Joe Jackson Sings “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)

JoeJacksonBodyAndSoulListen 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? Read more

Joe Jackson Sings “Home Town” (1999 live version)

Listen to this track by spiky new wave piano man and skillful pop composer Joe Jackson. It’s “Home Town”, a track originally taken from his 1986 album Big World, with this version recorded live in New York City in 1999 and featured on the album Live in New York: Summer In the City.

The original is a bright, effervescent pop song full of buoyant guitar. Yet, the song holds a certain world-weariness that the original version masks. Ordinarily, this is a welcome contrast.

But, as good as the original is, something entirely new came out of it when he rearranged it for a new musical context. When it came time to get together in the summer of 1999 to perform some of his tunes in a casual series of club dates “just for the hell of it”, the songs were reinterpreted for a trio; himself on piano and singing, backed up by stalwart sidemen Graham Maby on bass, and Gary Burke on drums.

Yet on this song, it’s all Jackson, a middle part of a suite of songs (“Be My Number Two” and “It’s Different For Girls” bookend it) played solo. Instead of the irony that can be picked up in the original, here the solo version reveals an entire country of emotions waiting for the listener underneath.

You might think that Jackson had removed his signature element of surprise to be found in his music up until this point by interpreting this song as a straight up ballad, rather than a poppy guiter driven tune that hides some melancholic undercurrents. But, you’d be wrong. Here’s why.

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Joe Jackson Sings “I’m the Man”

Listen to this song by jazz pianist and composition student turned new wave figurehead Joe Jackson.  It’s “I’m the Man”, the title track to his second album from 1979, recorded a mere 18 months after his first.

Joe Jackson and his band, particularly bassist Graham Maby, had done the rounds as a club band while Jackson attended the Royal College of Music as a composition student during the day.  In this, Jackson lived a sort of double life musically speaking.  By 1979, his approach was that of a pure guitar-bass-drums, with pub rock overtones, scathing lyrics, and spiky punk-inspired attitude.   As a ‘serious composer’ you might argue that he was slumming it, if the band weren’t so tight, so professional.  Even if Jackson aspired to George Gershwin levels of musical ambition, his musicianship and that of his band proves that their expectations of themselves for  rock ‘n’roll is  just as dedicated.  It’s clear that even early on, Jackson saw nothing lesser about pop music, unlike many classically-trained musicians.

Just listen to this thing.  Jackson’s heavily ironic attack on consumer culture is accompanied by Graham Maby’s bass which sounds like the strings are going to fly off of it any second.  Gary Sanford’s surf-guitar pins everything to the wall particularly during the economic solo.  And drummer Dave Houghton sounds like he’s got a vendetta against his drum kit – he’s just punishing it on this track!

It’s hard to believe that rock ‘n’roll had once been only a second career at one time for Jackson.  Although, by ’79, he was fully engaged with the star-maker machinery after his breakthrough debut, and his single “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”.  He’d go one more straight-ahead rock record (and even then, he mixed it up) before jumping the stylistic rails by 1981 and recording a jump-jive album (!).

Joe Jackson would eventually bring his two worlds of composition and rock ‘n’ roll together on record, initially with his masterpiece Night & Day, which is one of my ‘save it from a burning house’ albums.  After that,  he would still jump from one side of the fence to another, sometimes with middling results.  But, that’s one of the things which makes him an interesting artist.  He takes chances, and keeps moving in unexpected directions.

Jackson recently reunited with Graham Maby and Dave Houghton for 2008’s Rain album, which is a knock-out.  It too is kind of unexpected, since it kind of comes off as a jazz trio doing a pop-rock record in the best sort of way.

Investigate more of Joe Jackson’s world by visting the Joe Jackson website.


Joe Jackson performs song from 2008 album Rain – “Wasted Time”

Joe JacksonHere’s a clip of Joe Jackson singing a key track from his new, and brilliant, album Rain . The track is “Wasted Time”.

He’s clearly following the same rays of musical inspiration as Todd Rundgren used to follow on this song, out-Todding Todd. This song has everything that the tradition of melancholy love-gone-wrong songs demand – impassioned vocals (including a falsetto which I’m not sure I’ve heard Jackson ever use), minor chords and major chords held in contrast, and of course a sense of unfinished business that equals a tension of the bittersweet kind. Jackson always dealt with shades of grey in his work, and he continues his mastery of this approach again here. And his signiture brand of irony is in place too, of course.

