Joe Jackson 1979-1983

It’s 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 had Armed Forces, also arguably his finest. But Jackson, the quintessential angry young man, should never be forgotten and his albums from the time frame above are documents that prove he should have been more popular than he was/is.

Starting with the debut, then: Look Sharp! was my introduction to the man and the track Sunday Papers is the reason I started playing the bass guitar. It’s (the album) got reggae, humor, bitterness, plenty of pop hooks (like the massive hit Is She Really Going Out With Him?, One More Time, Look Sharp and Pretty Girls) and guitars, guitars, guitars. But the overall emotion here is jealousy. One look at the lyric sheet will tell you that. Witness an example 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

But those
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. More power pop than anything he’s done since it nevertheless contains some of his finest songs, 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, follow suit.

Time for Joe’s first left turn. Beat Crazy, released in 1980, embraces reggae, ska and even a bit of dub, as was the trend of the time, and this album is only a tad less successful than the first two in that it lacks any real standout songs, although the title tune is fantastically catchy. This marks the album that he started toying with jazz elements, too, as on One To One.

My favorite album from this period is Jumpin’ Jive, in which Jackson immerses himself in the swing of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. The commitment to authenticity is impressive, and his 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. The best thing about this album, and why it remains my favorite to this day, is that it’s consistent in tone and tune. Jackson’s albums, especially after 1983, can be inconsistent affairs. Jumpin’ Jive, however, is one genre exercise that works quite well.

Night And Day was Jackson’s break out album, spawning two huge hits in Steppin’ Out and Breaking Us In Two. It’s his ode to Manhattan, which means the albums mood simply oozes class by utilizing a bit of lounge, a bit of Latin jazz and a bit of classic pop. The original after hours record, in other words; a record to listen to at 2am with a gin martini looking out at the New York skyline from a penthouse (the 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.

Mike’s Murder, the soundtrack to a simply awful movie, followed. Side one contains songs in the vein of Night and Day. Some of his best material is found here, such as the driving Memphis, Cosmopolitan (which should have been on Night And Day), and 1-2-3 Go (This Town’s A Fairground). Side II contains 3 instrumental tracks, none of which are particularly earth shattering. As far as I know they have never seen fit to release this record on CD or MP3 format, and it’s a bitch to even find the vinyl version. If they ever release this again I’ll be first in line to purchase it.