Ben Thompson – Seven Years of Plenty [White] (BOOK, UK)

1998 Gollancz 0-575-06603-2
Ben Thompson - Seven Years of Plenty [White] (BOOK, UK)
Collection of writing by Ben Thompson features article on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and a one-page mention of Jon Spencer and Pussy Galore.

This is the original large format/print edition.

[Incorrect spellings of ‘Christina’, ‘Gibson Brothers’ and ‘Russell Simmins’ are as they appeared in the original text]

PAGE 95: “Step forward Jon Spencer, the most unlikely candidate for a Nobel peace price since Henry Kissinger. Spencer’s rejection of the destructive impulses that were the very lifeblood of his legendary New York guitar hate-posse Pussy Galore in favour of an evangelical new traditionalism is dealt with at greater length later. Suffice to say that by this single redemptive gesture, Spencer single-handedly broke the no wave pain barrier and made pre-punk American music safe for the underground again.

Beck Hansen is just one of a number of American musicians to have spoken about the cathartic impact of Pussy Galore on his own desire to make a music that was connected to older traditions, without being subservient to them. He observes with characteristic serious-mindedness, ‘I guess every few years a band comes along that reconnects with that primal energy’.

It is also interesting to note that whereas pre-Pussy Galore attempts at post-punk which blues and country – Jason and the Scorchers, the Rain Parade, etc. – tended to suck pretty badly (‘All those kind of California singer-songwriter types of the eighties’, Vic Chesnutt remembers, ‘The Dream Syndicate, all that crowd … I didn’t really dig them at all – needed harsher lyrics’), subsequent efforts have had a higher success rate. Coinkydink? I think not.

Asked by The Wire magazine why Jon Spencer was so popular with American underground musicians, veteran professional troublemaker Steve Albini, who has produced Palace and Smog as well as Nirvana’s In Utero, responded thus: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll has so many revolting step-children … [that] people who started liking music around the time of punk rock … basically ignored it … I guess in a way having someone like Spencer play music like that removes that affected rock star hippy appreciation of the blues and washes the bad taste out of people’s mouths’.

In an unusually forthright interview in New York’s excellent Index magazine, Will Oldham stigmatized Spencer’s as ‘music that cries out to be talked about’ – as opposed to Oldham’s presumably, which is merely the unfettered, secret expression of his own inviolate genius (for further evidence of this man’s impeccably disingenuous personality, see ‘Palace’ entry in Part B). But the very fact that he felt it necessary to do this can be taken as sure evidence of Spencer’s significance.”

PAGES 196 – 199: “The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

‘Jerry Lee Lewis had a whole fucking band, and they were just “Jerry Lee Lewis”‘

The Jon Spencer Spencer Blues Explosion (Hut ’92)
Extra Width (Matador ’93)
Orange (Matador ’94)
Remixes (Matador ’95)
Now I Got Worry (Mute ’96)
With R. L. Burnside: A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (Fat Possum ’96)
Acme (Mute ’98)

And lo, Jon Spencer pulled the microphone from the depths of his oesophagus and spake words of far-reaching impact … and those words were, ‘Play the blues, punk!” .

Spencer, founding father of New Yorks’s premier mid-late eighties apocalypso art scuzz spectacle Pussy Galore, now presides over his own personal blues explosion as, in his own words ‘the number one blues singer in the country’. ‘If the blues has got to be twelve bars played by a black guy in the delta,’ Spencer qualifies, ‘then obviously we’re not a blues band, but the thing I always liked about the blues was that it was honest and direct … in terms of authenticity the only thing that matters is that we’re trying to make music that comes from us.’ .

One of the best reasons for putting your trust in Jon Spencer is that everything about him is just so suspicious. An off-duty day job production work for grooming-fixated US men’s magazine Details (‘I have nothing to do with the content,’ Spencer insists, with a hint of desperation) offers few clues to the deliciously over-ripe machismo of his stage and recording persona. Neither, except when he loses the thread and goes ‘ah eeeh, uh, oh’ do the measured tones of his speaking voice. But when this man sings, well, if Mick Jagger’s penis had a voice this is what it would sound like. .

‘hey, don’t call me after twelve’, he snarls at the start of the hilarious, x-rated ‘Blues X Man’, ‘that’s when I’m laying in bed at home with the wife’. Where does all this blues explosion business come from – could the libido have anything to do with it? ‘Jerry Lee Lewis had a whole fucking band,’ Spencer boasts ‘and they were just “Jerry Lee Lewis.”‘.

