David Ian Jackson, from Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England, blew in with the so-called New Wave in the late ’70’s. I never really thought of him as the “angry young man” type but more like the Police who were just a band that happened to arrive with punk and New Wave but never really identified with either one of them.
I think one of the things that distinguished him, either from punk or New Wave was that he was classically trained, having won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. He then kicked around southern England in the ’70’s, playing in bands.
I got this interesting tidbit from the all-knowing Wikipedia: “Around this time he picked up the nickname “Joe,” based on his perceived resemblance to the puppet character Joe Piano, who was Snoopy in Joe Cool guise playing piano.” Heh!
During this time, Jackson had been honing his songwriting skills and recorded a demo. He got a record contract, formed a band and in 1979, released his debut album Look Sharp! (For context, Elvis Costello had just released his third album Armed Forces, the Clash would release London Calling later that year, Tom Petty would release Damn the Torpedos in October ’79. And Springsteen’s most recent album was Darkness on the Edge of Town.)
From Look Sharp!, which Rolling Stone called one of the best debut albums ever, the song “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” was a pretty big hit. Jackson said that some interpreted it as being angry but he had heard someone say that phrase about some girl and thought it was funny. I have no doubt that many people have asked that question about women I’ve dated. But I digress.
“I once had a drink with Joe Strummer, from the Clash, and we talked about writing lyrics,” he told the New Yorker. “And he said that a lot of their lyrics which were taken as angry political commentary were actually just making fun. When they were taken very seriously by journalists, they just had a good laugh about it.”
The title song “Look Sharp” has got a nice biting feel to it and a Graham Parker sensibility about it:
Jackson’s songs had a very strong melodic component and a great pop feel, all the while losing no credibility in the rock department. In late ’79, he released an album called I’m The Man. Another good tune here is “It’s Different For Girls.” Joe’s take. Is this true? I don’t know:
It’s different for girls when their hearts get broke
They can’t tape it back together with a whiskey and Coke
They don’t take someone home and act like it’s nothing
They can’t just switch it off every time they feel something
A guy gets drunk with his friends and he might hook up
Fast forward through the pain, pushing back when the tears come on
But it’s different for girls
Joe was right there in the mix with all those other bands, hot as a pistol, albums and singles selling well. The New Yorker, that bastion of great rock knowledge said, “Jackson’s great seventies and eighties albums are notable for their energy, shrewdness, and wit, for their enthusiastic eclecticism, for words and melodies that stick in your mind and rattle around there for days.”
I had started to lose track of Jackson in the early 80’s. I was in a band and we had a bass player who turned me on to the album, Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, an album that covers classic ’40’s jump and swing blues. He actually wanted our band to do this tune “Five Guys Named Moe” but that was kind of a joke considering we found Johnny B. Goode too musically complex.
Check out Joe’s left turn on this number:
Joe’s foray into these tunes actually anticipated a retro-swing revival in the ’90’s with groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer Orchestra. This album did fairly well in the UK, less so in the States. Let’s say that his label was keen to get him back on the pop/rock track.
Which he did with somewhat of a vengeance in mid-1982 with his album Night and Day. The album cover and title are somewhat of a tribute to Cole Porter, giving you some idea of Jackson’s real influences and intent. A smash hit, it was nominated for a couple of Grammys and had two hits.
My favorite is a tune called “Steppin’ Out.” Again Joe shows his flair for the great melody with a nice pop feel and incisive lyrics. He’s a less caustic Elvis Costello:
The late ’70’s to mid-’80’s appear to have been Joe’s peak years. Personally, I don’t recall the last time he had a hit nor am I sure that he’s still pursuing them. He did some side gigs and even played on a tribute album to XTC called A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC.
The last album I can find by him is from 2015 and is called Fast Forward. From his website – where you may be pleased to know that Joe has written lovingly about the pleasures of the vodka martini – it would seem that he undertook a fairly brief tour last year.
No dates announced for 2018. But if he appears at a small venue, I think I’d go. I subscribed to his newsletter. Just in case. Interestingly, while Joe has been nominated for several Grammys, the only he’s won was for an instrumental album (with Steve Vai) called Symphony No. 1.