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Home / Music / Feature Articles / Devil in the Woods: Love, Lust, Death & Living in 1980s American Post-Punk, Part One

Devil in the Woods: Love, Lust, Death & Living in 1980s American Post-Punk, Part One

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In the still of the night,
I walk with the Beast
in the heat of the night,
I sleep with the Beast
Who slipped so deep inside me
and rots the love right out of me
The Gun Club’s “Walking With the Beast”

The grit of urban life and the dust of the backwoods are two of the strongest elements that built up the background behind the musical landscape of many an American post-punk band in the late ’70s and early ’80s. While the term “post-punk” has come to mean everything from an artier way to say “New Wave” (which is partially true) to an umbrella term that covers everything from early industrial, No Wave, Cow Punk, and approximately eleventy other sub-genres that all warrant their own articles. But there are key bands that emerged from the seeds planted by the punk movement, or in the case of The Cramps, were always on their own US born and bred UFO from the beginning, that took sonic, lyric, and visual inspiration from the strangeness of the American experience. You can see glimpses of old film noir movies flickering on a motel TV, a battered copy of some sleazy crime mag, a stolen copy of Jim Thompson’s Killer Inside Me, a dusk-till-dawn marathon of monster movies running at the Starwood Drive-In, and so much more in the unique, right down to the heart-born molecules of key bands of this era.

Some would argue that The Cramps were born either in Akron “Where the Rubber Meets the Road” Ohio or in the sweat-soaked asphalt of New York City, but according to the band themselves, it all began when Lux Interior picked up a red-haired hitchhiker in California who would become better known as Poison Ivy. Bonding over a mutual love of music, especially old rockabilly combined with ’50s and ’60s monster-movie-sexploitation kitsch culture, one of the greatest American bands was born from the primordial rock swamps that begat acts like Little Richard, Elvis, The Sonics, Ron Haydock, and many more.

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Now I just can’t identify
With this world so I don’t try
Square pegs don’t fit in round holes
And I can’t fit into these clothes
The Cramps’ “Mystery Plane”

While their first appearance on record was the 1978 release of the “Human Fly” single via their own Vengeance Records, it was their debut LP of Songs The Lord Taught Us in 1980 that truly set the  stage for all things Cramped. Opening with “TV Set,” the tone is instantly set, with lyrics like “I cut your head off and put it on my TV set,” feeling like the best tribute to Backwoods-Rockabilly madman Hasil “Well I’m gonna put your head on my wall. Just like I told you baby” Adkins. Hillbilly killers, UFOs (“Rock on the Moon”), love-starved hepcats (“The Mad Daddy”), adolescent monsters (“I Was a Teenage Werewolf”), frugging undead (“Zombie Dance”), and the frustrations of being lovers with a masked woman/potential fiend (“What’s Behind the Mask?”) are just some of the bread and butter themes of the album, building a sinister, all the colors of the acid-tinged rainbow and ultimately, crazy fun view of warped America that became the band’s signature style forever more. (The smoldering cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” which was used to memorable effect in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire road trip classic, Near Dark, does not hurt either.)

If Songs the Lord Taught Us built the trail, then The Cramps’ 1986 masterpiece, A Date with Elvis, poured gasoline on it and lit it with an industrial grade flamethrower.

PPTheCrampsDatewithElvisYou’ll be the queen of the tractor pull
In your trainer gear will break all the rules
I like it tough and I don’t talk my kicks
If I had me a hammer I’d show you some tricks
The Cramps’ “How Far Can Too Far go?”

Date with Elvis plays out like the perfect soundtrack for a never to be made film from Russ Meyer’s lurid black and white melodrama period (ie. Mudhoney, Lorna, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). In short, it’s rock & roll perfection. The sweet-sounding 1950s-style album title is unforgettably juxtaposed with cover art featuring Poison Ivy as a blonde-haired Devil woman, mouth open in a joyous and mocking smile while flanked by the Holy Bible and moldy toast. Rarely has Hell been more enticing…especially once you crack the record open!

