Look Sharp! (1979)
One More Time/Sunday Papers/Is She Really Going Out With Him?/Happy Loving Couples/Throw It Away/Baby Stick Around/Look Sharp!/Fools In Love/(Do The) Instant Mash/Pretty Girls/Got The Time
Joe Jackson had this to say about his 1979 debut and I have to say it really says so much about a) this album and b) attitudes to debut albums in general:-
“What can anyone say about something they did so long ago?! I'm not embarrassed by it, or not by most of it, anyway. It positively reeks of London 1978–79 and, well, it is what it is. I'm glad people liked it, and still like it, though I think some of that is nostalgia and a tendency to romanticise peoples' first albums, as though later ones must somehow be less 'authentic'. For a first album, this one's not bad, but I was only 23 when I made it and it would be pretty weird if I didn't think I'd done better things since....”
He is bang on the money about the romanticism of debut albums. So many of them are retrospectively perceived as having “raw” appeal. This certainly applies to Look Sharp and, to a certain extent, it is true. There is an exciting, rough-edged energy about it from an artist who was following in the geeky, anti-hero shoes of Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. However, it is not a patch on Night And Day, Body And Soul, Big World or Blaze Of Glory.
Joe Jackson seemed to have found himself at the vanguard of the “new wave” by default, because he wore punk-era thin ties and drainpipe trousers and had the afore-mentioned anti-rock star look. Therefore, it was almost as if he was under pressure to be “punky”, whereas, as would be shown in later years, his tastes were for jazz, big band and even classical music. But, 1978-79 was all about musical brevity, back to basics and a “new wave” which eschewed anything lengthy or too experimental. So, new wave it would be, at least for the first two albums.
The standout fast(er) tracks are the frenetic, punky/reggae-ish thrash with smart-ass lyrics of the opener One More Time; the cynical and again reggae-styled Sunday Papers; the punky, breakneck Got The Time and the madcap , Costello-ish Baby Stick Around. Many tracks have that Police-influenced white reggae sound, including Happy Loving Couples and also Look Sharp!. Throw It Away is a frantic thrash very reminiscent of the material on the first Police album.
Then there is the catchy, “new wave” single, Is She Really Going Out With Him? and the album’s best track, the bassy, new wave reggae ballad Fools In Love. That track is just so typical of 1979. That reggae guitar sound, rumbling bass and slightly clumsy non-Jamaican drum sound that does its best.
Jackson’s voice is a unique sneer, like Parker and Costello but in a far worse mood. Happy Loving Couples lays on the miserable envy of the couples of the title a bit too thick. It was bad enough in Is She Really Going Out With Him, but that song had a bit of humour. Here Jackson just comes across as a bitter geek. Pretty Girls sort of ploughs the same furrow, but it has a strange “doo-wop”/Manfred Mann pastiche appeal. (Do The) Instant Mash is a bit silly, to be honest, not as good as most of the material. Of the bonus tracks Don't Ask Me is a fast-paced punky number, while the slowed down rock feel of You Got The Fever gave hints as to the musical direction of the next two albums.
Overall, a raw, vibrant debut, but like the debuts of The Clash, The Police, The Jam, Elvis Costello, Blondie and Stiff Little Fingers it was nowhere near as polished as later work, but I guess the cliche of “authentic” does apply.
I'm The Man (1979)
On My Radio/Geraldine And John/Kinda Kute/It's Different For Girls/I'm The Man/The Band Wore Blue Shirts/Don't Wanna Be Like That/Amateur Hour/Get That Girl/Friday
Joe Jackson’s second album, released only seven months after the first, was more of the same 1979 “new wave” reggae/punk material. Jackson’s lyrics were as worldly-wise and cynical as they could be for a 23 year-old and, at times, wryly observant and more than a little amusing. The sound quality on this remaster is good, and the overall sound is slightly improved from the debut album. All just slightly more polished.
