68. THE GUN CLUB – MIAMI (1982)

 American Shaman

Jeffrey Lee Pierce in bona fide rock’n’roll tradition, was destined never to grow old. He barely gave himself a chance. The first diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver may well have been as early as 1982. Pierce was a mere 24 years old then, two thirds of the way through his brief earthly sojourn. That he lasted as long as he did surprised some, but his death in 1996 (from a brain haemorrhage) still came as a shock to many. The Gun Club had made a career out of being the craziest, drunkest, most shambolic act on the LA scene. The band members played their parts willingly. After all, as Pierce said at the time: “People here have got nothing else to do but lose their minds.” Who better than Jeffrey to help them on their way?

When Pierce – who ran Blondie’s West Coast fan club – met Brian Tristan (Kid Congo Powers) – chief of The Ramones fan club – at a Pere Ubu gig in 1978, sparks were destined to fly. First baptised Creeping Ritual and soon after The Gun Club, this early incarnation were according to Powers “too arty for rock people, far too rock for arty people, too cuckoo for the blues crowd and too American for punk”. If history was theirs to make, it was near inevitable that their legendary status would be born of their scabrous and uncultivated live performances and their antagonistic personalities, rather than from their mercurial discography. The Gun Club would never neatly present us with a ‘Forever Changes’ or a ‘Marquee Moon’; their anarchic lifestyles possessed neither the patience nor prissiness for that to happen.

By rights there should be no place on this list for their second LP ‘Miami‘. Gun Club devotees, accustomed to the band’s cathartic early performances, lament the emasculated mix of an album which in the right hands, could have been a career defining, even generation defining moment. It wasn’t. A critical and commercial failure, it lacks the blood and guts of their debut ‘Fire Of Love’, the nocturnal glare of ‘The Las Vegas Story’ (Pierce’s personal favourite) and the polish and swagger of ‘Mother Juno’. At least the latter pair provided the most unpunctual of platforms for original member Kid Congo Powers, absent from the band’s early records on Cramps duty, and ‘Miami’ doesn’t feature him either. Powers’ replacement, Ward Dotson who plays guitar, called the album disastrous. In an interview during the twilight of his career, Pierce was congratulated for delivering such a fine album, and proceeded to mercilessly deride the journalist’s compliment. So, is its inclusion here an act of folly or simply sheer contrariness? Not so. We’ve included it here for one very simple reason – more than any other of their albums, it has the highest concentration of brilliant Gun Club moments. Chris Stein’s anaemic production? Yeah, I hear you. Blah blah blah… You want the best post-punk collection of primitive American rock’n’roll songs? Look no further.

‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘Like Calling Up Thunder’ showcase Pierce’s shrill atonal wailing which almost drowns out Dotson’s atmospheric slide guitar, the latter track also featuring a brilliant rumbling Fall-like rockabilly rhythm. ‘Brother And Sister’ opens up promisingly (‘Sins of me, buzz and hiss in the trees/Their little skeletons will harm no one/Why do you bring them, always back to me/Their kingdom come and their will be done/On Heaven and earth and me’) but ends up feeling a little stiff and contrived. Thankfully it is followed quickly by a sizzling cover of Creedence’s ‘Run Through The Jungle’ – here Pierce multi-tasks with a strung out lead guitar, all the while sounding like he’s performing a frenzied shamanic ritual.

But the album hits ramming speed on ‘Devil In The Woods’ which along with Side Two’s ‘Bad Indian’ and ‘Sleeping In Blood City’ shares the thrilling two chord frenzy of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ filtered through an exhilarating psychobilly spectrum. Bassist Rob Ritter alongside Dotson play with finger-shredding ferocity which even the flattened mix can’t disguise. Pierce’s delirious and savage delivery ensures these are three songs to make cacti bleed. Meanwhile the band give good range on ‘Texas Serenade’ where once again Pierce maniacal delivery is electrifying, this time strewn wildly over Mark Tomeo’s woozy steel pedal.

‘Watermelon Man’ is the bands very own ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’, conjuring images of blood spattered Creole dolls – one can almost hear the bells jangling out their rhythm on Pierce’s wrists. If the band’s take on the standard ‘John Hardy’ is an archetype for the cowpunk of early Meat Puppets, nevertheless I somehow find myself singing along to Roxy Music’s ‘Editions of You’ – which despite its futuristic aspirations shares with it the same basic blues roots. Meantime, ‘The Fire Of Love’ out-Cramps Lux and Ivy with a big proud garage stomp. The closer ‘Mother Of Earth’ is almost a straightforward country rock track (once again enhanced by Tomeo’s steel pedal cameo), but masterfully evocative of the wide open desert spaces and consequently a fitting finale to an album which couldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world or by any other band in the world.