The entire album is his best in years – a rock/pop piano trio of Jackson singing and playing piano, with long-time associate Graham Maby on bass guitar, and original drummer of Jackson’s first three albums, Dave Houghton showing some particularly versatile playing behind the kit. And he needs to be versatile on this one, with a lot of jazz overtones (which have always been present in Jackson’s work). Like his masterpiece Night & Day, there are no guitars on this one, which allows for Maby’s bass to breathe a bit, enough to create some interesting interplay for Jackson’s piano lines . And in places, a “Becker & Fagen has drinks with Duke Ellington” vibe just shines through. As a big fan of Joe’s classic period, I was thrilled to hear it.

Joe is currently living in Berlin, where the album was recorded. And here’s another clip of Joe’s impressions of the German city mostly known as the former hub of the iron curtain.

And to round all of this off, I found this interview with Joe Jackson about the new record, and about songwriting in general.


Records I have known: Night & Day by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson Night & DayJoe Jackson was a part of a new wave singer-songwriter triumvirate, with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. From 1978 to 1980, he would mold a trio of albums which would exemplify the best of that genre, along with a couple of hits in “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “It’s Diffferent For Girls”. But the new wave tag, like most tags of musical genres, was beginning to age. By 1982, it was practically antiquated. And Joe Jackson and his band had left it behind a year earlier, going from the drums-bass-guitar-voice conventions right to a jump blues album Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, in the traditions of Louis Prima, Big JoeTurner, and Louis Jordan. Of course he was about 15 years too early for that particular musical revivalism. But, that’s another story. The point is, Jackson was getting restless. He wanted to expand his palette in the traditions of some of the composers he most admired – George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in particular.

It was soon after a divorce that Jackson would re-locate from England to New York City, and the move itself would inspire his next record Night & Day. This was a record far removed from his first three albums in a number of ways. The most obvious was the addition of jazz and latin sounds that were added to the mix. A more subtle difference, but one which is significant, was the absence of a guitar. This is Jackson’s most cohesive artistic statement to date, and one into which he poured his heart and significant musical talent. Overall the album stands as a testament to an artist bucking a system he helped to create in the new wave sound of the late 70s, and succeeding both artistically and commercially.

Joe Jackson Night & Day bandThe musicianship on this album is exemplary. Stalwart Jackson bass player Graham Maby sits in, filling the gaps, while Jackson himself leads the way on piano, organ, and even on alto saxophone. Sue Hadjopoulas adds latin percussion to the mix, which changes the approach of the whole completely. Effectively, the aggression of the guitar is made redundant because of her textures, making this a prime record for showcasing how a percussionist can make a song shine, rather than just be a part of the background. LarryTolfree rounds out the quartet on drums.

The hits are high-profile – the immortal and optimistic “Steppin’ Out” being the biggest, an ode to leaving the worries of life behind for while and becoming child-like again, exploring the wonders of the world at night with a loved one. But that song was the lighter side of what Jackson was exploring here. The main themes are about alienation – being in places, and in times, where one feels out of step, and slightly fearful perhaps of what the future may hold.

New York City is virtually a character here, as illustrated in the album’s opener “Another World”, which has the stranger in a new town looking at the possibilities of what a new life in a new place may have in store. “Chinatown” is about the dangers of the city and being unaccustomed to the instincts required to survive living there. “Target” furthers this theme, with a barrage of percussion and jazz piano which seem to voice the frenetic energy of a city which is both dangerous and equally vital. It is clear that like Jackson’s compositional heroes like Cole Porter (who wrote a song called “Night & Day“, of course) he was greatly inspired by the city as a backdrop. But, the alienation and underlying unease of a new life alone in an unfamiliar location seems to shine through.

Joe Jackson and pianoAnother great theme is the alienation of being in the middle of changing times. Songs like “A Slow Song” and “Real Men” seem to touch on this most, with the changing face of sexual politics and gender roles becoming more and more blurry at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. Although many of these areas changed for the better, Jackson’s materials covers some of the lesser discussed issues that come with changing times – the fear of change, whether for the better or not. The song “Cancer” touches on the innate fear of our times that often stops us from living life to its fullest – and features some of Jackson’s superlative jazz piano chops. “Breaking Us In Two” is another hit, dealing with the real life complexities of love in a modern age – that the boy-meets-girl happily ever after paradigm of the past had passed into something more involved, more challenging, and less easy to grab a hold of.

Night & Day is one of my albums, one of those ones which feels like home. Despite some of the darker tones, I love the contrast it provides with some of the lighter touches too. “Steppin’ Out” to me is one of the best songs ever written – an ode to innocence in a sea of jaded experience. And perhaps this is the beauty of the record as a whole. It is smart enough to celebrate one, without discounting the other.