Joe Jackson – circa 1982
“What’s a man now? / What’s a man mean? / Is he rough or is he rugged? / Is he cultural and clean?” – ‘Real Men’ (Joe Jackson)
Spiv rock is something that never really catches on. A ‘spiv’ is a flashily dressed person living on his wits, but not a criminal. Spiv rock is a label attached to the work of Joe Jackson at the dawn of his career because he is a natty dresser and exudes a certain confrontational attitude. It doesn’t stick because Joe Jackson proves to be a mercurial talent. His whole career is a testament to this.
The artist who becomes known as Joe Jackson is born David Ian Jackson on 11 August 1954 in Burton-Upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England. He is raised in Portsmouth. The boy learns to play violin when he is 11 and convinces his parents to buy a piano, which he teaches himself to play as a teenager. At High School, David Jackson also studies percussion and oboe and begins to write songs. After his High School years end, he wins a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music to study piano and composition. Jackson attends this institution from 1971 to 1974. It is a bit murky exactly when David Jackson becomes Joe Jackson. The earliest accounts suggest it is a nickname bestowed upon him by classmates in 1972.
Between 1974 and 1978, David (or Joe?) Jackson kicks around trying to find the right path for himself. He plays with ‘various pub rock outfits and top forty cover bands.’ The earliest of these seems to be Edward Bear. More notable is an outfit called Arms And Legs. By some reckonings, this is when the Joe Jackson tag is adopted, with the Joe part being a gag about his resemblance to the puppet star of the Gerry Anderson produced television show ‘Joe 90’ (1968 -1969). Joe Jackson is hired as the musical director of the Portsmouth Playboy Club. While holding this position, Jackson masterminds the career of Coffee And Cream, contestants on the British television talent search program ‘Opportunity Knocks.’ All this time, Jackson is writing songs. He records a demo of his work that scores him first, a publishing deal with Albion Music, then a recording contract with A & M Records in 1978.
In 1979 Joe Jackson releases his first single, ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ (UK no. 13, US no. 21, AUS no. 13). “Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street / From my window, I’m staring as my coffee grows cold,” he sings over the loping reggae rhythm of the first verse. By contrast, the chorus blooms into a more assertive style of new wave rock…before dropping back to reggae for the next verse. Jackson explains this is “just one of those songs that started with the title.” He adds that, “it was a great surprise to me when some people interpreted it as angry.” Perhaps the listeners’ reaction is understandable in light of lines like, “Listen you! Take your hands off her hand / I get so mean / Around the scene.” ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ is included on Joe Jackson’s debut album, ‘Look Sharp’ (1979) (UK no. 40, US no. 20), produced by David Kershenbaum. The performer is accompanied by The Joe Jackson Band: Gary Sanford (guitar), Graham Maby (bass, vocals) and Dave Houghton (drums, vocals). This is an incredibly tight combo that displays an almost telepathic understanding of the intent of their leader who provides lead vocals and occasional piano. This ‘accomplished debut’ also includes ‘Got The Time’ and ‘Sunday Papers.’
The term spiv rock is used in an attempt to describe Joe Jackson’s sound. Although also inadequate, the less specific new wave tag is probably closer. Joe Jackson is correctly compared to Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, ‘the three angry young men’ of British new wave music. New wave takes some of the brash attitude of its immediate predecessor, punk rock, and fuses it to a more forward-looking, less political, vision. Yet, as Joe Jackson’s background at the Royal Academy of Music already foreshadows, he has a wider skill set and is not inclined to subscribe to any limitation on what kind of music he should perform. Jackson writes nearly all his own material, though some later projects purposefully cast him as an interpreter rather than on originator.
‘I’m The Man’ (1979) (UK no. 12, US no. 22) retains the services of both David Kershenbaum and The Joe Jackson Band, though this album is seen as ‘power pop.’ The title track, ‘I’m The Man’, finds Jackson playing the role of the ultimate con man. He acts out the character of the chap who foists on our consumerist society skateboards, the hula hoop, the yoyo and “Kung Fu / Oh, that was one of my good ones / Well, what’s a few broken bones / When we all know it’s good clean fun?” The band attacks the song with such a frantic pace that it seems they are bound to come off the rails completely – but of course they are far too disciplined for such a mishap. Also present is Joe Jackson’s best song, ‘It’s Different For Girls’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 85). The attention-grabbing opening lines are: “What the hell is wrong with you tonight? / I can’t seem to say or do the right thing.” This may appear abrasive, but the song actually develops into an unbearably tender examination of the age old conflict between the two parties in a romantic relationship. Sure, the frustration with the opposite number’s inexplicable moods comes through loud and clear, but so does the underlying love. The tension is only partly relieved by a ringing guitar motif that dissipates and coalesces at regular intervals in the track.
