This week Australian music lost another much-loved figure. Guitarist & singer/songwriter Spencer P. Jones featured prominently in the Johnnys and the Beasts of Bourbon. He also served time playing sideman to both Paul Kelly and Renee Geyer, and built an acclaimed body of work under his own name. Spencer passed away on Tuesday at the age of 62, having been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer earlier in the year. We look at his career and his influence, and remember Spencer with some of his much-loved songs.
His was hardly a household name, but Spencer P Jones was a respected figure in Australian music and his influence runs deep. Best known as a guitarist in the Tex Perkins-fronted grunge-blues supergroup the Beasts of Bourbon, Spencer’s long career on the fringes incorporated stints as bandleader, solo artist and sideman. Spencer was a straight down the line rock’n’roller whose own music never really strayed too far from a Rolling Stones/Neil Young-templated style of rootsy, dirty and lyrical rock. A genuine lover of music with a deep sense of its history, he knew that the rock’n’roll he loved was a broad church, and as a collaborator, he had something that a disparate range of musicians wanted. Spencer was as adept at fitting into Rowland S. Howard’s chaotic post-Birthday Party group These Immortal Souls as he was playing refined lead for Renee Geyer.
Spencer was born and bred in New Zealand but came to Australia in 1976. He made his first record, a single, in 1979 with Melbourne band the Cuban Heels, through whom he became acquainted with fellow inner-city pub denizens Paul Kelly & The Dots. He co-fronted the Heels with another future Kelly guitarist, Steve Connolly, and wrote and sung one side of the record, the brooding and melodic “Fast Living Friend”. Involvement in a quick succession of bands followed, including the comedic North 2 Alaskans and the garage Olympic Sideburns, before he found himself in Sydney, signing on with cowboy punk rockers the Johnnys in 1983. The Johnnys were fronted by former Hoodoo Guru Rod Radalj, but Roddy soon departed, leaving Spence to take over the reins. The band recorded two Ross Wilson-produced albums for Mushroom, which have stood the test of time and hold some great tunes. None better than the fabulous “Bleeding Heart”, which the band co-wrote with Spencer’s buddy Paul Kelly.
In addition to Ross Wilson and Paul Kelly, another high profile Johnnys fan was no less a figure than Neil Young, who watched the band’s sets from the side of stage when they supported him on his 1985 Australian tour. Neil was apparently enamored with the guitar sounds. TV’s Donnie Sutherland was also a supporter and the band were regular guests on Sounds.
Another Johnnys favourite was the laconic country number “The Day Marty Robbins Died”, which Spencer co-wrote with a young Tex Perkins. The song had originally appeared on the Beasts of Bourbons’ The Axeman’s Jazz album, which also featured the rocking Jones/Perkin co-write “Evil Ruby”. The Beasts were a Sydney inner-city supergroup, which Spencer formed with Perkins, Kim Salmon and Boris Sujdovic from the Scientists and original Hoodoo Gurus drummer James Baker. They were only a part time outfit but had a huge impact on alternative circles throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, and really established Spencer as a figure of significance. The Beasts came to have a strong influence on various underground rock scenes internationally; talk to key players in New York, London or Seattle and they’ll all tell you they love Spencer.
Only months after joining the Johnnys and forming the Beasts, Spencer and Johnnys drummer Billy Pommer Jr. lucked into a gig with seminal LA blues-punkers the Gun Club, whose guitarist and drummer had quit before boarding the plane to Australia. The Gun Club were huge at the time in international alternative circles, and later acknowledged as a key influential by the White Stripes and others. Spencer would remain friends with Gun Club and future Bad Seeds guitarist Kid Congo Powers for the rest of his life.
After the Johnnys and during his tenure with the Beasts (actually the Beasts never really ended, so I should say during the late 80s and 90s), Spencer kept busy with stints in Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls (and later the Paul Kelly Band), Hell to Pay (a short-lived group also featuring Ian Rilen of X) and Roland S. Howard’s band These Immortal Souls. He also played alongside Chris Bailey of the Saints, the aforementioned Renee Geyer and – a world away from Renee – confrontational New Yorker Lydia Lunch, and another Paul Kelly associate Maurice Frawley. He released his first solo album Rumour of Death, in 1994, establishing his unarguable strength as a singer and songwriter. One of the album’s highlights was “Execution Day”, for which was made a video featuring late friends Roland S. Howard, Brian Henry Hooper, Peter Jones, as well as Bad Seeds keyboard player Conway Savage. The album also featured Spencer’s song “The World’s Got Everything In it”, which was later covered by Johnnys producer and Australian rock icon Ross Wilson.
Spencer was back in the saddle with Paul Kelly in 1996 when Kelly recorded his classic “How To Make Gravy”. You can hear Spencer’s lap slide guitar on the record, and catch a glimpse of the man, seated, in the video.
Amidst the occasional Beasts of Bourbon reformation and a range of other projects (including a stint with a new line-up of seminal Melbourne band the Sacred Cowboys), the last couple of decades saw Spencer primarily focus on his own work, with a number of different backing bands. From 2000 to 2010 he released seven acclaimed albums, and in 2012 he teamed up with members of the Drones and his old Beasts mate James Baker for the fantastic Spencer P. Jones and the Nothing Butts album. His final album, in 2013, was a duo album with another old Beasts of Bourbon pal Kim Salmon. These records represent a rich body of work that people will continue to discover for decades to come.
Spencer, who had been fighting ill health since 2015, played his last show in March, honouring the Beasts of Bourbon’s also-ailing bass player Brian Henry Hooper at a benefit show at St Kilda’s Prince of Wales. Hooper passed away days after managing to make a brief appearance at his own benefit show. Spencer was apparently told in June that his own time would soon be up.
Spencer P. Jones passed away August 21. He shall be missed by family and friends, and thousands of rock'n’roll fans the world over.