Timeless and indestructible

Arriving in Israel to promote his latest album, Joe Jackson proves his unconventional style still resonates.

Joe Jackson 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Joe Jackson 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Joe Jackson still sounds sharp - even though he performed the night before our interview and had just arrived in Paris to perform again. The veteran Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who launched his career as a tuneful new wave provocateur and has since blurred every boundary imaginable in a 30 year musical journey, and minces no words as he explains why no other pop music revolution has approached the impact of the punk/new wave explosion of the late '70s, which he helped spawn. "I thought that hip hop in its early days was quite interesting, but it hasn't been for a long time. It's time for it to die. I'm sick of it," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Some of the electronic dance music, and drum and bass experiments were also pretty interesting. Otherwise, there have only retro mini-explosions, young bands coming out that remind me of the late-'70s bands." Jackson should know about those bands - his music was an integral part of the new wave soundtrack of the day, albeit the less threatening, more melodic and acceptable side. No Sex Pistols controversies or safety pins through the cheeks for David Ian Jackson who was born on Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England, and grew up learning piano with a focus on classical and jazz music. What he did share with the punks though, was the attitude that rock had become stale, boring and safe. His punchy music possessed the same belligerence, satire and frustrations that punks sang about, but Jackson just did it with a sophistication, humor and craft that set him apart from most of his peers. His 1979 debut Look Sharp containing classics like "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" was a taste of things to come, literate, witty and infectiously energetic power pop that utilized his piano skills as a main instrument instead of guitar. He explains that punk and new wave trappings were just part of the times, and that the main accomplishment of the era was to open the doors which unleashed multitudes of different music onto audiences that had become stupefied by mid-'70s slick middle of the road rock. "What drew me to the punk explosion was that it was happening around me. To be in your early twenties in London in 1978 was pretty exciting. There was all this interesting stuff happening, not just punk. It's easy to be revisionist about it, and categorize it all as punk but the times were very diverse and typified more by a do it yourself attitude," says Jackson, who'll be performing in Tel Aviv on March 25th at Zappa and March 26th at Hangar 11. "If you compare The Sex Pistols and the Talking Heads, they're a million miles apart. At the same time, reggae music was getting big, and I was a big fan of electronic music like Kraftwerk. Pretty soon the disco explosion occurred, which I was 'supposed' to be against, but I actually quite liked." While Jackson's music was well-based in the classic Tin Pan Alley framework of songwriting, his biting lyrics and "take no nonsense" delivery earned him the moniker of an "angry young man" of new wave, a title he shared with contemporaries Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Indeed, there were similarities - all three looked quirky, sounded decidedly unconventional, and possessed giant sized talent to concisely express and compact their lofty ideas and emotions into three-minute pop songs. But Jackson is still bemused by the label. "I thought the description was funny - because I didn't feel particularly angry. A lot of lyrics which were interpreted as angry were supposed to be funny, and I wondered why the critics had no sense of humor about them," he says, adding that while he respected the other "angry young men," he didn't necessarily like being lumped together with them. "I think when anyone when they're first starting out doesn't want to be compared to other people." FOLLOWING A half decade of gold albums which already saw a musically restless Jackson branching out into ska and reggae on Beat Crazy and swing and blues on Joe Jackson's Jumping Jive, he reached new career heights in 1982 with the best-selling Night & Day which won him multi-Grammy nominations for its Latin-flavored pop sound. Instead of playing it safe and repeating himself, Jackson took the low road over the next several years, exploring movie soundtracks, releasing classical compositions and shying away from the conventional rock sounds that made his name. "I guess I hit a wall somewhere, I think it was one big world tour too many," he laughs. "When I made [1994's] Night Music, I wanted it to be gentle and dreamlike, not aggressive, in your face rock and roll, and I think it was misunderstood. Around that time, a lot of people lost interest in me. But that happens no matter what you do. If I had replicated Look Sharp for 25 years, I still would have been slagged off," he says. His career choices have placed him in the minority of musicians who feel they must stick to their core sound in fear of losing fans, but Jackson says he's at peace with the musical decisions he's made. What he has no stomach for, however, is artists who succumb to commercial pressures placed on them by management or record companies to write and record material they don't feel whole with. "I think that's all crap. I'm the boss, not the record company. Nobody ever came to the studio and put a gun to my head. Sometimes you hear after a failed record an artist saying 'the record company made me do it'. But you as the artist are simply allowing yourself to be persuaded," he says. While Jackson has followed his own muse, it doesn't mean that he's thrown out the baby with the bathwater. He reunited the original Joe Jackson Band for an album and a tour four years ago, and his new album Rain - featuring his original bass player Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton - is a throwback to the classic pop melodies and tight ensemble playing that defined his late '70s - mid '80s heyday. "I was trying to make something timeless and indestructible, songs so strong that you could play them with just piano and they would still work. It's something I've been interested in the last few years, and I don't know why. Perhaps because in the '90s, I did some ambitious projects and maybe this is a reaction to them," he says. "I'm trying to make my songwriting better than before, and I think I've succeeded. I've gotten way better as a lyricist. I wanted to make a record that could have been played 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, and it would still have the same impact."