The Joe Jackson Band make their last appearance (for some time anyway) on ‘Beat Crazy’ (1980) (UK no. 42, US no. 41), an album on which Joe Jackson assumes the role of producer as well. The off-kilter rhythms of the title track, ‘Beat Crazy’, create a world where “Kids today / They’re all the same / All call themselves some crazy name / Yeah! Mods and rockers and Beatle freaks.” With its emphasis on a kind of retro-beatnik atmosphere, along with doses of reggae and its faster-paced cousin, ska, this album proves more challenging. Joe Jackson is only beginning his mission to subvert the expectations of his audience.
‘Jumpin’ Jive’ (1981) (UK no. 14, US no. 42) sees Joe Jackson deemphasise his own music in favour of recreating the 1940s era of big brass bands, swing music, and jump blues. ‘Jumpin’ Jive’ (UK no. 43, AUS no. 61) is a Cab Calloway song Jackson exhumes and enlivens. Louis Jordan numbers are also given the treatment. Jackson tours with an old style big band to promote the album, but makes it clear from the outset that this is a one-off concept.
For his next trick, Joe Jackson heads to New York to record ‘Night And Day’ (1982) (UK no. 3, US no. 4). This is ‘one of his most satisfying works’ and the best and most cohesive album in his catalogue. David Kershenbaum is recalled to co-produce the disc. This time, Joe Jackson attempts to transport the old school sophistication of Cole Porter to a contemporary setting. There are no guitars on the album and Jackson’s own piano-playing is thrust to the fore. At times, the album teeters on the verge of being bland, but Jackson’s own tastefulness always keeps the balance right, injecting touches of jazz, funk, and salsa. ‘Real Men’ (AUS no. 6) is a more dramatic update on the “war between the sexes” theme of ‘It’s Different For Girls.’ However, its wider scope also touches on ideas of homosexuality and masculine identity. “Take your mind back / I don’t know when / Sometime when it always seemed to be just us and them,” Jackson urges, struggling with confusion. The delicate piano notes of the verses open out to rousing, almost operatic ‘choruses’ before collapsing back again. The confronting nature of ‘Real Men’ is a bit too unsettling for some listeners. More popular and accessible is ‘Steppin’ Out’ (UK no. 6, US no. 6, AUS no. 30). Riding on a neon pulse, this song is full of excitement about a big night out on the town. “You / Can dress in pink and blue just like a child / And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while,” Jackson sings gleefully. ‘Breaking Us In Two’ (UK no. 59, US no. 18, AUS no. 90) is a more adult piece, the piano lines drifting across metronomic drums. In a weary, yet sympathetic voice, the singer asks, “Don’t you feel like trying something new? / Don’t you feel like breaking out or breaking us in two?” The aching ‘Slow Song’ is one of Joe Jackson’s own favourites from amongst his compositions.
Following this album, Joe Jackson again takes a side path, writing the soundtrack to the movie ‘Mike’s Murder’ (1983) (US no. 64).
‘Body & Soul’ (1984) (UK no. 14, US no. 20) returns to the spirit of ‘Night And Day’, but this time Joe Jackson, with co-producer David Kershenbaum, puts more of a jazzy spin on proceedings and horns and brass predominate. ‘You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Til You Know What You Want)’ (US no. 15, AUS no. 96) exemplifies this modified flight-path with its uptown trumpets and saxophone, popping bass and funky guitar. ‘Be My Number Two’ (UK no. 70) slows the tempo and is closer to ‘Night And Day’. Jackson tries to entice his partner with the promise that “There won’t be too much to do, just smile when I feel blue.” As usual, the piano work is immaculate.
