Joe Jackson

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.

The musician: Vying with Elvis Costello for the sharpest tongue in Britain, Joe Jackson vaulted into the spotlight with 1979’s Look Sharp! His debut instantly established him as a wounded romantic with a serious bite; “Happy Loving Couples” slags off canoodling lovers, but it turns out the singer isn’t jealous so much as he is mad that they make something look easy when it takes real work. “Sunday Papers” sliced up tabloids like the late News Of The World, while “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” took incredulous aim at an ex’s substandard new beau.

After three albums, Jackson had enough of the angry-young-man routine, and he violently switched gears with 1981’s Jumpin’ Jive, a collection of big-band covers that flummoxed all but his most devoted fans. Jackson, who studied music composition before giving in to the temptations of rock ’n’ roll, had always had a sophisticated bent, and once his classicist cat was out of the bag, he was able to freely mix styles. The upshot was Night And Day, the bestselling album of his career, which spawned the hits “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us In Two.” Since then, he’s carried on apace, reuniting with his original band for 2003’s Volume 4, and continuing with bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton for 2008’s Rain. The new Live Music: Europe 2010 captures that trio on tour, offering a few radical rearrangements and a set list heavy on Night And Day

“Citizen Sane” (from 2008’s Rain)

The A.V. Club: There’s a libertarian skeptic strain running through several of your songs, as well as the manifesto you wrote opposing New York’s smoking ban, Smoke, Lies And The Nanny State. Is that hard to put into song without being heavy-handed?

Joe Jackson: I guess it is, but I always try to put some humor in there. I think sometimes it’s a better way to make the point. Both those songs are ironic, but if you want to take them more seriously, you can certainly see them as protests against the nanny state, which is something I do feel strongly about. I think it’s getting worse and worse. A friend of mine said to me recently, “How did the No Fun people get in charge?” And I really think that’s becoming more and more true. Some places, in the UK for instance, it’s even worse than in the States. It just seems like we’re constantly bombarded with fearmongering, which often doesn’t have a very solid basis to it, and is used to justify more intrusions into every aspect of our lives. It’s a bit of a can of worms to open, and I’m a little reluctant to do it without really knowing what I’m getting myself into.

AVC: There’s an element of individual helplessness in both songs as well. We’re told with great certainty that this or that is bad for you, and then it turns out we should be eating chocolate and drinking red wine.

JJ: Yeah, that’s right. It constantly changes. It’s a really slippery slope. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for speaking out on some of these things, like the smoking bans, which I detest. I think they’re wrong on so many levels. I don’t know, it feels like I’m banging my head against a wall a lot of the time. I think a lot of people have bought into the idea, which I think is a false one, that anything done in the name of health must be okay. You can’t really criticize it. All that does is make people who speak or act in the name of health bigger and bigger tyrants. They just get away with more and more lies and more and more bullying. I think that’s really what’s happening. I think more and more people are starting to realize it, but I think a lot people are scared to challenge or question what is fed to them on the basis of health or safety. In a way, it’s the last refuge of scumbag politicians, because they know they can’t do it on the basis of religion or morality so easily anymore, at least. They can’t do it on the basis of political ideology. I think people have lost their faith in a lot of those things. So what’s left? What’s left is scaring the pants off us. Fear for our health, and our children’s health. I think a lot of it is really bogus. 

AVC: It’s the “Won’t someone please think of the children?” approach.

JJ: Yeah, they use that all the time. Let’s ban smoking in every bar in the city to save the children. Something about that doesn’t make sense. Because then people are going to stay at home and smoke. Is that supposed to be worse? I don’t know. It’s all bullshit. I’m hoping that a lot of readers can see that it’s bullshit, or at least some of it is. 

“Got The Time” (from 1979’s Look Sharp!)

AVC: On the tour that’s captured on Live Music, it’s just you and a rhythm section, which would seem to steer you away from some of your earlier songs. That’s especially true for “Got The Time,” which seems like a tough one to pull off without guitar.  

JJ: I found it a tough one, too, which is why we left out the piano. My idea was to make the rhythm section overwhelming and really let them go crazy, to the point where you wouldn’t miss anything else. So you just really have the bass and drums and the vocal, and it works. 

AVC: You were loosely affiliated with new wave and therefore punk early on, and yet far from being a DIY sort, you studied composition at the Royal Academy Of Music. 

