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.

d29b328e2e16f25e4f177ea55a76ea8b

Joe Jackson, circa 1979

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 tljn12ITmrMpedigree 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.

Joe Jackson - Look Sharp!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.

41DK39PDGFLJackson 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 night-and-day-536fdc8ce8790jazz 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. 220px-JoeJacksonBodyAndSoul

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 big-world-5016aaa83f785Caswell 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 220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGlorywere 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 JJacksonAndBandOnStagegreat 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.

joejackson_photo_gal_37255_photo_13716758_lrMany 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A lovestruck Romeo sings the streets a serenade

This is the seventh in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums.

****************

In the late ’70s, things weren’t looking so great for rock music fans.  Those who grew up on the blues-based rock of the ’60s and early ’70s were finding slim pickings on the airwaves, as first disco, then punk, then techno New Wave sounds dominated.

The veteran rock bands were still recording and performing, but most seemed to be running out of gas, and there were precious few new young studs coming along to breathe life into the once-sturdy world of rock guitars and intelligent songwriting.

Thankfully, there were exceptions.  Although I was among American buyers who were a dire-straits-quiz-1little tardy on the uptake, I soon became knowledgeable about a sensational songwriter/guitarist who I strongly believe ranks right up there with the very best of the last forty years:  Mark Knopfler.

Early interest in music and journalism paved the way for the kind of literate songwriting Knopfler would favor as an adult.  Born in Scotland and raised in Northumberland, England, as the oldest son of a teacher/mother and architect/father, Knopfler showed enthusiasm for a broad range of music from Celtic folk songs to Chuck Berry’s rock classics, and he was particularly fond of his uncle’s blues harmonica and boogie-woogie piano playing.  He has said he was inspired by the likes of Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin and James Burton.  Guitar became his instrument of choice, and he played in various school bands while also working as an intern and copy editor at the daily Newcastle newspaper.

In 1977, Knopfler, his brother David, and two schoolmates (John Illsley and Pick Withers) comprised the original lineup of the London-based group Dire Straits, named, says Knopfler, “because that’s what were in, financially, at the time.”  They struggled in pubs and small clubs, sometimes warming up for The Talking Heads and others, and cut a couple of demos of their earliest songs, all written by Knopfler.  Vertigo Records, a division of Phonogram Inc, took a chance on them and released their debut LP, “Dire Straits,” in the fall of 1978.

Karin Berg, an A&R representative at Warner Bros. Records in New York, recalls when she first heard the album.  “I thought it was the kind of music that audiences like my friends were hungry for, but it took some work to convince my colleagues,” she said. dire_straitsDire Straits were signed to Warner, and by the spring of 1979, “Sultans of Swing” was the #4 single on the US charts, with the album perched at #2.  Both the single and the album became international successes, and Dire Straits was in dire straits no longer.

Critics went crazy for Knopfler’s spare, fluid guitar sound.  It was “infectious” and “sounded like no other guitar anywhere on the radio,” said one writer.  “It’s very tasty guitar playing, almost like jazz for the layman,” said another.  He was praised not only for his guitar prowess but for his catchy songwriting and intellectually stimulating lyrics.  “Sultans of Swing,” for instance, “paints a vivid picture of an overlooked, underappreciated pub rock combo,” wrote Rick Moore of Songwriter magazine.

I couldn’t help but notice “Sultans of Swing,” which got saturation airplay, but I was slow to warm to Knopfler’s oeuvre.  Most of the tracks on that first LP just didn’t grab me, except “Down to the Waterline,” so the album mostly sat ignored on my shelf.  I didn’t even bother to buy the follow-up album, “Communiqué,” later in 1979 (which proved to be an oversight later corrected), despite such worthwhile tunes as “Lady Writer,” “Single-Handed Sailor” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

But boy, did I sit up and take notice when Dire Straits’ third LP, “Making Movies,” arrived in late 1980.  Knopfler had been writing more sophisticated, more personal songs, and Sleeve_of_Making_Movies-1.svghad taken a shine to the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith collaboration “Because the Night,” on which recording engineer Jimmy Iovine had put his imprimatur.  Knopfler signed up Iovine, who brought with him E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, and the result was a more cinematic approach to recording that gave us Dire Straits’ first masterpiece.

Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke recognized it immediately:  “‘Making Movies’ is the album on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences, and Dire Straits comes out from behind Knopfler.  The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances, and the band’s cutting-edge rock and roll soundtrack is breathtaking — everything the first two albums should’ve been, but weren’t.  If ‘Making Movies’ really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.

Bittan’s piano added an important new element to the Dire Straits sound in the studio, but it was the songs themselves that made all the difference, with four of the seven tracks clocking in at well over five minutes.  “Tunnel of Love,” a crowd favorite on every tour thereafter, has the audacity to begin with an extract of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Carousel Waltz” before heading off on a Knopfler amusement-park metaphor:  “And the big wheel keep on turning, neon burning up above, I’m just high on the world, come on and take a low ride with me, girl, on the tunnel of love…”  Seems likely to me that the song played a role in Springsteen’s 1987 album title song of the same name.

I’m partial, too, to the grand romantic sweep of “Romeo and Juliet,” an impeccable song about a failed love affair that truly astonishes, and it remains an important piece in Knopfler’s setlist to this very day.  His journalistic training made him a keen observer of people and their professions, and the lyrics of “Skateaway” use wonderfully potent phrases to tell the tale of a girl who roller-skates throughout Manhattan, dodging dense traffic as she delivers packages and important papers to the city’s movers and shakers.

“Espresso Love” and “Solid Rock” show the group rocking out as never before, and “Hand in Hand” gives forceful evidence of Knopfler’s ability with a ballad.  The only dud on the album is its closer, a lightweight piece on the European gay culture called “Les Boys” that, while interesting lyrically, doesn’t come close to measuring up musically to the rest of the album…

I suppose I should mention here that Knopfler is not exactly the best vocalist I’ve ever heard.  His is an acquired taste, like so many rock vocalists who aren’t singers as much as expressive and passionate.  And besides, I’m here to praise his songcraft and guitar playing.

12695198833_d8df7200f3_bKnopfler reinforced his exemplary songwriting reputation in 1982 with Dire Straits’ fourth LP, “Love Over Gold,” which some fans think is their best work, and I’m almost inclined to agree.  It includes what I believe is the group’s finest recorded moment, the 14-minute tour de force “Telegraph Road,” as well as the furtive mood piece “Private Investigations,” a sleeper hit single in England.  Bittan had returned to his post with the E Street Band, but keyboardist Alan Clark joined the band on stage and in the studio, proving his mettle admirably.

“ExtendedancEPlay,” a four-song EP released in ’83, included the retro-rockabilly rave-up “Twisting By the Pool” and a marvelous jazz workout called “Badges, Posters, Stickers and T-shirts” featuring a boogie-woogie piano arrangement that would have no doubt made Knopfler’s uncle giggle with delight.  “Alchemy,” a double live LP full of excellent documentation of the group’s live shows, kept the quality Dire Straits products coming in 1984.

Then came “Brothers in Arms,” the group’s commercial apex by far.  It’s a remarkable record full of vintage Knopfler compositions, and the world responded at the cash registers, where upwards of 30 million copies have sold.  The monster single “Money For Nothing,” which perfectly captures the music video era through the eyes of an envious 220px-DS_Brothers_in_Armsblue-collar worker, sat at #1 in the US for seven consecutive weeks in 1985, and “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away” also both made the Top 20.  The title track has since emerged as one of the most perceptive set of lyrics ever written describing the difficult experiences of soldiers at war.  Me, I put the deep album track “Your Latest Trick” at the front of this pack, carried by the sexiest sax riff this side of Junior Walker.

As much as I enjoy “Brothers in Arms,” there’s another that outranks it for me in the Dire Straits catalog. Following hugely successful international tours throughout 1985 and 1986, Knopfler and the band took a break for a few years, recharged their batteries and re-emerged in 1991 with the nearly perfect “On Every Street.”

