Joe Jackson 1979-1983
What a shame Elvis Costello and Graham Parker released stellar albums at the same time Joe Jackson released Look Sharp!, his debut, in 1979. Parker unleashed Squeezing Out Sparks, arguably his finest, and Costello published Armed Forces, also arguably his finest. But Jackson, the quintessential angry young man and every bit their equal, should never be forgotten as one of the classics, and his albums from 1979-1983 are documents that prove he should have been more revered/popular than he was/is.
Starting with the debut, then: Look Sharp! was my introduction to Jackson when I was but a wee lad, and the track Sunday Papers is the reason I started playing the bass guitar. Rife with cod reggae, humor, punk anger, plenty of pop hooks (like the massive hit Is She Really Going Out With Him?, One More Time, Look Sharp and Pretty Girls, and all the rest, really) and guitars, guitars, guitars. Lyrically, though, the record is saturated with jealousy. One quick glance at the lyric sheet will tell you that. Witness an excerpt from Happy Loving Couples:
“I’ve just been to see my best friend
He’s got another girl
Says she’s just about the best thing
In the whole damn world
And he says can’t you see what the little lady’s done for me
Says it like he thinks I’m blind
But the things that you see ain’t necessarily the things you can find
Happy loving couples make it look so easy
Happy loving couples always talk so kind
Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner
Those happy couples ain’t no friends of mine”
Jackson followed up with I’m The Man, a virtual clone of the debut but no less successful, for the pop hits here are legion. More power pop than anything he’s done since, it nevertheless contains some of his finest balads, like the beautiful and sad It’s Different For Girls. On Your Radio and the title track are two of my favorite “let’s rock with abandon” Joe Jackson tracks, and most of the others, although slightly slighter than those on the debut, follow suit.
Man I love this album! It was time for Joe to take his first left turn. Beat Crazy, released in 1980, embraces reggae, ska and even a bit of dub, as was the trend of the time. Upon first listen one might be tempted to write this off as a jumbled mess with no hooks (the Sandinista! syndrome), but that would just be a shame. Give this recording some time and you should find this to be one of the most rewarding listening experiences in JJ’s discography. Really! In addition, Beat Crazy documents Joe’s first foray into “sophisto-jazz”, as on the pretty terrific One To One. Lastly, damn I LOVE this album cover! It’s one I’m sure Dave Wakeling from The Beat wished he commissioned first…
Oh, this one here is my favorite album from Joe Jackson, PERIOD. Jumpin’ Jive, in which The Man immerses himself in the trad swing of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, is terrific, and years ahead of the 1990’s Swingers craze. The commitment to authenticity is impressive, his band is as tight as they’ve ever been, and Jackson’s vocals suit the music well. The tunes he chooses to cover were all fantastic to begin with but he is able to put his own stamp on virtually all of them. It really feels like, for the first time on wax, that he’s having fun, but the best thing about this album, and why it remains my favorite to this day, is that it is just so damn consistent in tone and flow. Jumpin’ Jive is one genre exercise from JJ that works extremely well, as opposed to 2012’s The Duke, which only worked about 60% of the time, in my opinion.
Night And Day was his break out album, spawning two worldwide hits in Steppin’ Out and Breaking Us In Two. This is Jackson’s ode to Manhattan, and the overall musical (if not lyrical, which really doesn’t deviate too far from his first 2 albums) mood oozes class by utilizing a bit of lounge jazz, a bit of Latin pop and a dose of classic, Cole Porter-style pop. This is the original after hours chill out record (beating the KLF by a few years). It is a record to listen to at 2am with a gin martini (extra olives!) looking out at the New York skyline from a penthouse (the fantastic cover sketch says it all, doesn’t it?). Joe Jackson toured this album by opening up for the Who, and I remember him getting booed off the stage. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from that horrible experience, and I don’t think he ever did another album to top this one, although Volume 4 comes pretty close, as does Body and Soul, and Night and Day II, while critically slammed, remains an underrated classic! But the original Night and Day was a consistent winner, from the first note to the last.
Mike’s Murder, the soundtrack to a simply awful movie, followed Night and Day, and I purchased it immediately, and was…immediately disappointed. Side one is great, and contains songs in the vein of Night and Day, and all are equal to those on that great album. The driving Memphis, Cosmopolitan (which should have been on Night And Day), and 1-2-3 Go (This Town’s A Fairground), Laundromat Monday and Moonlight, which is quite possibly the most affecting ballad he ever wrote. The reason I was disappointed was the content on Side II, which contains 3 instrumental tracks, none of which are particularly earth shattering. In hindsight, “What the hell did I expect; it was a goddamn soundtrack album!” This has been out of print for years, and then briefly made an appearance in, I think, 2006, and now going for stupid money on sites like eBay and Amazon. However, because some generous soul tipped me off, I now have the Side One tracks back in my collection as they were released on the second disc of the Deluxe Edition of Night and Day!
Joe Jackson’s career after these albums, aside from a couple of inconsistent efforts, has been uniformly terrific and always worth purchasing. He remains the quintessential under-the-radar artist, and that’s just fine by me, and I expect his legions of fanatical followers as well.