With garage rock the next big thing and country and “Americana” now fully rehabilitated by underground tastemakers, Spencer P. Jones should be a big name in the world of rock’n’roll.

Instead, outside the circles of the cognoscenti of Oz rock music, New Zealand-born Jones is mostly (or perhaps that should be barely) known as being the other guitarist in Beasts of Bourbon; far too little praise for a performer whose musical career stretches back to the late 70's and who has worked in at least a dozen musical outfits.

Jones arrived in Australia from New Zealand in 1978 and quickly became a part of the country's punk scene Anyone seeking of evidence of Jones’ early days will likely have to content themselves with The Johnnys’ Highlights of a Dangerous

To tip off would-be buyers that all was not regulation in The Johnny’s country, the album cover sported an invisible cowboy riding through toothpaste-green Nevada badlands (on the back a Stetson-shaped UFO cruises toward the rock tower made famous by 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' over a graveyard with lime-green crosses).

Musically, 'Highlights of a Dangerous Life' sounds like a twangier Hoodoo Gurus — which is no bad thing, though a rougher sound might have been an improvement.

Lyrically, Western mythologising dominates tunes like 'Deadmen From Boot Hill', 'Injun Joe' and 'Way of the West'. There’s also a paean to Western singer Marty Robbins and songs of love lost, looked for and ... er.. consummated (the lyrics to 'Slip Slap Fishin' in part: “Rockin’ back up and own, she caught tadpoles by
the pound” don’t make you wonder what type of rod he’s using).
The Johnnys’ also cover Hoyt Axton’s country music standard 'Green Back Dollar' and turn in renditions of '“(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown', the Gamble/Huff chestnut immortalised by the NY Dolls on 'Too Much Too Soon', and 'Move It', the Cliff Richard tune penned by Shadows bassist Ian Samwell.

Besides their 1986 debut, there’s a hard-to-find sophomore effort, 'Grown Up Wrong' (last seen going for about $70 US used) and a French-label live album of dodgy provenance.

Whatever polish Jones’ music had was stripped away by his next band of note: The Beasts of Bourbon crawled from the deepest, darkest swamp of primitive rock, as epitomised by the Cramps and Beasts founder Kim Salmon’s earlier band, the Scientists.

Albums like 'The Axeman’s Jazz', 'Sour Mash', and compilations like 'Black Milk' and 'From The Belly of the Beasts' stumbled through a distorted, raunchy Delta, Tex Perkins’ drawl revisiting tales of death, degradation, drunkenness and vengeance
over whichever two chords Salmon and Jones where favouring at the time.

Tex Perkins went on to the Cruel Sea, while Kim Salmon formed the Surrealists with Beasts bassist Boris Sujdovic.

Since his stint with the Beasts, Jones has been an in-demand guitarist, backing greasy R&B shouter Andre Williams on his Australian tour, and has grabbed a permanent berth in folk-rocker Paul Kelly’s backing band and played guitar in a host of others. He’s also produced and He’s also produced and played on albums with like-minded Australian Charlie Owen. The latest news has Jones playing and recording with Aussie blues punk perverts the Sailors.

Jones has released three full-length albums under his own name since the Beasts of Burden swaggered their last, starting with 'Rumour of Deat'h in 1996. It’s his two most recent on the excellent Spooky Records label — also home to The Drones — that , however, really deserve seeking out.

'The Last Gasp' (2000) and 'The Lost Anxiety Tapes' (2002) are a super blend of swinging R&B and dissonant country rock. Over punching horns, swirling organ and sizzling guitar riffs, Jones’ astringent, cigarettes-and-scorn vocals cross the line between bravado and bitterness and back again, usually with a sense of exaggeration that borders on black humour.

'Don’t Terrorise Your Friends' starts '"The Last Gasp' off by offering some sensible advice to that crazy friend everyone has. '“Trick My Boat Wrong' follows with a hardbitten plea for trustworthiness. Between them and album closer 'Pretty Neck' (which was cowritten and performed by Mudhoney rhythm section Matt Lukin and Dan Peters), there’s a slew of great originals, like the snarky 'You’ve Peaked Baby', the melancholy 'These Days', and an interesting set of covers. These include two songs co-written by Detroit garage rock icon Mick Collins, 'Let Me Put It In,' off Andre (Mr. Rhythm) William’s 'Silky' and Blacktop’s 'Your Pretty Face (is Going to Waukeegan)', and also Charlie Owen’s 'Negative' and Richard Hell’s 'Time'. Fifties R&B, plus surf-instro music plus punk rock plus 1990s garage grit — that’s Spencer P. Jones.

There are several signposts to his past; the crunching opening chords 'Albino Faye' plainly hearken back to the Beasts of Bourbon circa 'Sour Mash'. With nine other musicians involved, the sound is very full; particular credit has to go to keyboardists Kiernan Box and Matt Heydon.

'The Lost Anxiety Tapes' keeps the quality level up, cutting down on the brass while beefing up the guitars. 'My Week Is Better' starts the album off on a cocky note, Jones’ week being better than your year, if the lyrics are to be believed.

Of course, as a Jones album, the bad luck crops up fast: On the stately 'Sailors Grave' 'What Will We Do With a Drunken Sailor' is neatly fused with some mournful saxophone to tell a tale of path-crossing black cats and impending doom. The pace picks up for 'I Guess It’s Going To Really Hurt' then drops down again for 'The Money’s The Thing' — Heydon turns in stellar work on the keys on this track, adding a rollicking touch and throwing in some spacy synthesiser tones, and Jones’ guitar solo on the outro.

For lovers of melancholy, there’s also the sole cover, the Black Heart Procession’s 'A Light So Dim'. Funeral procession piano and a ghostly wobble in the background of what sounds like a saw or theremin (more likely, the “frightening guitar” credited to one Loki in the liners).

The album picks up the pace again with 'Lovers Can Never Profit'
As on 'The Last Gasp', there’s an instrumental workout, 'The Spy Who Drugged Me', a mid-tempo effort where Heydon’s synth and Spencer’s guitar take turns shadowing one another. 'The Notion' looks back over 20 years in the music biz music (“I drank a lake of lukewarm beers,” Spencer notes at one point), with some fine harmonica. 'Golddigger 'is a caustic but groovy putdown of its title character. The final, iconoclastic track, 'Dutch Plates', is a few snatches of dialogue over mostly synth and drums, with some saxophone, bass and guitar for flavouring. The lesson here: If you rent a van in Amsterdam, you will be very, very closely searched at the border of the next country on your tour.

There you have it. Spencer P. Jones: Not just one of Australia’s best unheralded acts, but educational too.

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