Whatever happened to? : Joe Jackson

In 1979, I heard a great record on the radio. It was called ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’. I liked the structure, and thought the obviously English vocal was top-notch. The song was outstanding, with good lyrics that anyone could identify with, and a really refreshing new sound.

I soon had the album it came from, ‘Look Sharp’, and I had also seen him perform the song on TV. He was an unusual-looking pop star, with receding hair and high forehead, but oh how I loved his voice. At the time he was marketed as a New Wave/Punk performer, and often compared to Elvis Costello. They are the same age, and both English, but as much as I liked Costello, I didn’t get the comparison. Joe sounded jazzy and soulful to me, whereas Elvis was obviously from Punk roots.

Later that same year, Joe Jackson released his new album, ‘I’m The Man’. And he was. Now sharp-suited, full of confidence, and belting out some great songs, including this amazing ballad. This was a young man who understood women. You can feel that in the sentiment, and hear it in the lyrics. This was also someone who had style, and looked cool. As a bonus, his music had class too.

In 1980, ‘Beat Crazy’ failed to impress in the same way, and I wondered if he had lost direction, after achieving success. But I was wrong. The following year, his tribute to Swing, containing covers of many classic songs showed that he had not lost direction at all. He had just gone in a different one.
‘Jumpin’ Jive’ was a retro-treat, and showed another side to him, as well as something of that love for jazz that I had detected from the start. I now had to add versatility to his talents.

The next year had a real treat in store. Joe was back on form with perhaps his most complete album ever. ‘Night And Day’ contained two of his biggest hits to date. Not only the great foot tapper, ‘Steppin’ Out’, but also the sublimely heartbreaking love song,’ Breaking Us In Two’. Joe wasn’t just singing either, he was playing piano, saxophone, organ, synthesizer, and harmonica. The guy did it all.

In 1984, he went in yet another direction. Having relocated across the Atlantic to New York, he changed his style with the release of ‘Body And Soul’. We saw a Jackson presenting Salsa, mainstream Pop, and Soul too. He might have lost a few fans as a result, but I was still on board, and enjoying the ride.

Two years later, he experimented with the live album, ‘Big World’. A double-disc of all-new songs, it failed to capture the imagination of the fans, and also failed to make the top 40. In 1987, he continued to diversify, and this time with classical music on ‘Will Power’. But we were not really interested in his Classical side, so his new direction proved to be a wrong turn. More instrumental music followed, with ‘Will Power’, in 1987. But nobody was really getting it except him. Determined to drive home the point, he released ‘Blaze Of Glory’ in 1989, returning to vocals, but still experimenting with form and structure. The critics didn’t much care for it, and neither did I.

Following a ‘Best Of’ compilation in 1990, Joe changed labels, and came up with ‘Laughter And Lust’, once again failing to break the charts. Despite still singing well, and writing some very good songs, it had started to sound wrong. Too many changes of direction seemed to have left him in a state of confusion. Something that also applied to many of his loyal fans too. He went on to record three more Classical albums, followed by a couple that were supposed to get him back on track, but came across as self-indulgent, and a little desperate. But it was all too late. We wanted the Joe that we knew, not the one he had become.

In 2012, he went back to his love for Swing and Jazz with ‘The Duke’, a tribute to Duke Ellington. He had waited too long though. By now, we had all but stopped listening. Joe continues to record, and since 2006 has lived in Berlin. I may have stopped buying his records a long time ago, but I still love to play the ones I treasure.

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21 thoughts on “Whatever happened to? : Joe Jackson

    1. Thanks, Felicity. That show looks really good. I haven’t been back to London for over four years now, but I will be sure to go to the V&A if I find myself back in the capital.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  1. I wonder how he feels about how his music has changed? By that, I wonder if he is the same inside now and then. I suspect a lot of us have altered our paths too. Yet, we still recognize ourselves in what we do. That makes it hard for some old friends to understand who we become (and become and become . . .)

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    1. Very true, Theo. It is interesting how some musicians, say David Bowie, or Van Morrison, can alter styles but endure. Others obviously tire of their origins that bit too much, and choose to follow their hearts not their wallets. We have to respect them for that, even if we no longer listen to their music.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Totally with you on this Pete, we have his seminal albums on vinyl, but then couldn’t cope with where he went. I suppose an artist has to be true to himself, even at the risk of losing his fan base, it must be hard to be a successful musician sometimes, the music you do for yourself is what gets you the success that in the first place, but you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over without being self-bored, a shame his path didn’t take us all along with him.

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