That time Joe Jackson subverted Rock ‘n’ Roll but nobody noticed
“This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?”
That’s the message emblazoned on the inner sleeve of Joe Jackson’s third album, Beat Crazy. The statement’s tone is more in line with the back cover photo of Jackson and band glancing downwards and shading their eyes with their hands than with the front cover’s Jim Flora-goes-New Wave neo-retro illustration of an ebullient rock band in full flight.
On the surface, Jackson’s first two albums — Look Sharp and I’m the Man, both from 1979 — were the essence of New Wave, with their mix of power pop hooks and pushy punk-informed attitude. But anybody who paid close attention noticed a multitude of flavors, including reggae, ’60s pop, R&B, and salsa (Listened to the montuno piano figure on Look Sharp lately?), and could have guessed that Jackson wouldn’t stay in one place for long.
With his fourth album of originals, Night and Day, Jackson would find a bigger audience than ever by bringing in new players and drastically altering his style. But on Beat Crazy, as the inner-sleeve confession implies, he hadn’t yet figured out how to accommodate his ambitions. So he simply tried to take things as far as he could within the confines of his original band’s format. The result was commercial flatlining — not one of the album’s four singles attained any chart position whatsoever in the U.S. or U.K. — offset by artistic triumph.
A handful of tracks (Beat Crazy, The Evil Eye, Pretty Boys) mightn’t have sounded out of place on Jackson’s earlier albums, but in the main, he was doing everything he could to shake things up. He parted ways with producer David Kershenbaum, seizing the production reins himself for the first time. He plays more keyboards than ever before. He amps up the reggae influences visited briefly on his previous records. He experiments with different song structures, moods, and lyrical themes. The album even opens with someone else singing lead: stalwart bassist Graham Maby, trading off with Jackson on the title tune
The second track, One to One, is a straight-up piano ballad, the first Jackson ever recorded, albeit one with surprising lyrics looking askance at the distance between personal and political commitments. The creepy In Every Dream Home (A Nightmare) runs on a deep, doomy, reggae bass riff and sports a plotline with all the paranoia and puzzlement of a Twilight Zone episode.
The Evil Eye continues the sinister lyrical vibe, this time with a voodoo bent, but it’s shot through with sarcastic humor and wedded to a peppy, hook-heavy tune. It’s Robbie Shakespeare time again for Maby on Mad at You, where the big-bottomed reggae bass line eventually leads the song’s second half into a full-fledged dub section.
VIDEO: Joe Jackson Mad At You
Crime Don’t Pay boasts one of the album’s oddest shapes. Only about 45 seconds in the middle of the four-and-a-half minute track have vocals (depicting a street story with a surprise ending), surrounded by a keyboard-heavy arrangement that feels like a sort of skinny-tie take on Booker T. & The M.G.’s.
The ominous, minor-key Someone Up There butts a frenetic Maby bass groove up against a desperate tale of lost love. Battleground is dedicated to Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and presents Jackson’s own approximation of LKJ’s spoken deadpan delivery. The subject is the slippery slope of race relations viewed through the prism of one of the period’s Rock Against Racism consciousness-raising concerts. Not exactly standard lyrical fare even by New Wave standards.
Biology even manages to put a new spin on one of the oldest topics in rock ‘n’ roll, as Jackson wryly employs an actual biology lesson in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to explain male infidelity. But it’s the album’s last two tracks that really highlight his agenda. Both Pretty Boys and Fit strike a blow for the underdog, but in very different ways.
VIDEO: Joe Jackson Rockpalast 1980
Pretty Boys decries the oversaturation of the media with photogenic faces, demanding, “I wanna see a human being on my TV set/Want some action for the fat and thin man” over a speedy ska rhythm. Jackson, nobody’s idea of a “pretty boy” himself, brings things closer to home by inquiring, “How do you rate my sex appeal from one to 10/Is my image just a bit confusing?”
The idea of self image banging up against public expectation is multiplied a hundredfold on Beat Crazy‘s final and most emotionally commanding cut, “Fit.” Within what is, ironically, the album’s most conventional-sounding rock-ballad arrangement, Jackson champions groups cast into the role of misfit by the mainstream. Rather impressively for a record released in 1980, the first of those groups is the people “born as boys and fighting to be girls.” Jackson’s own sexually ambiguous status, made public years later, likely contributed to his sympathy for that scenario, but he then opens things up to include people of mixed-race identity and finally, anyone who rubs up against the status quo.
When Beat Crazy, Jackson’s most ambitious album up to that time, fell flat in the marketplace, he got a good dose of what it’s like to be at odds with the mainstream, but it was worth it. And his response would not be a retreat to the familiar, but a doubling down with a vastly more idiosyncratic, unexpected sound next time around on Night and Day.