Listen to this track by former Royal Academy of Music student and jazz/pop/Latin mixologist Joe Jackson. It’s “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, a smash hit single as taken from the 1984 album Body and Soul.
That album was the follow up to 1982’s Night & Day, a record on which Joe Jackson scored a number of hits along with critical acclaim as he was getting himself off of the new wave merry-go-round. But if that previous record was a cellar club date played by a small group of pop-oriented jazzheads with Latin percussion leanings, then Body and Soul is the Broadway show of the same kind of sound.
The crucial thing that made this song notable is just how up and positive it is, even if Jackson was known up until this point for his sardonic tone. That theme of empowerment runs right through the record, almost like it’s a soundtrack to a musical that was never produced. As the years have gone by and with all of that sparkly optimism found in this tune even now, I’ve wondered about who this song was really directed towards; us the audience, or Jackson himself?
This song stormed up the charts during a time when the radio still remained to be a cornucopia of sounds instead of the rigid templates for pop success it would become later in the decade. Say what you will about eighties pop, at least there were way more horns in pop songs at the time, something sorely lacking later on. This one is built on a brassy hook that pushes the whole thing along, supported by a humid Latin pulse and jazzy guitar. The music here is on a grand scale, which may make sense as a direction for Jackson to have taken if you look at Latin jazz-oriented Night & Day as the proof of concept for nervous record executives. “You Can’t Get What You Want …” is a pop song, but one that is deftly and ambitiously arranged, the only hints of Jackson’s new wave past being the presence of stalwart bassist Graham Maby, and the hint of a sneer in Jackson’s vocal delivery. That last element is one that will never fade, it seems. And luckily so.
Jackson’s voice is an important contrast on this song, which pitches that Jacksonian tone with the American-style pop psychology mantra at the heart of this song. That title could be one as written by a TV guru, casting a simple or even simplistic message to the masses. But it’s Jackson’s delivery that makes it interesting, not to be shrugged off as a commercial for blind positivity or you-can-do-it philosophy. Amid all the Latin jazz highlights and bright horn shots, we still suspect some kind of angle with Joe Jackson singing it, which is part of why it works so well. And what if he’s not even singing to us? I wonder if Jackson is singing more to the writer he’s been as a means of determining the one he wishes to become.
By this time, his love of jazz was common knowledge. If the Blue Note-style cover of this then-new record wasn’t a final tip off to that, then I don’t know what would have been. Additionally, his ambition to follow the George Gershwin path of having a pop career in parallel with a classical one would emerge later on, particularly in the nineties but certainly beginning with albums like Willpower by 1987, and soundtracks for movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker, and James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder before the 1980s drew to a close.
In 1984, he was riding high with the pop side of things, with this song on the radio sounding that no other, getting top twenty placements all over the world with the possible aid of The Style Council, Aztec Camera, and Sade making similar moves toward R&B, Latin grooves, and jazz at the same time. Yet in the early to mid-eighties, these were the exceptions to prove the rule. Joe Jackson had certainly disregarded the risks on this front, incorporating Latin percussion and (even earlier!) jump jive styles during a time when most artists were trying to build momentum and to evolve their sound without spooking their audiences. As such, maybe the title of this song had to do with knowing one’s direction and by such means understanding what success personally means. With pressures coming from all sides as fame and popularity rise, you can understand how important such a mantra might be.
Joe Jackson is an active songwriter and performer today. He’s currently touring his most recent album to date, Fast Forward. You can read a review of one of his most recent shows in this article in The New Yorker.
For more about his songwriting process, check out this recent interview with Joe Jackson as featured on Sodajerker.com.
And don’t forget Joejackson.com!