Joe Jackson Look Sharp SP

I Get So Mean Around This Scene: Joe Jackson’s ‘Look Sharp!’ at 45

With his 1979 debut album Look Sharp!, Joe Jackson joined the league of UK artists who fused sophisticated pop songwriting with a punk snarl.

Look Sharp!
Joe Jackson
A&M Records
29 January 79

The late 1970s ushered in a new sound in rock music: bands like the Sex Pistols and Ramones popularized loud guitars, simple chords, and a general sense of cathartic rebellion. But groups like Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, and Television introduced an arty, angular take on the genre. Singer-songwriters added yet another element, with artists like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker combining soulful, multifaceted tunes with – at the very least – the disaffected attitude of the burgeoning punk scene. Joe Jackson, a 24-year-old kid from the British seaside town of Portsmouth, soon joined this last category in early 1979 with his album Look Sharp!

Jackson, a vocalist, pianist, and saxophonist, slightly differed from his new wave contemporaries. He was a trained musician who studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and performed in jazz and cabaret bands in local bars. He recorded a demo of his songs in 1977 and 1978 with guitarist Gary Sanford, bassist Graham Maby, and drummer Dave Houghton. This caught the attention of producer David Kershenbaum, who signed Jackson and his band to A&M Records and got them in a studio to record what would be Jackson’s first record, Look Sharp!

It’s easy to compare Joe Jackson to artists like Costello and Parker, especially on that first album. He carries that same anti-authoritarian attitude, and even his voice often incorporates a young, apathetic sneer. As a result, Jackson was lumped in with the punk crowd. What set him apart from artists like Ramones is the quality of the songs and the advanced musical abilities of him and his ensemble. Sanford’s bright, sharp guitar riffs cut through the album’s opening track, “One More Time”, while Maby’s sinewy bass lines jump all over the song and Houghton’s drums frantically keep up.

But gears are shifted immediately with “Sunday Papers”, as a reggae beat accompanies Jackson’s tales of the many characters and subjects celebrated in print journalism: “If you want to know about the bishop and the actress,” he sings, “If you want to know how to be a star / If you want to know about the stains on the mattress / You can read it in the Sunday papers.”

But a great deal of Look Sharp! deals with relationships, specifically Joe Jackson’s young, naïve take on women, whom he seems to view with suspicion, confusion, and deceit. Perhaps the best-known song on Look Sharp! is the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him”, a power-pop masterpiece that calls out beautiful women and the Neanderthal men they choose (specifically over him). As he prepares for a night on the town, he can’t believe he has to compete with these idiots: “Tonight’s the night when I go to all the parties down my street,” he croons. “I wash my hair, and I kid myself I look real smooth / Look over there / Here comes Jeanie with her new boyfriend / They say that looks don’t count for much / If so, there goes your proof.” Jackson positions himself as a well-meaning guy who women would love if they could just give him a chance. “I get so mean around this scene,” he sings in frustration over the bridge.

But if Jackson really wants to be with these women, he indicates later that he may not see a long-term future with them. “Happy Loving Couples”, a scornful, sarcastic set of jabs disguised as an upbeat pop song, ridicules couples who live a sunny, photogenic life dotted with materialistic pleasures. Later, in the moody reggae ballad “Fools in Love”, he continues that attack but points out that he’s one of them. “Fools in love / They think they’re heroes / ‘Cause they get to feel more pain / I say fools in love are zeroes / I should know because this fool’s in love again.”

Certainly, the reggae stylings that weave in and out of Look Sharp! show a band that moves beyond the idea of three simple chords, and it’s an artistic ethos that Jackson would revisit and reinvent time and time again throughout his career. On the propulsive, catchy title track, Joe Jackson – or at least the character he’s inhabiting – admits to being a slave to fashion and the attitude that accompanies it (“Okay, what you say / Tell me what they’re wearing this year / Go on and laugh at me / ‘Cause you don’t see that I got something going right here”) but the song’s musical sophistication outpaces the shallow pleasures of haute couture, particularly during a funky, unexpected piano/drum breakdown followed by a winning performance from Sanford on guitar. Jackson’s lyrics are pointed, cynical, and often hilarious, but never to the detriment of his tight, brilliant band.

This isn’t to say that Jackson is immune to punk rock’s simple, cathartic pleasures. He and the group thrash about lovingly and convincingly on tracks like “Throw it Away” and the closing song, “Got the Time” (the latter song fast and furious enough to be later covered by Anthrax, of all acts). But more often than not, Jackson incorporates plenty of frenetic, swaggering power pop on songs like “Baby Stick Around” as well as “(Do the) Instant Mash”, which may be an attempt to create a minor dance craze, not unlike 1960s chestnuts like “Mashed Potato Time”.

Joe Jackson further apes bygone pop eras with “Pretty Girls”, which lyrically cribs from Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” while still managing to shoehorn in Jackson’s perennial frustration with the opposite sex and the powers they have over him: “God if you’re up there,” he sings, “Listen to my prayer / in future man should have a different design / Give him a switch so he can turn off his libido now / Give him a tranquilizer built into his mind.” Years later, in an Entertainment Weekly interview, Jackson admitted that the song makes him cringe. “In retrospect, it’s kind of a stinker,” he said. “It’s embarrassing – ogling girls, I mean, that’s kind of lame. It’s just childish and silly and derivative.” Chalk it up to youth, I guess.

Look Sharp! received plenty of critical praise upon its release in January 1979. It was a worldwide hit, cracking the US Top 20, and the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him” hit #21 on the Billboard pop charts. The song even received substantial airplay on American rock radio stations (something even Costello couldn’t manage). Kershenbaum quickly rushed Jackson and his band back into the studio, recording I’m the Man, released that October. Stylistically, it’s identical to its predecessor.

However, Jackson soon moved beyond the four-piece power-pop genre, recording an album with a more exotic reggae template (Beat Crazy), a spectacular swing covers album (Jumpin’ Jive), and a delightful slice of New York-inspired pop (Night and Day, featuring “Stepping Out”, his biggest hit to date). That’s only taking us up to 1982.

Joe Jackson continues to write and record, and while he reunited with the original Look Sharp! band in 2003 with the terrific album Volume 4, he’s an artist who is constantly looking forward, experimenting with a variety of styles and musicians (with Maby in tow on most of them). Look Sharp! is arguably Jackson at his best and perhaps one of the finest debut albums in rock history.