Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
When is a cover not a cover? If a song is written but never committed to any released format, what counts as the original version? Both questions that might raise askance of this set, a set that I believe can, and indeed should, pass muster for these august pages. After all, if it’s good enough for Woody Guthrie…
Jeffrey Lee Pierce is a name known more by association, I guess, than in his own right, popping up in the alongside others plowing the same vein. Literally. Whilst his lifetime recorded output, predominantly under the Gun Club soubriquet, may have been prodigious, he left enough unfinished and discarded songs to provide the bulk of the material in these three (so far) recordings.
Some perspective. Pierce was arguably always a troubled young man. Growing up in the ‘burbs of L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s, he was enamored of the advent of glam and the artsier side of prog, devouring the music and styles of bands such as Roxy Music. Also, as an early adopter of reggae, he strove to introduce elements thereof into his nascent output, drawing out the similarities between that and of the acoustic delta blues of the 1930s. Eager to enter the music business, he became President of the West Coast Blondie fan club, and became the punk, blues, and reggae correspondent for Slash magazine, these endeavors getting him initially better known than his guitar and songwriting. The Blondie connection was an integral one: Debbie Harry became a lifelong friend and mentor, convinced that this bleached peroxide boy had a future in the biz, giving him no small lift where she could.
The Gun Club’s debut LP, Fire of Love, was released in 1981 and prove to be a murky mix of Pierce’s intrigues and influences. This being Cover Me, it would seem churlish not to acknowledge the presence of covers across this and across his early recordings, often of old blues masters like Robert Johnson, or (possibly surprisingly) the Gershwins and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was received well, with critic Stevo Olende saying that the content seemed “plundered from voodoo, ’50’s EC comics and the blues.”
Further releases failed to cement that promise, primarily as Pierce’s flaky lifestyle and personality made him difficult to be with. Dalliances with drugs and alcohol were becoming more full-time preoccupations. One stalwart was Kid “Congo” Powers, who could be called on to prop up the live version of the band, if and when its members abruptly left ahead of prestige gigs. Powers concomitant membership of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds proved an influential contact, Cave and Pierce being kindred spirits, if Cave latterly showed himself to have the stronger constitution.
The Gun Club broke up and reformed a number of times, Pierce writing the bulk of the material, singing and playing guitar, harmonica and whatever else needed. Between times Pierce released a slew of solo releases, notably Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee and Cypress Grove, with Willie Love, mentioned here as it was almost entirely made up of blues covers. (Cypress Grove, in this context, is a person, not a place, an English bass player who had hooked up with Pierce during a spell in residence in the UK and remained another stalwart during later years.)
Pierce was becoming increasingly erratic and increasingly frail, relocating his home between country and continents a number of times, always in a plausible effort to get clean. It was during one such move, to Utah, that he died, aged only 37. Mark Lanegan, then himself still a fellow traveler in similarly circles of substance abuse, and thus unsurprisingly in the same loop of musicians as Pierce, said this of him in 1998: “Jeffrey Lee Pierce is God to me and the biggest influence on me.”
So, a long and necessary preamble to the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, but some setting of the scene explains why his erstwhile friends should wish to demonstrate their love and admiration for him, as well as to bring his name to a wider audience, on the back of their better known names.
After Pierce’s death, Cypress Grove had happened upon a cassette, stuffed into a drawer, whilst cleaning out his loft. This contained forgotten preliminary recordings for a further album, with a search for other such material being sought, sending feelers out to the deceased singers network of friends and family. Unsuitable and too raw for release as found, Grove rounded up as many old associates as he could, selling to them the idea of the worth and purpose of buffing them up for a release, in tribute of their author. Cave and Lanegan were enthusiastic, as was Debbie Harry, enrolling as many of their associates as they could; as time went by, other bands owing any debt to the Pierce vision came on board. (It should be noted that one or two of the songs had appeared on Gun Club releases, if in somewhat different iterations.)
We Are Only Riders was the first release, in 2010, with a second volume, The Journey Is Long, following two years later. (It included snippets of Pierce’s own contributions to the source material, perhaps thus stretching our definition of “cover”; me, I think of those snippets as samples.) Axels and Sockets appeared a further two years later, featuring Iggy Pop, who, if not directly within Pierce’s circle, was surely of a like mind and similar persuasions. This actually superseded the originally planned third record, lugubriously entitled The Task Has Overwhelmed Us, which has yet to see light of day. It has been said this was to appear on the twentieth anniversary of Pierce’s death, but that anniversary passed five years ago this year. For those interested in the derivation of the titles of the four albums, they all come from a comment made by Pierce: “The journey is long and we are only riders. Long ago we had committed to our little endeavor and now the task has overwhelmed us, so that we have simply become axels and sockets in a growing menacing machine.”
I believe The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project to be an important body of work, a fitting legacy, and a necessary set of recordings for anyone with a love of the grittier underbelly of modern musical forms. Fans of Cave and Lanegan especially, these are for you; if you are not especially a fan of those two, the selection below might give some impetus to become so. And, clearly, of JLP and the Gun Club.
Mark Lanegan – Constant Pain (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
Is there a better song about a jailbird? If there is, it doesn’t count if Mark Lanegan hasn’t sung it. A magnificent country noir rendition, even if we know not the original. Lanegan appears across all three records, sometimes alone and sometimes alongside Bertrand Cantat, singer of French band Noir Desir, and once with Isobel Campbell, reprising their earlier partnership.
Debbie Harry – Lucky Jim (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
Harry really pushes her voice here, transcending her usual simper and snarl for a more expressive voice than she is usually credited for having. Another frequent across the whole project, she also duets with Nick Cave.
Nick Cave – City In Pain (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
From the second set, Cave adds his unmistakable vocals, in a setting a little different from his his own work, one that would bear more of a taste of Jim Morrison and the Doors wafting through. The guitar may well be JLP himself.
Iggy Pop – Nobody’s City (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
Rounding up the big hitters, Mr. Osterberg shows himself well up to the task. Features also Nick Cave on backing vocals and Thurston Moore on guitar.
Primal Scream – Goodbye Johnny (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
To give an idea of who else may be in thrall of JLP, no surprise to find Bobby Gillespie and his band, in this Andrew Weatherall mix.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Ain’t My Problem (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
A change of style, these proponents of a rockabilly used car swing give a great interpretation of what may have started life completely differently.
The Jim Jones Revue – Ain’t My Problem (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
Yup, the same song as the one above, there being a few examples of the same song being revisited by different artists across all three discs and, on occasion, even across the same disc. A wilder one, and the one that came first, from the dissolute reprobates, and sounding much as you might anticipate.
The Primevals – Girl, It’s Me (Jeffrey Lee Pierce cover)
A final selection, not actually on the any of the three albums, slipped out as the b-side of a single from, presumably, sessions for the fourth disc, by Glitterhouse, the label responsible for releasing all the music. Included, for no reason other than to display the garage band thrash of long running Glasgow band, the Primevals, and a mighty noise it is too. (Their picture, I guess, is on the other side of the sleeve portrayed!)
So, who else haven’t I included? Think gritty and it isn’t hard to come up with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, ex-Codeine-er Chris Brokaw, Johnny Dowd and various Bad Seeds. Other contributors include the Sadies, Canadian surf-punk mavericks and Danish oddball duo, the Raveonettes.
Look them out. Your best bet may well be more via discogs.com than to find new copies. Good hunting!