Joe Jackson – Look Sharp! (1978)


Every time I play this I love it all over again. It’s one of those records that keeps on giving, even though I’ve heard it so often that I know it almost by heart. So there’s no surprises left now, other than the confirmation that, yes, it really is that good.

This is Jackson’s debut album, and nothing I’ve heard from him since matches this for sustained, attention holding excellence. He’s carved out a long, restless career, always shifting, seldom less than interesting, but unusually he was firing on all cylinders right at the start of his career – it would be like John Hiatt emerging from nowhere with Bring The Family and then never quite touching that first high.

Years ago I read a James Michener novel (I think Space but I can’t swear to it), in which one of the characters was an engineer who talked about “elegant” solutions. He defined elegant solutions as those that are entirely sufficient but have nothing extraneous. What Jackson delivered straight out of the starting blocks was an elegant album.

There’s not a false step here, nor a wasted note. It’s economical and stripped down, like much of what emerged in the aftermath of punk, but that’s not because of limitations on the part of Jackson or his band. Indeed they’re all good players. Bass player Graham Maby, up front in the mix, is a bit better than “good”. Some punk bands struggled to do the best with limited musical resources, but Jackson (a university trained pianist who would go on to write his own classical pieces and release some coolly sophisticated singles) and band strike delicate balance by giving the songs what they need but never over playing. Superficially this album sounds like the punk ideal of simple songs that any kid can play – but it’s not really. The craftsmanship here is high standard without being indulgent.

They’re no wimps though. They can rock hard indeed – even though they don’t often indulge themselves in solos – and the rhythm section of Dave Houghton and the impressive, always ear catching Maby are wonderfully sharp and can attack the up-tempo numbers to great effect. (Guitarist Gary Sanford often lays back and plays the straight man to Maby) But they convince on the slower numbers too. The marvellous “Fools In Love” is almost Police like, one of the most obviously reggae-informed numbers here, with a cool delivery. There’s a long build up to the first chorus – which they manage whilst maintaining a hold on your attention. Jackson takes a clever piano solo (though there’s no piano on the verses or chorus) with Maby playing counter point lines.

It’s deft, it’s smart, it’s assured. Not just that song, the whole damn thing. It’s a brilliant first album. Jackson (who claims the arranging credits) has his act totally worked out. The production doesn’t impose itself or bow to fashion and so it doesn’t sound dated today. And the reality is that Jackson didn’t face the fabled “third album syndrome” he had “first album syndrome”, so convincing and satisfying was his debut album. The next few albums had their high points to be sure, but don’t achieve the consistent high of  Look Sharp! Maybe he spent all the good songs he had banked. Even the minor songs (eg “Pretty Girls”) get strong performances and fit well into the overall arc of the album.

Jackson emerged at the tail end of a sudden post-punk explosion of acts who had the energy of the British punk rockers, but greater intelligence and breadth of vision. So he fits into a broad category as the Police and Elvis Costello. And on this album he is as strong as any of the best acts that were, for a while, labelled “New Wave”. You might think of him as a more laconic Costello, but that only goes so far as Jackson doesn’t have Costello’s inclination to country music.

I listened to it again whilst I was typing this up. It’s still as good as my imagination told me it is.

If you want to know why Jackson is so well regarded then start here.

PS: If you have an interest in rock bass guitar then you really want to listen to this. Maby, too, is that good.

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