Best known as the leader of punk-blues firebrands the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer became a major figure in noise rock and alternative rock circles for his gritty, combustible songs, fiercely minimalistic guitar work, and over-the-top performing style. Spencer first made his name in the mid-'80s with combative noise merchants Pussy Galore (best heard on the 1987 album Right Now!), whose raw, purposefully off-putting style and deliberately offensive lyrics made them one of the most polarizing bands of the day. After Pussy Galore's breakup, Spencer launched the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, whose frantic but wildly energetic style mixed elements of punk, R&B, blues, and garage rock into a raucous, celebratory attack that made them one of the best live acts of their day. The band captured the essentials of their sound on Extra Width (1993) and Orange (1994), while they embraced elements of hip-hop and electronics on Acme (1998). While Spencer's approach was easily recognizable, he was able to fuse his ideas with a variety of collaborators, including the raw R&B sound of Boss Hog, the fractured roots rock of Heavy Trash, and the deep but idiosyncratic blues wailing of Spencer Dickinson, and in 2018 he consolidated his many influences as he launched a solo career.
Jon Spencer was born on February 4, 1965. He grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire, and began making music while attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he formed a short-lived industrial noise group called Shithaus; one of his bandmates was Tod Ashley, who would go on to sing with Cop Shoot Cop. By 1985, Spencer had relocated to Washington, D.C., where he formed the first edition of Pussy Galore with Julia Cafritz (guitar and vocals) and John Hammill (percussion). The band's abrasive and inflammatory sound and philosophy sharply divided the Washington, D.C. musical community, and after a pair of self-released 7"s, they moved to New York City, which already had a thriving noise rock scene. Before they moved to New York, Hammill left the group and guitarist Neil Hagerty signed on, while drummer Bob Bert and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Cristina Martinez became part of Pussy Galore once they settled into their new home. Pussy Galore would go on to release four full-length albums (including their infamous song-by-song cover of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., which appeared on a limited-edition cassette) before the band broke up in 1990. Spencer and Martinez, who were romantically involved and would marry in 1991, had already formed a side project, the sex-obsessed Boss Hog, with members of Unsane and the Honeymoon Killers. Their debut EP, Drinkin', Lechin' & Lyin', appeared in 1989, and a full-length album, Cold Hands, followed in 1990. Boss Hog remained sporadically active in the '90s and early 2000s, through they went on hiatus after Spencer and Martinez welcomed their first child, returning to the studio for 2017's Brood X.
In 1990, Spencer launched a new project, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with Spencer (on vocals, guitar, and theremin) joined by guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins. Fusing the clattering sounds of Pussy Galore with a more accessible and energetic approach inspired by R&B, blues, and rockabilly (the band's two-guitars-and-drums lineup was inspired by the gutbucket blues combo Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers), the trio released their self-titled debut album in 1992, and thanks to heavy touring, enthusiastic word of mouth, and scattered MTV airplay, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion developed an international fan base that dwarfed that of any of Spencer's other projects. While early releases such as Crypt Style (1992) and Extra Width (1993) documented their bold live sound, JSBX began exploring the possibilities of the recording studio on Now I Got Worry (1996) and Acme (1998), and they shored up their credibility with blues fans backing up Mississippi juke joint legend R.L. Burnside on his 1996 set, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. After 2004's Damage, the group took a break, but they returned to duty in 2012 with Meat + Bone, followed by 2015's excellent Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015.
When not occupied with the Blues Explosion, Spencer kept himself busy with other projects. He teamed up with Matt Verta-Ray of Speedball Baby to form Heavy Trash, which pushed the rockabilly and roots rock side of Spencer's musical personality to the forefront; the group released three albums, Heavy Trash (2005), Going Way Out with Heavy Trash (2007), and Midnight Soul Serenade (2010). Spencer also collaborated with Luther Dickinson and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars for a 2006 album titled The Man Who Lives for Love, credited to Spencer Dickinson. And Spencer also made notable guest appearances on albums by Andre Williams (2000's The Black Godfather), Nancy Sinatra (2004's Nancy Sinatra), the Sadies (2006's In Concert, Vol. 1), the Japanese Popstars (2011's Controlling Your Allegiance), and Solex (2010's Amsterdam Throwdown King Street Showdown!, which also featured Cristina Martinez). In 2018 Spencer stepped out on his own with his first solo album, Spencer Sings the Hits. ~ Mark Deming