By Peter Lindblad
“Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” — the famous line from the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
For the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, that plea has often fallen on deaf ears.
That’s not to say that everything written about the noisy, avant-blues anarchists has been derisive or belittling. In fact, critics have usually had nice things to say about the trio’s hard-hitting, visceral blasts of deconstructed rock ’n’ roll.
In taking apart and reassembling traditional forms of the blues and ’50s rockabilly, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion pays only the most sincere homage.
Yet a lot of people don’t buy it. They think it’s all a put-on, that Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins have, for the last almost 20 years, been creating gritty, wild, postmodern rock ’n’ roll mayhem with a wink and a nudge and very little respect for the past.
Spencer takes offense at that.
“I do. I think we’ve been misunderstood,” says Spencer. “We’ve been dismissed as a joke. We’ve been dismissed as ironic hipsters and even racists.”
Sure, says Spencer, some of the Blues Explosion’s songs have some humor, and he admits they can even be a bit silly, but he adds, “There’s certainly a lot of joy in it, and there’s a lot of life to it.”
And much of that life is fueled by Spencer’s deep appreciation of the blues and old-time rock ’n’ roll, a genre that he feels is under attack these days.
“America has a real stick up its ass and a real problem, it seems, with rock ‘n’ roll,” says Spencer, “and it’s a shame because this is the country that gave birth to that very music.”
And perhaps rock ’n’ roll has become even more marginalized in today’s music scene than it was when the Blues Explosion arrived in the early ’90s to give the dour, “taking itself way too seriously” world of alternative rock a good, swift kick in the crotch.
To remedy at least one of those problems, the Blues Explosion is releasing a 22-song retrospective of its most bad-ass works titled Dirty Shirt Rock ‘N Roll: The First Ten Years. Released March 30 on Shout! Factory’s Majordomo Records imprint, the record is the opening salvo in a Blues Explosion reissue project that will see the band re-release six of its albums.
It’s almost as if the Blues Explosion is mounting a second viral attack on conventional rock ’n’ roll. Of course, Spencer has been howling at the moon for a long, long time. Before the Blues Explosion, Spencer led the infamous scuzz-rock pirates Pussy Galore, whose cannonade of rude, primitive rock battered music for five years.
Originating in 1990, the Blues Explosion wasn’t any tamer.
“At the very beginning, it was very loose, very open,” remembered Spencer. “There were no boundaries, definitely no baggage. There was very much a rush of energy.”
Influenced by the no-wave scene in New York City, the band experimented gleefully, often churning out incomprehensible, dense thickets of noise.
“There was just a lot more stuff being kind of thrown about and up in the air, and it’s interesting,” said Spencer. “You know, it’s really free, really open. But, you know, a lot of the songs are much shorter in length, more sort of these stabs of music and noise.”
As the 1990s went on, however, the Blues Explosion’s mad missives began to take shape. And even though they were outsiders, the world of alternative-rock began to wake up to what they were doing. In 1993, Extra Width and the song “Afro” gained them exposure on MTV. But there was no way the band was ever going to sell out and, in the process, sell massive amounts of records. Their sound was just too abrasive.
As the years went by, less and less was heard of the Blues Explosion. Since the turn of the century, the band has released only two albums, the last being 2004’s Damage. But they’re on the comeback trail.
“Fourteen years — which is what we worked, pretty much a straight 14 years with the Blues Explosion before we took this break — [is] a very long time, and it’s an especially long time to be working closely with a group of people, and it takes a lot out of you,” said Spencer, who always plays with the hellbilly duo Heavy Trash. “So, that said, there’s also a very special bond between the three of us. We’re able to write together. We’re able to make this music and we’re able to do this crazy rock ’n’ roll Blues Explosion thing.