The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Biography
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is an iconic indie rock power trio that peaked in the mid 1990s with a unique blend of ironic rock posturing, swampy blues funk and fuzzed-out guitar skree. The band appropriated blues and rock clichés, folding those elements into a shambolic garage rawk sound that was equal parts self-aware post-punk and swaggering showmanship. Questions of authenticity dogged the trio throughout its career, but that was never the point. The band’s inspired put-on is presented as its identity and as a listener you either get sweaty with it or you don’t.
Jon Spencer started out as the frontman for ‘80s scuzz rockers Pussy Galore. Based in DC and counting future Royal Trux main man Neil Michael Hagerty among its members, Pussy Galore blended avant-garde noise with Stones-style punk swagger. By the time the band had relocated to New York City it included Spencer’s girlfriend Christina Martinez and future Free Kitten member Julie Cafritz. The group eventually imploded and Spencer and Martinez started Boss Hog in 1989. In 1990 Spencer struck out on his own and recruited guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins to form the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Like Royal Trux, early Jon Spencer Blues Explosion records are loose, shambolic, noisy and slightly incoherent. After a series of 7” singles the group released its self-titled debut on Caroline Records in 1992. The album, produced by legendary engineer Steve Albini, boasts furious punk songs heavily blasted with noise and flecked with elements of bluesy stomp and rockabilly strut.
Soon after the trio signed with indie giant Matador Records and released Extra Width in 1993. Much had changed in the group’s approach and the album features coherent songwriting and clearer production. Spencer was singing more, sounding like a coked up Elvis impersonator, and howling less. The band’s playing with considerably tighter, focusing on locked in blues riffs and funky R&B inspired rhythms. Tracks like “Soul Typecast,” “Pant Leg” and the heavily MTV rotated “Afro” radiated infectious energy and catchy hooks, earning the band a much wider audience. The group toured constantly and its live show earned a reputation for sweaty energy recalling a true soul revival.
Expanding on the new formula, Matador released Orange in 1994. Arguably the group’s finest record, these songs bring a greater depth and variety to the funky rockabilly soul of Extra Width. There’s a greater ‘70s rock feel, evidenced on tracks like “Bellbottoms” and “Orange.” Simins really steps out here, pumping out a funky, hip-hop influenced take on John Bonham’s power drumming style. Spencer’s voice is more confident as well. What the band lacks in real emotional content, it more than makes up for in powerful delivery and style.
The following year brought the Experimental Remixes EP featuring reworks of tracks from Orange by the likes of Beck, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Moby and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. In 1996 Now I Got Worry was released. By this time you were either a fan of the band or not and the new record made no efforts to break into vastly new territory. Overall it’s a fierce record, boasting some of the band’s most raw songs since the debut record. Standouts include the searing hardcore of “Identity,” the swamp funk of “R.L. Got Soul” and the claustrophobic stoned echo of “Fuck Shit Up.” Now I Got Worry is the studio recording that best captures the group’s crazed live attack.
1997 saw the band’s first live recording, Controversial Negro: Live In Tucson. Featuring some of the band’s best-loved songs performed with fury and passion, this record cements the group’s rep as one of the most exciting live shows in all of indie rock. The group released its last album of the ‘90s with 1998’s ACME. The album returns to the studio-enhanced sound of Orange, augmenting the double guitar and drums attack with hip-hop breaks, textural loops and dubbed out echo.
After a four year hiatus the band returned in 2002 with Plastic Fang. Again vamping on the group’s signature sound, it’s a solid record that includes the highlight of a collaboration with Dr. John and Bernie Worrell on “Hold On.” The band's next record, Damage, sees the group shorten its moniker to Blues Explosion. It also marks the band’s first step away from Matador to the Sanctuary Records label.
Say what you will about the band’s sincerity or respect for the blues, that was never the point. Spencer and company like to make a racket and they’ve honed it down to a funky science. The group’s sound has definitely been an influence on later bands like the White Stripes. The Blues Explosion continues to take its energetic and hugely enjoyable live show on the road.