ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

‘I’m The Man’: How Joe Jackson Became New Wave’s Most Likely Lad

The UK singer-songwriter’s second full-length built on the successful sound of its predecessor.

Published on

Joe Jackson I'm The Man
Cover: Courtesy of A&M Records

Joe Jackson enjoyed rave reviews from the moment A&M issued his first single, October 1978’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” but it took a while for the acclaim to translate into sales. His January 1979 debut, Look Sharp!, was initially a slow-burner, but it grazed the UK Top 40 several months later and went Top 20 on Billboard 200. With sales finally keeping pace with critical praise, Jackson’s mainstream breakthrough meant that his second album, October 1979’s I’m The Man, became one of that fall’s most anticipated releases.

Growing up a classically-trained singer, songwriter, and pianist from Portsmouth on the UK’s south coast, Jackson had been writing original songs for several years and he even performed on the cabaret circuit before he made his first demo. That’s likely why his edgy, yet erudite songs struck a wider chord as punk mutated into the more nebulous New Wave in 1978, with Look Sharp! spawning journalistic comparisons with other seemingly angry young UK-based talents such as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. As Jackson said in a 1979 interview with CMJ, this was something of a mixed blessing.

Listen to Joe Jackson’s I’m The Man now.

“I didn’t feel like I was part of a movement or anything like that”, he reflected. “But Graham Parker in particular was an influence. When I first heard him, I thought, ‘Blimey, here’s someone who can’t sing in a similar way to how I can’t sing,’ yet he managed to make it work, managed to sound pretty good. So maybe if he could do it, I could do it too. And he had an attitude, a way of phrasing his lyrics.”

Look Sharp! presented a series of short, sharp, and well-observed songs that touched on love (“Happy Loving Couples,” “Fools In Love”) and wider social issues (“Sunday Papers,” “Throw It Away”), while Jackson’s band – guitarist Gary Sanford, bassist Graham Maby, and drummer Dave Houghton – had performed them with discipline and verve. Seeing no reason to shake up a winning formula, Jackson retained the same team for I’m The Man and also kept Look Sharp!’s producer, David Kershenbaum, who would later work with Tracy Chapman, Bryan Adams, and Supertramp.

Accordingly, much of I’m The Man sounded like a logical progression from Look Sharp! with smart, sharply-observed pop-punk workouts such as “On Your Radio,” “Friday,” and “Don’t Wanna Be Like That” (the latter taking a swipe at the illusory nature of fame) all immediately sounding like keepers.

Click to load video

Elsewhere, though, Jackson and company were keen to broaden their palette, with the catchy, R&B-styled “Kinda Kute” featuring a cool, Jools Holland-esque boogie-woogie piano solo and the jazzy intro to “The Band Wore Blue Shirts” nodding towards the jump blues standards Jackson would tackle on his fourth album, Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive. Like “Fools In Love” from Look Sharp, “Geraldine And John” also flirted with Jamaican rhythms and featured some neat, Augustus Pablo-style melodica embellishments. Jackson would lean even more heavily upon reggae on his third album, Beat Crazy. “Early Bob Marley turned me on to that,” he told CMJ in 1979. “Then I got more and more into [reggae]. Over the past few years, I’ve been totally immersed in it. If I put a record on at home, nine out of ten times, it’s a reggae record.”

I’m The Man was brimming with potential hits, with Jackson feeling the record’s title track could be a smash. A sly commentary on the music industry’s less salubrious practices (“I got the trash and you got the cash/ So baby, we should get along fine”), the song also informed the record’s cover image, depicting Jackson dressed up as what the British refer to as a “spiv” – a less than reputable market trader able to sell his customers any commodity regardless of its legality.

Click to load video

Arguably the punkiest and most aggressive track in Jackson’s canon, “I’m The Man” surprisingly missed the charts in the UK, though it did make Canada’s Top 30. However, its follow-up, “It’s Different For Girls” cruised to No. 5 in the UK, rewarding Jackson with his biggest UK hit. Jackson was taken aback when the song was so successful, but – with hindsight – “It’s Different For Girls” was always in with a chance. A slow-burning, semi-ballad with a soaring chorus, the song displayed similar qualities to “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

It's Different For Girls

Click to load video

With help from some further positive press, I’m The Man kept Joe Jackson in contention in the charts. First released on October 5, 1979, the album shot up to No. 12 in the UK and while it narrowly missed the Top 20 of the Billboard 200, it sold heavily in Canada, where it rewarded Jackson with his first platinum disc. He would depart from making records associated with such a pronounced New Wave sound after its release, but when he’s since looked back on this intense first period in his career, Jackson has recalled I’m The Man as one of the high points. “I’m The Man is really part two of Look Sharp!” he mused in an interview on his official website. “It was released less than a year later. Looking back, I don’t know how I even had the time to write and record a slightly more mature record [than Look Sharp!] but I think it is more mature – and it’s the best of my first three.”

Listen to Joe Jackson’s I’m The Man now.

Click to comment
Comments are temporarily disabled and will return shortly.
Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter (Limited-Edition Smoke Color LP)
ORDER NOW
Johnny Cash - Songwriter CD
Johnny Cash
Songwriter CD
ORDER NOW
Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter LP
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP+7
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping (Limited 2LP + 7″)
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2CD
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2CD
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2LP
ORDER NOW
uDiscover Music - Back To Top
uDiscover Music - Back To Top