In Defense of Joe Jackson

Steve’s New Year’s article included a bunch of discs Mr. Moyer was considering blowing a bunch of holiday Amazon cash on.

looksharpAmong the coveted was Joe Jackson’s terrific 1979  Look Sharp, a solid and even pretty diverse debut released during the hey day of Punk and the New Wave.

At first I dismissed Jackson as an Elvis Costello wanna be, but several songs from Look Sharp really nailed me. Is She Really Going Out With Him, Sunday Papers, and One More Time not to mention the great title cut made me buy the vinyl (I got the same issue as Peter, two 10″ discs) and the album was strong enough for me to easily take the plunge with Jackson’s second album, I’m The Man.

I felt Jackson’s second work was even stronger than his first, with the title track resting among my favorite Jackson tunes (it is also a song I played lead guitar on and sang with my first band, Mid Life Crisis). The album also had On Your Radio and the lovely and ironic It’s Different for Girls.

I bought Jackson’s next foray, Beat Crazy, and it did not do that much for me, but the eclectic musician and songwriter–who studied at Britain’s Royal Music Academy–followed that up with his Jumpin’ Jive Review, a wonderful homage to Cab Calloway and especially Louis Jordan.

Next for Jackson was Night and Day, a nod to pop and to Cole Porter, and an album that featured perhaps Jackson’s best known tune, Stepping Out and while there were still guitars and bass and 4/4 time in Jackson’s compositions, it was clear Jackson’s love for big bands and orchestrations was guiding his evolution as an artist.

By the way, Night and Day was again a very strong product, with diverse, tuneful, and thoughtfully constructed pop tunes. And, Stepping Out represented the first produced video by Jackson, who had eschewed the format that had become a staple in 1982, because he felt that video detracted from the music.

Jackson’s next work, Body and Soul again displayed the move towards a more refined jacksonsound well as jazz in a work that lovingly replicates the cover art of the 1957 release by Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2Body and Soul has also proved to be my favorite Jackson disc, and the one that made my Top 50 (which now seems like a Top 75) for the site here.

Jackson’s next work, Big World, sampled even further beats and rhythms of the world at large, while also displaying another aspect of the principled auteur, for though the album is a double disc, Jackson only felt he had enough quality material for three sides. So, side four is left intentionally blank.

From there Jackson generally moved more towards works that pushed towards fuller orchestrations, eventually delivering his Symphony #1 (1999) and though I stopped buying each of Jackson’s works, I did see Joe and the band on the heels of their Blaze of Glory tour in 1989, and they were beyond great. Tight, tuneful, and funny, with the goofy Jackson playing all kinds of instruments while he stalked around the stage, like a mad musical scientist dressed in a trench-coat, as his band simply smoked.

As noted, since then, Jackson has moved from the punky guitar driven sound that garnered notice, towards classical music (he has also done a bunch of soundtracks, including Mike’s Murder and Tucker), but comparing the literate and erudite Jackson with the likes of Billy Joel is not just wrong, it is criminal (sorry Gene).

One of the things I have noticed as the cluster of us contributing to the site have made our musical loves known, is some of us have a genre we love the most, or that we feel best represents what the site, as in Remnants of Rock, as opposed to country, or pop, or classical or salsa means, is that we have clear lines drawn about what qualifies.

And, while I understand this–and hell, guitar driven tunes are the ones that get me most as you can see by simply watching the I’m the Man vid–I think artists growing and pushing their vision is what keeps art, both theirs and ours, vital.

Joe Jackson is such an artist. Like Prince, or Joni Mitchell, or the Stones or Beatles, Neil Young, or even Dylan, Jackson has never been satisfied simply doing the same mishmash of tunes over and over again.

Rather he pushes and reinvents himself, and his work to keep both the music and himself growing, learning, and producing.

The results speak for themselves, whether he is your cup of Joe or not.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Joe Jackson

  1. Come to think of it, I liked the “I’m The Man” album too. But that video is pretty hilarious. Joe Jackson looks like the spawn of Elvis Costello and Pee Wee Herman and the band looks like something out of “Valley Girl.”

    • Yeah, he is showing the seeds of the gawky mad musical scientist to whom I referred. But it was another 5-6 years before Valley Girl came out.

      Either way, the song seriously smokes.

  2. Valley Girl, Nic Cage’s first film, came out in 1983.

    I liked the first two albums at the time, but as I said, they now sound strangely distant and unexciting. And I have to say that JJ’s foray’s into other genre’s left me pretty cold. Jumping Jive has a great sound that is just like the original arrangements, topped by Joe Jackson’s voice, which has nothing on Louis Jordan. Try this:

    • This is awesome Peter. Great band, and fun to watch.

      U r right, that the tune Valley Girl came out in 1982 (and I guess the movie shortly thereafter).

      I guess I was not aware of it till a few years later.

  3. And here I thought you were going to defend Shoeless Joe. I wouldn’t buy that either;) I think we just have to chalk this one up to taste. I’ll give him one point on Billy Joel: at least Joe doesn’t indulge in maudlin sentimentality while showing utter contempt for his audience. My objections are more based on his apparent belief that rocknroll is not good enough, it needs Joe to make it “better,” i.e not rocknroll. That he was acceptable to WNEW-FM at the time, when so many others were considered just too upsetting, only hardened my opposition. I do like the shoes on the cover of Look Sharp except that they’re white, shoes like that should be black.

