Gun Club, led by the mercurial Jeffrey Lee Pierce, were booked for a month-long tour of Australia in late 1983. However, two members of the band quit just before takeoff at the LA airport, leaving Pierce to more or less to go it alone with Patricia Morrison (and a desperate last-second plea to Kid Congo Powers to help out). Nonetheless, the tour, as debauched, chaotic and occasionally brilliant as one would expect, took place. Patrick Emery shares a chapter from his just published book, Execution Days: The Life and Times of Spencer P. Jones, published by Love Police, pertaining to that tour. This is an edited extract.
It was a celebratory time in Australia. On Monday 26 September 1983, and with Australian band Men at Work’s catchy jingoistic pop tune ‘Down Under’ flooding the airwaves, Australia II wrestled the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the United States, the host nation’s first ever defeat in the competition’s 132-year history. Twelve-thousand kilometers away, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Patricia Morrison, Terry Graham and Jim Duckworth packed their bags in preparation for The Gun Club’s inaugural tour of Australia. While The Gun Club’s knowledge of Australian culture was scant, Australian rock’n’roll fans – or, more accurately, those fans who thrived in the punk margins – were eager to see this enigmatic American punk blues group in all its furious glory.
Amongst the Australian bands lining up to support The Gun Club was The Johnnys. Formed in late 1982 by Roddy Radalj (Scientists, Le Hoodoo Gurus, The Dubrovniks), Billy Pommer (The Cry) and Graham Hood (The Allniters), The Johnnys’ shtick was an irreverent pastiche of country and punk rock, equal parts Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, New York Dolls and Sex Pistols, topped off with exploding hay bales, cracking whips and razor-sharp repartee. In March 1983, The Johnnys had expanded to a four-pierce courtesy of the recruitment of guitarist Spencer Jones, whose brief resume following his move to Australia from New Zealand in 1976 had included stints with Cuban Heels (featuring future Paul Kelly and the Messengers guitarist Steve Connolly) and The Olympic Sideburns.
The Gun Club had already undergone half a dozen line-up changes in its tumultuous four-year history. Now comprising the brilliant but combustible Jeffrey Lee Pierce, guitarist Jim Duckworth and the rhythm section of former Bags members Patricia Morrison and Terry Graham, The Gun Club were looking forward to the trip down under. The Gun Club was as volatile as ever – Graham had only recently returned to the fold, having previously quit in late 1982 in the wake of escalating tensions with Pierce. (Graham’s final departure from The Gun Club, mid-way through a European tour in August 1984, was perhaps his most enigmatic. “Terry just left his drumkit in the middle of a road in Paris and just ran away. That was what it was like – you took it as long as you could, then you ran away,” Morrison laughs.)
It was the Pierce-Duckworth-Morrison-Graham line-up of The Gun Club that 23-year-old Australian promoter, and former bass player in Melbourne new wave punk band La Femme, Rob Furst believed he’d contracted for a four-week Gun Club Australian tour in September-October 1983. The Gun Club’s first scheduled show would be in Adelaide on Tuesday 27 September, followed by shows at the Prospect Hotel in Kew in Melbourne on Wednesday night, the Collendina Hotel in Ocean Grove on Victoria’s southeast coast on Friday night and the Seaview Ballroom in St Kilda on Saturday night. From there The Gun Club would play shows in Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney, before departing Australian shores.
But by the time the band’s scheduled flight touched down in Sydney, The Gun Club had imploded yet again. Two days earlier, Morrison, Duckworth and Graham had picked their band leader up from his Los Angeles apartment and headed to LA airport to catch a connecting flight from LA to San Francisco, where they would board their Qantas flight to Sydney. As Morrison, Duckworth and Graham waited for their guitars to come off the carousel at San Francisco airport, Pierce, who’d already retrieved his own guitar, demanded Morrison and Duckworth stop waiting for their own guitars and board the international flight to Australia immediately. Jeffrey said “I’m an important man, there’s people waiting in Australia to see me’,” Morrison recalls. “All the crap that we’d put up with and then for him to say that. And he went onto the plane and left us.”
Duckworth and Graham had had enough and ignored Pierce’s entreaties to join him, choosing instead to return to LA. Morrison was unimpressed with Pierce’s arrogant behavior, but still wanted to visit Australia for the first time and arranged to get on the next available flight. On the other side of the world, Furst realized only Pierce had stepped off the plane in Sydney, sans the rest of The Gun Club. At Furst’s behest, Qantas staff relayed a message to the pilot of the next flight to confirm if the rest of the band were on their way. The news that only Morrison was coming left Pierce visibly shaken.
