When many of us bought Joe Jackson’s debut album, Look Sharp!, in 1979, we couldn’t have anticipated that it would be the first of a career that has turned out to be noteworthy for its ambition and variety. Like the two musicians to whom he’s often compared, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, Jackson has a firm grasp of pop styles, from garage rock to Motown, and presents them with raw passion and precision.
In the 37 years since, Jackson has gone on to write and record music in many styles and forms -- ska, jump blues, large-scale instrumental works, and pop recordings that defy categorization but are notable for their accessibility and melodic sophistication. His most recent release, Fast Forward, demonstrates that he’s as strong a songwriter as ever, and as bracing a singer and instrumentalist.
Intervention Records has now reissued three early Jackson albums, all carefully remastered by Kevin Gray from 1/2” safety copies of the original stereo master tapes, beautifully pressed on vinyl, and housed in heavyweight cardboard jackets. Look Sharp! and I’m the Man, both from 1979, were Jackson’s new-wave salvos -- fast, often aggressive music that includes healthy measures of strong pop songwriting and finesse playing. On Night and Day (1982), his fifth LP, Jackson embraced Latin rhythms and a musical sophistication that suggested that, as much as he loved rock’n’roll, he wanted a little more.
Jackson had just signed with A&M records when, in 1978, he recorded Look Sharp! at London’s Eden Studios, with Gary Sanford on guitar, Graham Maby on bass, and Dave Houghton on drums. The album featured “Is She Really Going Out with Him?,” which A&M released in the UK as a single that September. It didn’t chart at the time, but when it was rereleased a few months later, after Look Sharp! was in record shops, it became a hit. Look Sharp! contains a good mix of hard-edged rock’n’roll with slightly more subdued material that hinted at some of the directions Jackson would later take. I have an early US pressing, bought in 1980, and a 2001 CD reissue. That 36-year-old LP still sounds exciting and edgy, bright and ear-grabbing in a way that captures the excitement of the music, but its sound is a bit thin. The CD sounds fuller but lacks depth -- everything is right up at the front of the soundstage.
Intervention’s new vinyl edition presents Look Sharp! in more balanced fashion. Sanford’s low strings in his sharp-edged opening chords for “One More Time” register more strongly, giving the intro more body, and his percussive strikings of muted strings between chords pack more punch. Maby’s rolling bass lines are more expansive and gripping, and Houghton’s snare drum snaps harder and his toms sound deeper.
On my 1980 LP, Jackson’s voice is well centered but flattened, sitting back with the rest of the band. On the new pressing he’s out front and three-dimensional. He’s more set off from the rest of the band in “Sunday Papers,” his voice sounding more natural and engaging. The texture of his voice is audible, and Maby’s bass sounds so much larger.
That bass plays a prominent role in “Is She Really Going Out with Him?,” and on the new pressing it’s deeper toned and sharper edged. Sanford’s guitar chords are more firmly stated, and Houghton’s drums have more room to stretch out. On the 1980 LP, when Jackson sings “Look over there” and the band answers “Where?,” they and Jackson seem to share the same mike; on this new master, they’re behind him.
In the title track, Houghton’s kick drum thumps harder on the Intervention pressing and Sanford’s guitar has more heft, even while biting just as hard as it did on previous editions. It’s easier to hear the background vocal harmonies, and Houghton’s feature drum solo mid-song is much grander and more impressive. I can now hear small things, such as hi-hat strokes, much better.
Throughout Look Sharp!, Gray’s remastering highlights details I hadn’t caught before. There’s a hint of delay on Sanford’s guitar, and more reverb on Jackson’s piano in “Fools in Love.” Jackson’s harmonica solo in “(Do the) Instant Mash” is less harsh, with a more complex tone. Maby’s bass in the opening of “Got the Time” is now more imposing and driving, Houghton’s drums hit harder, and -- even with the song’s hell-bent-for-leather pace -- each instrument and Jackson’s voice has room to breathe and register.
In March 1979, Jackson and his band entered London’s TW Studios to record a follow-up, and A&M released I’m the Man that October. The album had some similarities to Look Sharp!, but hinted even more strongly that Jackson would not be defined by any single musical genre or movement. “Kinda Kute” and “On Your Radio” were AM-friendly rock, but “It’s Different for Girls” and “The Band Wore Blue Shirts” were the kind of sophisticated, unclassifiable pop that would become Jackson’s trademark.
I own an early US pressing of I’m the Man on LP, as well as a box set of five 45rpm singles comprising all ten tracks of the original LP. I also have it on a 1986 CD. The bass pops harder on the 45 version of “On Your Radio,” but Jackson’s voice and Sanford’s guitar sound somewhat reserved. All of the instruments, including the drums, are more balanced on the new LP, and when I compared all the songs on the 45rpm set to the LP, I found the LP to have a more involving sound overall. The CD is energetic and lively, but the LP is more nuanced.
As with Look Sharp!, Kevin Gray has given the music more foundation and space than it has on the other editions I own. Houghton’s snare-drum strokes in the opening of “On Your Radio” are brighter -- I can hear the snare rattle. Jackson’s voice is farther out, and Sanford’s chords are more fleshed out. “Geraldine and John” sounds more authoritative because the soundstage is deeper and wider, which is surprising -- like much of the album, it sounds as if it was recorded in mono.
