Less is usually more in the world of Jon Spencer. When he first broke through with the Washington, D.C., minimalist noise-punk trio Pussy Galore in 1985, their music was so tinny, shriveled up and dehydrated-sounding that critics debated about whether the band could actually play their instruments. Their extremely rare cassette-only remake of Exile on Main Street condensed the classic Rolling Stones album into a cramped and claustrophobic collection of insect scratching in which the songs were barely recognizable.
Even Pussy Galore's fans were confused by this approach. When I saw an expanded version of the band in Switzerland in the late '80s, they had just arrived from a show in Germany where their own fans had smashed the window of the tour van — not because the kids didn't like the music, but because they were furious that Pussy Galore had only played for 15 minutes during one of their typically ramshackle crash-and-burn mini-sets. As Spencer sat quietly at the bar after the Swiss concert, a male fan approached the singer as if to ask for an autograph, but instead began wordlessly punching him before being pulled away.
After Spencer relocated to New York City, the underground music scene eventually came to embrace him, especially when he was partnered in Boss Hog with his glamorous then-girlfriend Cristina Martinez. At the time, Spencer and Martinez were the city's boho style icons — sort of the equivalent to X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka in Los Angeles in the late '70s — and Boss Hog's gigs were crowded with obvious wannabes and shameless look-alikes.
Spencer's revisionist approach to the blues was still stripped down in his early-'90s project the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but, joined by such musicians as guitarist Judah Bauer (who'd later go on to back Cat Power and start his own group, 20 Miles) and drummer Russell Simins, he was also up to something much stranger, heavier and more versatile than his earlier combos. The Blues Explosion's initial recordings, including A Reverse Willie Horton and Crypt Style, mashed together raw funk rhythms, Captain Beefheart guitars, rockabilly licks, James Brown–inspired shout-outs and bluesy artiness in a way that was both abrasive and danceable. They were likely influenced by their predecessors in New York's late-'70s No Wave scene, particularly James Chance, and they weren't too far removed philosophically from the confrontational weirdness of early L.A. noisemakers like Black Randy & the Metro Squad.
During the next two decades, the Blues Explosion collaborated with such disparate worthies as blues legend R.L. Burnside, Andre Williams, the Beastie Boys, Solomon Burke, producer Steve Albini, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Jim Dickinson, Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff and funk master Bernie Worrell, among many others.
This year, Major Domo Records/Shout Factory remastered and re-released several of the Blues Explosion's prime albums in a series of lavish CDs that are stacked with bonus tracks and live material. Now I Got Worry (originally released in 1996) now includes a dozen crucial bonus cuts, while 1993's Extra Width has even more extra width, with a second disc that includes 24 fascinating studio and concert rarities. The 38-track compilation Year One features early recordings, and the Controversial Negro live album is similarly augmented with worthwhile extras.
It may have taken the world 20 years or more to catch up to Spencer's seemingly unmethodical madness, but these songs still sound fresh today, especially in the context of latter-day acolytes such as the White Stripes.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion performs at the Troubadour on Thursday, September 30.