanding his vision for the Gun Club over the course of his career, it was never more focused than on “Fire of Love“. And nowhere is his maniacal self-belief more deeply felt than on “Fire Spirit,” a snarling rocker that functions as his own personal—and eerily prophetic—theme song. “I can see clearly/From my diamond eyes,” he declares off the top, “I’m going to the mountain with the fire spirit/No one will accept all of me/So the fire… will stop.” Personal demons may have extinguished Pierce’s flame far too soon, but each time a needle drops on “Fire of Love“, it burns anew.

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