On My Radio is a vibrant, vaguely punky opener far more melodious to be truly punk and far less angry, just head-shakingly wise. The old bass and stabbing guitar white reggae Watching The Detectives rhythms are back for Geraldine And John another “slag off ostensibly happy couple” song. Hints of a melodica in there too (the instrument beloved of dub reggae artists at the time). Kinda Kute is a bassy, solid rhythmic slow rock chugger of a tune, with a catchy hook. Very much in the style of the material on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True album. Hints of Blame It On Cain and I’m Not Angry. The sound on this is big and powerful, compared to some of the previous album.
When I hear the instantly recognisable bass and keyboard intro to the wonderful, atmospheric It’s Different For Girls I am instantly transported to my student bedsit room and the dark November evenings of 1979. I'm The Man is an upbeat, raucous, rocking delight -great beat, drums, chorus and some witty lyrics about contemporary crazes like Kung Fu and skateboards.
The Band Wore Blue Shirts has a heavy-ish industrial guitar riff backing. There are definitely more “rock” influences on this album than the reggae of the debut. Don't Wanna Be Like That is another frantic piece of new wave rock. Amateur Hour was a first hint of the slow, sparsely backed ballad with a big pounding rock chorus material that Jackson would come to specialise in over the next few years.
Get That Girl and Friday are both fast-paced rockers with that breakneck beat. Only Geraldine And John on this album has that white reggae new wave groove, so Jackson was changing slightly, but it is pretty clear now that he couldn’t keep releasing albums in this style. A change would come eventually, and you felt that was what Jackson wanted.
Beat Crazy (1980)
Beat Crazy/One To One/In Every Dream Home (A Nightmare)/The Evil Eye/Mad At You/Crime Don't Pay/Someone Up There/Battleground/Biology/Pretty Boys/Fit
Joe Jackson’s Beat Crazy from 1980 was his last “new wave” album. After this one he would diversify to include Latin rhythms, jazz influences and world music sounds to his trademark acerbic lyrics and distinct voice. In 1980, though, new wave was still very much the thing. You just felt, though, that the ever-inventive Jackson wanted desperately to break out.
Beat Crazy is an appealing, rhythmic shuffler, while One To One is a soulful, plaintive condemnation of political militancy - “I agree with what you say, but I don’t want to wear a badge..”. It was very much an era of badge-wearing, slogan-displaying. Something that would no doubt have irked the cynical Jackson, if this song is anything to go by. The Roxy Music paraphrase In Every Dream Home A Nightmare is actually a pretty convincing slab of dub reggae backing and some wry, amusing lyrics about Jackson’s neighbours. The Evil Eye is very much in the upbeat new wave rock style of the previous album, while Mad At You still has unfortunate hints of something off The Police’s first album. It is not without merit, though, particularly in a scratchy, post-punk-ish guitar solo.
Crime Don't Pay features some interesting jazzy piano and a Talking Heads type feel in many ways. Someone Up There is a bit “79-80 Joe Jackson by numbers” to be honest. Fast and furious but not as appealing as the similar material on the previous two albums. I am not quite sure of Jackson’s intentions on the dubby Battleground - a clumsy take on the racial diversity, or lack of it, in the punk/new wave scene. It all sounds just a little tasteless. Best left in the past.
The reggae bass groove continues into the enjoyable Biology, however, I have always found this album the least essential one of the first three. By now, on the first two, I was still with Jackson, on this one, though, by now I am starting to flag a little.
Pretty Boys catches the contemporary ska bug with a lively Specials-style backing, complete with that odd harmonica sound, maybe a melodica? Fit sees Jackson return to one of his lyrical conceits - sexuality. Add a bit of race awareness into it too and it becomes a Joe Jackson standard from 80-82. It was quite adventurous at the time, mind.
Jackson would disappear from the scene now for a couple of years, and return two years later with something completely different, musically, at least.