JJ: I’ve never had any problem with sophistication. I rather like it. But I know what you’re saying. I think my first album, for instance, is very much a product of its time, inevitably. I was only 23 or 24 or something. I was excited by what was going on around me, even though I wasn’t necessarily part of it. I was way overqualified to be a punk by the time I was even 17, in terms of my musical training and all the different kinds of music I was interested in. But it did feel like a time to strip things down and keep it sort of urgent and simple. I think we all liked that.

AVC: Your main instrument is the piano, yet there’s almost none on Look Sharp! It’s hard to think of another debut album where a skilled musician plays so little. 

JJ: I guess that just wasn’t my priority at the time. Rain was really the first album where the piano takes on a leading role. It took me a while to get around to it. But being a piano player isn’t so much what I’m about as being a composer and arranger and songwriter. So it was never that big a deal to me. I’m always thinking of the big picture, exactly who’s going to play what. I usually have pretty clear ideas about that. But having said that, I think my piano playing gets better, finally. 

AVC: It’s easier to hear, and therefore appreciate, now.

JJ: I think an interesting thing happens when you take out guitar. Sonically, piano and guitar get in the way of each other. I think the piano on Rain sounds huge. It wouldn’t sound like that if there was a guitar cluttering it up. It’s funny, some people think I’m in some strange way anti-guitar, which is silly, because I’ve worked with guitars a lot as well. But I think a lot of people in rock ’n’ roll can’t imagine music without guitars. I hope to show it’s not quite as simple as that.

AVC: You’ve said frequently over the years that piano and guitar don’t co-exist happily in your musical world.

JJ: Well, they can, but it’s like having two divas on the same stage. If you set it up just right, you can get them to do a duet, but it’s tricky.

AVC: Do you have a sense of where that aesthetic comes from? Having a guitar and piano on the same song is not unusual across the board.

JJ: It depends what you’re doing. It depends on the arrangement, and how much you care about the arrangement. I like the idea of clearing out space so you really hear what people are doing. The interesting thing for me about working with this trio for the last few years is really seeing what you can do with the bare minimum. It’s really interesting; it’s much less limiting than you think it is. Having more space makes things sound bigger. And a lot of people don’t get that; they just think the more stuff they pile on, the bigger it will sound. Actually, sometimes it’s the opposite. 

AVC: There are fewer moving parts to deal with, which gives you more flexibility.

JJ: But what you have to do is make sure that everything going on is interesting or is there for a reason, so your ear doesn’t get bored with it and think, “Well, there’s something missing here.” I challenge anyone to listen to this new live album and tell me that something’s missing. I think we’ve found ways to keep it interesting through a whole show. I think that we play, sometimes for two hours, without getting boring. And changed from night to night as well.

AVC: Is it because of the distinctive sound of this configuration that you wanted to put this particular tour on record?

JJ: Yeah, because we’ve been doing this for a few years. It all sounds a bit boring and a bit of a love fest. “I just love these guys so much, we’ve done so many great shows, we made so many great friends over the world.” I don’t know how to say it in a way that makes it sound interesting and not kind of cheesy. We’ve just had such a great time doing this, and we really have made friends all over the place. We went to South Africa, we went to Israel, we went to Turkey. It’s just been amazing, and it’s been received better than I thought. It got to the point where it felt like we could just keep doing this forever, but of course at some point you have to move on. I’m already working on a project now.

AVC: Is that the Duke Ellington tribute?

JJ: Yeah. It’s all music of Duke Ellington and very different arrangements.

“Jumpin’ Jive” (from 1981’s Jumpin’ Jive)

AVC: It’s hard to imagine being a Joe Jackson fan at that point, having heard your first three records, and then picking up Jumpin’ Jive, which is devoted entirely to songs from the big-band era. You didn’t exactly soft-pedal the transition.

JJ: This is what I wanted to do, and I thought, “Right, I’m going to do it.” I didn’t second-guess things so much. I think one of the things that happens as you get older as an artist is that you second-guess yourself more. You become less prolific because you’re more self-conscious, in a way. A positive way of looking at it, I guess, is that you’re more particular or you’re more discerning. I’ve done quite a few things, especially early on in my career, that I cringe at a bit now, that I’m not necessarily proud of, but at the time, I just said “It’s a case of ‘I want to do this. Fuck you.’” I made too many records, and I don’t think the quality is as good as it would have been if I made less. But it’s too late to do anything about that now. 

