The Dawn of Punk-Blues

Few periods in pop music have a more distinctive and immediately identifiable sound as the ’80s. And after hearing most of the garbage that choked up the airwaves (and still on those nostalgic 80s shows/stations) it seems that’s about the only thing it had going for it. But well buried in the gut wrenching cesspool of cheesy synthesizers, lifeless drum machines and teased hair an ugly breed of bottom feeders worked in futility to claw their way out of the muck. Among them was one particularly grotesque strain – an ungodly rocknroll hybrid that can be best described as Punk-Blues. Don’t ask if it’s even a real genre (for what it’s worth, All Music is now using it), but there was a rash of like-minded roots-bashing bands in the 80s that would aptly fit that tag. Of course the origins can be traced way back to Howlin Wolf’s earth shattering electrified blues onto the cranked-up snarl of the Pretty Things, CCR and Capt. Beefheart—and so on…

Some essential albums:

Gun Club Fire of Love (1981)

Fire of Love

The first album to successfully wed the harrowing delta howl of Son House with the intensity of punk rock. Basically they did to the blues what Cramps did to rockabilly. Brimming with reckless slide guitar and twisted southern gothic lyrics that’ll have the PC crowd pulling out their hair, this is an original and utterly astounding blast of pure energy.

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Gun Club – For the Love of Ivy

:) Vinyl | 1981 | Ruby | ebay ]

Gun Club Miami (1982)

Miami
Extremely dark with a more pronounced country feel than its predecessor, no other rocknroll album has captured the unsettling eeriness of pre-war blues/country. Complaints abound regarding the mix, but it never bothered me in the least. Ranging from haunting, desert-road-weary C/W of “Mother of Earth” to unforgettably fierce covers of “John Hardy” and Jody Reynold’s “Fire of Love.” One of the greatest albums ever. Really.

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Gun Club – Mother Of Earth

:) Vinyl | 1982 | Animal | ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Also recommended: Death Party EP, the Las Vegas Story

Poison 13 s/t (1984)

Poison 13
Led by guitarist Tim Kerr (Big Boys, Jack O Fire etc), Austin’s Poison 13 were like a snottier version of the Gun Club with equally slicing slide guitar wreckage and buzzsaw power chording. “Biggest Mistake” may be the quintessential punk-blues cut. Their reworking of Willie Dixon’s The Seventh son is nothing less than genius. Not a weak cut.

This album, along with their fine 1985 EP First you Live and early demos, was released on the Subpop collection Wine is Red, Poison is Blue.

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“Poison 13 – My Biggest Mistake”

:) Vinyl | 1984 | Wrestler | ebay ]

Alex Chilton Like Flies on Sherbert (1979)

Like Flies On Sherbert

Chilton strung out on smack slobbering over a stack of Chess and Sun 45s. It may be an acquired taste, but this charming disaster of a roots-rock album is loaded with amazing tracks like “Hey, Little Child” and “My Rival.” This album’s endured a far longer residence on my turntable than any Big Star release.

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Alex Chilton – My Rival

:) Vinyl | 1979 | Aura | ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Also recommended: Tav Falco and the Panther Burns Behind the Magnolia Curtain (Chilton on guitar) and Blow Your Top EP

The Scientists Heading for a Trauma (1985)

Heading for a Trauma
Off-kilter, noisy swamp-rock from this crew of Aussie minimalists. Funhouse era Stooges violates CCR while Suicide pukes in their faces. Something like that. Frontman Kim Salmon groans and shrieks over barrages of hypnotizing fuzz guitar. “Murderess in a Purple Dress” is a force to be reckoned with. Also includes a nice rendition of Beefheart’s “Clear Spot.”

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The Scientists – Swampland

The Scientists The Human Juke Box (1987)

The Human Jukebox
Human Jukebox shows the Scientists willfully wiping away any last trace of commercial potential they might have had by unleashing this severely damaged six song album. Making their earlier recordings almost seem polished, this masterwork of trash shifts from the grinding, cheap-piano-driven “Brain Dead” to the delightfully droning blues crawl of “Shine.”