Already down the cost of four airfares, Furst decided to proceed with the tour. The first scheduled gig of the tour in Adelaide was postponed, while the Melbourne gig the next night at the Prospect Hill Hotel in Kew would be a solo Jeffrey Lee Pierce show. Meanwhile Pierce was making the best of his situation. Pierce arrived at tour publicist Stuart Coupe’s inner-city Sydney terrace house to undertake a round of media interviews and was greeted by Coupe’s temporary housemate, Johnnys guitarist Spencer Jones. Pierce and Spencer hit it off immediately and consumed Pierce’s bottle of duty-free gin while the increasingly inebriated Gun Club leader slogged through his media commitments. By 6 pm Pierce was drunk and on the plane to Melbourne to play his impromptu acoustic solo set.
The Johnnys’ manager, Roger Grierson, had booked The Johnnys to support The Gun Club at its Collendina Hotel and Seaview Ballroom shows; ever hard-working, The Johnnys would also squeeze in their own headline show at the Central Club in Richmond after their Saturday night support slot. Arriving in Melbourne early Wednesday evening, The Johnnys had headed directly to Inflation nightclub in the Melbourne CBD where the band hoped to impress Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, host of the highly influential weekly national Australian music television show Countdown. Fobbed off by Molly “after about five seconds”, Spencer and Pommer spotted members of Hood’s former band The Allniters, coincidentally also in Melbourne for a run of shows. When The Allniters congratulated Spencer and Pommer on playing with The Gun Club, the pair assumed they were only talking about The Johnnys’ support slot the next night.
Spencer: We were like ‘Yeah, we’ve known about it for a while’. And then they said ‘But do you know all their songs? You and Billy are playing in the band! Hasn’t Roger told you?’ So that was the first time we heard about it.
Furst says he suggested Spencer and Billy be roped in to help out on the tour; according to Roger Grierson, Melbourne garage cowpunk outfit the Sacred Cowboys was the first choice for ring-in Gun Club members. But Sacred Cowboys manager Michael Lynch suggested The Johnnys were a better option. Spencer had been fascinated with “the fury of The Gun Club” since he’d first heard them on his Olympic Sideburns bandmates Jex Byron and George Spencer’s Triple R community radio show, while Billy Pommer also counted himself a fan of this almost mythical American group that “fucked up the blues like The Cramps fucked up rockabilly”.
The hastily recalibrated version of The Gun Club convened for its first rehearsal at the Collendina Hotel on Friday afternoon. Pierce was trepidatious: he’d taken a liking to Spencer and Billy, but that didn’t mean they’d be any good playing his songs. Pierce didn’t know much about Australian music, let alone Australian musicians, and while he seemed to thrive on chaos, he remained nervous about the Gun Club’s Australian tour. “Jeffrey told me later that if this happened in Europe, he could have rung someone up and be pretty confident they’d be able to play,” Pommer says. “But coming to Australia he didn’t know anyone, [and] didn’t even know if people played rock’n’roll in Australia.”
In the rehearsal room Pierce handed around a setlist weighted heavily towards the more recent Miami album. Spencer and Pommer suggested politely that given the local interest in Fire of Love, it would be better to play songs from that album instead. Pierce conceded, and the band ran through ‘Sex Beat’. Pierce was buoyed by the performance of the song, describing it as “the best version of that song that The Gun Club had ever played!’,” recalls Roger Grierson. “We literally just worked [Spencer and Billy] up and started playing,” Morrison says. “Spencer was a great guitarist. We just started and off we went.” Pierce was so impressed that he bounded across the room to the hotel pay phone and rang Gun Club founding member Kid Congo Powers in Los Angeles and implored him to fly out to re-join the group for its Australian tour.
The Collendina Hotel show would be eventually released 20 years later as a bonus disc on the CD release of the Danse Kalinda Boom live album (the recording also includes Pierce’s acoustic version of Faron Young’s ‘Hello Walls’, recorded at the Prospect Hill Hotel). Championing Pommer as a “much better drummer” than Graham and Spencer as a “fucking great guitarist,” Pierce opened the set with a rambling, screeching interpretation of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’. While not discernible on the recording, some reports from the show have drunken fans grabbing the microphone and launching into an impromptu version of’ Advance Australia Fair’ during the lull in ‘For the Love of Ivy’. The Gun Club, unfazed by the patriotic interlopers, kept playing without missing a beat. “Jeffrey liked things that were about to fall off the edge and things that were kind of free,” Morrison says. “It was exciting, and it sounded exciting because you didn’t know what was going to happen. But it worked.”
