1979 was a tumultuous year for the United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher became PM. Striking union workers crippled the country during the coldest winter in British history. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose arguably taking British punk rock with him. Sectarian IRA violence shook the Empire. Seems the only good news was that The Clash’s London Calling was released and my beloved Arsenal won the FA Cup beating Manchester United 3-2. Music, as it generally is, was the only light in that dark traumatic year.
Two albums by Joe Jackson came out in 1979. The first was Look Sharp!, which contained hits like Sunday Papers, Got The Time and Is She Really Going Out With Him?, all of which charted much higher in America (and highest in Canada) than in the UK. The next, I’m The Man, wasn’t met with as much reverence, but produced much higher chart results back home and cemented Jackson as a respected artist at the vanguard of post-punk new wave and pop-rock. Joe Jackson’s quirky and jagged blend of fast-paced pop rock songs were set apart by their jazzy influences. His clever chord progressions blended well with equally clever lyrics. Albums that followed weren’t as popular, the least of which was Jackson’s collection of swing covers on his Jumpin’ Jive. However, 1982’s Night and Day produced two of his biggest hits. Steppin’ Out earned Jackson two Grammy noms. Breaking Us In Two is considered by many to be his signature tune, at the least it’s Jackson’s most covered song. As well, the album contains the controversial, Real Men. The next couple decades of Joe Jackson’s output contained more jazz and classical releases than rock. But lately, Joe’s been back to the stuff that started his career. His recently released 20th studio album, Fool, came out in January. Hailed as one of his best in its return to his rock pop roots, Jackson hit the road in support on a run he’s calling his Four Decade tour. I was lucky enough to be present when he stopped in Toronto.
Taking the velvet draped stage to play a snippet of Alchemy from the new album, Jackson wore his usual uniform of suit and tie. Paired with stalwart bassist, Graham Maby, whom has been playing with Jackson from the very first album onward, the formidable band also included guitarist Teddy Kumpel and stellar rock steady drummer Doug Yowell. The first hit of the night came when Is She Really Going Out With Him? was played. Jackson introduced a new song, Dave, by explaining that every man apart from himself (though his real first name is actually Dave) and bassist Graham Maby in their hometown of Portsmouth is named Dave. And so, he wrote a song about a guy named Dave who’s the everyman, who goes nowhere, does nothing of consequence and is likelier happier than him despite this boring life. Breaking Us in Two followed, as did Real Men, a still-relevant song that asks questions about masculinity and sexuality. A mid-set highlight was the gorgeous harmonies and melody of Invisible Man from his 2008 album Rain. An interesting turn was a cover of Steely Dan’s King of the World. Jackson explained that he considered Donald Fagan and his late partner Walter Becker among his favourite songwriters. That made a lot of connections for me – the caustic, sharp lyrics, the jazzy chord voicings and progressions and possibly by coincidence the Denny Diaz/Jeff Baxteresque guitar solos of Teddy Kumpel. Crowd pleaser You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) came next, followed by Ode To Joy from previous album Fast Forward which included a fun freeze-frame tableau by the band. The peppy I’m The Man closed the set before a three song encore. First was Steppin Out, a song often reworked by the band when played live but on the Four Decade tour is performed as close to the original as could be live. The song included Yowell taking a backseat to the same drum machine used on the original recording, Kumpel trading his guitar for organ and Maby allowing a programmed synth bass to take his job so he could focus on playing the all-important glockenspiel. Got The Time was the last piece of the hit puzzle that was missing and was played with all the energy and snark it held when first released 40 years ago. Jackson ended the night with a reprise of Alchemy taking his leave from the piano (as it continued to play his parts) to bow his way offstage while the band played the song out.
It was an appreciative crowd that left the venue, seeing a show that gave them all the songs they would want to hear plus choice selections of Jackson’s deeper and newer cuts. As a retrospective of a four decade rock career, it was hard to find a song that was missing from what truly is an impressive body of work by a supremely talented artist.