No.1 Look Sharp
Joe Jackson (1979)
Emerging from Portsmouth in the mid-seventies, Joe Jackson found himself fascinated by music and after studying music theory and history he took violin lessons before switching to the piano. At 18 he won a scholarship to study composition, piano, and percussion at London's Royal Academy of Music.
By the time he left the Academy, he was the co-leader and songwriter of Arms and Legs, a proto-punk outfit which released two obscure singles on the MAM label before burning out somewhere around 1976. He undertook a lot of cabaret work in order to save money to fund recording time for demos of his own songs. Having relocated to London, by 1978 Joe had formed his own band, consisting of Graham Maby, (Bass), Dave Houghton (Drums) and Gary Sanford (guitar) and was hawking an album-length demo around the record companies. That demo, already called Look Sharp, eventually found its way to American producer David Kershenbaum, who was in London in the capacity of talent scout for A&M Records.
Joe was immediately signed and Look Sharp more professionally re-recorded in August 1978. The Joe Jackson Band finally started to play regular gigs and the album was released in January the following year.
Strummed electric guitar ushers in One More Time, the opening track on the album. A standard pop song with pretensions to bossa nova, it nonetheless boasts an attractive tune and spirited playing. What lets it down are the callow lyrics, a stream of clichés going nowhere.
This cannot be said of the next song, the terrific Sunday Papers. This snappy roll-call of trapped suburbia makes a number of salient points:
Mother doesn’t go out any more
just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
but every weekend through the door
come words of wisdom from the world outside
With its quasi-reggae guitar and bassline, bluesy harmonica and shouted responses to Joe’s chanting of the gossip sheet, the track has an unexpected depth. The great line here is:
Why should she go out when the TV’s on
which speaks volumes about old age, and becoming unwanted.
Is She Really Going Out With Him? was the big hit single, although it took a re-release for the arseholes at Radio One to pick up on it.
This fantastic pop song never dates, and it’s depressing but truthful lyric concerning the mysteries of female partner selection still ring true today and probably forever! Why do beautiful girls go out with burly wankers who can only just spell ‘cat’ and only that day learnt to walk upright? Or the sickeningly handsome, but character-free blokes?
Reggae is the huge influence at work on this entire collection, and its rhythms are adopted in the splendidly moody damped guitar chords that chop out the verse melody to this track. Behind them Joe bitterly snarls the killer opening line:
Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
which says so much in just nine words. Yes, we’ve all been there, but I’ve a feeling Joe Jackson may have been there too many times for his own good. The way he sings:
They say that looks don't count for much
and so there goes your proof
comes from deep in his soul.
A quick glance at the photo on the back cover and all is understood. Poor old Joe. A heartfelt chorus of agonising jealousy spirals up to a spot of whinging and we’re off again into the verse lyric, a brilliantly concise distillation of all that it takes to be young, single and vain.
Envy boils over in the superb middle-eight:
But if looks could kill
There's a man there who’s marked down as dead
'cause I've had my fill
take your hands from her head
I get so mean around the scene
Joe would never top this enduring pop classic. The envy! The resentment!
It continues in Happy Loving Couples, which is sarcastically self-explanatory. Now our Joe is taking out his seething antipathy on his buddy, who, lord help him, has had the temerity to get himself a girlfriend:
I've just been to see my best friend
he's got another girl
says she's just about the best thing in the whole damn world
and he says can't you see what the little lady's done for me
says it like he thinks I'm blind
Never mind Joe, stick with that swinging beat and funky guitar and you’ll get over it. What’s that Joe?
You know what I mean
happy loving couples
in matching white polo-necked sweaters
reading Ideal Homes magazine
Throw It Away is one of the thrashiest things on this LP, a wild tumult of clanging guitars, echoing vocals and some dexterous rock and roll piano playing.
I bet that Baby Stick Around originally had a different set of lyrics to this, because its references to bondage trousers and pogoing:
(Pushin' and shovin' and sweat wet leather
up and down we go chained together)
sound calculated and opportunistic, especially considering Look Sharp! was recorded in the aftermath of punk’s hiatus.
The title track of the album is a cool, jazz-structured piece with strutting verses proudly outlining a sartorial street manifesto:
Okay, what you say
tell me what they're wearing this year
well ace, shut your face
maybe you will see or hear
Look Sharp! is the command, very much the concerns of the late-teenage/early twenties, when it seems a matter of crucial importance to look your best at all times.
The moments of Latin scat-singing bring to mind the million-selling Night And Day album that would follow Joe’s move to the States three years later.
Fools In Love looks forward to that period, after the new wave vaporized, when he would forge a career penning adult ballads, jazz music and film soundtracks. Beginning with more reggae guitars and bass, the earlier jealousy of contented people in relationships rears its frankly unpleasant head again; although here at least there’s an ironic punchline to such snide immaturity Joe is, himself, a fool in love:
Fools in love they think they're heroes
'Cause they get to feel more pain
I say fools in love are zeros
I should know, I should know
because this fool's in love again
The grounding in classical, jazz and cabaret during his early years now bears fruit with some superb piano playing to bring this excellent song to its conclusion.
It is followed by a bit of a filler: the dreary tale of a supermarket worker who’s so bored he dances down the aisles, juggling cans of crap nosh. Do The Instant Mash is built around a solid rhythm section, slightly distorted guitar, harmonica and a rather dated sixties riff. The lyrical shift to a discotheque in the second verse sounds laboured as if he couldn’t think of anything else, a sort of lazy reference to Saturday Night Fever.
Subject-wise, we’re back on familiar ground with Pretty Girls, but this is a really fantastic song, with a pithy lyric which men all over the world have fervently agreed with and admired for twenty seven years. Feminists! Look away now.
Let’s start with the music side of things: bold guitar flourishes ring out against a lonely bass-drum as Joe quotes Manfred Mann’s sixties hit single Do Wah Diddy via some pseudo-doo-wop scatting.
Then a sinuous bass leads us into the first verse, in which Joe is out and about, minding his own business, when WHAM! some trouser-burstingly stunning girls walk past, prompting Joe to muse that they’re ‘all getting set to make a mess out of my mind’.
This sexual frustration is illustrated by a Phil Spector drum-pattern and economic bass.
Joe carries on outlining the awesome authority sexily-attired females have over us chaps its biological, we can’t help our response but of course control it as best we can:
God, if you're up there, listen to my prayer
in future man should have a different design
give him a switch so he can turn off his libido now
give him a tranquilizer built into his mind
They are aware of it:
They say the miniskirt is coming back in style
I say it's not fair but what do they care
when you've got power then you use it for a while
But the most effective lyric is left for the two-line middle eight:
Don't talk to me about Women's Liberation
they already got me right just where it hurts
Got The Time is probably the ‘punkiest’ thing on the LP, led by the bass emulating a fast ticking, and taken at breakneck speed.
Lyrically it’s a banal string of humdrum time references running parallel to one another, an easy theme on which to hang a ‘new wave’ track.
It ends this splendid debut collection, a great party record and with its share of tender moments, too. Check it out!
Part 2 XTC • GO2