It seems that no matter what you do after a multi-platinum runaway success, the critics will be underwhelmed and decide the new LP just doesn’t measure up.  I was beyond thrilled with it, a cornucopia of Knopfler and Company at their best, killing it on 220px-Dire_Straits_-_On_Every_Streeteverything from straight rock (“Calling Elvis”) to gentle country (“Ticket to Heaven”), from radio-friendly Nashville pop (“The Bug”) to provocative late-night jazz-blues (“Planet of New Orleans”).

Through it all, Knopfler showed he had somehow improved his guitar proficiency, laying down gorgeous riffs and chord changes with seductive intimacy in his usual lean, clean way.  Check out “Fade to Black” and the incredible title track for all the evidence you’ll need.

The group dove right back into touring over the next two years, topping attendance records around the world.  I saw them play an arena in Cleveland, a big echo-y barn of a place where I’d heard other bands fail miserably at providing decent sound quality.  Dire Straits found a way to bring their pristine studio production values to the big venue, making it by far the best sounding show I’d ever seen there (and I’d seen about 40).

By 1995, though, Knopfler had had enough. “I still enjoy playing some of those early Straits songs, and I’m proud of what we did, and certainly we had some great times. It’s Great-Unknown-Songs-9-–-Dire-Straits-Industrial-Diseasewhat we all wanted when we were kids.  But you’ve got to have the resilience to ride that thing, to pick up that ball and run with it…  After awhile, though, the group was no longer a good vehicle for the songs I was writing.  That, and my lack of interest in being a part of the arena rock show experience any longer, meant it was time to disband for good.”

It didn’t mean, however, the end to Knopfler’s musical career.  To the contrary, he always aspired to work outside the confines of the Dire Straits template, and in fact was involved in several side projects during the Dire Straits years.  He wrote music for the soundtrack albums of six different films, most notably “Local Hero” and “The Princess Bride”; he played a key role in the one-off British/bluegrass collaboration known as The Notting Hillbillies, and in “Neck and Neck,” a collection of instrumental duets with the late great Chet Atkins; and he produced albums and contributed guitar parts for other major artists like Bob Dylan (“Infidels”) and Randy Newman (“Land of Dreams”).

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits 1980

Since beginning a solo career in earnest in 1996 with the debut LP, “Golden Heart,” Knopfler has since churned out eight more solo studio records (including “Down the Road Wherever,” released this month), a popular pairing with Emmylou Harris (2006’s “All the Roadrunning”), and still more music for film soundtrack albums.

Knopfler is equally at home with British roots folk music and American blues.  “My idea of heaven is a place where the Tyne meets the Delta, where folk music meets the blues,” he said, and his solo albums in particular reflect that dichotomy.

And where did his singular guitar style come from?  Knopfler spoke of one night back in

1973 when he gathered with friends, and the only available guitar was an old acoustic with a badly warped neck that had been strung with extra-light strings to make it usable.    “Even so, I found it impossible to play unless I finger-picked it.  That was where I found my ‘voice’ on guitar.”

Far from the ego-driven rock star you might think, Knopfler is a self-effacing artiste more than anything else.  He actually thinks he’s only an average guitarist.  “In my band, I’m probably the weakest link.  I’ve got a lot of admiration for musicians who excel because they are really deep into their instruments, but that’s a whole universe away from what I do.  I see the guitar as something to write songs with.  It’s a lifelong love affair, but the rs-2717-rectanglesong is king.”

After more than 15 years of eligibility, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally saw fit to induct Dire Straits this past year.  Knopfler chose to bypass the ceremony, which irked some of his fans.  But he offered no apologies, nor any hopes for a Dire Straits reunion.  “I really don’t want to start getting all that stuff back together again,” he noted.  “I would only do that for a charity event.  I’m very glad I experienced it all, and we had a lot of fun with it.  It was hard, it was exciting, and it was traumatic.  There was a lot of insanity, believe me.  I like things the way they are now.”

**************

The Spotify playlist includes every track from the two Dire Straits LPs I’ve singled out as my favorites, but I couldn’t resist also including a few other stellar songs from their catalog.