When I think of this album, I think of sunshine and beaches, which is perhaps not quite the mood Joe Jackson was going for, but for that you can blame the Sony Walkman, or – to be more accurate – whichever cheap knockoff version I was using at the time.
The iPod is, naturally, seen as the device which revolutionized music consumption for the generations which were first exposed to portable digital music, but we oldies had our own revolution in the 1980s, when it suddenly became possible to lug your music collection around on cassette. Significantly more portable than an album, and – naturally – much less prone to damage, I know that I travelled for years with a clutch of cassettes rattling around in my hand luggage – no train journey or flight was complete without my immediate neighbours being subjected to the sound leaking out from the flimsy headphones which these cheap and cheerful devices always had.
I’ve noted before how much of my collection was on tape; recorded either from albums I owned or ones I’d borrowed from various sources. As I gradually reached a reasonable level of disposable income, I went out and bought my own copy of some of those albums, but others were actually bought on cassette.
There were two reasons for this – firstly, that I was doing more driving than before – my summer job during the early eighties involved me driving a van around Aberdeen, and my first ‘proper’ job involved driving my company car around the north of Scotland. In both cases, I had access to a cassette player – crudely rigged up, in the case of the van, and part of the ‘in-car entertainment system’ in the case of my succession of underperforming Vauxhall Astras.
I also had the faithful, if flaky, portable cassette players – it seemed possible, even likely, that the future of recorded music was the Compact Cassette, to give it it’s full name.
I mean, by 1984, I was beginning to see the occasional CD stand in record shops – The Other Record Shop in Edinburgh had one, a metal spinner with about a dozen titles on it, but the price alone was surely going to mean that cassettes were the way forward for all but the ultra-rich…
Like most of my peers, I imagine, I became adept ad untangling tape when my player decided to chew it – I didn’t risk a C120 cassette, with its tape you could spit peas through, in anything other than a top quality, static player which wasn’t going to be jolted or move in any way during playback, but a standard C90, with two albums worth of material on it, was usually safe right up to the moment when the tell-tale distortion of sound indicated that something had gone badly wrong.
It’s why I never went anywhere without two pencils – one to rewind the spool with, and the other to run the tape over to try to get rid of the worst of the crumpling.
Yes, it does sound like a bit of a faff, doesn’t it?
For the most part, though, despite the vagaries of playback, the humble cassette, its pre-recorded cousin the Musicassette, and the much rarer Cassingle became the main way I consumed music. If the sound quality wasn’t up to the vinyl original (original and best, some might say), it usually didn’t matter – I was listening in the car, or on a train, or in the huge metal echo chamber of the long-wheelbase Transit van which meant I often only had a vague idea what my favourite songs actually sounded like.
The flexibility – and, I reflect now, the seemingly disposable nature – of the cassette meant that not only did I treat them with much less care and attention than I did my precious LPs, but that I would often try out music I might not otherwise ever hear. Not included on this list are many classical albums, records by half-forgotten eighties bands and compilations taken from radio shows; the odd live concert taped of the radio or TV, or comedy albums, a number of which I had on cassette, and which somehow continued to entertain me, no matter how often I heard them.
I pondered long and hard about which Joe Jackson album to write about, and I’ve settled on this one, which I only ever owned on cassette. While I still love many of his albums (see list below for details), this is the one which travelled around with me; this was the one I had with me when we went to the Canary Islands for a January holiday early in our married life, and this is the one which reminds me of sunshine and beaches, despite being set in smoky New York jazz clubs.
Joe Jackson belongs to that wave of post-punk artists who adopted some of the attitude flying around at the time, and used it as a vehicle for getting his clever, sophisticated music into the public consciousness – we’ll be coming to Elvis Costello in due course, and I couldn’t find room for Ian Dury or any of the others, but there were more than a few of them.
What set Jackson apart from his peers for me was the fact that he was the least pop star person you could imagine, but there he was, having people sing and dance along with his chilly, cynical tales of modern life. I loved those early albums, and even – maybe particularly – Jumping’ Jive, which got Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan songs into the pop charts.
I also struggled for a time with Joe, due to his loudly-proclaimed disdain for the kind of music I liked. I went off him for a bit, until I eventually came to my senses and realised he was right; much of the music was uninteresting and an awful lot of it was somewhat misogynistic. By the time I came back to him, I had matured somewhat in my taste, and he had moved on, getting closer and closer to what, I suspect, he had always wanted to do from the start.
I was, I’ll confess, a little surprised to see this album come up in 1984, as I associate it with a slightly later period, but that’s an effect of when I bought it and was listening to it, not of when it was recorded – there’s another album coming up in this list which I bought and listened to avidly in 1984, and it’s in exactly the same idiom as this one, so it does make sense, it’s me who is out of time, not Joe.
So, what do we get, then, when we slip the cassette from its lavishly-packaged but tiny sleeve, designed to evoke the jazz records of the 1950s? Well, what you don’t get is the experience I just had, pulling my more recently acquired vinyl copy out of its sleeve – you don’t get the full effect of the design, which doesn’t just evoke the 1950s, it slavishly copies it – the back of the sleeve is a marvel of the designer’s art, with everything about it, from the monochrome photographs to the typefaces, to the wall of text explaining exactly how this was recorded, designed to take you back another 30 years.
It’s a time capsule inside a time capsule, this album, and it predisposes me to love it, although I suspect it might have been regarded as a touch pretentious when it was released.
The Verdict dives right in to the soundscape of the album – horns, piano and the ever-reliable bass of Graham Maby. It’s inspired by the 1982 film of the same name, although I don’t think it ever had any official connection to it. It’s in many ways a typical Joe Jackson song, a plaintive story told with the music doing as much of the work as the lyrics. If previous album Night and Day had been about the gloss and sheen of New York life; this one is clearly going to be told from the other side of the street, all grime and flickering neon reflected in rain-stippled puddles.