Since their songs appeared on different albums, often overlapping, Sympathy for Record Industry’s CD collections are a perfect source for their best tracks.

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The Scientists – Human Jukebox

:D CD Reissues | Sympathy for the Record Industry | search amazon ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

Alan Vega S/T (1980) / Collision Drive (1981)

Alan Vega Collision Drive

Speaking of Suicide (Vega actually described his former band as “New York City Blues”), the headband-clad madman released two great solo albums with (gulp) drum machines. No need to fear, in Vega’s able hands it works brilliantly. It’s more on the rockabilly side (I’ve heard it described as electro-billy), but tracks like “Bye Bye Bayou” show him sloshing around in the same swampland the Scientists inhabited (Scient. even covered Vega’s “Raver”). Raw guitars (albeit rather mechanical – in a good way) managed to sneak on board, but Vega keeps a foot firmly grounded in the bleak territory Suicide roamed.

Some more similar-minded bands: the Birthday Party and Nick Cave’s early work – Pussy Galore – Blood on the Saddle –  the Gibson Bros – Tav Falco and the Panther Burns – Honeymoon Killers – the Fall – Charlie Pickett — and of course the Cramps.

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Alan Vega – Bye Bye Bayou

:) Original Vinyl | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

The 90s was also redeemed by a largely unnoticed (that is until the White Stripes came around) resurgence of the style, with great bands like the Gories, the Oblivians, The Chrome cranks and the Cheater Slicks giving the stale US punk scene a much overdue kick in the ass. Stay tuned for part 2.


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12 Comments.

  • Top-notch review here. Don’t know a lot of these bands or songs, but I have a feeling I’m gonna dig ’em based on what you’ve written about them. I guess Jon Spencer would fit in here somewhere as well.

  • jim

    gotta admit that chilton effort was like watching a car wreck, you just couldn’t turn away. everyonce in awhile i put it on when i wanna scare the kids.

  • was just listening to this chilton record the other day. Hey! Little Child is so sloppy. love it.

  • Stranger

    Thanks barry!! Good point. I was going to include a review of Spencer’s former (kickass) band Pussy Galore But yeah, you’re right, JSBE was a large part of the ‘90s, I especially like the LP Crypt Style – (think most of those songs were included on a CD w/ a different title- can’t remember …)

    Hi Jeff – Jim

    What a mess that Chilton record is… – so addictive!

  • Thanks for sharing some ’80s-era Scientists. Good stuff. Yet my ears return to their first single and EP. “Frantic Romantic,” “Last Night,” and “Pissed on Another Planet” are all outstanding jabs of sneering pop punk.

  • Matthias

    Absolutely correct about the brilliant gun club and Jeffrey Lee Pierce. All the recordings i’ve heard of him so far, and i’m a recent convert, display a complete knowledge of the nuances of great blues with the punk ethic. The rest of the selection i can take or leave though..

  • Best TRS post ever! Can’t wait to get into the Gun Club.

  • LD

    Awesome intro to a grossly overlooked period of music. Love the Gun Club props. Don’t know how far Pt. 2 is going, but you can certainly hear Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s scuzz-blooze influence all over the Mark Lanegan catalog (with and without the Trees). Great song choices, too. Well done.

  • Great stuff! Looking forward to pt 2…

  • Yep, the Gun Club were truly one of the greats of the LA punk scene (sez this grizzled ol’ LA punk vet) and their stuff fits in nicely with X, The Flesheaters, and Wall of Voodoo. No surprise – they swapped members. The Blasters were a snooze, tho.

    Hey trivia fans! Debbie Harry &Chris Stein of Blondie produced, sang backup on, and released “Miami.”

    The later years? Don’t forget Doorag. Or even Mojo Nixon.

  • Anonymous

    Stranger — I really hope you do Pt 2 to this posting someday. Pt 1 has got me jonesing for the Punk-Blues in a big way!

  • Dave

    Enjoyed the reviews, but should have included UK’s Screaming Blue Messiahs. Thanks.

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