Jeffrey Lee Pierce walked an interesting line between delta blues and post-punk of the 1980s and did so after forming the L.A. based Gun Club in 1979. On their best days, the band possessed the other-worldly hymnal traits of The Waterboys, and on their worst days, they sounded like a sloppier version of The Cramps and, subsequently, Pierce has been described as “a tortured evil genius” by many. Pierce died on this day in 1996; when interviewed, his ex-bandmates have described him as very difficult to work with and essentially “insane”.
Prior to getting into music, Pierce was a music fan and critic and wrote for the L.A. based magazine Slash. He was a known Blondie fanatic and thus became the President of the Blondie fan-club. In his early adulthood, Pierce travelled a lot, including to Jamaica, and it was here that he developed a strong love for reggae. In addition, Pierce played Americana and roots music and had an affinity for delta and Chicago blues artists.
The Gun Club were an active part of the global post-punk and punk revival scene and, during it, Pierce was close friends with the likes of Henry Rollins and Nick Cave. Pierce was every little bit as brilliant as these artists and bore aesthetic, philosophical, and musical similarities. He lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and embodied that tortured artist archetype, but, as have many before him, he lived fast and died very young at the tender age of 37. The reality was that Pierce had a serious alcohol and drug problem and, in fact, he was once denied care at a hospital as the doctors had claimed that it was “too late, his liver has already shut down.”
Towards the end of his life, the concerns grew greater by those around him, and many people were very worried about him due to his rapidly declining health. Nick Cave, who had kept a steady correspondence with Pierce towards the end of his life, once said: “He looked increasingly ill, I mean, we all did, but Jeffrey looked particularly so. His pallor, you know. He was physically suffering. And then he went to Japan. I think he got involved in some kind of relief work. Helping earthquake victims. This seemed to have a positive effect on him, you know, spiritually,” Cave recalled.
And then just a week later, things took a turn for the worst, deceivingly so: “Then he went back to the States,” Cave added. “The phone calls that I got from him there, he seemed really well. Or comparatively well. And happy, you know. And then, I think, Henry Rollins phoned me to tell me that he died.”
Despite Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s underwhelming commercial impact, he still has had a significant enough influence on bands as well as helping pioneer the sub-genre of blues-punk, spawning later bands like The White Stripes, The Black Keys and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Here, we delved into a definitive list of his six best songs with and without his band, The Gun Club.
Jeffery Lee Pierce’s six best songs:
‘Sex Beat’ – (Fire of Love – 1981)
The Gun Club’s song, ‘Sex Beat’, taken from their first album Fire of Love, is a good example of their definitive sound that has been described as “tribal psychobilly blues”. The music press has also described The Gun Club as taking “Robert Johnson and pre-war acoustic blues and ‘punkified’ it. Up until then bands were drawing on Iggy + The Stooges and the New York Dolls but he took it back so much further for inspiration.”
Their debut album secured them a record deal with Blondie’s Chris Stein’s label. Of course, as we already know, Pierce was already the president of Blondie’s fan club, which helped The Gun Club develop that connection. Music critic Stevo Olende wrote that the “album’s lyrical imagery is plundered from voodoo, ’50’s EC Comics and the blues.”
There hasn’t been anyone like Pierce and The Gun Club since before or after they made their sloppy but indelible stamp onto the world. Pierce’s vocals and pronunciations of his lyrics are very out of time and are at times indecipherable. But yet, one cannot wait to hear him scream “sex beat!”.
‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’ – (Fire of Love – 1981)
The second on our list is another off their debut record and another great example of their own brand of Americana-punk which is really cow-punk or psychobilly, or whatever you want to call it. The track also further confirms some people’s assertion that they are the ’80s punk equivalent to Creedance Clearwater Revival. In fact, to further establish that link, The Gun Club covered ‘Running Through The Jungle’ on their second album.
Ira Robbins, writing for Trouser Press, noted: “Pierce frequently hits notes just slightly sharp, which you can hear clearly in the chorus of “She’s Like Heroin to Me.” Like in many of Pierce’s songs, there is a fierce honesty and brutality told in his lyrics.
“We sit together, drunk like our fathers used to be
We sit together sad, like our fathers used to be.”
Pierce is fearless in his delivery and quite frankly didn’t give a shit about what others thought of him. He did things his way and would deliver his message the way he wanted to, even if people did get hurt along the way.
‘Mother of Earth’ – (Miami – 1982)
Around the time The Gun Club released their second record, Miami, Billy Idol met up with Jeffery Pierce at a bar in L.A. and told him that his smash hit, ‘White Wedding’, was an attempt to emulate ‘Mother of Earth’. The song is a beautiful example of Pierce’s impeccable ability to mix rockabilly with Americana, and reverb-soaked cowpunk. It sounds like Johnny Cash on acid.
Miami was released on Chris Stein’s record label, Animal Records. Debbie Harry also appears as a guest vocalist on a couple of tracks on the record, under the pseudonym of D.H Laurence Jr. Blondie guitarist, Chris Stein, also produced the record.
‘Bad America’ – (The Las Vegas Story – 1984)
This track is a good example of how bad The Gun Club were at times on a technical level. Regardless, there is something very charming and alluring about the song and the sound they produced on this one. Pierce’s voice is the best thing about the track, and the title, ‘Bad America,’ instantly sucks you in – you want to know more about it.
The guitar solo is worthy of note and is executed by the other enigmatic member of the band, King Congo Powers, who reunited with the band on their third record, The Las Vegas Story. King Congo Powers formed The Gun Club with Pierce but left to join The Cramps before they recorded their first record.
This marks his return, and it certainly is noticeable. ‘Bad America’ is a sad lament; Pierce was a fantastic lyricist, and his pain knew no bounds:
“Pulsing we are hearts, but bleeding unlike diamonds
Tying up ourselves, but bleeding unlike diamonds.”
‘Love and Desperation’ – (Wildweed – 1985)
Wildweed is Pierce’s first solo record and released between a couple of Gun Club records. The first track, ‘Love and Desperation’, shows a real progression in Pierce’s development as a songwriter and is a tour de force of the new wave movement – it’s got a bit of a Talking Heads vibe. Pierce also took over all of the guitar duties within the recording studio.
The track is also a really head-bopper, one of the very few Pierce tracks that actually make you want to dance. Wildweed was produced by Craig Leon, who happened to have worked with Talking Heads – so it is no surprise, then, that ‘Love and Desperation’ bears strong similarities and is steeped within the quintessential sound associated with New Wave.
‘Go Tell The Mountain’ – (Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee & Cyprus Grove With Willie Love – 1992)
Original Panther Burns drummer, Ross Johnson, once said to Jeffrey Lee Pierce: “There was a hierarchy of bands in our milieu. The Cramps were number one. The Gun Club was second. And the Panther Burns were in a distant third.” This is written in Pierce’s autobiography of the same name of this gem of a record. Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee is a kind half-pseudonym that Pierce took on four years before he died. He got back in touch with his initial blues roots, began dressing like a rambling cowboy, and finger-picked a resonator guitar.
This particular track is definitely self-aware of its presence within the ’90s musical scene of grunge and alternative rock at the time. It kind of sounds a little like Pearl Jam – but just much better. Pierce is on top form on this record, despite his ever-increasing dissipation within his body and mind as he has continuously abused drugs and alcohol.
His voice is stronger than ever and his guitar playing had drastically improved. It’s interesting to see what a man can do when he realises he has nothing left to lose.