When I played the 45rpm pressing of “It’s Different for Girls,” I found once again that the early LP pressing was more balanced and immediate. The Intervention trumps both -- it’s more enveloping, with Maby’s bass reaching out farther, each note sustained longer. Sanford’s guitar lines ring out cleaner, and his chords in the chorus blend into each other more smoothly and don’t decay as quickly. Houghton’s drums are moved forward just enough to let us hear the accents on the toms, which are more impressive and lively.
The title track also benefits from a bigger, richer soundstage that lets the instruments stretch out and interact, and brings Jackson’s voice and words into greater relief. The background voices in the chorus are cleaner and more forward, enlivening the track. Another rocker, “Don’t Wanna Be Like That,” has more driving bass, more low-end detail in the drums, and a more layered sound that pulls me into the middle of the song.
The wonderfully buoyant rocker “Get that Girl” has more drive on the new pressing, and Gray has brought Sanford’s guitar out just enough to underline how much it centers this terrific pop song. “Amateur Hour” is the sort of memorable pop that Jackson would continue to develop through the years: rock that also takes in jazz, show tunes, and much more. Sanford’s brightly colored guitar and Houghton’s snare sound more realistic and assertive in the Intervention edition.
Jackson recorded one more album with this band -- Beat Crazy (1980), an even more eclectic outing than the first two -- then switched gears to record Jumpin’ Jive (1981), a collection of swing and jump-blues tunes with a six-piece band that included three horn players. By that time, the original Joe Jackson Band had split, but Maby remained on bass -- as he did for Jackson’s next album, Night and Day.
Night and Day was recorded in New York City, with a much larger ensemble, Jackson playing a wide array of keyboards. He says of it, “my first three albums are London albums, but this is a New York album.” He’d left behind punk and new wave for music with touches of Latin jazz, swing, and more -- a pop-music amalgam that embraced all manner of styles and set the standard for the rest of Jackson’s career.
I bought Night and Day on vinyl soon after its release in June 1982; I also have an early CD release, and a two-CD deluxe edition from 2003. But I chose that original LP for careful listening; it was my point of comparison for what follows.
The percussion that opens “Another World” sounds massive on the Intervention pressing, with more bounce than on my original LP. The cowbells ring out longer, and the keyboards have more weight, with a more firmly stated midrange and a more nuanced bottom register. Jackson’s voice has greater timbral color, intensity, and texture.
The distinctive mix of percussion in “Chinatown” is a bit more clearly delineated on the new pressing -- the shakers in the right channel are easier to hear, and Sue Hadjopoulos’s congas are better defined and sustain longer. The lower register, including bass and deeper-toned percussion, is more vibrant, and fills out the music to give it a firmer foundation. Jackson’s voice is more subtly toned here, a bit less edgy than on the earlier vinyl, and the background voices are more clearly separated -- it’s easier to hear the harmonies.
Hadjopoulos’s timbales in “T.V. Age” now reach out of the soundstage more assertively, and Larry Tolfree’s drums are set off better from the rest of the myriad percussion instruments that run through the song. In the bridge that leads into Jackson’s alto-sax solo, the harmony vocal section is more ethereal, Jackson’s acoustic piano more resonant.
“Steppin’ Out” closes side one, which Jackson labeled “Night Side.” Gray reveals more bottom-end punch here, and the electronic keyboards have a brighter ring that lets them sound more natural. This song, one of Jackson’s best and a big hit, now has a more open, expansive sound that makes it even more compelling. Hadjopoulos’s xylophone, which provides the tag after each chorus, rings out longer and more pleasingly, and other small things, such as the low-end keyboard lines, help make the entire arrangement easier to hear.
Side two, “Day Side,” opens with “Breaking Us in Two,” another very popular Jackson tune that on this pressing has better-defined bass, and more cleanly etched percussion that rings out farther into my room. The synth solo sounds better and more natural. The claves in the astringently satirical “Cancer” are emphasized a bit more, and the congas and other percussion are easier to pick out.
Throughout Gray’s remastering, Night and Day is more layered, and the soundstage seems bigger, thus giving instruments more room. Tolfree’s snare-drum strokes in “Real Men” are more emphatic, and his kick drum punches harder. Ed Rynesdal’s strings sound more realistic and harmonically complex. Jackson’s impassioned singing in “A Slow Song” is more three-dimensional than on the earlier pressing, and the other musicians are arrayed more precisely behind him.
My old LP of Night and Day has always sounded good to me. It still does, but Intervention’s new edition opens up the music more, revealing more elements of the recording -- and the bass goes lower. The improvements aren’t as dramatic as on the label’s reissues of Look Sharp! and I’m the Man. Those recordings weren’t as subtle in the first place, and Intervention’s reissues let them bloom. But their new pressing of Night and Day makes an already good recording sound even better and more involving, however subtly.
The LP jackets are typical of the quality Intervention brings to their vinyl reissues. Look Sharp! is housed in a textured cover, the iconic white shoes set off (debossed, to use the technical term), in the manner of the early UK pressings. I’m the Man and Night and Day are in single-pocket, high-gloss gatefold covers that reproduce the artwork in clear, vivid colors. Stoughton Printing, in California, did the job on heavyweight cardboard, in contrast to the thin cardboard used on the originals.
Other Jackson recordings would benefit from the Intervention treatment, including Body and Soul (1984) and Big World (1986). I’d make a pitch for Night Music (1994), a beautifully recorded, underrated Jackson album that has never, as far as I know, been released on vinyl. But the LPs I’ve reviewed here do three of Joe Jackson’s best records full justice. I hope Intervention gives us more.
. . . Joseph Taylor