Retro Review: The Musical Genius of Joe Jackson

For those of us who remember the musical explosion of the 1980s, due mostly to New Wave from the U.K., the name Joe Jackson should ring a bell. It’s been 40 years since he released his first album, Look Sharp!, which spawned the singles “Sunday Papers,” and the even bigger hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Jackson’s early musical influences and training ranged from Beethoven to Duke Ellington. From the age of 11, when he first began learning to read and write music, taking violin lessons, and learning virtually any instrument placed before him, he had a voracious appetite for music.  With that first album, he was a little too conveniently lumped into the Punk Rock category, along with “angry” singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello. “Everyone was trying to tag me this bleedin’ ‘angry young man’ on the first album,” he told Musician magazine in ’82, “and it never made sense to me. I’m not an angry young man! I get angry sometimes, like anyone else. How can I be angry all the time?” In fact, he enjoyed injecting humor and irony into his lyrics, just for fun, which often escaped listeners’ attention. For instance, Is She Really… boasts a catchy melody and terrific blend of hard rock guitars and self-deprecating lyrics, as Jackson tells us:

“Tonight’s the night when I go to all the parties down my street/ I wash my hair and I kid myself I look really smooth…”

He quickly followed up with the LP I’m the Man, which included the catchy and thoughtful role-reversal single “It’s Different For Girls.” A third album, Beat Crazy, didn’t have a hit single or fare well commercially, but Jackson was never in it for piles of money and rock star adoration. He just wanted to write, arrange, and record the best music his could, without being pigeonholed into categories. His next several albums, indeed his work throughout the ’80s, gave us music that demonstrates remarkable talent, growth, and experimentation, with each album unique in style, presentation, and recording techniques.

In 1981, after making three rock albums in quick succession, he decided to recharge his creative batteries with Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, an homage to the swing and “jump” jazz of the 1940s, popularized by the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. Throughout the album of novelty songs and full-out stompin’ numbers, the band of young jazz musicians maintains an often hair-raising pace, with only occasional slower-tempo tunes to provide a respite from the wonderfully upbeat, often manic nature of the others. Jackson himself seems to be having a great time romping through a genre that, in its way, laid the groundwork for modern rock & roll.

In the 1982 release of Night and Day, Jackson’s original compositions mine the musical wealth and spirit of the great songwriters who flourished during the Jazz Age, such as the Gershwins and Cole Porter. In another daring move by the  erstwhile rocker, there are no guitars on the album, which centers instead on an array of keyboards and extra percussion to provide an impressively full sound. The Grammy-nominated single “Steppin’ Out,” followed by the plaintive “Breaking Us In Two,” aired often as videos on MTV, helping to keep the album in the spotlight. But these would be the last “concept” videos Jackson would make

The band for “Night and Day,” including Jackson’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby, seated in front.

(perhaps to the detriment of his future LP sales), as he was disappointed by how videos were overtaking the music industry, at the expense of musical quality.

He continued his exploration further afield from conventional rock with his next, and perhaps most powerful album, 1984’s Body and Soul. Recorded in a Masonic lodge in Manhattan to take advantage of the acoustical qualities provided by the hall’s stonework, the album’s first track, “The Verdict,” opens with thunderous drums and a dramatic fanfare by Michael Morreale on trumpet, and Tony Aiello on saxophone, setting

the tone for a sonically intense and beautifully melodic album, mixing upbeat songs of optimism (“Go For It”), and melancholy songs of heartbreak (the breathtaking “Not Here, Not Now”) and emotional vulnerability (“Be My Number Two”). The gorgeous instrumental “Loisada” builds to a crescendo that would send chills down the spines of all but the most stubbornly unreceptive of listeners.

Always one to keep things interesting, Jackson’s next collection of new songs, in 1986, pretty much takes on the entire world.  The appropriately-titled  Big World album features songs that literally cover the globe. The title song takes us to the Far East, with all of its exotic beauty and sometimes unnerving dinner dishes. “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” transports us to a night in Amsterdam, against a backdrop of café patrons, prostitutes, and assorted lowlifes. In “Jet Set,” he even enjoys poking fun at obnoxious American tourists, as they trample foreign cities with their crass ways. Jackson even takes on a few of the hot political issues of the mid-1980s, throwing sharp jabs at Ronald Reagan (“Right and Wrong”) , and The Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina (“Tango Atlantico”). Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is the wistful “Hometown,” in which he bemoans the clutter and stress of his adopted home of New York City, while allowing his mind to drift back to his more tranquil hometown in England (“‘Cause it’s been so long, and I’m wondering if it’s still there…”). See the video below.

Jackson recording the “Big World” album.

Jackson decided to record Big World in front of a live audience, at the Roundabout Theatre. However, while he thrived on the energy provided by performing live, he didn’t want it to sound like a concert album, so he carefully instructed the audience not to applaud at the end of each song–at least not right away, so the track could end properly without the first audible claps or hollers. The finished album also stands out for other reasons. Firstly, Jackson had recorded more songs than could fit onto a single LP, but not enough to fill out a double LP. The solution was to press two disks, leaving side 4 completely blank, with the label simply stating “There is no music on this side.” Also, to help enhance international concept of the collection, all of the songs’ lyrics are printed in six languages.

With his next album, Willpower, he returns to his roots in classical music, composing and arranging extended instrumentals as played by a full-sized symphony orchestra.

After contributing the rousing jazz soundtrack to the film Tucker: A Man and His Dream, he rounded out the 1980s by returning to more familiar, eclectic pop/rock with the albums Blaze of Glory, on which he continues to experiment with song styles and narrative techniques to great effect, and Laughter and Lust, the more conventional “rock” album of the two, packed with mini-classics including “The Obvious Song.” Both albums contain his typically clever, often sardonic,

and always fascinating reflections on life and love.

His career  didn’t end with the ’80s, of course; he’s been living and recording in Berlin, Germany for the past decade or so, after spending nearly twenty years in New York and the U.K., and he still tours to promote his new albums (the U.S. included).

Of all the great singer/songwriter/musicians who have been with us for the past forty years, Joe Jackson’s talents should have had his music omnipresent ever since 1979. In truth, though, it is necessary to seek him out, but extremely rewarding should you decide to do so.

Until next time…

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