Joe Jackson on looking sharp and looking forward
For Joe Jackson, 2019 means two things: acknowledging his past and forging his future.
In terms of the former, he’ll be mounting his Four Decade Tour, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his recording career by performing tunes from each decade of his discography, focusing on the albums Look Sharp, Night and Day, Laughter & Lust and Rain. As far as the latter, he’s releasing his latest album, Fool, almost exactly 40 years after his first. With this juncture providing a perfect vantage point, Jackson took the time to talk about where he’s been and where he’s headed.
A career-spanning concept like your Four Decade Tour should give you an opportunity to really hit all the highlights with your set list.
I guess it is career spanning, but in a rather selective way. We’re not going to cover everything — we’re concentrating on one album from each decade.
How much was your first album, Look Sharp, informed by the punk/new wave revolution of the late ’70s?
I think that album is very representative of the time and place it was made. I was at a certain age and I was in that time and place, so I was very influenced by it. It didn’t take very long for that to wear off, only a couple of years.
One of the things that gave the first couple of albums a unique sound was the fact that the songs were written on piano but played by a guitar-based band.
I don’t play guitar, I find it weird that people think it’s an easy instrument, because it seems very complicated to me compared to a piano. But for a little while I had a go at learning. I picked up a really horrible, cheap guitar and started bashing away on it just to see what I could do, and I came out with the basic riff for “I’m the Man.” So that’s the only exception, that’s the one and only song that started out with me fooling around with the guitar.
Another thing that distinguished those early albums was Graham Maby dominating the arrangements with sort of lead bass lines. How did that come about?
I think it was a number of things. I wanted to have a stripped-down guitar, bass, and drums band that didn’t sound like everyone else. And I had a great bass player… and I had a fairly average guitarist, frankly, I mean, he was okay, but… that and the fact that I was listening to a lot of reggae music at the time, where the bass was really prominent. It seemed like a neat idea at the time to have the bass lead the band more than the guitar.
What made Graham the one common thread through almost all your projects over the years?
Sheer natural talent. Usually when someone is great it’s because they have more than one thing going for them. So it’s his ear, it’s his feel, his taste, his sound… just a general high level of musicality and adaptability.
For people like me who came of age feeling alienated by macho, chest-beating arena rock, hearing songs like “It’s Different for Girls” that offered more relatable options for the male perspective was really important. What was your feeling about that dynamic at the time?
Well I think it’s exactly what you said, you’ve got it. I was not a big fan of chest-beating macho rock anthems either, and I was trying to get away from writing cliché lyrics, and just writing things that actually seemed interesting or funny or whatever, and often turning clichés on their heads. So that particular song is a boy meets girl song, or some kind of particular fight between a boy and a girl, and they’re taking rather stereotypical male and female positions but the roles are reversed. I just thought it was a neat idea, the girl is saying, “Oh, I just want to have sex,” and the boy is being all sensitive, wanting a deep relationship and so on. There’s a lot of humor in this stuff, and a lot of the time it was just sort of, “Let’s turn it on its head and have fun with it.”
Moving on to the ’80s, you’ve mentioned before that moving to New York had a big effect on Night and Day. What were some of the things about New York that excited you?
There were advantages that didn’t exist in London. In New York, I was able to go to jazz clubs and see legends playing that I didn’t get a chance to see in London. The Latin [music] thing was entirely missing from London, and really vibrant in New York. I’m one of these people that still misses the New York of the ’80s. I can’t help it, because I was there, and I loved it.
Were you surprised when that record became your most popular one?
I still find it hard to believe that it was my most successful album. But as time goes on you live and learn. There were a lot of reasons why that album did well at that time. None of them apply now.
Starting to make videos, like the one for “Steppin’ Out,” probably didn’t hurt. But you weren’t a big fan of making music videos, were you?
The early ones that we did, I thought it was all a bit of fun, but then it got really big. And all of a sudden it seemed like the tail was wagging the dog to me. I was starting to hear stories about record companies not wanting to sign promising new bands because they didn’t want to spend the money for the all-important video. I decided rather naively to make a stand, and when it was time for my next album, Body and Soul, I said “I’m not gonna make videos, videos are killing music.” And that did my career no good whatsoever. There was actually one other artist who refused to make videos for a long time. That was Bruce Springsteen. He once said that if he wrote a song and then he had to make a video, he felt a bit like he’d painted the Mona Lisa and now he had to put a mustache on it [laughs]. I can’t say it better than that, that’s how I felt, too.
The ’90s album you’re representing in your tour is Laughter & Lust. Outside of the ’30s and ’40s tunes on Jumpin’ Jive, “Oh Well” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was the first cover you’d put on an album. What prompted you to include it?
I felt that I could have written the lyrics. They were a description of me. You know, “I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin.” But also, in my imagination it lent itself to a kind of Latin rhythm, which I had a great rhythm section to be able to do. I wouldn’t really do a cover of anything unless I thought I could give it a little different twist. They say that imitation is a form of flattery, but I think in the case of covering someone else’s song it’s more flattering if you do your own version of it. You’re offering up something of your own to complement theirs, rather than just imitating it.
Was the ironic stance of “Hit Single” indicative of your frustrations with the music business at the time?
It’s the kind of thing that many artists have encountered, but I think even at that point I was more inclined to laugh about it than be angry about it. That’s just kind of a sarcastic little song. I wouldn’t say it’s the best one on the album or anything. It’s a pop album, really, and I think it’s held up very well.
Had you initially planned for the new album to tie in with the 40th anniversary tour?
We decided to try to get the album out in January so it really would be the 40th anniversary of Look Sharp. It came out in January of ’79. The record company seemed to quite like the idea as well. So that’s the only way it ties in with the 40th anniversary.
“Big Black Cloud” opens Fool by satirizing widespread paranoia. What was the impetus?
This is the kind of thing we hear all the time, rather than someone saying something inspiring. It’s fear mongering rather than positive thinking or anything inspirational. And it seems to me that going back 20, 30, 40 years it wasn’t like that, nowhere near as much.
What’s the story behind the song “Dave?”
It’s a nostalgic song about my hometown, which is Portsmouth England, where it seems that almost everyone is called Dave. It’s a kind of running joke with people I still know, I still go back there quite often, and I can’t count how many Daves I know in that part of the world. In my generation it seems that there was an epidemic of Daves. It just became a song about an ordinary guy who lives in his hometown and never goes anywhere else. Not putting him down for it, I actually envy him in some ways.
Who is the fool you’re envisioning in the title track?
This image of the fool, like the jester from Shakespeare, as a character who is not really a fool, and may even be the smartest guy there. The idea that humor is something that you can’t kill no matter what you do. I mean, people made jokes in concentration camps. You cannot stop humor. He represents humor and how important that is.
As somebody who generally eschews nostalgia, how do you feel about revisiting all this material now?
Some of those very early songs kind of make me cringe now, to be honest. Some of them I still like. But some of what you might call the deep cuts of my early albums I don’t particularly want to revisit. I think that the material we’ve chosen is gonna work the best. We’re also gonna throw a few songs in from other albums, a couple of surprises, a couple of new covers.
You’ll be performing some of the songs from Fool, too. Where do you figure those fit in the continuum?
As far as I’m concerned, this album is 100 percent solid, and I personally believe in every track. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.