There was a time in the not too distant past, where UK independent record shops boasted bulging ‘Americana’ sections. I can’t imagine that record stores across the North Atlantic would have replicated this bumbling genre-lisation. That would surely be meaningless in the US, but I am honest enough to admit my ignorance in this regard. Nevertheless, I could partially identify with this (anxious? nostalgic?) millennial movement to recapture in a post-postmodern culture a sense of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rootsiness’. However, often the albums stacked up on those shelves were uninspiring rewrites of ‘After The Gold Rush’ ‘The Band’ ‘Grievous Angel’ and the like. If you want real Americana, why not hear the whole history of American rock’n’roll music in one band? Pierce’s travels took him to every corner of his homeland in his efforts to distil the mythical elements of that sound. From sleeping rough in New York to learning voodoo from Haitians in New Orleans, Pierce searched long and hard for the holy grail. His journey wasn’t a wasted one. I hear in the music of The Gun Club the wounded mutant blues of Charlie Patton, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, traversing desert, prairie and swamp to revisit the voodoo incantations of Dr. John, freeloading along the way on rockabilly, exotic southern-fried trash and bad-ass LA punk, and simultaneously nailing the garage sound of ‘Psychotic Reaction’, while stretching out along the highway to envelop ghostly torch song and murder ballad. ‘Miami‘ tells its compelling version of the story of American rock’n’roll with the spikes and bristles flattened out in the mix, yes, but with the most indelibly bewitching treasury of songs imaginable. (JJ)

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51. SPACEMEN 3 – RECURRING (1991)

Spacemen_3Divided Souls: Spacemen 3 and The Redemptive Power Of Music

Robert Christgau’s review consisted of three words: “Stooges for airports.” But then again, he awarded one of his coveted A+ ratings to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which might lead one to presume that Christgau is, in fact, rather fond of music for airports. Of course, I’ve missed the point if all his analogy does, is lead me to contemplate the wonderfully absurd possibility of Raw Power echoing around air terminal departure lounges. But then I’d say Christgau was well off the mark with his dismissive assessment of Spacemen 3’s damaged swan-song Recurring,which I would contend is one of the greatest (and unjustly overlooked) albums of the 1990s.

It took me a long time to feel convinced by Spacemen 3. Dragged along by a few friends, I witnessed a fairly unspectacular set at Fury Murrys in Glasgow in 1989. I was genuinely underwhelmed, but then my expectations had not been high – I didn’t care greatly for the po-faced posturing of their early albums, which often sounded more than a little contrived. I sensed a shallow affectation beneath that ’66 Velvets’ veneer: that, as if by simply wearing the clothes, they would become the man. All the same, this was clearly a band whose heart was in the right place. Their musical touchstones, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Suicide, latterly laced with a dose of gospel and krautrock, demonstrated a fairly discerning palate.

By the time Recurring, sporting a hideous ‘Зmarties’ technicolour sleeve, hit the record stores in February 1991, Pete Kember and Jason Pierce hadn’t spoken face to face in six months. Some misinterpret Recurring as a hastily compiled contractual obligation album. In actual fact, it was supposed to be the first of a lucrative five album deal with Dedicated records. But in reality, even a new record contract could not disguise the fact that Spacemen 3 as an entity, was already dead. Bruised and battling egos alongside increasing drug addiction, had conspired to create an insurmountable rift between Pierce and Kember, just as they had finally realised some degree of commercial success. Their penultimate album had finally given them a breakthrough of sorts. Critics and (the indie) public alike adored it. Playing With Fire,  embodied a soulful (spiritual if you prefer), as well as a stylistic shift in their sound: a sonic leap at least partially attributable to a key change of personnel – the recruitment of Will Carruthers and Jon Mattock (who would go on to join Pierce in Spiritualized once the disintegration was complete). They replaced Stuart Roswell and Pete Bain who had left to form The Darkside. The results were instant. And while I wouldn’t get into a boxing ring with someone who would claim for it the title of their finest moment, neither could I in all sincerity agree with them. Playing With Fire contains some extraordinarily beautiful songs, alongside the last vestiges of those big power-chord Stooges riffs which characterised some of their earlier work (hear ‘Suicide’ and ‘Revolution’), and a protracted exploration of Kember’s latest guitar pet – the Vox Starstream, on the ten minute ‘How Does it Feel.’

