January 5, 1979 saw the release of two excellent albums: Armed Forces, the third album by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Look Sharp!, the debut album from Joe Jackson. So, sorry, Declan. Maybe next year.
I am not the world’s biggest Joe Jackson fan. I’ll put that out there straightaway. I know he’s got one of these cult fandoms where some people go absolutely nuts for his music, but I’m not part of it. I’ve got seven or eight of his albums, I listen to them when they pop up, but I don’t go out of my way to hear Joe Jackson music most of the time.
That caveat out of the way, Look Sharp! is a stunning debut that holds up incredibly well more than 35 years after it’s release. One of the things that strikes me about the album is how much of it immediately makes me think of much more current artists. The Strypes apparently nicked the opening guitar riff of “Blue Collar Jane” straight from “Throw It Away.” Not quite as blatantly, the first four measures of The Fratellis‘ “Halloween Blues” are quite similar to Jackson’s “(Do The) Instant Mash.” Of course, that particular form of flattery works both ways: the title track immediately calls to mind Elvis Costello’s “Waiting For The End Of The World” from his debut release two years prior.
That’s not to say that the album is derivative or generic. With the exception of the somewhat goofy “Sunday Papers,” every track is a great cut. (I’ve always thought “Sunday Papers” would have been perfect if it had been recorded and released by, say, Madness or Ian Dury, artists from the Stiff label that were just starting to gain ground in Britain about the same time Joe Jackson launched his career.) It’s from an era when albums were (for the most part) conceived as a single work of art, to be experienced as a whole, and it is brilliant in that regard. Each song is distinctive in its own right, but they all work together to make this album much more than the sum of its parts.
Of course, the standout track on the record is his biggest hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” This song was my introduction to Joe Jackson, but not in 1979. In the mid-nineties I was hanging out with a pal who was playing a tape his girlfriend had made for him and it included the acoustic version of the song from his live album. I was impressed and went out to buy both the live album and Look Sharp! from whence it originated. As the nerdy guy who always had a crush on the pretty girl when I was growing up, this song resonated for me in my early twenties and my appreciation of the record grew from that.
Personal aside: In the mid-nineties when I did have this album in heavy rotation, my girlfriend at the time raised an objection every time “Pretty Girls” came on. I asked what the problem was. She said, “Down-doo-doo-doo-doo-wop… it sounds so stupid. It’s annoying.” I just looked at her. “And yet, you have no issue when all the colored girls sing Doo-d’doo-d’doo Doo-d’doo-doo-d’doo-d’doo with the Velvet Underground.” Even though I was right, nobody won that argument.
Years later, I picked up a copy of his excellent memoir, A Cure For Gravity which I recommend unreservedly to anyone who enjoys a good rock-and-roll yarn. You don’t have to be a Joe Jackson fan to enjoy the book, as it spends almost no time at all on his commercial releases. Instead, he spins a tale from childhood through to about 1979, the twists and turns that brought him to the brink of pop stardom, and his adventures along the way. It’s a surprisingly entertaining and humorous account and well worth the price of admission.
Joe Jackson never made much of a splash in the U.S., which is odd. His music was certainly hooky enough for the ’80s and would have fit right in with the rest of the New Wave airplay of the era. But that seemed to be the case with a number of UK acts at the time: Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury. Heck, even U2 had to release four albums before anyone in America really heard of them.
Some readers might know this album having grown up with it. Some might just know the lead single. I’d encourage anyone to go out and pick up a copy; it is instantly accessible and endlessly replayable despite being released thirty eight years ago today. Listening through the album a handful of times in the past couple days was a real treat.