  4. “My objections are more based on his apparent belief that rocknroll is not good enough.” This could be me talking about Peter.

  5. Hmmm.

    I do think a bit of the Jackson thing is that he was a New York transplant for many years (I think he lives in Berlin, now) and there is clearly an NYC attitude that Joe may have ruffled.

    I never really considered the “R&R is not good enough” aspect of any artist, and I think my sensibilities are pretty close to Peter’s.

    I think of it more as an artist–and I suppose musician, although I don’t really think of myself as one, though I certainly can play–who makes a splash, and is smart.

    Well, to those dynamic, be they painters (Picasso, Van Gogh, Calder), or writers (Henry James, Herman Melville), or filmmakers (Fellini, Renais, Kubrick) or musicians (Stravinski, Miles, Coltraine, or any of the guys I listed in the article) and if they are smart, they always wonder where they can go next.

    I know that in my own guitar playing, I can easily see how a curious mind would want to find different patterns and rhythms on the fret board that are interesting and challenging. I happen to really love playing rock’n’roll more than I am interested in exploring jazz or other formats, but I think the artists who are the trendsetters want to go there.

    But, I don’t think that means they are necessarily dissing where they came from.

    OTOH, when I look at most of the writing and fiction I did 25 years ago, most of it makes me shudder because it seems pretty primitive compared to what I do now, relative to age and experience.

    That doesn’t mean it is bad, but, well, at least personally, it seems or feels kind of embarrassing (I am sure you guys have all had that experience?).

    Anyway, I see Jackson’s “evolution” as just one of a classically trained musician eventually gravitating to his real roots. And, well, to compose for an orchestra is no easy task (as I have said, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th is rock’n’roll to me, as is the entire 9th, and I think if Ludwig were alive today he would have green spiky hair and play out of a Marshall stack).

    Ultimately, though, rock or not, at least here, it is the music and the thought and attitude behind the music that binds me/us. I am looking for work that is interesting. Sometimes it is the Ramones. Sometimes Joni. Sometimes Dylan. Sometimes Arcade Fire. And, sometimes Jackson.

  6. I agree, piano players are rarely content to “merely” rock, probably because more sophisticated chords usually sound better on piano than other instruments, and because of all that damn training. One of my best friends is an incredible jazz piano player and he CAN’T play rocknroll. We have to meet on our common ground of funk or blues when we play together.

    Ever since I became aware of the difference between music appreciation as a listener and as a musician, I’ve tried to avoid analyzing a song until I already like it. A long time ago I realized that a whole lot of musicians have terrible musical taste. Do you and Steve agree with that?

  7. Motherfucker! I have never said rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t enough. Hmm, but if I had to only listen to what my buddy Steve calls rock ‘n’ roll I would probably kill myself, as my friend Richard did last year, by hanging, for no apparent reason at all. Richard loved the rock, but also the electronica and some trance and hip hop. He sent out a Xmas CD every year to his friends with his favorite tunes from the year before. It wasn’t all to my taste, but it was a huge gift.

    Oh, he was English, so he had a slightly different take on these things.

    Funny that I started quoting Suicide in these pages this week (romantically) and Steve and I both land on godawful actual suicides in our freaking lives of rock. It sucks.

    Richard loved Wire. He was in a band in the early 80s in which he played a homemade synthesizer. I miss him.

    • Sigh. It is all so subjective, Gene, don’t you think? I go back to Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup,” which I still cannot believe is a real song, as opposed to part of an SNL joke ad. But that guy sells millions of records worth of xenophobic crap.

      But, your post reminds me of performing arts camp, where every summer I play in the string band. there are usually a few acoustic guitar players, along with violin, viola, cello, mandolin, and other interested folks.

      well, usually the violin and cello folks have been formally trained as musicians, while the guitar players not.

      so, when we are playing a chart from a song, those folks can follow easily, sight reading the notes (which I cannot, I can read the form, but not really the notes, at least on sight). so, those guys smoke through the form.

      however, when it comes time to jam or solo, they are lost and don’t know what to do, while the guitar players with less of that formal training are totally ready to cut loose.


      sorry for both your losses, Steve and Peter.

  8. To Gene’s point about talented musicians with no taste, I agree wholeheartedly. My class reunion was a few weeks ago and the bass player from the old high school jazz band had his band do the music. Now, keep in mind that music I like would kill Peter, but the stuff this guy’s band played was about as horrible as can be before you get to Beyonce and Ellie Goulding – “Wonderful Tonight” “Margaritaville” “Funky Town” ugh. And this guy can play circles around me on bass.

    Then there are talented musicians who have no passion for music at all. Black Sabbath is the same as Billy Joel as long as the paycheck is there. This is why I was so impressed by Jimmy Page in “It Might Get Loud” pulling out Link Wray’s “Rumble” and playing air guitar like a 15-year-old. Nice to see the passion’s still there.

    By the way, somebody’d better get over to Peter’s house and check Lucy for bruises.

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