By Madeline Bocaro ©
I interviewed Joe Jackson for CMJ in June 1979 upon the release of his debut album, Look Sharp. His album was fantastic, so I was happy to talk to Joe in New York City. I had just been shopping at Bloomingdales where they were featuring a polka-dot department at the time. Knowing Joe’s preference for polka-dot shirts and ties, I told him about it – so after our interview, I brought him there. (Also see my review of the album below).
Joe Jackson was excited on the afternoon of his sold-out Bottom Line gig in New York City. Already eight days into his American tour, reaction has been overwhelming. As we sat in A&M Records’ New York office, Joe jokingly explained his concept of ‘spiv rock’.
JJ: A spiv is a small time British gangster like in the movies of the 50s; the guy with a penciled moustache and a ratty face, and a gross tie with a pin-striped jacket. He’s always got half a dozen watches up his arm. I thought, since people always try to categorize you, I’ll invent a category of my own. The only word to describe the way I looked was a ‘spiv’. It’s a silly image that I thought appalling. It’s not intended to be a new musical revolution.
It may not be a revolution, but Joe Jackson’s debut LP Look Sharp is a knockout. Joe’s musical training took place at England’s Royal Academy, where he emerged with a degree in percussion. After a year at the Academy, he turned toward rock n’ roll as a musical pursuit.
JJ: Rock N’ Roll was always there in the back of my mind. I grew up with the Beatles, Stones and the kinks and always really loved all that stuff. I was interested in many kinds of music when at the Academy – I would listen to everything – jazz, classical, avant-garde. Then I just narrowed it down to what I really enjoyed.
By playing piano in a cabaret, Joe raised the money to independently record his own album. While working as musical director at the Playboy Club, he realized that the pop-rock band he was with at the time (Arms & Legs) was getting nowhere.
MB: Were there any really hard times for you?
JJ: Oh yeah. I’ve lived on five quid a week. I don’t know how I survived really, but I managed somehow. They were desperate times, but I was determined that I’d rather not earn any money and starve than work in a factory. I can’t imagine anything worse than that, except maybe working in a supermarket.
MB: Which you have done.
JJ: Yeah, but only for a few days. I never held a job like that for more than that. I just couldn’t handle it.
MB:You have a great deal of determination. What made you so confident?
JJ: I don’t really know. I suppose it must be ego. I knew I could never do a 9 to 5 job. I was determined to do something I really enjoyed – an outlet for my energies and frustrations.
MB: You and your band toured the London club circuit prior to the album’s release. How well were you received?
JJ: Very well, actually. At first people couldn’t quite make up their minds, but it got better fairly rapidly.
MB: How do you feel about the many comparisons made between you and Elvis Costello or Graham Parker?
When people first started comparing me to Elvis Costello, I thought it was fair enough – they’ve got to compare me to someone. But then it continued a bit too long and I got really pissed off. Then I got bored with it, and now I’m getting annoyed with it again. It’s just that there’s no one else they can compare me to. It’s a very superficial comparison, I think. If you’ve ever met Costello, you’d see that we’re two totally different people. I find him pretty offensive. Graham Parker I really like. I think he’s very genuine. I don’t think Costello is.
MB: Reggae music is a strong influence and plays an important role on Look Sharp.
JJ: Early Bob Marley turned me on to that, then I got more and more into it, and over the past few years I’ve been totally immersed in it. If I put on a record at home, nine out of ten times it’s a reggae record.
MB: An exciting thing about Look Sharp is that it sounds so spontaneous. Was it?
JJ: Yeah, it was. A lot of the tracks are first takes and there are no overdubs, though we think now it is a bit thin. We wanted a bit more live band sort of sound. In retrospect you always feel there’s something you can improve on. Next time ‘round we’ll feature the guitar a bit more.
MB: Will there be any American college tours?
JJ: It may be a possibility. There must be a lot of people who want us to play. It would be good, I think. We’ve done a lot of college gigs in England and we were received pretty well. I’m really surprised the album’s doing as well as it is. I’m really pleased. I had no idea when I was recording that people over here would go crazy over it. It’s funny ‘cause people say to me, “Your music is a bit American oriented, surely you had this in mind when recording.” Well, of course I didn’t. I’m English and I don’t know what people want to hear in America. I just sorta write the songs, you know, and it’s really nice that people like them.
MB: What difference have you found between English and American audiences?
JJ: A lot of people say that American audiences are dull, but I think it’s just arrogance. I enjoy it equally, but it’s just different. In England the audiences are more intense – more violent. People over here are really enthusiastic, more appreciative. I’ve been really pleased.
MB: What are your future plans?
JJ: We’ve got most of the songs for the next album well under way. We’re gonna start on it in July. Compared to the first album, I think it’s a bit more mature. It’s getting more interesting as it goes along. The band is getting stronger. I think the band is gonna amaze people on the next album. They’re all mates of mine, sort of hand-picked.
Joe Jackson’s Bottom Line shows were sellouts, Look Sharp is selling like hot-cakes in the USA and in England,
…and polka-dots are back in style. Who could ask for anything more?
Joe Jackson – Look Sharp
By Madeline Bocaro ©
On Look Sharp, his debut album on A&M Records, Joe Jackson establishes himself as a strong new force on today’s pop scene. Each cut has that ‘instant pop single’ quality; two of which are receiving considerable airplay: “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” and the racy- post-punk “Got the Time”. Jackson’s sound reflects the early British Invasion, and its quick one-two punch is comparable to the first two albums by the Jam. However, Jackson’s material is not a rip-off in any way. It’s all fresh, slick and polished. His originality emerges in the rhythm changes and in the dominant syncopation throughout the album. Jackson’s lyrics are definitely a sign of the times. “Baby Stick Around” sums up the pogo dancing craze:
“Pushing and shoving in sweat, black leather
Up and down we go chained together.”
“Pretty Girls” is a catchy one, with its updated funky “doo-do waps” Look Sharp is as sharp as the winklepicker shoes on the album cover. It’s mod, it’s chic, it’s then, it’s now!