Joe Jackson Band
“This is our last gig…some people are getting crazy, some people are getting lazy, some people are getting hazy and some are fucking getting out.” –Joe Jackson, 1980, on the last performance of his original band.
“It’s nice to see you looking well, I know your age, but I won’t tell” –Joe Jackson, 2003, on his original band’s new album, Volume 4.
Let’s talk about that Joe Jackson fellow. Jackson has put out 20 albums (not counting compilations and re-packaging) since his first, Look Sharp in 1979, and has an established penchant for confounding audiences. First coming into prominence in the “new wave” era, his influences have always been as diverse as his songwriting is usually strong. He broke up his first band because, as he wrote in his book, A Cure for Gravity:
“Look Sharp would be successful beyond anything I could imagine…We made a second album, I’m the Man, which was basically the same as the first, and then a ‘difficult’ third, Beat Crazy, in which we tried to change the formula a bit, without being quite sure of how. We worked nonstop for three years and burned ourselves out.”
He spent the next 20 years following his muse wherever it took him, eventually writing a symphony, recording almost all-solo albums of Nocturnes and song cycles about the seven deadly sins. Now, for the 25th anniversary of the recording of Look Sharp, Jackson has reunited the band with whom he made his first three albums to record the charmingly if obviously titled Volume 4.
Actually, Jackson has been on something of a nostalgia kick for his last few albums, before this return to the simple, willful and buoyant joys of youth. Already this decade he’s released an informal live album of his songs rearranged for trio and a sequel to one of his most successful albums. One wonders whether winning the Grammy for his last “post-pop” album, Symphony No 1, contributed to this. It seems possible Jackson thought he’d reached a peak in his mature work, proven anything he might have had to prove, and was now free to, if you like, slip into some comfortable old clothes. On the other hand, he might just have done it because he damned well felt like it.
So, 25 years after first recording, and 23 years after playing their last gig, how does the Joe Jackson band fare? In many ways, like they’ve never been gone. Not for nothing did the combination of Jackson’s songwriting, vocals and often exquisite keyboard playing, Graham Maby’s fluid, clear bass, Gary Sanford’s impressive guitar playing and Dave Houghton’s strong drumming launch Jackson to success. Maby in particular remains the second most extraordinary weapon in Jackson’s arsenal (after himself), something the songwriter knows; Jackson has only rarely worked without the bassist. Sanford spent the in-between years recording or touring with the likes… as if there were any… of the late, great and much-missed Kirsty MacColl. Houghton got out of the recording business and ran a drum shop while playing in local bands in Portsmouth, England. All seem to have neatly snapped back into place , their playing scarcely diminished and in some ways improved.
And just so you know where I’m coming from in all this: Ever since hearing that first album in a used record store in San Francisco and receiving the Live 1980-1986 album as a Christmas present in 1988, I have been a fan. I placed Jackson in that rare category of artists whose new albums are must-haves upon release. He repaid the investment of my money and/or listening time without fail, until 2000’s nadir of Jackson’s recording career, Night & Day 2. According to the press release for Volume 4, Jackson now considers that misstep to have been his best album. Since that’s a view with which I profoundly disagree, I had begun to wonder if I wasn’t finally “breaking” with Joe Jackson. In an artificial way, it can be like finishing with a girlfriend when you’re afraid you’ve started to lose your passion for a favorite musician, and it’s a terrible feeling.
This all brings me to the present album. Musically, it ranges between good “modern” rock such as those of us who were college-age in the ’80s will recognize and being everything we could ask for. “Still Alive” distinguishes itself immediately as a worthy contribution to Jackson’s catalog of great singles. I sure hope it is one. The ska-pop of “Thugz R Us” is irresistibly goofy and “Blue Flame” is, quite simply, a haunting, classic Jackson ballad. It’s worthy of joining “It’s Different For Girls” on the list of testaments to his genius.
Some of the songs, namely “Awkward Age,” “Chrome” “Dirty Martini” and “Bright Grey” require a few plays before really taking hold. When they do, they make good examples of how the band sounds as though they went into the studio 25 weeks after the Beat Crazy tour rather than 25 years. “Chrome” is particularly worth paying special attention to.
In keeping with the agenda of this record, some of the songs are, in passing, echoic of the classics of the past — a melody here, an instrumental part there — but “Little Bit Stupid” is the most retro of them all, a nostalgic (and possibly fictional) look at a crush from the glam-rock days.
Most of the material is perfectly suited to this band’s spare sound; “Love At First Light” is the only one that I wish had been a little more fleshed out. I’d like to hear it with a more syncopated beat or upped tempo. Oh, what Sue Hadjopoulos could have done with it — but since that talented percussionist didn’t join Jackson until the first Night and Day album, including her here would have been impossible.
Early in his songwriting career, Jackson struggled with lyrics, but by the time of Look Sharp, he had begun to develop a recognizable style. By juxtaposing romantic and cynical viewpoints with an ear for a one-liner, he found a peg on which to hang his musical ideas. However, after putting his pop dreams away for the better part of a decade, the willfully banal lyrics on Night & Day 2 showed Jackson to have gotten distressingly rusty. A couple of the songs here demonstrate that he hasn’t completely cleaned out the cobwebs . Both “Take It Like A Man” and “Fairy Dust” are very good musically (esp. Sanford’s flashy guitar on the latter), but stumbling blocks lyrically. Where “Take It…” fails because the lyric sounds like trite, warmed-over Squeeze, “Fairy Dust” is troubling because Jackson’s point of view is not well enough developed. It seems to be a song poking fun at the gay community’s own stereotypes (“Anyone would think your name was Oscar Wilde”) but lines like —
“Calling for the man of steel, To blow you faggots into fairy dust”
— beg for a closing verse that better defines the song’s message. Jackson is no Eminem, and to infer homophobia on the part of the man who wrote “Real Men” would be ridiculous, but this song needs at least one more rewrite to bring it into sharper focus.
Look Sharp stands as one of the most accomplished debuts in music history. I’m The Man contains some of Jackson’s most classic songs, but as recorded proves the truth of something Jackson would later say in the liner notes to Live 1980-86: That he “and every band I’ve had, have always been better live”. Beat Crazy is notable mainly for showing the beginnings of Jackson’s interest in change and the breadth of his influences. Volume 4 lands in the boxed set somewhere between the first two; better recorded than I’m The Man, with fewer indisputably great songs than either it or Look Sharp, but more than Beat Crazy.
Still, most longtime fans will welcome it as a worthy comeback, and they will be right. I am happy to report that Volume 4 is, if not a complete return to the glory days of yore, at least a reminder that the Joe Jackson who wrote “it’s different for girls” and “is she really going out with him?”…is still alive.