Like many others there are certain bands, and songs that draw me back to very specific memories. I was 19 when Joe Jackson‘s first album, Look Sharp!, arrived in the spring of 1979. I was just finishing my freshman year at UCSB and music was undergoing an upheaval. I arrived at my dorm the previous fall listening to bands like Rush, Queen, UFO and Blue Oyster Cult. I was aware of punk rock and new wave but just hadn’t really been exposed to it. But as that first year in college went along there were a lot of different sounds blasting out of the dorm-room doorways. Blondie, The Boomtown Rats, Elvis Costello, The Records, The Beat (Paul Collins‘ version), The B-52’s were competing with the classic and hard-rock records I grew up with. And this record by Joe Jackson just seemed to cement it all together, sending me down a power-pop/new wave rabbit hole that I didn’t emerge from for a few years.
That specific memory? Driving my 1978 V6 Pinto to the beach with my friends, our surfboards strapped to the roof, all of us belting out “One More Time” at the top of our lungs as we headed out for an early morning surf session.
This was a different Joe Jackson that I encountered at the historic Spreckles theater in downtown San Diego. After three classic new wave records in a row—Look Sharp!, I’m the Man, and Beat Crazy—Jackson began exploring other forms of music. I’m told he was very good, and successful, at this, but I didn’t follow him as he traversed genres like jazz, classical, jump-blues or cabaret. Power pop Joe Jackson did return in 2003 with the appropriately titled Volume 4, which marked a return to his new wave roots and was the first record to feature the original Joe Jackson Band since Beat Crazy came out 23 years before.
I remember seeing Joe Jackson and his band back in 1980 at the Open Air Amphitheater on the SDSU campus. The show was bristling with new wave kinetic energy. The hyper-catchy songs and their delivery were immediate and the crowd was on it’s feet and singing for most of the set. This Spreckles set was a more measured affair. The musicians playing on the very spare stage, including original bassist Graham Maby, were virtuosic and provided the perfect accompaniment to Jackson’s impressive piano playing. But it’s rare for me to see an artist I like this much after such a long absence. I didn’t get to experience Jackson’s transformation over the past four decades but it turns out I’ve missed some great music! He doesn’t pretend that he’s still a 26 year-old new waver. Instead he has grown, in maturity and talent, into a fully formed musician that clearly couldn’t be constrained in a single genre. Yes, the crowd did get excited when he played one of his early hits like “Is She Really Going Out With Him”, “Sunday Papers”, and “One More Time” – and it was fun to hear those classics again – but if you went looking for more than just a nod to his far away past then you left disappointed. Jackson seems to have no interest in pandering to his audience and clearly is performing the songs he wants to play. It looks like I have some catching up to do!
Here’s a short clip that showcases the Joe Jackson I’ve apparently missed out on over the decades (I don’t even know the name of the song!):
And here’s a clip from a song from those early years “Is She Really Going Out With Him”:
And here are some full song videos from the show: