I only got back into vinyl about a year and a half ago. I’d probably had around 150 records in high school, including a lot of Sub Pop 45s, but I sold them off (along with my turntable) at some point and basically just started to listening to everything on CD. I’ve lamented about this in the past, particularly how much I wish I still had those 45s, but for a long time I didn’t miss vinyl. I’m not sure exactly why I got the urge to buy a turntable and start over (though if you look back to my very first post on this blog, I do touch on that topic a bit), though the fact that there’s a lot of interesting music that is only available on that format had a lot to do with it, as did the newfound interest I gained for exploring new (to me) music that grew after our first Iceland Airwaves. There was a whole world of music out there that I had never heard.
Right now some of you are wonder what this has to do with Two Sides of the Beast. Well, I’d say I have roughly 200 records today, most LPs and EPs with just a sprinkling of 10″ers and 45s. And I have more records by The Gun Club and Jeffrey Lee Pierce than any other performer, by far (10). And I’d never heard of them before I started buying vinyl.
I picked Two Sides of the Beast out of the staff recommendations section at Easy Street Records in West Seattle early in my vinyl odyssey. It was the first time I ever used my trusty work iPhone to look up a band (which I’ve done dozens of times since), and after taking it home and playing it for the first time I was hooked on The Gun Club.
Two Sides of the Beast was released in 1985 following The Gun Club’s breakup and it’s a compilation of the band’s catalog through that time. Side A has seven tracks and is sort of a greatest hits selection, though it also includes a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle”. The B side is perhaps more interesting in that all the songs are live recordings, including two more cover’s – Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” and bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues”. None of the live tracks are of songs that appear on side A. The cover selections are telling because they really give a sense of The Gun Club’s style, which is sort of southern-blues-punk rock. I include the word “punk” because I think it best describes the attitude Jeffrey Lee Pierce projects. Perhaps today we’d call it “alt” instead, but it’s just semantics. I’ve found The Gun Club records in the punk sections of some stores, while at others I’ve had the clerks roll their eyes at my ignorance before informing me that no, The Gun Club is not in the punk section, they’re in the rock section you idiot. Like many great bands, they sort of defy an easy label.
Guitarist Kid Congo Powers was a heavy influence on The Gun Club’s southern/country/blues sound, and his guitar riffs wove beautifully through the band’s songs. But it’s singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce who truly defined the band’s image and sound, for better or for worse. I think there are a number of very fair comparisons between Pierce and another genius frontman who was also a train wreck – Jim Morrison. Heresy, you say! But what we have here were two incredibly talented frontmen, who probably weren’t the best pure singers in the world but who could completely captivate an audience with their sound and their charisma on stage. They came up in the LA scene and played some of the same clubs, most notably the Whiskey. Both were also notorious boozers, and the history of their live performances is one that ranges from the epic and life altering to complete drunken disasters that left everyone pissed off. They were heavily influenced by the blues, and both embraced writing as an extension of their art. And unfortunately alcohol and drugs likely contributed to their early demises, with Morrison passing away at 27 and Pierce, who in addition to being HIV positive due to his heroin use also suffered from cirrhosis and hepatitis, died at 37.
“Walkin’ with the Beast” opens side A, and it may be the band’s quintessential song (though “Black Train”, not included on this comp, gives it a run for its money, as does “Las Vegas Story”). The track selection on side A provides a good sense of the band’s sound, but it’s side B where the real magic happens. Studio recordings simply could not compete with live recordings when the band and Pierce were at their best. Admittedly, the sound quality is not the best. But right from the opening of “Seven Miles with the Devil” you get a sense of a whole different kind of energy. There’s a desperation in Pierce’s voice. He NEEDS the audience to understand, but he’s not sure he can truly communicate with them.
Two Sides of the Beast is a good start for someone looking to get a feel for The Gun Club. The mix of studio and live tracks covers the bases, and the song selection is good. Unfortunately it’s not available on iTunes or CD… so I hope you still have your turntable!