Review Summary: Cow-punks in Neon
Despite only being in existence for six years, by 1984, the Gun Club had seemingly gone through so much chemical wear-and-tear, that their frail formations looked like they might cave in at any moment. After releasing three full-lengths and one EP of blistering Southern-tinged post-punk, and embarking on a booze and narcotic-soaked tour, lead singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce was forcibly put in rehab by Blondie’s Debbie Harry, to stew off all the indulgences that underground icon status threw at him. By the time he re-emerged, the 26-year old’s physical presence had bounced back, and the formerly-haggard crooner was looking patently healthier, albeit rosier and plumper.
Pierce’s rally back into relative normalcy is mirrored in The Las Vegas Story
’s production. It’s cleaner and sharper than both Fire of Love
and the much maligned, foggy Miami
. Where in the past, their songs felt like they had to smash through the sloppy production blur, the peaks of Las Vegas
slice through the listener like a scalpel.
His backing band, which had gone through four reincarnations in a short span, were also on point. Kid Congo Powers, who hadn’t recorded or toured with the band since their debut, shredding away in the Cramps and the Birthday Party in the meantime, made a return on lead guitar, and his off-the-wall presence is acutely audible. The solos are serrated and alert, and push against the album’s thematic gloom, creating a continuous, euphoric stretch of shaky momentum. Pat Bag, of explosive first-generation punkers The Bags, takes up bass duties. Her groove-prone fretwork adds another layer of depth to Las Vegas
, that had previously been lost in grimy production.
Pierce’s growing up in Hollywood had always exerted greater influence over his LA junkie chic fashion sense than his actual sound, and though Las Vegas
ditches most of his swampy and agile slide-guitar acrobatics, it still feels like it’d been ripped straight from a Louisiana bayou. Southern Gothic looms heavy over both the album’s death-prone lyrical yelps, and the songs’ Bible Belt swing.
also has noticeably more standard structures, and the wild cow-punk schisms of Fire of Love
are replaced here with a tightened set of stellar glam post-punk. The lack of their past frenetic streaks is felt from the get-go, but what that regularity yields is an album whose highs may never quite reach such dizzying altitudes, yet whose lows don’t make it seem like the whole thing is bound to crumble to pieces.
After kicking off with Walkin’ with the Beast
, the album settles into a crisp pace, Pierce’s staccato delivery, by turns depressive and violent, getting enclosed in a swirl of an electric buzz. The band sound young and full of vigour, and Pierce is in fine form. A later edition of Las Vegas
would come with a live disc that would capture how singular and crazed and taut the band had gotten at that point. Though there’s less variety on offer here, Pat Bag’s chugging bass and Kid Congo’s patented evil progressions ratchet up the beat, keeping a foot-tapping romp through the album.
Two covers flesh out Las Vegas
’s middle, first a short instrumental take on avant-garde jazzist Leon Thomas’ The Creator was a Master Plan
, and then a fractured, showtune-worthy rendition of the Gershwin brothers’ My Man’s Gone Now
, from Porgy and Bess
. Pierce’s odd and raddled drawl gives the tune a strange slant, and though the band skirt the edge of schlock here, the deft piano manages to salvage it.
Like Mother of Earth
, closer Secret Fires
ends the album’s glam march on a tenderized point. The song’s honky-tonk acoustic strumming is padded by a howling slide, that melds with the lead guitar on the bridge for an achingly beautiful, ethereal moment. It’s an apt nod to Pierce’s lifestyle, drugged-out clutter than hid a blighted romantic.
Though the Gun Club, in one formation or another, and Pierce separately, would go on to record a mass of later material, The Las Vegas Story
represents the last instant the band existed as a cohesive, creative whole. Pierce would predictably tumble back into addiction, which would end in his death in 1996, at thirty-seven. A trove of bootlegged and unmastered songs would surface and be given full production and release as the Nine Lives
box-set. Pierce’s tour-mates and friends would also release a string of tribute albums, helmed by the likes of Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Mark Lanegan and Lydia Lunch. Regardless of how unknown his life and work are in the scope of popular music, Pierce’s creative legacy is in firm check – another tragic case of ‘what-if,’ a musical dissident cut in his prime, a casualty of junk and excess.