AVC: You were talking about composing and arranging being one of your main interests. Ellington is practically unparalleled as an arranger.

JJ: Yeah, he’s one of my biggest heroes, I guess.

AVC: How far does that go back? To the beginning?

JJ: Certainly to my teens.

AVC: How did he come into your life?

JJ: I don’t really remember. I just had an insatiable curiosity about all kinds of music as a kid, as a teenager especially. Most of it, I discovered for myself, just in whatever way I could.

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“Real Men” (from 1982’s Night And Day)


AVC: There’s another strain that runs through several of your songs in which you question the way society conditions us to think about gender, sometimes from the perspective of someone who’s trying to figure out what his own role is, or assert it. The issues in “Real Men” haven’t dated at all. It sounded just as current when Tori Amos covered it.

JJ: That was interesting. I quite liked her version, actually. I’m still curious why she changed the words.

AVC: She changed “all the gays are macho” to “all the guys are macho,” right?

JJ: That’s right. I have to think that was deliberate. It puts a completely different slant on the song, which is not what I intended. Musically, anyway, I liked her version, but I was just puzzled by that. 

AVC: You come at gender relations from a singular point of view. You make some observations that seem to come from a feminist perspective, but others would make a feminist bristle.

JJ: It doesn’t take much to make a feminist bristle. I think it’s really just that I’ve always tried to avoid clichés, that’s all. If something starts to emerge in my creative process that sounds like something I wrote before, then I chuck it out. I always thought it was a bit strange that pop and rock music was so dominated by songs that say, “La, la, la, I’m in love,” or “Boo hoo, my baby left me.” I just thought it must be possible to write a song about anything. I’ve written songs based on what I’ve read in the newspaper, or a joke that I heard, or something I overheard on the train. All kinds of things. When I have written about relationships, I’ve tried at least to give it some sort of twist, and not come at it from the most obvious point of view. Whatever comes out, to some extent, it’s just my personality coming out in a way that I can’t necessarily analyze. It’s just me, whatever it is. All I can say I’m doing consciously is trying to avoid clichés and find fresh angles.

“Be My Number Two” (from 1984’s Body And Soul)

AVC: “Be My Number Two” is a love song, but it’s also an anti-love song love song.

JJ: I would say it’s a bit world-weary—or, not world-weary, but a bit, how else to express this? Once bitten, twice shy. It’s saying, “Well, let’s try again, but it’s not going to be like it was the first time.” So it’s poignant, I think. I quite like lyrics that are both romantic and melancholy at the same time, that are poignant. I find it touching, somehow. Sometimes I find it’s a bit too easy to just say, “Oh, I’m so happy,” or “Oh, I’m so miserable.”

AVC: There’s a certain world-weariness even on Look Sharp!

JJ: It’s a bit cynical, I think. I’ve always thought that cynicism is a disease of the young, contrary to what other people seem to think. I think when you’re young, it seems clever to be cynical, but once you get to about 40 or something, you start to realize that actually, things are even worse than you ever expected, so if you’re going to make it through this life, you actually have to be more positive. I don’t mean sappy, I just mean positive. Just not give up. Cynicism is giving up. Cynicism is close to pessimism; it doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve quite often been described as cynical, and it always hurts me a bit, because I don’t think of myself that way. I sometimes use sarcasm or irony as a device, but I don’t think I’m cynical. I think I’m a quite positive thinker.

“Tomorrow’s World” (from 1989’s Blaze Of Glory)

AVC: You open Live Music with “Tomorrow’s World” — not much cynicism in there.

JJ: That album, Blaze Of Glory— It’s funny, because I listened again to it recently, and I don’t listen to my own stuff much. I still think it’s one of my better albums musically, but it doesn’t sound that great. It wasn’t well-produced. I would love to remix it and remaster it. The idea was that the songs tell a story going through life, from a little kid to being old-ish. Tomorrow’s World was a TV show when I was a kid in England, and it was all about the fabulous new inventions and how wonderful the world was going to be in the future. I remember watching it and thinking things like, “Well, in the song, it says things like, ‘In tomorrow’s world, there will be cities on the moon.’” So that was a deliberate attempt to capture a wide-eyed hope for the future from the point of view of a kid. I certainly haven’t written many songs from the point of view of a child, but that’s the one obvious one.

AVC: It’s bittersweet as well, because you’re not a kid now, and those fabulous things never happened. 