While the Vox Starstream’s repeater function added a vital new psychedelic dimension to their sound, ‘How Does It Feel’ sounded laboured and unjustifiably lengthy – like they were mucking about with a new toy. By contrast, consider the opening track on Recurring, which, while even lengthier in duration, gives the instrument a genuinely worthy exposition. Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)’ is Kember’s twin tribute to Kraftwerk and 1960s garage punks The Electric Prunes: a musical homage to the former, the lyrics brazenly stolen from the latter. But it’s metronomic pulse glides lighter than air and the trademark two chord Farfisa organ which creeps into its flesh, is so hypnotic that those eleven minutes feel like four. It could be Kember’s finest moment. Indeed, his half of the album – he and Pierce, by now completely beyond personal reconciliation, recorded their songs separately and were each afforded one side of the album – could be his finest hour. Spacefans often invest considerable energy debating the relative merits of Kember and Pierce’s individual contributions, but I do not aim to ignite the debate here. Indeed, I veer back and forth with my own preference. Depends on one’s mood I’d say.

Kember’s ‘I Love You’ nicks a neanderthal Troggs riff, Can’s fizzing pulse from ‘Father Cannot Yell’ and a shuffling Diddley-esque rhythm, while ‘Just To See You Smile’ (subtitled ‘Honey Pt.2’) prolongs the glistening soulful balladry of PWF, this time borrowing heavily as the band often did, from the ghostly waltz-time inflections of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’. (Pierce does likewise on the blissfully gorgeous Sometimes)

There is little poetic or profound in a Spacemen 3 lyric: rather one is left to wonder if – in these seemingly simple love songs – the object of affection is a girl or a favoured pharmaceutical. Or even the music itself. Take Pierce’s majestic Hypnotised for example: “Her sweet touch it dances through my blood/Sets my heart on fire/It’s lit up all around my soul/Takes me higher and higher/It’s got everything and so much more/Never known a love like it before/Jesus, sweeter than the life you lived/Lord, hypnotize my soul.” The title of their posthumous compilation of early demos, made explicit the band’s raison d’être: Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To,  and one is never clear if there was a concerted effort to evangelise about the use of chemicals, or whether when writing, the band were simply chronicling their collective narcotic meltdown. In any case those Ray-Bans failed to conceal their own very real problems, which by the time of Recurring were spiralling out of control.

Pierce’s ‘Feel So Sad’ (later spiritualized with an additional ten minutes) acts as a prelude to the shimmering organ-ic rush of the aforementioned Hypnotised, where the rattling percussion (like a bluebottle stuck in a matchbox) gives way to a layered gospel-inspired wave of a chorus, embellished with Memphis-style sax. After Pierce’s half is over it is a challenge to rejoin the real world; one’s head has been ransacked by the densest suite of ambient space blues ever committed to vinyl – a listless drift which segues nebulously to the albums conclusion. In many ways it is authentically, the first Spiritualized record.

Recurring is a document of disunity that polarises opinion. It was fuelled by drugs, a bitter enmity between its chief protagonists and yes, even more drugs. It sounds tarnished and sullied and yet somehow pure as snow; a slow motion surrender, a wasted eulogy, a sprawling soporific haze. And if it is a sybaritic and decadent confessional, yet it floats like a cloud of mercy and redemption, stretching out through the darkness to find broken souls to mend and heal. In the end, finally, it is Spacemen 3’s perfect prescription. (JJ)

3. THE CHOCOLATE WATCHBAND – FORTY FOUR (1984)

The Chocolate Watchband – ‘Forty Four’

The Chocolate Watchband only recorded three albums in their short lifetime. Unfortunately none of those records was recorded in its entirety by the core line up of Dave Aguilar, Sean Tolby, Bill Flores, Mark Loomis and Gary Andrijasevich. Instead producer Ed Cobb used  a combination of friends and session musicians to fill out their records. Even their most famous song ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’ was released before singer Aguilar could record his vocals. Admittedly some of the longer psychedelic instrumental on their first two records are pretty great. But it is a crying shame as these guys were the real deal, street walkin’ cheetahs on the Sunset Strip, capable of blowing any of their contemporaries away.

Fortunately this situation was rectified in 1984, with the release of Forty Four, which compiles the cream of the San Jose Five’s output. Rockers like Sweet Young Thing, Sitting There Standing, Don’t Need Your Lovin’ and Are You Gonna Be There may show the obvious influences of the Stones and the Yardbirds but are played with the aggression and raw power of the Stooges and the MC5.  Loomis and Tolby’s guitars roar and bite, snarl and zing in the same way that Wayne Kramers and Fred Sonic Smiths do.

