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The Gun Club, Pt 1:
“Preachin' the Blues”
Creeping Ritual and the Genesis of The Gun Club (1979 – 1980)

Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo Powers - Halloween 1981

I ended up coming back to Los Angeles and picked up where I left off. Going to concerts, hanging out with the Screamers and my old friends. The scene had grown and grown there were a lot more bands. There were still concerts every night to go to. Probably most nights of the week there was an out of town concert happening.

I was in line waiting to see Pere Ubu and there was this guy who I’d seen at a million concerts and a big Deborah Harry badge on and bleached blond hair and a white vinyl trench coat belted really tight at the waist and white girls cowboy boots on. And I thought, wow, who’s this completely strange creature? And so I started talking to him, I think we were probably drinking out in line (because this was a different time in space where you could do things like that) and he turned out to be Jeffrey Lee Pierce…and he had a band called The Red Lights, but he really wanted to start a different kind of band. So we got to talking and got drunk. I think I had seen him at the Television concert the week before and we were rammed up right at the front of the stage. So we started talking about music and drinking and I found out he had been traveling around a lot too and had been to New York and had actually gone to Jamaica and was writing reggae reviews for Slash magazine. We had a travel wanderlust thing about us so we talked about traveling a lot. So at the end of our conversation he said, “You should be in a band with me.” And I said, “Well, you know I don’t do anything… I don’t play any instruments.” And he said, “Well, you could be the singer." And I thought, no. I definitely do not want to be the singer. So he said, “OK, well, I’ll be the singer and you can be the guitar player." And I said, “I don’t have a guitar or play guitar.” And he was like, “I have an extra guitar and I can teach you how to play”. And I was like, “well,ok, why not”.

Because we'd seen other things than the local bands and had been influenced by a lot of outside things like the British scene and the no-wave new York scene and traveling with him and reggae and it didn’t really matter that we didn’t really know what we were doing. That was never really a consideration in those days for a band. And so he gave me a Bo Diddley record and told me to listen to the Slits album and showed me how blues players played. Because I was trying to learn chords - which was like, impossible for me. So he was like, well you can learn really fast because what blues players do is they tune their guitars to open E and they slide. And I liked slide because I was a big fan of Lydia Lunch and Pat Place of the Contortions. So I thought, “OK, this makes sense.” So, we recruited some friends of ours, a really good friend of ours named Brad Dunning, who is actually a really big interior designer now, and a journalist friend of ours named Don Snowden who wrote reviews for the New York Times. We were all just some guys who started to hammer out some really quite horrible noise.

I remember the first songs we tried to learn was a version of Winston Rodney Burning Spear, “People Get Ready” - his version of that. We played "My Brand of Blues" by Marvin Rainwater, "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger” - those were the first songs we learned... (and some original songs because Jeffrey was already writing songs. And so we hammered out some kind of weird sounds that kind of was a pre-Gun Club.

We called our band “The Creeping Ritual.” And we quickly played a live gig, the Blasters gave to us - or maybe Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks. I can’t remember - but I remember our first gig was at the Hong Kong Cafe in Chinatown. And we were really terrible. This was probably 1979-ish the end of the year when we played this first show and we did our noisy, gothy, reggae, blues collaboration. The people in bands really loved it, but I think the audience really hated it. Jeffrey was quite obnoxious - already at the time. He was already “l’enfant terrible.” Soon after that we decided - Keith Morris said, “You need a different kind of name because that name is too gothic sounding” and so he offered us the name “The Gun Club” and Jeffrey actually traded him a song for it. A song called “Group Sex” - the song that became the title song of the Circle Jerks album, so that was the genesis of that name.

We ended up calling our band The Gun Club and Brad was getting too tired when he was playing drums and throwing his sticks in the air so he decided he didn’t want to play drums for real. And Don was too busy writing or something - I can’t remember what. So we decided to continue on and we recruited... Some of the people who did like us that were in the audience were the guys from The Bags - Terry Graham, the drummer and the bass player, Rob Ritter. So that came as a package deal. So we started rehearsing and Jeffrey and I started writing more original songs and they were really good players and we were like, “Oh my God, they can really play” because we had been playing with people who couldn’t play.

So Jeffrey gave the band a tape of songs he was interested to influence the band. The tape had different things on it like Bo Diddley and Marvin Rainwater, Marty Robbins’ murder ballads, old Little Richard, some blues stuff…and that really solidified what direction the band would go. We did our homework and listened to these records and started making it. It was kind of a natural thing. It just kind of came about that way – that was as calculated as it was – the influence. Oh yeah, I remember, Bob Dylan was on that tape…”Tombstone Blues”. That was one of the very first Gun Club cover versions we did was cover of “Tombstone Blues”. You could completely see that influence in the first album. So, from doing things like “Tombstone Blues” and writing blues on our own songs, like “Sex Beat” was our first one… and that was kind of garage rocker type thing. It wasn’t a very punk kind of song that has much more to do with a soul song than a country song.

