People, particularly artists, are skeptical of things like canons or genres—too-pat frameworks of what’s “good” or where something should be filed that often oversimplify or prove too exclusionary to be of value. That’s a cynical way of looking at it. I don’t hate genre, because I’m glad that I can say “I’m looking for some good new death metal albums” and someone can point me in the right direction. Similarly, I don’t necessarily hate the idea of “canon,” but I think it’s best viewed through a subjective lens rather than, say, an academic one. A list of great records shouldn’t be perceived the same way as a list of required reading for a college course. But having put together a number of big lists of best-of decade/genre/year/whatever, I can tell you that it’s fun to be able to offer an alternate perspective to what, say, Rolling Stone or Pitchfork would publish, and that having a different look at the best of whatever can be valuable in that it reveals how different perspectives can yield different results.
The thing with canon and with genre is that they can be used for purposes that sometimes do more harm than good (e.g. calling every artist of color “R&B”). But freed from nefarious political objectives, they do serve a practical purpose, which is to help people find music. That being said, I often discover things through the side door.
Take, for instance, blues. I didn’t grow up with blues. I never really knew much about blues when I was younger, outside of knowing who B.B. King was, and I kind of assumed it all pretty much sounded like George Thorogood. Obviously that’s a gross exaggeration, and wrong, but when you’re a kid you don’t know any better.
No, it wasn’t until I got into punk that I realized I liked blues. Specifically, Gun Club. There were bluesy records I liked before this one, like a certain PJ Harvey album I’ll be writing about in coming weeks. But Gun Club dug deep into the sounds of Delta Blues and updated it with some fiery L.A. punk speed and intensity. That’s how you end up with a song like “Preaching the Blues,” an explosive take on a Robert Johnson song, or the blazing slide of “Ghost on the Highway,” or the reworked Tommy Johnson tune “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”
Fire of Love, I should note, is definitely a punk album, but it showcases its blues influences pretty explicitly. Not only through covers of vintage blues songs, but in its song structures, its general I’m-being-chased-by-the-devil sensibility, and the (fairly campy, to be fair) voodoo imagery on the album art. Then again, it’s got songs like “Sex Beat,” which is one of the best punk songs ever written, and that one’s not very bluesy at all.
Still, it’s because of The Gun Club that “punk blues” exists, which took off throughout the world (particularly Australia) later on. And that, in turn, eventually led me to Muddy Waters, Son House, John Lee Hooker and, naturally, Robert Johnson. I’m not saying this is how people should get into blues. It’s a side-door entryway, one that goes around genre or canon, and one that purists will say is probably nonsense. But that’s why people quibble with such things. We discover music how we discover it, though it is great to have some suggestions from people who have already done the homework.
I’m not sure if Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the late frontman of Gun Club, intended to introduce a punk audience to the blues. But it’s so central to the band’s early identity that it was probably inevitable. And I’m thankful to have discovered this document of both honorable tribute and irreverent deconstruction to have led me there.
Sound Quality: Great