In a lot of ways, the 1980s were a strange decade. Speaking specifically to the musical output there was a lot to like, but it was dominated by fads and failed experiments. As someone who had limited access to music other than what my parents played or what popular radio had to offer, the 80s were a kind of dark period for me until much later in life. But during those dark times some names were always part of the conversation, even if they just skirted around the fringe. One of those names was Joe Jackson.
I feel like I’ve always known Jackson’s name. I knew that he had some radio hits but I absolutely could not name one of them. I knew he had a few hit records, one was Look Sharp, the other had a white and blue cover, maybe with a drawing of a piano or something on it. This is about as much as I knew about Joe Jackson. In my pursuit to fill in some holes in my fabric of music information I decided it was time to see what Joe Jackson was all about.
You might remember in May I started looking at albums and artists that people have recommended to me over the years or that are considered essential listening. I established a few key rules for myself: I have to listen to the album at least three times through before writing anything, and I cannot research the record or artist before writing. I picked up a dollar bin copy of Joe Jackson’s Body and Soul LP, hoping it would be representative of his work. That being said, one of the only things I remember people telling me about Joe Jackson is that each album is pretty different from the others. I also remember hearing that Body and Soul had some sort of jazz theme to it. When seeing the cover’s replication of a classic Blue Note LP this seemed likely to be true.
The first few songs of the record made me cringe a bit as they are loaded with 80s pop hooks that I couldn’t get into much then and haven’t warmed up to in the last 25 years. As the record progressed, I could at least appreciate Jackson’s writing ability. Overall, the first listen left me pretty flat. The next two times through, things started to blossom a bit. There is a jazz influence here; however, it is the smooth jazz sound of the 80s that permeates these songs, not the mid-century sound implied by the album cover. The second track “Cha Cha Loco” has become my favorite song on the record. There is a bit of a cha-cha sound, as the title indicates, but there is an 80s pop vibe as well. The two really shouldn’t work at all but Jackson has crafted this song in such a way that makes the two seem like a natural match.
The big radio hit that I remember is “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” and I can safely say I still really don’t like this song. The 80s meets the worst of smooth 80s sax and isn’t even ironically good. I was pretty excited when I recognized “Be My Number Two,” but that excitement faded when I realized it’s a staple at my dentist’s office. As the record wound down for the last time, I read through the liner notes and discovered that Joe Jackson and producer David Kershenbaum wanted to make this album differently than a lot of records being made in the mid-80s. They wanted to use more traditional technology and gear, find a great room to record in rather than a stuffy modern studio….any of this sounding familiar? While the trend at the time was for heavy production, digital recording and lots of effects and overdubs, Joe Jackson wanted to get back to a classic style of recording. With that in mind, I would call Body and Soul a success.
Ok, so after spending some time with this record I can’t say I’m a Joe Jackson fan. I can see why he would appeal to a lot of people. He is a solid songwriter, has a voice that can hold its own against most, and is not afraid to try new things. One thing I do really like about him is how he manages to take the 80s pop sound and make it a lot more interesting than most of his contemporaries, and that alone makes him worth knowing.