But then like, blues - we did "Preachin' the Blues" from really early on and that was a big turning point in The Gun Club sound was learning how to do that because that was half improvised songs and that’s where I think I got my singers guitarist leanings. That was a song that totally just depended on a beat going and the changes come when the vocal comes…and the vocal line comes whenever they come. It doesn’t come when it’s supposed to come. So it’s like following what’s going on and that was kind of my first dealings with improvisation too. Because it always was improvised songs with The Gun Club from the early days until the last days. We didn’t know when the parts were going to come or how long Jeffery might draw it out or if we were going to freak out or if we were going to stay cool. That was a huge turning point in sound and showed us what we could do. It shocked and surprised us. So we employed that more in song writing - that theory. And to us we were like “Oh, that’s like a Patti Smith” following what’s going on and improvisation. So, “Jack on Fire”, “She’s Like Heroin to Me”, “Railroad Bill”, “For the Love of Ivy” are all really early songs that were pre-Fire of Love that I played on and helped write.

And we were really hitting our stride there. And what came out of it was having these punk rock players play with us who could really play and Jeffrey could actually really play and write songs and other people thought his singing was some horrible howling - even after we made records they thought that. But he started to really find that voice that came into what The Gun Club became. We were super irreverent, super nihilistic, super half-hating that music and trying to destroy it and half-really loving it. Trying to make some new voice out of that. Jeffrey was getting very into this trying to get into this preacher man persona, very night of the hunter, bad preacher thing.

And we were even banned from playing at the Club 88 because they were so horrified that he took a bible on stage and threw it on the ground and danced on top of it - which sounds totally silly to me now, and it was just funny to us then - but people were really offended by us. And that was fine by us because we really wanted to be offensive and have bad vibes and we really were into the bad juju. We were really big Dr. John fans. We were out to destroy music as much as we were out to create it. Jeffrey was a very odd sort of boy. He was very obnoxious all the time, but very sweet too. There was a strange thing that someone wrote - “you would get to the point where you want to strangle him and throttle him, but then he would do something that would charm you so much that you would end up forgiving him for it.” It was one of those things like we would be playing and he would be being so obnoxious berating the audience telling everyone to “fuck off” and what “losers” they were and you’d be laughing and it would go on and on and on in the middle of "Preaching the Blues - waiting for the change to come. But it can’t come until he gives the signal. But he’s too busy telling everyone they’re “butt fuckers” and the audience is all walking out - the five people in the audience. And then he would say something hysterical, come back to the song and do some brilliant phrasing and crack the song and we would all fall back in and it would be completely magical and you’d think…”ok, well maybe he IS great…maybe it is great.” Its funny because years later I was playing with Nick Cave and we played a festival somewhere with the Pogues and Shane McGowan was SO off his face - surprise! I was standing in the wings watching and all of the band had their backs to the audience and were all cursing him out and he was somewhere and he couldn’t find the microphone. And you could tell the band would want to kill him. And then he’d find the microphone and sing this completely brilliant sad ballad and everyone would be all in awe. He really reminds me of Jeffrey a lot. It was like that sort of thing with Jeffrey.

We were playing a lot of live shows and one of our big hits was our song “For the Love of Ivy” because everyone knew we were singing about Ivy from The Cramps. And I made up the first set of lyrics that I took from a book I had called 1001 Insults. Because the song, although turned into a tribute to Ivy, was not always that - it was just a good title because we loved the Sidney Poitier film For the Love of Ivy. So I can’t remember what all the "1001 insults" were but they were really funny and really scathing but we decided just to change it to use some very blues imagery and steal different blues lines - different scathing blues lines. And it metamorphosized into that. It became our tribute to hunting down Ivy - because we wanted to have sex with her.

So we were playing to like ten people from other bands that would show up to see us. The Cramps actually moved to Los Angeles. Brian Gregory had quit and they had a fill in guitar player for a while and they weren’t happy with her, so they were scouting around for someone to play with them and came to see The Gun Club and really loved it and flipped out. Dave Alvin of The Blasters tells a story that Lux and Ivy were there with a cassette tape recorder and taking notes at our local shows. One day at the advice of Christian Hoffman of The Mumps, he said “Why don’t you get Brian Tristan to play…the guy from The Gun Club…that boy who hangs around and pesters you all the time.” And they called me up and asked if I would come and play with them. And I said that I had a band and I was going to college taking rock journalism and Spanish and type lessons. And they asked me to be in their band and I said I would consider it for a moment. I asked them if they wanted me to audition, they said no. And I asked what they wanted to know. And they asked “Well, what are you willing to sacrifice?!” and I said what…my band, or school…or moving somewhere? And they said…”NO, like…a finger!” and I told them I would put it under consideration.

And I thought about it and I went to Jeffrey and told him that The Cramps just asked me to be in their band…and he was like, “Are you crazy? The Cramps? That’s incredible! You should do it. I would do it in a minute!” I called them up and said I would do it…and that was that.

Continue to Kid Congo Powers Oral History Part 3, The Cramps 1
Jump ahead to Gun Club 2

 © New York Night Train , 2005


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