Don’t you feel like trying something new
This is the eighth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.
When punk music reared its brash, ugly head in London and New York in the mid-’70s, it was a direct, angry response to what its practitioners felt was a woefully tired, bloated scene dominated by “dinosaur” rock bands well past their prime.
While there was some truth to that viewpoint, punk was clearly not the answer for many listeners. Even The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and other purveyors of the raw, visceral sounds that characterized punk rock in its heyday will admit that they were not accomplished musicians or songwriters. It was all about the attitude (in your face) and energy (over the top).
The same was true, to some extent, when rock and roll was born some 20 years earlier.
The attitude, the energy, and the beat were paramount to differentiate rock music from the conventional tunes you heard on the Top 40 in the 1940s and early ’50s. But there was a crucial difference: The songs and the performances by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and others had staying power. The music was intrinsically strong, the singing and playing inherently iconic. The proof is that we still value those old records 60-plus years later.
Not so with punk, for the most part. How many punk rock classics can you name? How often do you hear them, or want to hear them?
My point here is, although punk was a fleeting genre, it spawned some truly great lasting music and artists that came to be known as “New Wave.” They adroitly took the attitude and energy of punk and infused it with quality musicianship and inventive songwriting to produce captivating songs and albums that hold up well many decades later.
The Police would be an obvious British example. Their five albums from 1978-1983 just got better and better, thanks to the increasingly sophisticated songs Sting came up with. Same goes for The Talking Heads, who were probably the best of the American pioneers of New Wave sensibilities of that period, and David Byrne’s top-notch material is a huge reason for that. Elvis Costello also comes immediately to mind. His “My Aim is True” debut LP is a keeper, as are at least a half-dozen more in his voluminous catalog that runs from the late ’70s to the current day.
But my choice for the real gem in this whole group is Joe Jackson, whose extraordinary pedigree and musical capabilities were not necessarily evident to most pop music fans even at his brief commercial peak. But I firmly believe his substantial repertoire is in a class of its own among artists of his age and proclivities.
David Joe Jackson grew up in Portsmouth, England, as a shy skinny kid who loved books and dreamed of being a writer until he took a violin class at age 11. To his surprise, he found himself fascinated enough by music to immerse himself in its theory and history. Soon enough, he switched to piano and aspired to be a composer of classical piano pieces.
He was also intrigued by the excitement and possibilities of pop music in the post-Beatles era and drifted in that direction, even as he won a scholarship to study piano composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music. During his years there, he was all over the map, also working with a fringe theater group, studying jazz with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and sitting in with rock bands in area pubs. He even detoured briefly into the world of cabaret as pianist and musical director for the Portsmouth Playboy Club.
By 1978, he had formed the Joe Jackson Band (including Graham Maby on bass, Dave Houghton on drums and Gary Sanford on guitar) and was in search of a record deal, hawking an album-length demo of smart songs melding rock, melodic jazz and New Wave that became the surprisingly notable debut “Look Sharp!” Released on A&M in the US in 1979, it reached #20 on the album charts here, thanks in part to airplay given to the quirky “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.”
Two follow-ups with a similar focus (1979’s “I’m the Man” and 1980’s “Beat Crazy”) did only moderately well, although the single “It’s Different for Girls” peaked at #5 in the UK.
Jackson showed his willingness to take a risk and stretch his own musical horizons (as well as those of his listeners) by making his next project a loving tribute to the genre of Big Band and the swing music artists of the ’40s like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. The result, the irresistible “Jumpin’ Jive,” reached a respectable #42 in the US in 1981 and made it to #14 in the UK. It also inadvertently served to jumpstart a popular revival of other traditional dance genres like rockabilly (The Stray Cats, The Blasters).
It was in 1982 when Jackson truly came into his own with “Night and Day,” a superb song-cycle that lovingly examines his new home of New York City with sophisticated and diverse musical styles. Impeccably produced and arranged, the LP reached the Top 5 here and in England, and deservedly so. “Cancer” is an uptempo piece with an extended jazz workout in the middle break; “Target,” “Another World” and “T.V. Age” adopt pogo-like New Wave rhythms; “Chinatown” utilizes Asian chord changes and melody lines in its soundscape; and the slower dramatic ballads “Real Men” and “A Slow Song” feature exquisite, Broadway-like song structures.
Thanks to Maby’s prominently hypnotic bass line and Jackson’s emphatic piano work, the dazzling hit single “Steppin’ Out” became the artist’s most well-known track, peaking at #6 in both the US and the UK. Its follow-up was the tender piano tune “Breaking Us in Two,” which charted at #18 here.
I will concede, as I did in my analysis of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits last week, that Jackson’s strength is not in his vocals. His over-enunciated voice hits a flat or sharp note every now and then, causing me to wince a bit. But I’ve been willing to forgive this deficiency because of his extraordinary prowess at songwriting, arranging, and piano
playing, and his willingness to successfully push boundaries.
Two more albums in the “Night and Day” vein — 1984’s jazzy “Body and Soul” and 1986’s “Big World” — cemented Jackson’s reputation among music critics and industry observers, even if they didn’t catch on commercially. On “Body and Soul,” Jackson made liberal use of horns on the minor hit “You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Til You Know What You Want),” Latin percussion on “Cha Cha Loco,” and guest vocalist Elaine Caswell on effervescent pop tracks like “Happy Ending.” On “Big World,” he took the boldly creative tack of recording live in an acoustically pristine music hall before an audience instructed to remain silent. As the album title implies, he dabbled in a smorgasbord of styles from salsa to punk, from tango to jazz, from torch song to pop, from soul to cabaret.
By then, Jackson was showing signs of burnout from all the touring he did in support of these fine records. He was ready to pull back from the commercial road and devote his efforts exclusively to the classically based music he’d first embraced as a teenager.
But before doing so for most of the 1990s, he had another major milestone up his sleeve: the majestic, stylish “Blaze of Glory,” released as a sort of personal statement in 1989 and played in its entirety in concerts that year. Jackson has said the songs represent “an examination of my generation as the 1980s were ending,” commenting on the optimism of their 1950s childhood (“Tomorrow’s World”), the politics of terrorism and the Cold War (“Rant and Rave” and “Evil Empire”), yuppies and materialism (“Discipline”) and rockers who wear out their welcome (“Nineteen Forever”). He thought it was his best work and was sorely disappointed at what he felt was the indifference of his record label, the critics, and even his audience.
I happen to agree that “Blaze of Glory” (particularly the spectacular title track) is probably Jackson’s most consistently strong LP and am dumbfounded it seemed to fall on deaf ears (it stiffed at #61 in the US). He toured with an impressive 11-piece band, but many concertgoers hadn’t yet purchased or heard the album, and his insistence on playing it straight through no doubt tried their patience. Such a shame — these are really great songs, well played and magnificently produced.
Jackson is now 64, and has continued to make excellent, compelling music in the new millennium, including “Night and Day II,” a sequel of sorts that again explores the vagaries of life in Manhattan, and 2015’s “Fast Forward,” a 16-song collection with four songs recorded in each of four cities (London, Berlin, New York and New Orleans) with different backing musicians. He has a new LP ready to go in early 2019 (entitled “Fool”) and will be back on the road promoting it, and he promises to offer music from throughout his exemplary career.
Many of my readers, I’m guessing, barely know Jackson’s work. I offer this strong encouragement to listen closely to “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory,” and, indeed, much of his catalog. He’s the real deal.
On the Spotify playlist included here, you’ll hear all of “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory,” plus some bonus tracks from “Body and Soul” and “Big World” as segues bridging my two featured album favorites.