The Definition of Eclectic: Steppin’ Out with Joe Jackson

All of us have a favorite band or musical artist, and more than likely there is a personal story behind why that artist is our favorite. I listen to a ton of music across a wide range of genres, and while certain artists may spend some time in heavy rotation in my collection there is only one artist that qualifies as my favorite — Joe Jackson.

If you’re not a fan of Joe Jackson, you may be thinking to yourself “isn’t that the guy from the 80s who sang Steppin’ Out?” Yep, that’s the guy. Like a lot of so-called one-hit wonders, there’s a lot more to the story. The truth is, Joe Jackson has been recording consistently amazing music for five decades and his newest album — a collection of reinterpretations of classic Joe Jackson songs from across the decades called Live Music— will be released June 7 in North America. It will be JJ’s 29th album all tolled. You can bet I will be downloading it on release day.

If you don’t know much about Joe Jackson, it’s probably because there hasn’t been much place for him on commercial radio since the early 80s. He has had six songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100, the first 1979’s Is She Really Going Out With Him? and most recently 1984’s Happy Ending. Chart success in his native U.K. hasn’t been much better — he’s charted eight times in the U.K. and not once since 1986 (Left of Center with Suzanne Vega). Yet I’d argue that no other artist has a more diverse and wonderful collection of albums. He’s a genre buster and mainstream music has little place for an artist that they can’t fit neatly into a little box. Just check out what Wikipedia lists for his genre: Punk rock/ska (early), new wave, jazz pop, jazz, and classical music! That is the very definition of eclectic in my mind (I’m still waiting for JJ Sings Nashville Hits)!

I “discovered” Joe Jackson in 1982 with the release of Night & Day, his most mainstream record ever and the album that brought us the aforementioned Steppin’ Out along with Breaking Us in Two. I was immediately struck by the jazzy feel and the witty lyrics. It wasn’t long before I went back to listen to his earlier work including Look Sharp, I’m the Man and Beat Crazy, an energetic trio of punk-infused pop classics. And then just when I thought I had JJ figured out he released 1984’s Body and Soul, a jazz pop album inspired by Blue Note greats like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. You may remember the one hit from that album — You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want). I saw Joe Jackson for the first time on that tour at the outdoor amphitheater at San Diego State with Howard Jones, the first of three times I’ve been fortunate enough to see JJ live.

Over the next several years Joe released a series of great pop albums like Big World, Blaze of Glory and Laughter & Lust, and he threw in a few classical releases as well just to keep his fans on their toes. In 1997 he released Heaven & Hell, a collection of songs based on the seven deadly sins with guest vocalists including Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry and Brad Roberts from Crash Test Dummies. And then in 2000 he released a sequel to Night & Day called Night & Day II, which has since become my favorite Joe Jackson album. In 2000 he also released Summer in the City: Live in New York, a live CD made up of great takes on his own hits and covers as diverse as The Beatles, Steely Dan and Duke Ellington. His most recent studio release was 2008’s Rain.

I love Joe Jackson for his unique style, his brilliant and edgy lyrics and his musical fearlessness. His lyrics spoke to me as I was growing up. What did it mean to be a man? What was love about? What made life worth living? He wrote songs about politics (Right & Wrong) and songs about sexual desire (Jamie G). He wrote about the difference between men and women (It’s Different For Girls) and about recapturing youth (Nineteen Forever). He wrote about longing for home (Hometown) and about chasing your dreams (Go For It). Basically he wrote about the things I was thinking about. He may not have the best vocals of all time, but he can sure write a great song and he can play the piano like nobody’s business.

If you like Joe Jackson, then I’m sure you’re excited about the new record. If you don’t know much about JJ, give him a try. Start with the early punk stuff, move into the jazzier stuff, and then listen in to some of his latest work from the past decade or so. You won’t be disappointed! If you need a place to start, take a listen to one of his various greatest hits or live albums. You can find everything you need at www.joejackson.com. And let me know what you think.

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3 thoughts on “The Definition of Eclectic: Steppin’ Out with Joe Jackson

  1. I’ve been a Joe Jackson fan since hearing “Sunday Papers” on the radio when I was in middle school in the late ’70s. I had not heard about this forthcoming album, but it sounds like a winner. Thanks for spreading the news via this post.

  2. I remember that night at SDSU. For once, we paid to go inside. Joe did two of the most memorable shows I’ve seen – Night Music at the Wiltern, and Heaven and Hell at the El Rey.

    Big World is really the highlight album for me.

    He is pretty much unequaled for diversity, I agree. Maybe Elvis Costello (who now has done Nashville…), but I don’t enjoy his stuff nearly as much as Joe’s.

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