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Music Appreciation 101: Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson returns to Houston this week to perform songs on his Four Decade Tour
Joe Jackson returns to Houston this week to perform songs on his Four Decade Tour Album cover art

If I was applying to instruct music appreciation at some staid Ivy League college or maybe the local juco, I’d pitch my course curriculum to the Dean of Arts by bringing a half-dozen Joe Jackson albums along to my interview. I’d ask the dean to queue each one up on the office phonograph and we’d listen to some of the work created by this talented English songwriter and musician.

Jackson’s songs reach back to the 1970s, a time when my imaginary dean might still have been working on tenure somewhere. Focusing on them as a means to boast my own music knowledge, my guess is I’d be developing lesson plans and hanging posters on my classroom walls by the start of the next semester.

The simple reason is this: Joe Jackson’s musical output immerses listeners in many important music genres dating back to the Classical period. Not the classic rock period, but the one with artists like Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, an avowed hero of Jackson’s. Classical music, pop music, punk rock, new wave, music for film, jazz, swing, rocksteady…they’re all there in Jackson's wildly diverse discography. Listeners can gain a healthy respect for these forms by following a string of Jackson albums like a modern musical timeline, from his rad debut album Look Sharp! to his latest effort, Fool, which released January 18 of this year, 40 years and 13 days from Look Sharp’s bow. Jackson brings the appropriately-billed Four Decade Tour to Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater on Wednesday, May 29.

If you’re going to the show and need a refresher, (or, let’s say you need a crash introductory course, newly-enrolled Joe fan), here’s my syllabus. If you don’t appreciate music in general much better after listening to hours of Joe Jackson, you might just be in the wrong field of study.

Intro to Joe

The course would begin with the standard details of the young artist’s life, how Jackson grew up in Portsmouth, a port city in southern England and transitioned from violin to piano early in his music pursuits. He booked his first gig as a 16-year old, attended London’s Royal Academy of Music on scholarship and played everything from jazz standards to Beatles favorites and English drinking songs in his town’s pubs as a gigging teen.

Those building blocks set up something entirely different, 1979’s Look Sharp!, which was a mash-up of new wave pop punk with snarky social commentary (“Sunday Papers”); “Got the Time,” which had the musical urgency that made it an easy turn to thrash metal for Anthrax’s 1990 cover; and the hit single, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” A full lesson would be devoted to Jackson’s ode to a jilted, incredulous lover, focusing on a trio of divergent versions (standard, acapella and acoustic) from Joe Jackson Live 1980-1986. Look Sharp! was listed on Rolling Stone’s "100 Best Debut Albums of All Time."

The follow-up album, I’m the Man, came in the fall of 1979 and was notable for the ballad “It’s Different for Girls,” which explores sexual and gender politics, making it timely as ever 40 years from its release. The next album, Beat Crazy, was a showcase for Jackson’s longtime musical sidekick, bassist Graham Maby, with punk sounds crossing into reggae and rocksteady territory, setting up the shifts in tone Jackson was soon to unveil.

Extra credit assignments:  "Fools in Love;" "Pretty Girls;" "On Your Radio;" "I'm the Man;" "Beat Crazy;" "Mad At You;" and "Fit."

Jackson Midterm

Jackson was commercially successful by 1981 and parlayed those record sales into more adventurous recordings. 1981’s Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive was a vast departure from new wave and punk, a full collection of covers of 1940's swing and jump blues tracks. This was years ahead of the swing dance craze and was an interesting set up for Night and Day. That album was Jackson’s biggest critical and commercial success, a collection of jazz-tinged pop tunes marked by the Grammy nominated “Steppin’ Out,” which was a staple MTV video in 1982. The follow-up album Body and Soul, and a soundtrack for the film Mike’s Murder, continued to explore these sounds.

Ever the innovator, Jackson recorded Big World before an invited live audience over a handful of dates in 1986. The following year, he switched course again and released Will Power, a classical music album. He’d revisit classical and symphonic music in ensuing years on ambitious projects like Heaven & Hell and Symphony No. 1. He’d return to his jazz roots with The Duke, a tribute to Duke Ellington.

Midterm Tutorial: "Real Men;" "Cosmopolitan;" "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want);" "Happy Ending;" "(It's a) Big World;" "Home Town;" "Will Power;" "Mood Indigo."

Finals Week

Jackson has released work steadily since Look Sharp! at a pace that averages a new album every other year, something few artists can boast. The newer albums – Volume 4, Rain and the newly-released Fool, to name a few – continue to see Jackson sate his own appetite for pushing music boundaries. For instance, 2015’s Fast Forward was written as a series of EPs. Each EP contains four songs written or selected to represent New York, Amsterdam, Berlin or New Orleans. Each set of songs was recorded in the city they represented.  The new album is excellent and representative of Jackson’s decades in music, from opener “Big Black Cloud” which harks back to Night and Day to the guitar-driven lead single “Fabulously Absolute,” which sounds like a cut from the earliest albums.

Midnight oil:  "Blaze of Glory;" "Nineteen Forever;" "Hit Single;" "Awkward Age;" "Invisible Man;" "Fast Forward;" "King of the City;" "Friend Better."

By the end of this course, it should be clear that few artists appreciate music the way Joe Jackson does. He’s not just a modern master to study to gain an appreciation for music’s forms, he remains a student of the art. Further reading on the subject can be found on Jackson’s blog, "What I'm Listening To," where he has written on the music he’s intrigued by, with posts covering artists like Regina Spektor, Kendrick Lamar, the Czech composer Leos Janacek, Galactic, Ray Barretto, Louis Armstrong, Garbage and, of course, Beethoven.

Joe Jackson, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at Cullen Theater at Wortham Center, 501 Texas. $29.50- $77.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.