Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beat Crazy And Jumpin' Jive: Joe Jackson Inches His Way Towards Yuppie Rock

But before he went Yuppie, first he went reggae.

There are many styles for which I might have thought Joe Jackson's gifts would be suited, but reggae was probably not one of them. When I think of reggae, I think "mellow," and when I think of Joe Jackson, well, I don't think "mellow." Perhaps he got high one night, had an epiphany, and thought, "I need to do a cover of 'The Harder They Come.' Like, now."

That rasta spirit bled into 1980's Beat Crazy, which is often described as Joe Jackson's "reggae" album, although it only departs from his pre-established persona in subtle ways. If anything, I like it more than his first two albums, for some impalpable reason. The title track is certainly a slammin' slice of Jamaican Joe, featuring shared vocals from his bassist, who has an arguably better singing voice than Joe does. Joe probably thought, "Hmm, last time I do that."

But the second cut, "One To One," is the most prominent glimpse yet of the piano-playing, jazz-pop crooner Joe to come. While the opening sounds suspiciously like CCR's "Someday Never Comes," once those big, bright chords flow out from Joe's supple fingers, it's clear we're not about to be treated to a piece of swamp rock. Judging by the lyrics, it sounds like Joe has finally begun to achieve some dating success, only it's been a pyrrhic victory, as the political beliefs of his girlfriend are starting to annoy the crap out of him:
Tried to call you yesterday
But you were at the Monday Club
Or a Communist demonstration
Who cares
You're going somewhere everyday
Vegetarians Against the Klan
Every Woman Against Every Man

One to one
What's wrong
What's wrong with one to one
Just once
Just me and you
'Cause one to one is real
And you can't hide, just feel
That three's a crowd

I agree with what you say
But I don't wanna wear a badge
I don't wanna wave a banner like you
Though I don't mind it if you do
You're beautiful when you get mad
Or is that a sexist observation

Vegetarians Against The Klan? I think that's one rally I'd actually like to attend. Still, the lounge moments on Beat Crazy are far outweighed by the usual blistering diatribes like "Someone Up There" and "Biology." He also uses the N-word on "Battleground," to artistically negligible effect, but it doesn't bother me too much; at least he didn't pull a John Lennon or a Patti Smith and stick it in the song title.

At any rate, reggae was one thing, but big band swing was another. Joe really threw everybody a curveball with his fourth album, 1981's Jumpin' Jive, a full-blown stylistic homage to Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. As AMG's William Ruhlmann writes, "In the U.S., the album was not so much 35 years behind the times as 15 years ahead of them; had it appeared in the mid-'90s, it would have fit right in with releases by the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as part of the neo-swing movement." Well, I like the album about as much as I like Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy albums, which is to say, not very much. Jumpin' Jive is basically ... a tribute album. OK, fine Joe, you proved you could recreate the genre to perfection, but did you add your own twist to the sound? I mean, how is Jumpin' Jive is any different from just some local neighborhood wedding band? Still, you've got to give him points for completely confusing the shit out of his audience.

Next time around, Joe would not only confuse the shit out of his audience, but find a whole new audience out of which he could not confuse the shit (given that they would be discovering him for the very first time and would not have had any idea of what he was "supposed" to sound like). For you see, far from being a temporary stylistic detour, in retrospect Jumpin' Jive was the work that truly set the stage for the emergence of a New Joe. This New Joe would be jazzy. He would be elegant. He would live in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side. He would sip cocktails while wearing a tuxedo.

In short, this new Joe would be ... wait for it ... wait for it ...

Yuppie Joe.

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