British singer, songwriter and musician Joe Jackson began life on August 11, 1954, as David Ian Jackson, and it was as Dave that he began his musical journey. He first picked up a violin, but switched to piano and, in time, began playing in bars. He eventually earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music; from what I gather, his goal in life at that stage was to become the next Stravinsky or Sibelius.
Around the same time, he began gigging with a pub band from Portsmouth called Edward Bear that eventually rechristened itself Arms and Legs and released three singles that went nowhere fast. Those sides are an odd mix of the old and the new; the Mark Andrews-penned tunes are somewhat ripped from the charts, while Jackson’s combine a new wave sensibility with Steely Dan.
For those interested, here’s a playlist that features those songs:
It was during those years that Dave exited stage left. As Jackson explained to Minnesota Public Radio‘s Jim McGuinn in early 2019, he became Joe because of “a British children’s TV character called Joe 90, who was a puppet character, and he was a teenage genius. Well, I don’t know what age he was supposed to be, but he wore these big glasses and he was kind of geeky and he knew how to make anti-gravity or whatever it was. Someone or other named me after him as a nickname, and it just kind of stuck.” There was also a Peanuts connection: “[T]here was a character called Joe Piano. So that got thrown at me too, and I just ended up being Joe. I thought it was better than Dave because there’s enough Daves.” In time, he said, he legally changed his name to Joe.
Something was happening in the world beyond the Royal Academy and pub rock: punk. He explained to McGuinn that “[w]hen you’re 22 years old and you’re in London and it’s the late ’70s and this stuff is happening and it’s exciting, then of course you’re going to be influenced by it, I think.”
Although Arms and Legs went the way of most bands, one important connection was made: bassist Graham Maby, who’s been a mainstay in Jackson’s world since. After a stint playing piano at the Portsmouth Playboy Club, where he accompanied cabaret singers, Jackson – with Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer David Haughton – entered a studio and recorded a bunch of demos that scored him a deal with A&M.
Look Sharp! was the result. Released in the U.S. on January 5th, 1979, it was home to such classic songs as the title track, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.” This Washington Post article previewing a concert that September at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum is well worth the read; he relates his love of reggae and respect for Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, the Jam and “Class” (actually the Clash). “Rock ‘n’ roll in its very nature is about the joining of the races,” he says. “There would be no rock ‘n’ roll if there hadn’t been black music. I don’t see how you could be in a rock band and not be against racism. Every white person in a rock band is going to have two or three heroes who are black.”
Like most folks my age, the first song I heard by Jackson was “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The starkness of the music, the bass line and Jackson’s sneering delivery sounded fresh and unique in 1979 (and maybe it’s my age speaking, but it still sounds fresh and unique to me now). From there, Jackson’s career unfolded in an unlikely manner: new wave, reggae, swing and then the sophisticated, Cole Porter-styled pop of Night and Day, which was a surprise hit. Then came the off-kilter soundtrack for Mike’s Murder, which – due to the demands of the movie studio – was mostly replaced by a John Barry score. It doesn’t always jell, but when it does – such as on “Zemeo” and “Moonlight Theme” – it’s quite cool.
I share that backstory for no other reason than this: Body and Soul, which was released on March 14, 1984, is the culmination of everything that came before, integrating elements of new wave, pop, jazz and Latin. It features moody songs accented by sax solos that briefly brighten the dimly lit scenes, somewhat akin to a lone street lamp lighting an otherwise dark road. In that sense, the cover – which pays homage to Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, a classic jazz album on the famed Blue Note label, is something of a misdirection. This ain’t hard bop, but jazz-pop with a dash of noir.
Some people live so fast
They’re so scared of getting old
Some people keep on working
All they do is line their graves with gold
We don”t know what happens when we die
We only know we die too soon
But we have to try or else our world becomes a waiting room
Those lines are from the opening track, “The Verdict,” which finds Jackson waiting for a phone call, quavering over critics and musing on life itself.
“Cha Cha Loco,” which follows, detours into salsa, while “Not Here, Not Now” finds him sifting through the embers of a relationship on its last legs. “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” which hit No. 15 on the U.S. pop charts as the album’s first single, condenses every self-help book into a swinging tune…
…and is followed by more apt advice in the upbeat “Go For It.”
As good as the first side is, however, it’s the second that, back in the day, I played more often than not. The instrumental “Loisaida” shimmers like moonlight reflecting off waves at night, with the brass soaring into the foreground only to recede like the tide, washing away everything but the piano’s lone notes. It’s hypnotic.
“Happy Ending,” a duet with Elaine Caswell, updates the boy-meets-girl love stories of yore to an ‘80s sensibility. (“It’s not so easy/It’s 84 now…”) Here they are on Top of the Pops:
Although many songs place the protagonist in a movie, or at least makes allusions to such, nothing plays out as Hollywood confections would lead us to believe. The bittersweet “Be My Number Two,” which follows the upbeat “Happy Ending,” is a great case in point: He’s settling not for love, but companionship – and assumes the gal is, too. “And every time I look at you/You’ll be who I want you to/And I’ll do what I can do/To make a dream or two come true.”
“Heart of Ice” caps the set in perfect noir fashion; in essence, he’s killing us softy with his song – and pleading to be released from the cynicism that’s taken root in his soul: “Take a knife/Cut out this heart of ice/Hold it high/Walk into the sun…”
Given the nature of the ‘80s pop world, the album did surprisingly well, reaching No. 20 in the U.S. and No. 14 in the U.K. I picked it up on cassette a few months after its release, on June 11th, after reading Rolling Stone’s fairly positive review as well as a so-so overview (“MTV for the ears”) in Record magazine that coupled it with the Mike’s Murder soundtrack. While the cinematic allusions in the music are obvious, there’s much more to be heard in the grooves than that.
This is music of the body and soul, wearied and rundown by life. It’s my most-played Joe Jackson album by far. Go figure.