Looking sharper: Joe Jackson and band reunite after 23 years

By Mark Guarino

Before Joe Jackson was composing film scores, symphonies and classical song cycles based on Dante’s Inferno, he was one of the angriest of the angry young men in the British New Wave movement of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Jackson debuted in 1979 with “Look Sharp,” a skillful statement of youthful defiance peppered with ska beats, barbed wit and manic energy. Along with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, Jackson defined acerbic power pop that would years later influence a younger generation, from Oasis to Ben Folds Five.

Jackson shied away from the pop label for most of the ‘90s, insisting he considered himself primarily a composer and not a pop star. Trained classically, his later albums veered into jazz and classical. But this year he reunited with the band (bassist Graham Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford, drummer Dave Houghton) with whom he pumped out his first three albums years — “Look Sharp,” “I’m The Man” and “Beat Crazy” — in just two years. Today at age 48, the group is on the road with a new album, appropriately titled “Volume 4” (Restless/Ryko), which sounds natural alongside his early period over 20 years ago.

We talked recently on the reunion and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Were these new songs a product of the reunion or did you pull them out once you reformed?

A: Some of the songs came first. I think six of the songs were already written. So it was a question of “does this work with the band?” And I found that all of them did. There were new ones I started writing for the band so it’s a bit of both. But also I think that when this band gets together it’s going to sound like the band. There is a certain approach to the arrangements I’ve always taken.

Q: What’s that approach?

A: Some of it’s hard to explain because it’s intuitive. A part of it is, you work with what you’ve got. Definitely putting the emphasis on the bass rather than the guitar is the key thing. I’m not a guitar player. The kind of ideas I come up with for a guitar are probably not what a guitar player comes up with. So I think that makes it distinctive. Although a guitar is in the band, it’s not a guitar band. It doesn’t really sound like a guitar band. And bass is the lead instrument.

Q: One of your albums is called “Beat Crazy,” which describes this band nicely. It’s a very rhythmic band.

A: Yeah, what I try to do is make it so that you have the bass and drum really strong and the vocal on top of it and you’re almost finished at that point. And it’s almost like slotting guitar in the middle.

Q: How did all four of you meet?

A: I met (bassist) Graham (Maby) when we were teenagers, broke and struggling. I remember he had an amp made from a kit ordered from an electronic magazine. And we played a couple jam sessions, but I didn’t realize how good he was until we actually played in a band together. I had a bad drummer but when Graham played, the drummer sounded good. That’s when I realized how much a bass player can add to a band. He’s the guy. He’s like the rock.

Q: Was the 25th anniversary of your first album together the main reason you reunited?

A: It’s not the reason, it was the first spark, if you like. I actually thought in the beginning that a reunion was a terrible idea. The real reason it happened was because of the songs, because we able to make a great new album but also the enthusiasm of everyone. And the fact that we’re all in pretty good shape. We’re not going to embarrass ourselves. A lot of bands do, I think, when they do reunions. But we absolutely have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of, actually.

Q: Your debut album, “Look Sharp” is still so endurable. How do you view that album in retrospect?

A: I see it as a good first album. I was 22, 23 when I was writing those songs. I’m so far removed from them now. When we play those songs now, it’s sort of like playing cover versions. I mean I like them, I’m not putting them down. But it was the best I could do at that time and I think I’ve grown hugely since then as a writer and as a singer.

Q: You’re still so identified by that album’s first single, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Did you ever feel constrained by that over the years?

A: No, I’ve never felt constrained by anything like that. I think some critics were a bit constrained by it in a way. People are sometimes constrained by well-known, early stuff and that can constrain them from paying more attention to more recent stuff. But that’s not my fault. I’ve never felt constrained by anything. I don’t think you should. I think as an artist, you should feel free as much you can. If you can’t be free and creative and try new things as an artist, what hope is there for the rest of the human race? There are enough people who have to go into an office and grind away nine to five without artists thinking the same way.

Q: You were also one of the earliest bands of your era to embrace reggae and ska. Where did you first hear it?

A: That was just all around me living in London in the late ’70s. At one point I had a Jamaican family next door to me and I woke up every Sunday morning to the bass booming through the walls because there was a big reggae show on local radio Sunday mornings. And this was my Sunday morning for quite awhile, a booming bass. I just liked it. I liked the sound of it and I liked the idea of putting the emphasis on the drum, bass and not on the guitar.

Q: Ever since your old label A&M got swallowed up by Universal, it failed to exist. Which meant “Beat Crazy” and several of your other albums went out of print and weren’t even released on CD. Have you made any effort to get those back in circulation?

A: There have been many efforts but those masters are owned by Universal, a.k.a. the evil empire and there’s just not interested. That’s all I can say about it because I have nothing to do about it.

Q: What ultimately made you leave this band after three pretty successful albums in only two years?

A: The drummer left. Dave (Houghton) wanted to get off road and it just wouldn’t have been same band if any one person left. And so we broke up. We worked so hard for such along time, really nonstop, it was time to take a break. I took a break doing a musical diversion with (1981’s) “Jumpin’ Jive.” When I came back writing my own songs again I wanted, I dunno, I just wanted to stretch out in a slightly different direction. And the result of that was (1982’s jump blues and swing album) “Night and Day.” I never was interested in a reunion. I’ve never been a nostalgia victim. I’ve always been interested in going forward. But now, enough time has gone by that bringing in an element of nostalgia is actually something new. It’s actually something unexpected and fun.

Q: Some of these new songs have adolescent themes. When you regrouped with these guys and started writing pop songs again, was that a natural place to return to?

A: No, I’m not thinking like that way. I think that the nostalgia thing influenced one or two of the songs, “Little Bit Stupid” and “Thugz ‘R’ Us” were both written after the band reunion had happened. So with “Little Bit Stupid,” I was looking back to before we making records, when we were playing covers of (David) Bowie and (T. Rex’s) Marc Bolan, the glam rock stuff. I always loved glam rock and I was thinking about glam rock. I was listening to (early ‘70s British glam rockers) Sweet, the greatest hits of Sweet. It was complete trash. But the thing was, everyone knew it. They knew it, we knew it, it was great fun. It was a new element in rock and roll. The camp and glamour and guys wearing makeup and all that. So it’s just as little bit of nostalgia, looking back at that era.

Q: A lot of new pop bands namecheck you as an influence. What do you like recently that you’ve heard?

A: Sometimes when people tell me that certain people were influenced by me, my automatic reaction is to not listen to it and run away. I don’t know. People told me for ages about Ben Folds but I never listened to him until recently when we did three songs together for a New York show. I had to go listen to all his stuff and I didn’t think he sounded anything like me.

Q: One new song on your album, “Fairy Dust,” talks about homosexuality and gender issues. It reminded me of “Real Men” (from 1982’s “Night and Day”). Was that a time when it wasn’t fashionable to talk about that sort of thing in pop music?

A: I don’t know if it is now. I don’t know what’s fashionable to talk about. I always felt that at least in theory, you should write about absolutely anything. Questions of gender and sexual politics in song were always interesting in me. There are a couple of songs on this album like “Take It Like a Man” and “Blue Flame.” It’s a kind of a reoccurring theme that’s interesting to look at. I’m interested in the kind of irony of contradiction as opposed to stereotypes. I think real life happens in the crack of stereotypes.

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