Kid Congo had been hanging out at Pierce’s Los Angeles apartment, cooling his heels while The Cramps tried to wrestle its way out of a contractual dispute with IRS Records, when he received Pierce’s impassioned long-distance plea to come to Australia to join the tour. Kid Congo had been there at the conception of The Gun Club, when (then still known as Brian Tristan) he met Pierce in the queue to a Pere Ubu show in LA in 1978. The pair decided to form Creeping Ritual which, courtesy of a suggestion from Circle Jerks lead singer Keith Morris and thematic advice from LA scenester Don Waller, became The Gun Club. By 1980 Kid Congo had accepted an offer to join The Cramps, being bestowed his distinctive performing alias by Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy.
Like Pierce, Kid Congo had scant knowledge of Australian geography and culture, other than familiarity with Australian bands like AC/DC, The Saints, The Birthday Party and Hunters and Collectors. But when he met Spencer and Pommer in Pierce’s hotel room the day after the Collendina Hotel gig, Kid Congo realised immediately that his new Australian band mates were “kindred spirits”. Spencer also noticed a foolscap pad on Pierce’s bed on which were written the lyrics to a new song, ‘Moonlight Motel’, which The Gun Club had premiered at the Colendina Hotel the previous night, and which would appear a year later on The Gun Club’s Las Vegas Story album.
Spencer assumed Kid Congo’s return to the fold meant he’d be surplus to requirements. But Pierce wanted to keep both guitarists; he only wanted to sing. And after Roddy Radalj decided The Johnnys should pull out of their tour supports in Melbourne and Sydney, Spencer and Pommer were free to commit themselves to The Gun Club completely. “Spencer and Billy had a very natural feeling for it, and a knowledge of the music that it was referencing both in the influential way,” Kid Congo says. “They didn’t play like heavy rock people or punk people or anything, they played exactly the same influence that we had had, which I think drew Jeffrey to them in the first place.”
Morrison recalls the Gun Club’s Australian tour as a month of wildness and excitement, liberal amounts of alcohol, lots of long-distance driving and the unbridled hospitality of fans and local musicians; Kid Congo remembers crowds made up of a mixture of “new romantics and … a weird crossover of the Goth-y people, Birthday Party-type people, cowpunk people and general rockers”. Spencer embraced The Gun Club’s Gothic aesthetic, painting his fingernails black and donning mascara to blend in with his American bandmates. In Brisbane, Pierce appeared on stage wrapped in toilet paper, while in Canberra The Gun Club’s intense take on the blues almost all but cleared the room.
The “lawless, rock’n’roll life” continued after the Canberra show when Pierce commandeered the tour van and decided to drive around the middle of the Canberra city centre on the right hand side of the road, accompanied by Spencer who, despite not having a licence himself, had decided to chaperone Pierce, lest his band leader get himself into too much peril. From Canberra, The Gun Club drove to Sydney where they played packed-out shows at the Trade Union Club, Manly Vale Hotel and Carmen’s. Reviewers lauded Spencer and Billy’s acclimatisation with The Gun Club’s thunder and fury: “a barrage of sound like turbulent storm clouds rolling in from the west,” wrote RAM’s Clinton Walker.
Outside of the fishbowl of the inner-city Australian punk rock scene, The Gun Club was a strange and potentially threatening sight. At a truck stop on the Hay Plains in regional New South Wales, locals looked on with bemusement and a degree of antagonism at the sight of the leather-clad Gothic types emerging from the tour van. Kid Congo defused the tension when he produced a bag of Chicos lollies he’d brought over from the States. “They thought that was hilarious,” Spencer says. “These little black babies!” The moment defused temporarily, Spencer and Pommer recommended Furst get the touring party out of town as soon as possible.
The financial machinations of The Gun Club’s Australian tour has long been the source of rumor and, in Furst’s opinion, slanderous innuendo. Despite Pierce’s single-minded belief that The Gun Club was defrauded – which he repeated in an interview with Juke in 1984 – no evidence exists to corroborate Pierce’s assertion that he or any of the other members of the band were underpaid. Convention of the time meant that the band was funded for airfares, accommodation and a flat fee per show. Already out of pocket two return international airfares after Duckworth and Graham refused to board the plan to Australia, Kid Congo Powers’ hastily arranged flight to Australia left Furst with another un-budgeted expense. And then there was Pierce’s regular alcohol supply and other sundry expenses. On the Dead Kennedys’ Australian tour, a couple of months earlier, Jello Biafra had kept an eagle eye on tour finances. Pierce didn’t share Biafra’s accounting acumen, but he was convinced his band was not being appropriately paid and his volatile temperament, already ragged after Duckworth and Graham’s departure, frayed even further under the pressure of constant driving and his own heavy drinking.
In the mid-1980s Rob Furst established Furst Media, a Melbourne-based publishing group that included the long-running street press title Beat, the musician-focused Mixdown and various niche market publications. Furst is adamant that he met all agreed financial obligations for the tour. “I paid the fees I agreed to pay to all players, including added dates at the same rate but no more than agreed as the tour did not make money,” Furst says. “They alleged I’d profited from added dates. Also untrue. I merely recouped losses.”