In a surprise move, Joe Jackson’s next album, ‘Big World’ (1986) (UK no. 41, US no. 34), is his nearest to mainstream rock since ‘I’m The Man’. Still, he has to find a new wrinkle. In this case, the album is recorded live in front of a silent audience. The all new songs are performed by a band Jackson has put through numerous rehearsals until they are extremely tight. ‘Jet Set’ is a scathing put-down of ugly tourists abroad. ‘Right And Wrong’ (AUS no. 64) is a shot at the conservative government of the right-wing political party but “They’re not talking ‘bout right or left / They’re talkin’ bout, t-t-talkin’ bout / Right and wrong / Do you know the difference?” The song’s in-the-pocket rhythm is a marvel. When Jackson sings the opening line of this song, “Stop everything”, the band literally does freeze in place…only to resume a moment later without a hair out of place. A skipping guitar rhythm lends a light-hearted air to ‘Hometown’: “Sometimes I just want to go back to my hometown / Though I know it’s not the same.” This intelligent and impressive album, again co-produced by David Kershenbaum, is underrated, suffering ‘decidedly mixed reviews’ and becoming ‘only a moderate hit’. Part of the problem may be that the album is designed as a compact disc (CD), a market still in its infancy. On vinyl, ‘Big World’ is awkwardly packaged as a double album with the fourth side blank, since it is too long for a single record but not long enough for two full vinyl discs.
Unapologetic, Joe Jackson doesn’t make things easier for himself with ‘Will Power’ (1987) (US no. 131), a completely instrumental album, and ‘Tucker’ (1988), another movie soundtrack.
Assuming full production duties, Jackson’s next album, ‘Blaze Of Glory’ (1989) (UK no. 36, US no. 61), is a loosely autobiographical suite of songs. “Stop! What’s that sound? / The death rattle of this rusty old town / Stop! / Listen again / It’s the sound of laughter all along the Thames [river in London].” So goes the opening to ‘Down To London’, the tale of aspiring rockers migrating to the nation’s capital. It is set to a chattering piano, spanked tambourine and female backing vocals. The keyboards lift like the sunrise for ‘Nineteen Forever’ (AUS no. 79): “Sometimes I feel so alive / Sometimes I see so clear / Just like the way we always were / So young and free from fear.” Following this album’s ‘commercial failure’, A & M Records drops Joe Jackson.
Landing at Virgin Records, ‘Laughter & Lust’ (1991) (UK no. 41, US no. 116), despite being a ‘straight-ahead pop / rock record’ meets with ‘little commercial success.’ ‘Night Music’ (1994) is a mix of pop, classical and show tunes that attracts ‘mixed reviews and poor sales.’ It is also Joe Jackson’s last release on Virgin.
It is some indicator of the state of his career that Joe Jackson’s next releases are issued under the label of Sony Classical. He appears to turn his back on rock music completely. ‘Heaven & Hell’ (1997) is based on the seven deadly sins. ‘Symphony No. 1’ (1999) is classical music played by musicians from jazz and rock backgrounds. ‘Night And Day II’ (2000) is a belated attempt at a sequel to one of Joe Jackson’s most popular albums.
Just when it seems least likely, the contrary artist reunites with the three musicians who comprised The Joe Jackson Band and backed him on his first three albums. Together they cut ‘Volume 4’ (2003) and ‘Rain’ (2008). These albums are released on the Rykodisc label.
Joe Jackson’s next project, ‘The Duke’ (2012) is issued by Razor & Tie and is a tribute to jazz great Duke Ellington. Jackson acts as musical arranger for the disc, handing vocals to the likes of Sharon Jones and Iggy Pop.
Looking over Joe Jackson’s career, it is not surprising that spiv rock did not become a new sub-genre of rock music. Jackson displayed a restless inability to follow any one path for too long. Sometimes this has been to his financial detriment, alienating audiences whose interest or tolerance he exhausted. Each stylistic shift seemed to cost him some listeners without a commensurate gain in new fans. Yet every artist must follow their muse, wherever it leads. Coming from a background in classical music, Joe Jackson was probably more resistant to the hunt for a hit song or album than some of his rock music peers. Yet, when the stars aligned, he produced rock music the equal of any of those rivals. ‘Once he had a taste of success, Jackson didn’t become more accessible – he became weirder, crafting a number of self-consciously difficult records intended to push the boundaries of pop.’ Joe Jackson was a ‘literate rocker whose songs pointedly rejected the utopian sentiments and romantic excesses of the previous generation.’
- ‘The Little Oxford Dictionary’ – Compiled by George Ostler (Oxford University Press, 1975) p. 531
- wikipedia.org as at 11 March 2013
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 251, 252
- allmusic.com, ‘Joe Jackson’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 13 May 2002
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 109
- songfacts.com – Joe Jackson interview dated 25 June 2012
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘The Evolution of the Singer-Songwriter’ by Stephen Holden (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p.482
Song lyrics copyright Warner / Chappell
Last revised 26 August 2014