Five times Grammy nominee Joe Jackson is best known perhaps for hits like 1979’s witty ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’ and the sublime jazz-pop crossover smash ‘Steppin’ Out’ whose haunting urban dark keyed splendour is still the perfect soundtrack for a night-time foray into the neon-lit city. But while those hits personify certain facets of Jackson’s mercurial talent they don’t tell the whole story since he’s mastered so many musical styles, from power-pop to jive to cool combo swing, to the experimental fringes of the avant-garde, that rediscovering his catalogue is akin to investigating a variety of different moods.
A classically trained musician, Jackson has also moved effortlessly into soundtracks, tackled symphonic work and published a splendid autobiography, A Cure for Gravity, which describes his early life and stops just as he is about to become a pop star with characteristic élan and self-deprecating humour.
Given that his songs have charted across four decades it’s not surprising that his body of work is large and includes many comprehensive Best Ofs for beginners and completists alike, although we reckon that enjoying his albums in chronological order is a smart move. There is plenty to involve the listener.
After studying violin and piano at home in working-class Portsmouth (though he was born in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire) young Joe Jackson played in the local clubs before winning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied composition. Rather than pursue a classical career he opted for his first love, pop and rock – early bands included Edward Bear and Arms & Legs. Joe’s breakthrough came when he was signed in 1978 and given free rein. His clever, word driven rhythms – the lyrics perfectly matched to changes of tone and tempo, drew comparisons to Elvis Costello but if he was a part of the mainstream new wave Jackson was less inclined to throw second-hand punkish barbs and far more interested in pushing his own boundaries.
The resulting album Look Sharp! depicting Joe sporting a nifty pair of white shoes, marked him out as a maverick even by the post-punk standards of the day. Produced in London and New York with David Kershenbaum helming the sessions the disc established Jackson as a cornerstone artist with flair, taste and great songs to boot. His live shows were rapturously received thanks to a repertoire featuring instant gems like ‘Sunday Papers’ and ‘Happy Loving Couples’.
Joe followed that a few months later with I’m The Man where he decided to dress as a wide boy/black market spiv for the cover. Again his keen observational ear produced memorable moments: ‘It’s Different for Girls’, ‘Amateur Hour’ and the wry ‘Don’t Wanna Be Like That’ indicated he was around for the long haul.
Eccentric pure pop having been the norm he now absorbed elements of ska and reggae on Beat Crazy. The flavoursome title cut, ‘Crime Don’t Pay’ and ‘Battleground’ mirrored some of the social situations in 1980. Meanwhile, the Joe Jackson band, Graham Maby, David Houghton and Gary Sanford, proved an ideal foil.
Never likely to stand still Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive gave him the opportunity to shine as a crooner, a bandleader and instigator of the growing jump blues retro revival wherein tunes from ‘Cab Callaway’, ‘Louis Jordan’ and ‘Lester Young’ were examined afresh and performed with Zoot Suit glee. Particularly fine is Joe’s take on the lovely Louis Armstrong tune ‘You Run Your Mouth (And I’ll Run My Business)’. All the mentioned albums are of course available as remastered editions, often with rare and bonus material, and this one sounds particularly fine today.
The impeccable Night and Day (check out the Deluxe version, it’s superb) includes his signature classic ‘Steppin’ Out’, also ‘Breaking Us In Two’. Both were substantial hits worldwide and broke Joe in America. By now there seemed no limits to the man’s ambition and the pop, jazz and salsa rhythms of Body and Soul, with its subtle recreation of a Blue Note vintage cover – Joe plus sax in homage to Sonny Rollins – is a brooding thing augmented by lush horns and sparkling female backing vocals. The tour that accompanied this album ended one chapter in Joe’s career but he re-emerged revitalised for the live Big World (recorded in early 1986 at the Roundabout Theatre, New York City) where the audience was asked to remain silent, no applause, please! The remote broadcast technique was astounding and also unusually issued on three sides of vinyl.
He followed the classical experiment Will Power with Live 1980/86, which was akin to the greatest hits and is thoroughly recommended.
The Tucker soundtrack and the carefully constructed and ambitious taking stock of the ’80s resume, Blaze of Glory, saw Joe expanding his multi-instrumental skills to include synthesisers and samples. He returned to his own vintage styling with Laughter & Lust (1991) which includes a fine interpretation of the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Oh Well’ and the pleasantly irreverent music industry overview of ‘Hit Single’ and ‘Obvious Song’.
1994’s epic Night Music fused Joe’s love for pop and classical with the main man now playing a staggering array of instruments – everything from celeste to Salvation Army bass drum. Maire Brennan from Clannad added a typically sweet edge to the lilting Celtic tune ‘The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy’. While he pursued other avenues Joe returned to the fray with the sublime tribute to Duke Ellington, The Duke (2012) that topped the US Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. This is serious, adult music, befitting an artist who has always aged up rather than been defined by his own nostalgia.
And of course, there are some excellent introductions and compilations to be found, including Stepping Out: The Very Best of, This Is It! (1979-1989), and Tonight & Forever: The Joe Jackson Collection. Other handy items in that vein are The Silver Spectrum Collection and Gold while remastered live CDs such as the BBC recordings, a concert from the Rockpalast and the Joe Jackson Trio’s Live Music (Europe 2010) add to the rounded view.
Indeed there is a body of great work here that shows no signs of diminishing. Could be time to do a little steppin’ out.