Kid Congo shared Pierce’s suspicions at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight sees the tour’s heated financial disputes as a symptom of personality clashes and the inevitable economic difficulties of making an Australian tour break even. “There was probably a lot of financial loss because there were tickets lost, they were probably pre-paid and I imagine a lot of venues stuck it to them, saying ‘This isn’t the band we were promised’.” Spencer was paid his expected $250 fee for each show but observes the absence of merchandise as depriving the tour of another line of revenue. “I don’t think there was a t-shirt for the tour. I think people wanted copies of the large poster, but only if they got them unglued from a brick wall!”
Tensions between promoter and band – especially Pierce – continued to escalate. By the time the tour van reached Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales coast, Pierce was at the end of his tether. With Pierce shrieking threats of legal action, Spencer and Pommer talked their band leader down and convinced him to return to the van and continue to the next destination. After another long drive, The Gun Club arrived in Adelaide for the last scheduled show of the tour. Spencer recalls the Adelaide show as the best performance of The Gun Club tour, but the grim financial reality of the tour had been revealed before the band took the stage. In the hotel before the show Morrison was deputized by the rest of the band to find out “what was going on with the money”. “I went to Rob to see what was going on with the money. I went into the room and he came straight out and said ‘I don’t have the money, I can’t pay you’,” Morrison says.
Morrison returned to the front bar of the hotel, grabbed a bottle of Bacardi rum and told the rest of the band the bad news. “That’s when I think [Jeffrey] wanted to kill [Furst],” Morrison says. Morrison called Stuart Coupe in Sydney and relayed the import of the events in Adelaide. A combination of drinking and partying managed to drown away the economic pain. “By the end of the tour we were all just drinking and having a party because it had become absurd! You can scream and yell or you can cry or whatever, but at that point in our lives the aim was to have a party!” Morrison laughs.
Stuart Coupe and Roger Grierson organized two final Gun Club shows at the Paddington Green and the Strawberry Hills Hotel to raise enough money for Pierce, Morrison and Kid Congo’s taxi fares to the airport, departure tax and the taxi ride from Los Angeles airport to their respective homes. The Australian bands on The Gun Club’s farewell shows – which included Le Hoodoo Gurus playing under the pseudonym ‘The Arnold Ziffer band’ – donated their part of the fee to the fund-raising effort. “I don’t think Jeffrey crowd surfed, but I know he went into the crowd, no-one was messing up his hair or grabbing his captain’s hat or stealing his bandana. People were like ‘let this man do what he has to do’,” Spencer says. “I remember the bass player in the Hoodoo Gurus [Clyde Bramley] going to hand me a bottle of booze and while he was drinking it he threw up, but he handed it to me anyway and I said ‘No thank you!’,” Morrison recalls.
Kid Congo had a couple of extra days on his visa than Pierce and Morrison and spent his last few days with Spencer and Greg ‘Tex’ Perkins. “We took Kid Congo to Kings Cross and told him it was the red light district. And Kid says ‘This is like my neighborhood back in LA!,” Spencer laughs. Spencer and Perkins suggested Kid Congo come along to the recording session for their garage-swamp-booze-death side project, Beasts of Bourbon, which also featured Kim Salmon and Boris Sudjovic from The Scientists and James Baker from Le Hoodoo Gurus. But due to board a plane the morning of the recording session, Kid Congo was forced to turn down the offer (Kid Congo’s influence could be found on the album recorded by the Beasts of Bourbon that day, The Axeman’s Jazz, in the line ‘Goodnight Irene’ uttered by Perkins in ‘Love and Death’, which Kid Congo suggested the Beasts use somewhere in the recording session.)
Kid Congo’s dazed and confused contemporaneous impressions of The Gun Club’s Australian tour were captured on his spoken-word piece on Neighbourhood Rhythms, a double LP of punk performance and street poetry released on Los Angeles label Patter Traffic a year after the tour.
Last night Mr Spencer and Mr Tex Deadly and myself kicked the gong around one more time, bar after bar, stripped off like convict stripes. Kangaroo-courting obsessing, another can in another land. Stares. Who do we think we are? Who do they think we are? I ain’t got a clue. There’s a blue collar crime curb here. Is there an area I should avoid walking through? Nah. I walked and talked three weeks’ worth without being robbed, raped or murdered. Miracle mile. Ripped on the waterfront, blue black water sails and smack sales in blue black night. Take a dunk for some Indonesian junk. Tourist trade, made in the shade. No wonder that Qantas koala is so crabby.