JJ: Yeah, we all know there’s no cities on the moon. There’s a poignant side to it you bring to it yourself. You can still see it as hopeful if you want. I don’t insist that you take the most negative view possible.

“A Slow Song” (from 1982’s Night And Day)

AVC: You’d been on the radio a good amount by then, and Night And Day ended up being your most popular album ever. And yet here’s a song where you’re talking about being “brutalized by bass and terrorized by treble” and getting “tired of DJs.” It is possible to read too much of a “fuck you” into that?

JJ: That’s a romantic song. It’s just basically saying, “Turn off all that loud, abrasive shit and let’s have a slow song.” Because you want to dance with someone. You want to take them home, go to bed with them. That’s really what that song’s about.

AVC: Is that sometimes your place in the musical landscape, to give people the opportunity to slow things down or think a bit?

JJ: I never really thought of it as an agenda. I just try to do different things in different songs. I think if something’s right, it doesn’t seem too long or too short. It is what it’s supposed to be. It’s a really interesting, weird thing, the relationship between time and music, I think. You can listen to a song and think, “Jesus Christ, a million things happened during that song.” You look at the time, and it’s like two minutes. Or you can have something that goes on for 10 minutes, and it seems like nothing. 

“Girl” (originally recorded by The Beatles)
AVC: Three of the 12 songs on Live Music are covers, including one by The Beatles. They’re a tough act to follow, although it isn’t one of their better-known songs.

JJ: No, it’s not that well-known, which is one of the reasons I did it. What I’m looking for is a song that I can put a different slant on, where I can see a way of arranging it that would be very different to the original. I can’t think of anything more pointless than doing a cover version where you just try to imitate the original. It’s also very much a question of whether I feel I can sing it in a convincing way. Of everything I do, singing is the hardest thing. It’s always been the hardest part. I’ve always been rather insecure as a singer, although I’m a lot better than I used to be. But there are just some things I feel I can sing and feel like it’s working, and others that I can’t. So that’s usually the starting point, really. It’s those two things: “Can I sing this and make it work,” and “Can I do it in an arrangement that’s really different to the original, that’s going to be surprising and fun?” Those are the things that guide me, rather than “This song has a message that I want to put across,” or anything like that.

AVC: Songs have a life of their own. Are there songs that have changed significantly for you over the 30-plus years you’ve been performing? You talked about playing a character on your first record. Do you slip back into that caustic frame of mind, or do the songs change to fit who you are now?

JJ: I can still be every bit as caustic as I was then, if not more so. The idea that you start off as an angry young man and then mellow is something so established in people’s minds that they assume it to be the case even when it isn’t. I would say I’m definitely angrier now than I was then, because I just think there’s more absolutely infuriating crap going on in the world than there was then, or I know more about it. Maybe it’s just that I’m more aware. When I was 23, it just seemed kind of cool to be snotty. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. It’s not like I’m embarrassed by anything. But I think that the songs that hold up the best are the ones that hold up purely as pieces of music. Purely as a combination of melody and lyric and chords.

“Cancer” (from 1982’s Night And Day)

JJ: When I wrote it, a lot of people didn’t really see what I was getting at. All this time later, exactly what I was sending up in that song is multiplied a thousandfold. I never saw that coming. It’s really strange. Just recently, I saw something where someone actually researched the number of the potential causes of cancer that we’re now told. The number was absolutely staggering. I don’t remember what it was. The fact is that we actually don’t know really what causes cancer, or how to cure it. So until we do, it’s always going to be possible to try to show, by statistics and this and that, that just about everything can give you cancer. Some scientists have actually said we would all get cancer if we lived long enough. It’s an inevitable breakdown of the body; it just happens sooner to some people than others. And we all run around desperately trying to figure out, by epidemiology, which is not real science, what might have caused it. 

It’s one of those things that’s used to frighten people. I always get this “You have no right to talk about this, because you’re not a doctor.” My father died of cancer. It’s not like I’m just blowing air out my bum. This is quite a long time ago, in the middle of a show we were playing “Cancer,” and a guy actually got up, walked to the front of the stage, and started yelling at me. Saying, “Do you know what it’s like to have someone die of cancer close to you? How dare you? You’re too pessimistic,” or something. This guy was ranting at me in the middle of the show. I think he didn’t quite get the humor. But that’s always going to happen. We live in a strange time, I think. It’s the No Fun people. It’s the time of the No Fun people. I’m out there still trying to have fun, trying to share it.

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