Opening with “How Far Can Too Far Go?”, with the lead guitar sounding akin to the epic roar of a beast of an old Cadillac and ending with the old Charlie Feathers sad sack at backwoods dive bar chestnut, “It’s Just That Song,” Date With Elvis is a road map of hayseed America in all of its sweaty, exciting, sleazy and occasionally melancholy glory. (If you get the re-issue version, this is amped up further by more country tinged tales of bad girl blues with both “Blue Moon Baby” and “Georgia Lee Brown,” as well as a killer cover of the theme song from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ girl-biker-gang gem, She Devils on Wheels.)

PPTheCrampsSongsCoverArtLet it be known that The Cramps never recorded a bad album. Some are weaker than others, though a “weak” Cramps album is still a treasure. But none are as diamond-tight as Date With Elvis. High-tail rocking (“Chicken,” “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”) to the aforementioned old school country making Mitchum eyes at rockabilly and even psychedelic-etheria (the hilariously titled “Kizmiaz”) are all on one of the greatest American albums that floated to hot vinyl wax. If God exists, then The Cramps were surely put here on Earth to let us know we are in fact loved.

In the screaming red night I can hear your call
in the shrieking red night I can hear your call
I arrive at the death party, I won’t be back at all
The Gun Club’s “Death Party”

While there has been a legion of musicians and singers influenced by old American Blues music, so few of them ever truly come close to nailing the deep rooted emotion, the heavy gaze of a musical narrator who has witnessed and walked 8 miles of bad road and a scarred but beating strongly heart of those giants. (Eric “Raping the Blues” Clapton, I am looking at you and while you’re at it, please leave Robert Johnson alone.) A strong exception came in the unlikely form of a bleached blonde punk kid from California, and former president of Blondie’s fan club, named Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Described as everything from being “Brando-esque” to “Marilyn from Hell,” Pierce channeled  old voodoo and blues through his own punk energy and crunch rock filter when he formed his band The Gun Club. One of the best ways to build new ground is to till old ground, which is exactly what this band did, leaving them as fresh sounding now as they were when they first emerged with their 1981 debut album, Fire of Love. (Ironically, the actual song “Fire of Love” didn’t show up until their follow up release, Miami.) Plus, much like The Cramps, every album is stand out for a number of reasons. (Quick related trivia, Jeffrey Lee wrote “For the Love of Ivy” on “Fire of Love” about Poison Ivy, as well as started the band with future Cramps guitarist Kid Congo Powers.)

Trying to highlight just two Gun Club releases as paragons of American dark-grit is not easy, since pretty much all of their work, including most of Pierce’s solo career too, mined those hills. That said, I decided to focus on the turning point where the more traditional roots-rock-on-Screaming Jay Hawkins-speed turned into something a little more complex and darker.

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Were you ever thinking
When you pulled her off the bus
And dragged her down in the basement
And left her soul to rust
The Gun Club’s “House on Highland Avenue”

The first sign of this shift was the release of their 1983 EP, appropriately titled Death Party. Sporting a new line-up with Jeffrey being backed by guitar maverick Jim Duckworth and the powerhouse of former Bush Tetras drummer Dee Pop, Death Party is sitting with a man whose clothes are as stained as his mind. Beer, whiskey, tears, blood (maybe it’s his, maybe not) are all soaked into his shirt, pants and skin.

The EP opens with the deceptively warm and almost melodically mellow sounding, “House on Highland Avenue.” It does not take very long at all though to sense that the picture being painted is a grim one, with the repeated chorus being, “There is no fire in your glass eye/There is no feeling when you’re done/And one day you will find out/What kind of monster you’ve become.” The next two songs, “The Lie” and “The Light of the World” possess great hooks and a world weary feel of a heart that has weathered all manners of loss and deception. “The Lie” in particular, has some rich lyrics, especially the lines, “You keep me on the highway/I never get to come down/You really don’t want me to make it/You really don’t want me around.”

It then rips the cellar door off with the song “Death Party,” which arguably is one of the band’s best songs ever and speaks of the tone for the whole EP beautifully. It’s one of the best rock anthems for the no fun zone of life. It ends with the barnstorming and barn-burning “Come Back Jim,” with more high energy heartbreak and the damage of the abandoned.

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There’s a stranger in our town
H
e’s got a burning eye
He wants to get off on you
The Gun Club’s “Stranger in Our Town”

What the Death Party EP gave glimpses of in ’83, bore exquisite fruit with 1984’s The Las Vegas Story LP. The Las Vegas Story saw a return of two former band mates with Kid Congo on guitar and Terry Graham on drums and some new blood with Patricia Morrison, former bassist for The Bags and future member of The Sisters of Mercy and The Damned. While it hasn’t always been as highly regarded as the band’s first two albums, even by some hardcore Gun Club fans, The Las Vegas Story is a pinnacle not only of the band’s already solid as a Quartzite Tombstone discography, but also of Pierce’s strides as a singer, musician, and songwriter.

Opening with The Las Vegas Story, which is less of an actual song and more of a 23 second intro with eerie ambiance and a slightly distorted sounding Pierce intoning, “This is the Las Vegas Story. A story of a couple of great…” Before the sentence can be finished, it is immediately cut off by the loud drums and hypnotic guitar of “Walking With the Beast.” One is hard pressed to think of a stronger album intro than this, with “Walking With the Beast” feeling like amphetamine shot straight to your spinal cord while realizing that you’re at the End of the Line. It would actually find a great home, both sonically and lyrically with Stephen King’s horror post-Apocalyptic epic, The Stand, to the extent that it would be no shock at all to discover if Pierce was influenced by it.

Pierce had always possessed prose leanings with his lyrics before The Las Vegas Story, but they especially shine here. Lines like, “I never promised you anything/for promising me everything,” she said/I stood silent and true/while you fell to pieces/but, I couldn’t wait/and, eternally is here,” from the third track, “Eternally is Here” read like they are almost cribbed directly from a dog-eared paperback found in an all night diner.

The bad day at desert rock vibe continues with “Stranger in Our Town,” which is just ripe with the big ugly. It plays out like the nastier cousin of Buck Owen’s 60’s grit-and-western song, “Tall Dark Stranger.” (Given Pearce’s love of old school country and western artists like Marty Robbins, the similarities are probably not accidental.) The sheer anguish of “My Dreams” reverbs as hard as any old Bessie Smith song, featuring some of Jeffrey’s most beautiful and gut wrenching vocal work.

The album’s first act ends and intermission begins with two covers, starting off with a cinematic re-approximation of the Pharaoh Sanders song, “The Creator Has the Master Plan,” simply called “The Master Plan” here, and a lovesick dirge version of the George Gershwin standard, “My Man’s Gone Now.” (The latter was originally used in Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy & Bess.) The second act resumes with four sharp as flints songs, with “Bad America” leading the pack.

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I looked up another thousand times
You colored my world violence
You made me warm when you hit me
With a nail in my arm
The Gun Club’s “Bad America”

Creations like apocalypse are the most devastating when they are within the individual. It’s hard to handle life dealing you a dead man’s hand in a healthy way and America’s highways and byways start littering your arms and legs with track marks and bruises. Cheap apartment walls and motel sheets become the surroundings that witness the inner decay. Pierce taps into all this, plus the overall tapestry of pain, death and polluted sex throughout this brilliant as a thousand cocksure scribes masterwork of an album. The Las Vegas Story is a fine testament to not only one of the strongest line-ups the band ever saw, but to the roadside-noir prose stylings and fire spirit of the American blues himself, Jeffrey Lee Pierce.

The Cramps and The Gun Club are just two of the bands in the late ’70s and ’80s post-punk American scene to masterfully utilize the more shadowy themes of love, death, and art. In the soon to come second part of this two-part series, I will be examining two wildly different yet vital post-punk bands whose creative stamps were as one-of-a-kind as they were uncompromising. The bands in question: Wall of Voodoo and Christian Death. In the meantime, please grab the nearest copies of Date With Elvis and The Las Vegas Story, haunt your finest old man dive bar and know that where fun and sex live, so do blood and pain. They are all the elements that brought us all here in the first place.


About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

2 comments

  1. Brilliant as ever.

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