December 01, 1986

Sharp and Shiny

Filed under: Archive,Music

Joe Jackson
Thebarton Theatre

When Look Sharp, Joe Jackson’s first album appeared in 1977 all manner of sobriquets were bandied about his distinctive sound – “powerpop” and “spiv rock” among them. Like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, he offered a churlish wit and a tight rock sound – urgent, knowing and non-sectarian.

Of the three only Jackson has conquered America. Parker sounded too much like a New Yorker to begin with and nobody ever got over Elvis Costello’s ironic remark about Ray Charles, despite the fact that no-one whose real name is Declan MacManus could fail to understand racial oppression. Meanwhile Joe Jackson moved like a chameleon from the sharp pop trio of his first and second albums to the scatty urbanities of Jumping Jive and the stylish Ellington white piano and small big band sounds of Night and Day and Body and Soul.

Jackson, based in New York and refusing to tour, was starting to look like a rocker turned smoothie – not exactly Marvin Harnlisch but with less of the pasty brashness that distinguished his first band.

“So this is the Thebbie,” Jackson noted drily to a full house already in fibrillation from the drum machine fanfare turned on for our Joe. In designer plastic mac and hello porkpie hat, Joe Jackson, man of mode and monde, put down his luggage and the band moved into “Wild West” from the recent three sided Big World set.

Next came “Right and Wrong”, perhaps the catchiest tune in the latest batch and indicative of Jackson’s sense of issues – no shibboleths from Joe, only questions jabbing into the underbelly of rhetoric. The band wasted no time as they geared into the Big World title song. Now sans hat and mac, Jackson ambled easily from piano to microphone while a bank of green lights provided an eerie mood for his keyboard peregrinations. The format was not quite full circle to Look Sharp but it sounded like it as Jackson faithfully reproduced the bright, direct-to-disc sound of Big World. Clearly, it was meant to be an album that could travel, even if its multilingual cover seemed a bit showy to the ethnocentric.

The band, well mixed and loud without bringing blood to the earlobes, was hitting ail the right buttons. Rick Ford’s bonehard six string bass lines conspired resiliently with Gary Burke’s simian but effective backbeat while New Yorker Tom Teeley coaxed a vintage rock sound from his red Fender and showed his versatility with some classy Djangoisms, some slow smoky blues and even a touch of classy thrash when required.

For no particular reason backprojections indicated that Jackson’s long set of nearly thirty songs was divided into four sections. The first two spanned the later albums; the third included Jackson stepping into Ugly American tourist costume for “Jet Set”, recovering composure for his scathing attack on Tabloid England- “Sunday Papers”, then stretching out with jazzy melancholy in “Tonight and Forever”. Part four opened with a zippy melody from Jumping Jive with Jackson’s melodica doing a fair imitation of soprano sax and the band showing enough riffs and frills to suggest the most bonsai big band we’ve heard in a while.

Highpoints among the highpoints included a spacey re-interpretation of “Steppin Out”, a lambent “Shanghai Sky” and complex medleys of “Chinatown” /”Another World” and the wistfully cynical “Will you be my Number Two”/”Breaking Us in Two”.

The theatrics of the show – a triumph of lighting and pace – showed Jackson as an accomplished performer; always at ease but with an art that conceals itself. His pretence at not remembering the lyrics of his hit “Real Man” was a forgivably indulgent irony. Moving from piano keyboard and mini synthesisers to accordian and melodica, Jackson played a series of unchic instruments with astonishing effect and in generous interaction with his first-rate band.

Lanky and quietly amiable, Jackson is certainly no angry young spiv, if he ever was. In his baggy silk suit he looked for all the world like Herge’s Tin Tin, further proof that you don’t need to eat your- vegetables to make it in British pop.

In two and a half hours Jackson showed us his musical and thematic range. It is polished, even at times florid but it retains a clarity rare in the muddled and ponderous lyrics of much contemporary pop. The show was a touch over-rehearsed but if we had a sense of perfect replica that’s a big world better than a cheap imitation.

“Sharp and Shiny” The Adelaide Review, No.33, December, 1986, p.32-33.

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