There was more to them then mere power merchants. They could dish out gorgeous folk rock like Misty Lane and She Weaves a Tender Trap, out Davie Allen on his own fuzz-toned Blues Theme, psychedelia on No Way Out, genuine weirdness on Loose Lip Sync Ship. Best of all is the shimmering Bo Diddley trance dance of Gone And Passes By.

So what held them back? Could have been their own irreverent attitude (theres a story of them supporting the Seeds, and only playing Seeds covers! That’s my kind of band!). Most likely it was just that the label saw them as a vehicle for Ed Cobb’s more experimental ideas, and the deal they signed gave them no control over what went on the records.

The Chocolate Watchband were one of the sixties biggest could-have-should-have-been bands. Perfectly programmed, Forty Four lays out their legacy for you, and deserves to sit  alongside Safe As Milk, Teenage Head and High Time. (TT)

2. GIRLS AT OUR BEST – PLEASURE (1981)

Pleasure- Girls At Our Best!
Considering the Jupiter-sized egos usually involved, it’s inevitable that there’s always been plenty of room for self-mythology in music. For two decades and more, it’s been an article of faith in hip-hop but can be traced at least as far back as Bo Diddley, who pulled off the remarkable trick of repeatedly deploying the third person without ever appearing deluded. The Beatles dabbled briefly but memorably in it on Glass Onion and practically every Clash album contained at least one ode to their own legend but what all these had in common was that their mythology either already existed or proved to be self-fulfilling.
This was somewhat less the case with Girls At Our Best!, whose approach appeared to be that if they didn’t mythologise themselves  nobody else would – but was more likely a satire on self-proclaimed legends who were often within their rights to bluster as they did  but could come over a bit daft at the same time.
It all began on Warm Girls, one half of their debut double A-side from 1980.  Discordant and tuneful in equal measure, and  a grotesque caricature of beauty pageants (no one would now even consider writing a line like “I love mental  children”, owing to a combination of  understandably but over-zealously heightened sensibilities and the utterly devalued, bankrupt currency of irony), it ended with a repeated refrain of the band’s  name, followed in the fade-out by a tantalising preview of the song’s sequel (and, with poignant symmetry, GAOB’s final single) Fast Boyfriends.
The other side,  Getting Nowhere Fast, is their best remembered song,  at least partly because of the Wedding Present’s cover from their single-a-month camapign of 1992, but it’s actually fairly untypical, being rawer and scruffier than the rest of their repertoire, while singer Judy Evans pretty much chants the lyric without going anywhere near the stratospheric registers which would become her trademark.
Fast Boyfriends wouldn’t emerge for another year  and a half, when Pleasure was launched to a public who would have been ungrateful if they weren’t so oblivious. Neither song from the debut single appeared on the album – but they were on the lyric sheet, along with  the equally absent and equally magnificent follow-ups Politics!/It’s  Fashion and Go For Gold. It’s as if GAOB knew their tiny-but -massive output – which would amount to just 18 songs, including a cover and a medley – had to be seen as a whole, not an immaculately sculpted oeuvre but every facet of a sparky, at times infuriating  but ultimately downright lovable personality.
With a profoundly English perspective on Blondie’s Manhattan scuzz, GAOB were ultimately left at the gates by Altered Images in the race to take sweet but skewed pop to the  masses but it really didn’t matter as GAOB were a cult in the truest sense – comparatively few people knew about them but just about everyone who did loved them fervently and embraced the shockingly compulsive da-da-da chorus of She’s Flipped,  the aural bouncy castle (a compliment, trust me) of Waterbed Babies and that self-mythology again in the Ants-pulsed sales pitch of £600,000.
This song, combined with the free, more innocuous than it sounds Pleasure Bag (a paper bag with postcards and stencils containing a photo of the band) and the CB radio celebration of Fun City Teenagers, as well as the Stars On 45 medley they did for a Peel Session, lock Pleasure, and GAOB as  a whole, as firmly into 1981 as an episode of Not The Nine O’Clock News. Mercifully, they left the song about the Rubik cube to the Barron Knights but ceased to exist some time in ’82, vanishing like a neighbour on a moonlight flit.
Their lack of success means that there’s no place for them on the sorrowful parade of ’80s nostalgia tours, where the notion that there’s something inherently amusing about the music of that benighted decade is pandered to in an ever downward spiral, but it also means they can be remembered, discovered and cherished unblemished and intact. One day they’ll get caught… (PG)