Night And Day (1982)
Another World/Chinatown/TV Age/Target/Steppin' Out/Breaking Us in Two/Cancer/Real Men/A Slow Song
Joe Jackson’s 1982 album, Night And Day was his first real move away from “new wave” to a more polished, slower, jazzier, world music-influenced sound. More mature. The old cynicism is still there in the lyrics, but the faux punk “anger” is gone.
The opener, Another World is Joe Jackson as you have never heard him before up to now - Latin syncopated rhythms and percussion, entrancing keyboard licks. The recognisable vocal delivery is still there but this is nothing like anything on the first three albums. I remember hearing this at the time and being blown away. I was ready for a change from Jackson and he was delivering. Another World effortlessly segues into the evocative swirl of Gerrard Street imagery that is the pulsating Chinatown. It is probably San Francisco he is singing about but I have always related it to London.
Then it is straight into the blatantly Talking Heads-inspired TV Age. It is a potent, rocky, pounding number but the vocal (and lyrics) is so David Byrne it is almost embarrassing. Some nice jazzy saxophone parts though, which at the time was unusual for Jackson. Target returns to the Latin influence with dome salsa piano hooks and infectious percussion. Some great instrumental breaks on this, such a clear departure from his previous material.
As with all the music, Target segues into the hit single, the bassy, jazzy Steppin' Out with another mesmerising hook, both in the vocal and the bass line. People who weren’t necessarily Joe Jackson fans bought this single. “Don’t you feel like trying something new?”, Jackson sings on the beautiful piano-driven ballad Breaking Us In Two. He certainly has done just that on this album. More Latin, shuffling percussive groove on the wryly amusing Cancer with the line “everything gives you cancer”. Real Men is another piano ballad, taking on sexual stereotypes, while A Slow Song is a big, dramatic slow piece of piano-backed rock in the tradition of Amateur Hour from his second album.
This was a really good album with hidden depths. It is very nostalgic for me of the late 1982/early 1983 period.
Live recordings from tours between 1980 and 1986
This is a excellent live album covering live recordings from Joe Jackson’s tours between 1980 and 1986. It misses out the punky gigs played in the late seventies, but a fair amount of material from that era is played here in the 1980-81 tracks, featuring the original, “new wave” four piece Joe Jackson Band, (Dave Hamilton, Gary Sandford and Graham Maby) which certainly had its appeal. Another album, Joe Jackson At The BBC does, however, contain tracks from February 1979 and January 1980.
The album begins with the evocative, stark and wryly amusing One To One, played by Jackson solo at the piano, before the band kick in to a breakneck I'm The Man. The sound is a bit raw around the edges, as you would expect from this period, but it has a “live” atmosphere. It lacks a little in volume, but if you turn it up a bit more you get more of that live gig buzz. Beat Crazy, with its rumbling bass and white reggae undertones, has a definite appeal. The first six tracks are from this early eighties period, 1980’s Beat Crazy tour, and make me very nostalgic. The album covers several distinct periods in Jackson’s changeling career, but this always remains one of my favourites. The big hit single, Is She Really Going Out With Him? is performed initially with only a bass and some light percussion and with help from the audience (whom Jackson berates for their awful braying singing, which is an amusing change from “you’re the best audience etc”). I can’t help feeling that the crowd would have wanted to hear the track as it originally sounded though. It ends up with a lot of electric guitar feedback too. Joe always enjoyed throwing a few curveballs.
Don't Want To Be Like That is played literally at 110 miles per hour and is totally exhilarating. Got The Time is the same, with a great bass, organ and guitar intro and some excellent live improvised parts. On Your Radio is from a different tour, 1982-83’s Night And Day tour, and, while it is still a track from that new wave era, the band sounds slightly fuller on it, with some Attractions-style organ breaks. Fools In Love is the first to show the clear change in era/mood tracks. It now utilises that more accomplished percussion sound (from Sue Hadjopolous) that would come to dominate later albums such as Night And Day. The sound is louder now so you need to turn it down again! It has an impressive bass solo passage on it too. The cynically amusing Cancer really exemplifies that Night And Day Latin-influenced percussion rhythm and the jazzy piano. The next version of Is She Really now goes the whole hog and does it completely a cappella, apart from a tambourine. The new, expanded band’s take on 1978’s Look Sharp is jazzy, funky and exciting, including a drum/bongos solo.