The back cover text makes much of the recording process, and it’s really only now, hearing it through a really good set of headphones from the original vinyl copy, that I can hear what the fuss was about. Artists really have no control over how people consume their music, and I have no doubt that Joe would have been positively horrified to see me nodding along to songs I couldn’t properly hear.
I definitely was able to hear the overall intended effect of a song like Cha Cha Loco; it’s firmly in the Latin-infused idiom of West Side Story; it’s another part of New York deftly invoked using the sounds of the area; you might wonder how a skinny boy from Portsmouth ended up singing in Spanish above a cha-cha beat, but this is what Jackson does best; imbuing his own distinct songwriting style with whatever influences he has around him.
Next up is Not Here, Not Now, a simple piano ballad at its heart. The fluid bass echoes the soundscape of the earlier tracks, and the chorus threatens to break into a much fuller arrangement, but is held in check mainly by Jackson’s voice reminding us that we “don’t wanna make a scene”. There’s a restrained solo on what I think is a flugelhorn, not in its usual bright military voice, but in an unsually mournful tone. It’s a quiet masterpiece, which I think I’ve often overlooked in the past.
You Can’t Get What You Want is one of a small handful of songs which have startled me in grocery stores in Canada. It was clearly a hit single here – like the other one which usually catches me out, XTC’s Mayor of Simpletown – but I’d only ever known it as an album track, causing me to pause beside the bananas, wondering why my local Save-on-Foods was playing deep cut Joe Jackson album tracks.
I can see why it worked as a single, all eighties slap bass and sophisticated rhythms; in fact, I wonder why it wasn’t a hit in Britain – perhaps the overall slightly Latin feel just didn’t translate.
Go For It was a particularly annoying eighties catchphrase – it has a real smack of Thatcherism and men in red braces clutching giant mobile phones to it for me, so I don’t think I ever paid it enough attention before – I’d certainly never noticed the quiet count-in before.
You know, I think I was right – it’s slight, and not exactly up to Joe’s usual standards. It’s fine in a chirpy, disposable pop kind of way, but that’s not really what this album is about.
Side two starts with what I think Jackson was aiming for all along – a carefully constructed instrumental; something of a scene-setter which might, perhaps, have worked better as the opening track to the whole album. It’s not really pop music of any kind; you could have an orchestra play this and it would be a fine piece of film score. It carries the feel and mood of the album, but it’s not otherwise like it in any way. Naturally, I love it – it has themes which develop and resolve, and is in all respects like the progressive music I’d – sort of – left behind at the end of the seventies. I think it’s the key to what’s going on here; this album isn’t really about the songs, it’s about the mood, the feel.
And then Happy Ending comes along and goes all pop song on us, with a straightforward duet raised above the ordinary by its shifts from minor to major and back again, and its jubilant saxophone lines. I’m not sure I’ve known until now who the second vocal on it was, so take a bow Elaine Caswell; her voice is perfectly matched against Jackson’s distinctive tone.
The flip side of Happy Ending, hinted at by its slowly deflating ending, is the heartache and world-weariness of Be MY Number Two – a familiar scenario arrived at from a slightly unusual angle. It’s perhaps the best-known song on here, and is for the most part a simple piano ballad – more stripped-back and raw that the bettwr-known ones on Night and Day, but it fully earns its explosion into full-colour instrumentation at the end; it’s heartfelt if slightly awkward, and is one of those timeless Joe Jackson songs which just works.
Album closer Heart of Ice does many of the same things Loisaida did; instrumental-driven, it takes a simple theme (introduced on the flute) and develops into something which leaves you wanting more. There’s a magnificently disciplined piece of hi-hat playing controlling the whole thing; reining in the rhythm while allowing the wind instruments in particular to go off and explore the musical landscape.
Again, I find myself smiling at the introduction of Graham Maby’s bass – Maby has been virtually ever-present on all Joe Jackson’s albums, and there’s something about the way in which he approaches whatever Jackson throws at him which gives any Joe Jackson album such a distinctive sound. As much as the biting lyrics or the sharp vocal sound, it’s the playing of everyone around him, bass in particular, which lifts the music of Joe Jackson above his peers for me.
I love almost all of his albums, but it’s this one – which I likely am only now hearing as its creator intended – which keeps me coming back for more.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
A great many; from the new wave stylings of the first two, released within months of each other, and containing some of the greatest late seventies pop songs, via Beat Crazy’s seeming lack of discipline, through the unexpected and bizarre trip into forties swing which is Jumpin’ Jive, and on through Day and Night, Joe Jackson rarely, if ever disappointed. As a case in point, the two other albums in serious contention for this spot ion the list were the ‘recorded live in front of a silent audience’ oddity of Big World, and the almost unknown Blaze of Glory, which is just brilliant, but which lost out to this on the flip of a metaphorical coin. Try any of his albums, they all have something to recommend the.
Compilations to consider?
I have (or had; that’s another story) a CD copy of The Best of Joe Jackson, and recommend it to anyone who’s still unconvinced by the whole ‘you should buy all his albums’ theme of this post.
My favourite is the Live 1980-1986 set, which features three entirely different readings of Is She Really Going Out With Him? (at least my copy does; the one on Spotify seems to only have two…
Film soundtracks, classical albums, a symphony, a collaboration with Todd Rundgren which I’ve just discovered, and really should investigate. There’s also an autobiography called A Cure for Gravity which only really covers his early life, as he thinks life as a pop star (and presumably whatever he considers himself to be now) is not worth writing about. He did keep a blog for a while, though, and that’s worth a look.