A product of London’s seedy underbelly (or, more likely, its smoky, velvet-wallpapered pubs), Gallon Drunk rose to prominence in Britain through a series of highly touted 7-inch singles and some ferocious live performances. The quartet’s rumbling, expansive sound sweeps up chunks of rock and pop history — notably a primal beat and nerve from the Cramps, Bo Diddley and Scientists and a theatrical presence by way of the Birthday Party and Tom Waits — and pulverizes them into a corrosive, irresistible mess, colored by a cheap girlie/horror film aesthetic. Charismatic frontman James Johnston (vocals, guitar and organ) threatens to overwhelm the band’s torrential shower of sound with his guttural, Nick Cave-inspired howling, but Gallon Drunk’s lumbering rhythm section (including a full-time maracas player!) makes it an even match.
Minus one A-side (“Some Fool’s Mess”), Tonite…the Singles Bar collects Gallon Drunk’s first five small-pressing singles in all their raw, underproduced glory. The first, 1988’s self-released “Snakepit,” is sparse and chaotic, but eventually locates a groove, while “Ruby” (written by banjo-picker Cousin Emmy but later done by late-’60s New York electro-rock duo Silver Apples, whom Gallon Drunk credits), riddled by both angry organ stomps and Johnston’s snarling shouts, finds an ensnaring target almost immediately. “Draggin’ Along” is almost all rhythm — and an unrelenting one at that — with Johnston’s vocal and guitar screeches crashing through. While also propelled by the burly power of drummer Nick Coombes and bassist Michael Delanian, “The Last Gasp (Safty)” gains cohesion from his punchy organ activity.
Released within a few months of the compilation, You, the Night…and the Music — Gallon Drunk’s first real album — has a different drummer and clearer, more uniform sound. The band has developed its melodic side; many of the songs are draped in Johnston’s dark piano playing. But the brimstone igniting the songs remains firmly on high. After an instrumental intro (which actually begins with the sound of a car revving up), the album launches right into a new version of “Some Fool’s Mess,” one of Gallon Drunk’s greatest moments. The band injects a melodic hook — short and repetitive as it is — into the throbbing rhythmic pull, and Johnston, as usual, is all over the place, screaming at the edge of incomprehensibility in graphic detail about a cheating lover. The album also includes a fuller version of “Gallon Drunk” (the original 45 of which is on Tonite) and a very campy, Crampsy lament called “Eye of the Storm,” naturally followed by “The Tornado,” another wallop of dirge with some nice slide guitar.
Having traded in its grimy, off-the-streets angst for more seasoned, world-weary angst, Gallon Drunk broadened the scope of its thick, mired sound on From the Heart of Town. While a somewhat less heady brew than its predecessors, the album reveals the band growing within its framework, adding new sounds to the mix and settling into the studio atmosphere (aided by an actual producer, Phil Wright). “Jake on the Make,” Cave-like in both its title and its lurch’n’grind, introduces banjo; “You Should Be Ashamed” and the ferocious “Bedlam” fuel the fire with squonking horns played by Terry Edwards of Tindersticks; “Loving Alone” is an outright ballad, with backing vocals by Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier.
Clawfist — The Peel Sessions, a joint album also containing tracks by Liverpool’s Breed, has four numbers Gallon Drunk recorded for a ’91 radio broadcast: loose takes on “Ruby,” “Some Fool’s Mess” and “Two Wings Mambo” (from You, the Night) and a previously unreleased instrumental, “Drag ’91.”