Next up in our series of “Were They Punk“, we look at the illustrious career of Joe Jackson.
A classically-trained musician who’d already spent years playing in jazz clubs and the cabaret circuit, Joe Jackson was inspired by the rawness and simplicity of the punk music that emerged in late 1970’s London.
Jackson started playing piano in bars at the tender age of 16, while simultaneously attending London’s Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship. Around this time he joined his first band, Edward Bear, a fairly standard 1970’s rock group who exhibited some progressive and psychedelic influences. After discovering that a Canadian band had already copyrighted the name, the group changed their name to Edwin Bear for awhile. But, soon after that the band went through a lineup shuffle and then changed their name again, this time to Arms and Legs. The group eventually disbanded in 1976 after a pair of singles failed to chart or draw attention from radio DJs.
By August 1978, after stints as the musical director at the Playboy Club in Portsmouth and touring with Koffee ‘n’ Kream, Jackson finally had enough to cash to strike it out on his own. He quickly formed the eponymous Joe Jackson Band, and with the money he made from from touring with Koffee ‘n’ Kream, recorded a demo tape which he successfully pitched to a scout at A&M records. Not long after that, Joe Jackson signed his first record deal. A single, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” quickly followed in October 1978, but initially failed to chart.
Released a few months later in January 1979, Joe Jackson’s first album, Look Sharp!, with its mix of ska, reggae, rock, jazz, and new wave, aptly drew a lot of favorable comparisons to Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. Brimming with cynical energy and full of quirky rhythms and jagged edges, Look Sharp! was a tight, up-tempo musical sneer at the mainstream, but it lacked the street-level grit and sense of danger that contemporaries like The Sex Pistols or The Clash evoked.
Fast-paced “Got the Time” from Look Sharp! channels the nervous energy of punks like The Vibrators, but feels more like a strong cup of coffee than a shot of adrenaline. Still, thrash metal stalwarts Anthrax would record a cover version on their 1990 album, Persistence of Time.
Joe Jackson’s follow up album in late 1979, I’m The Man, continues in much the same vein as Look Sharp!, albeit sounding more polished and produced. The single “It’s Different for Girls” went on to become Joe Jackson’s highest-charting UK single, reaching #5. The real standout on the album is the frenetic title track, probably the closest the Joe Jackson Band comes to recreating the chaos and intensity of punk rock.
By 1980, Joe Jackson had already begun to shed the few punk trappings he’d acquired to that point. Released in October that year, Beat Crazy would put Jackson’s ska and reggae influences front and center. The few departures from those influences on the album owe much more to new wave, or even post-punk than to punk rock.
When 1982’s Night and Day was released, its name served as a pretty accurate metaphor for Joe Jackson’s current musical direction when compared to where he started with Look Sharp!. The difference was as plain as night and day – Joe Jackson wasn’t a punk at all – he was a new wave artist who smartly incorporated elements of jazz, pop, and ska to create hit songs like “Steppin’ Out”, which peaked at #6 on the U.S. Billboard charts.
So, Was Joe Jackson a Fake Punk or a Real Punk?
Reasons to think that Joe Jackson was punk:
- “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, a Joe Jackson song, is also a line uttered by The Damned at the start of New Rose, largely regarded as the first punk rock single.
- It’s also a line from the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”, though Jackson claims he first heard it from The Damned
- Some early songs by Joe Jackson have many elements in common with late 1970’s punk rock, such as “Got The Time” and “I’m The Man”
- Even today, the music press often characterizes Joe Jackson as having been a punk rocker in his early days
- He had a snotty, cynical public persona and tousled, sometimes spiky hair
Reasons to think that Joe Jackson wasn’t punk:
- He was a classically trained musician with an advanced degree in music
- While his early musical output channels a lot of the energy and cynicism of punk rock, it lacks the raw power and aggression typical of punk
- Compare Joe Jackson’s two “hardest” songs from his early output, “Got The Time” and “I’m The Man” to punk rock released in 1979, such as The Damned‘s Machine Gun Etiquette, Stiff Little Fingers‘ Inflammable Material, or even to punk from across the pond in the U.S. like Black Flag‘s Nervous Breakdown or The Germs‘ G.I. and you’ll hear just how different actual punk rock sounds
- Joe Jackson never really shared a stage with notable punk bands of that era – the closest he came was playing shows with The Undertones and The Records, both power pop acts that flirted with punk style
- Sonically, Look Sharp! and I’m The Man sound like they would fit comfortably into the roster of Stiff Records bands from that era, so it’s no surprise that Jackson would get lumped into the punk scene by a music press who lazily applied that label to almost every Stiff band (such as Elvis Costello) – in short, just because the music press says it’s so, doesn’t make it so (us included, by the way!)
Joe Jackson wasn’t a punk, nor was his music punk rock. We should also point out that he wasn’t a fake punk, either. It’s pretty clear that he never really intended to be perceived as an actual punk rocker, though he did flirt a bit with the look and some of the musical stylings of punk rock. It’s fairer to say that Joe Jackson was a great new wave artist who was inspired by the energy of punk rock.
He put out some pretty amazing records in the late 1970’s that probably shouldn’t show up in the punk rock section at your local record store (unless someone put them there by accident). However, they should definitely be featured prominently in the new wave section, and you should definitely give them a listen and add them to your music collection.