In the late 1970s, several young British rockers started getting some attention and airplay in the US, including The Police, Elvis Costello, and Ian Dury. They were part of a musical movement called New Wave, in which they took the influences of New York bands like Television, Talking Heads, and the Ramones, added a bit of English punk, and helped refine the style even more. Thanks to some heavy promotion by their record label reps, they started getting airplay on Album Oriented Rock stations, alongside stalwarts like The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. They may not have initially seemed like a good fit with those bands, but audiences ate them up because a hit is a hit.
One of the singer/songwriters of that era who caught my attention was Joe Jackson, whose 1979 debut album, “Look Sharp,” was full of clever lyrics and great melodies, including his first big hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Either that summer or the following one, I went to Central Park to see Jackson at the Schaefer Music Festival. I was impressed with his energy and songs, but was put off by his attitude, which can best be summed as Pissed Off Brit Boy. I don’t know what made him such an angry young man, but I left the concert less a fan than when I’d walked in.
Over the years, however, I went back and re-listened to Jackson’s albums, including “I’m The Man,” “Jumpin’ Jive,” and “Body and Soul,” and was reminded that the guy I’d seen onstage shared very little with his performances on vinyl. He continued to get radio airplay for a few years, with even bigger hits like “Steppin’ Out,” but over the next couple of decades, I lost track of Jackson completely.
Until this weekend.
Saturday night, after many years of not touring here, Jackson returned to St. Louis for a sold-out show at The Pageant. My wife and I went and were entranced from the moment he stepped on stage for a solo version of “It’s Different For Girls,” accompanying himself on piano. As that song finished, his longtime bass player Graham Maby joined to start “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” complete with the audience singing along (Jackson: “Look over there…” Crowd: “Where?”). Right out of that, with drummer Doug Yowell and guitarist Teddy Kumpel in place, it was a quick segue to “Real Men” and then “You Can’t Get What You Want.”
With those four tunes coming one right after another, I wondered if Jackson was going to limit his stage banter because he was still a Pissed Off Brit Boy, or if he’d mellowed with age. It turned out to be the latter, as he paused to say how happy he was to be back in St. Louis and apologized for staying away so long. He told us he’d be playing not just the classics, but a couple of songs off his 2015 album “Fast Forward,” as well as three or four new tunes that he has yet to record but was premiering on this 15-stop mini-tour to gauge response.
Usually, a new song is a signal to the audience to head for the bathrooms, but the crowd remained seated to hear “Big Black Cloud,” “Fabulously Absolute,” and “Dave,” and gave each of them a rousing reception. Jackson seemed thrilled as he introduced each tune with a story. The last one, for instance, was about his boyhood in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, where there were an inordinate number of boys named Dave. What he didn’t mention is that he was born David (not Joe) Jackson, a fact I learned later online. All three of those songs were quite good, as was a fourth new one called “Alchemy.”
I assume they’ll be on the album he’s planning for early next year, which will also mark the 40th anniversary of “Look Sharp.” Ironically, as difficult as it was to conceive of a rocker with his sound getting airplay alongside Steve Miller, Heart, and Charlie Daniels in 1979, it will be even harder in 2019. Jackson’s music has been ignored by radio for the last 25 years — even classic hits stations don’t have any of his songs on their playlists — so it’s unlikely he’ll get any support from terrestrial radio for the new ones. Perhaps he’ll get some exposure from Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, SiriusXM, etc., and I bet those lucky enough to have seen him live have bought a few digital downloads of his catalog material — I just grabbed the “I’m The Man” album off iTunes — and newer stuff, too.
Meanwhile, in concert, Jackson threw in a couple more classics (“Sunday Papers” and “One More Time”), plus covers of songs by David Bowie (“Scary Monsters”) and Television (“See No Evil”), before ending with “A Slow Song,” complete with a surprise ending. Throughout, his voice was strong, his piano and keyboard work flawless, and his band just as good. Not bad for a rocker who’s almost 64 years old.
By the way, Joe still looks sharp.