If anyone was sick enough to need a theoretical approach to this impeccably untheoretical music, there would be two ways of looking at it. First, as a joyous extension of the coursing bloodline of rock’n’roll: what Captain Beefheart did for Howlin’ Wolf, Spencer does for Hound Dog Taylor, the original source of The Blues Explosion’s ultra sprightly two-guitar, drums, no bass, line-up. Second, as a gleeful sloughing off of the nihilism of the New York no wave, of which Pussy Galore were the unwanted stepchildren. .

Pussy Galore covered the whole of Exile On Main Street and made, in Right Now and the immortal Groovy Hate Fuck, at least two of the top five albums of the eighties. ‘”If The Cramps stripped rock’n’roll down to its bones,”‘ Spencer modestly quotes his own reviews, ‘”Pussy Galore crushed those bones,'” But however invigorating his old band’s compulsive unpleasantness could be on a good night, it became in Spencer’s own words ‘kind of a trap’. .

‘If the whole thing is about fuck you,’ he continues, solemnly. ‘There is just no hope.’ It’s as if all those years of saying rock’n’roll was a dead language (and having a taken a pre-Pussies semiotics course at Brown University, this was just the sort of thing Spencer probably did say) gave him the motivation to prove it wasn’t. .

It’s almost as if with Pussy Galore he was trying to break something and now he’s trying to make something. A pause. ‘I think that’s fair.’ Playing in the spectacularly unsavoury Boss Hog with his wife Christina Martinez, and then briefly joining rockabilly blues obsessives the Gibson Brothers, their enthusiasm rubbed off on him to spectacular effect. United in the desire to ‘do something really crazy’ with guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simmins (whose family motto might be ‘a big noise from a little kit’), Spencer formed The Blues Explosion. The promise of the first words of their eponymous debut LP (‘Fellas, let’s get together and write a song’) took a little while to deliver on, but they got there in the end. .

Extra Width, with its stomping lead track ‘Afro’, showcased to memorably potent effect on The Word, was a great leap forward, but Orange was the real thing: not in a Memphis-heritage-park, Andy-Kershaw-drinking-Coca-Cola-down-by-the-bus-station sort of way, but in a low down and dirty groove rumpus fashion that rattles the teeth and unsettles the underwear. This great, stomping, exuberant parole violation of a record has a lovely silver cover reminiscent of a 1950s Prestige jazz LP, and it’s thirteen songs are an irresistible surge of energy and excitement. .

Such a whole-hearted embrace of core rock’n’roll values might seem like a cop-out coming from the man who gave is the venomous anti-trad cacophony that was Pussy Galore, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. ‘You make me feel so unnecessary,’ Spencer counsels at one point, ‘incomplete’. And it’s willingness to mix things up that keeps the pulse racing – most dramatically with the aid of the theremin (the freaky Brian Wilson-approved sound stick invented by Russian revolutionary scientist Leon Theremin) but also with string sections. Stax soul, p-funk and Dr Dre keyboards, and even a guest rap down the phone from Beck. .

How did he light upon the theremin? ‘What attracted me to it initially,’ Spencer says, dryly, ‘was that it would be a surprise for Russell and Judah … the way I use it is really just for shock value – just letting it rip. To play it properly takes an incredible amount of control. I’ve seen Theremin’s wife Clara Rockmore playing it and it’s very impressive: it sounds like a violin.’ .

A violin is one sound you won’t be hearing when The Blues Explosion play live. In the wake of their inspired Socratic blues dialogue A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (‘I need 40 nickles for a bag of potato chips,’ whines Spencer: ‘You don’t get out of my face quick,’ shoots back R.L., ‘I’m going to kick your ass’) Spencer is supported by ancient Holly Springs Delta blues eminence R.L. Burnside. Both parties seem quite happy about this, R.L. rocks up a storm from a seated position with his son on drums, and if Spencer is anything other than exhilarated by having a chance to test his mettle against the genuine article, he does not show it. .

Whippet-wiry and absurdly handsome, he puts his trouser-seams under unbearable pressure with some of the most electric scissor kicks seen on a London stage since the young Pete Townshend foolishly stuck a knife in the toaster. There are two words in the basic Spencer vocabulary. One of them is Blues and the other one is Explosion. Occasionally he might contemplate such flowery additions as ‘yeah’, ‘damn’, ‘thank you, friends’, or ‘fuck you, punk’, but not too often. The eloquence of his inarticulacy is pure and must not be compromised.

The emotional climax of a massively entertaining show – the aptly titled ‘Sticky’ – finds him down on his knees in the midst of a deep soul anxiety attack. In hilarious proximity to a very phlegmatic bouncer, Spencer howls like a dog. His face contorted in every kind of supplication, he approaches the theremin and wiggles his hands at it. Nothing happens. He has a surreptitious stab at the on/off button. Still no joy. Just as the song ends, the recalcitrant science fiction toy finally springs into life. Now, who says a white man can’t play the blues?”