The second disc is from the Body And Soul tour from 1984 and the Big World tour from 1986. The 1984 band features a full, almost “big band” brass section and the punchy, jazzy kick they give to a new wave rocker like Sunday Papers, together with some jazzy drumming and keyboards is interesting and invigorating to listen to. Jackson always pushed his own boundaries which made him an enjoyable artist to investigate.
Real Men is beautifully delivered, with strings and that big, clunking piano. The third Is She Really is a strange staccato piano and plucked strings over a waltzy beat concoction. It doesn’t really do it for me, I’m afraid. Memphis is a pounding bluesy rocker with some Duane Eddy-style guitar in places. Slow Song, with its tinkling piano and mournful vocal delivery is a melodramatic classic. The piano ballads of Be My Number Two and Breaking Us In Two segue beautifully into each other, while the old new wave hit single It's Different For Girls is given an acoustic guitar-driven makeover.
You Can't Get What You Want is an extended funky rendition and the lively, jazzy Jumpin' Jive utilises the jazzy horns to their utmost. The iconic single Steppin' Out is given a lengthy, almost classical piano intro and is considerably slower to the laid-back easy groove everyone knows. Again, I would have preferred the original.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable document of Joe Jackson’s live performances over a six year period, but it does not play as a whole concert, which is a shame. I tend to dip in and out of it.
Live At The BBC
Recorded live at concerts and sessions from 1979 to 1983.
Compared to Joe Jackson Live 1980-1986, I rate this as a superior album of Joe Jackson live material from that period.
The first four John Peel Sessions cuts are incredibly good. The sound quality, as on all the BBC live in the studio recordings, is superb. Stunning in fact, considering it is from 1979. The band’s version of I'm The Man is positively incendiary. Fools In Love is suitably cynical in its delivery. The remaining eleven tracks on this first disc are taken a Hammersmith Odeon concert in October 1982. Again, the sound quality is mind-blowingly good. Highlights are a rhythmic and pulsating Look Sharp!; an exhilarating, once again addictively rhythmic Cancer; a beautiful, but bassily powerful Real Men; the incredible, insistent intro to Fools In Love and its subsequent hypnotic backing; then you get a series of tracks from the Night And Day album, all performed incredibly well and with real enthusiasm and vitality. To think that punk/new wave was, by 1982, producing music like this is mightily impressive. In many ways, this was ahead of its time. It still sounds fresh today.
It's Different For Girls is given a wonderful makeover - Jackson and “Joy”, a female singer he introduces only by her first name, duet fetchingly. An intriguing and inventive version of the song. Steppin' Out is played truer to the original here than on Live 1980-1986, where it is frustratingly slowed down.
Disc Two, strangely enough goes further back in time for a Rock Goes To College gig from January 1980 which includes here en songs played with a funky verve and vigour, as suited the 79-80 milieu. These recordings have a real “live” atmosphere. Again, they out-do the “1980-86” considerably, particularly in sound quality. These are far superior, as indeed is the whole album. The final seven tracks are from January 1983 and Sight And Sound gig. There are some repetitions of songs, but Another World and A Slow Song are welcome inclusions.
I cannot praise these Live At The BBC recordings enough. They are all just so enjoyable - Thin Lizzy The Jam, Paul Weller, Big Country, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, Dr. Feelgood, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Tom Robinson, Dire Straits, Roxy Music, The Specials, The Selecter, Ian Dury. I would recommend the lot. Oh, and the “Movement - Peel Sessions 77-79” as well.