Friday, September 15, 2006

Classic Album Corner



Joe Jackson Band
Beat Crazy (1980)
5 stars


Joe Jackson, circa 1980, was a known musical quantity. Coming into prominence during the punk/new wave explosion of the late 70’s, Jackson enjoyed moderate success with his debut album, Look Sharp, which spawned the classic single “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”. The follow up record, 1979’s I’m The Man, was a slight departure from the debut, but still kept that sneering edge and received decent FM radio play. Someone coined his sound “Spiv Rock”, and though I personally had no idea what that meant, I knew I liked it.

Timing is everything, however, and by hitting the scene at that time, being an angry young Brit, the comparisons to Elvis Costello were undeniable. There were plenty of similarities. Each started with records that seemed angry on the surface, but also displayed a keen sense of songwriting ability, and the ability to turn a sharp phrase. Comparing the two was unfair to both, but since Jackson came later, he received the short end of the critical stick. Later, valid comparisions could be made, alluding to the fact that each seemed to resist being pigeonholed, and unafraid to expand into other musical genres.

Jackson decided to go to a reggae direction for his next project. This seemed strange, but natural in a way. In Jackson’s band, the bass was always prominent, sometimes moreso than the lead guitar, so it seemed like these guys could pull it off. Several other British acts of the era, most notably The Clash, were big fans of reggae, and wrote and covered songs heavily influenced by the genre (most notably the excellent “Police and Thieves”). A cover version of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come” was released in the UK in advance of the new album, entitled Beat Crazy. Strangely, it was left off the record.

The album, released in 1980, caught many off guard, not the least of which was the radio programmers in the US, who didn’t seem to know what to do with it. “Pretty Boys” got some early play, but never really caught on, and the record died a quiet death on the charts. Even the liner notes seemed to recognize the futility of the project, stating “ultimately, this was doomed to fail. The question remains: why did we try?”

Why, then, am I featuring this on Classic Album Corner? I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and still play it to this day. It was, in my view, wrongly overlooked, and in hindsight stands as an important step in the career of a diverse, talented musician.

Beat Crazy, the album and the title track, opens with a scream. Jackson himself doesn’t sing lead on the title tune, as bassist Graham Maby handles those chores. He takes on the role of a disgruntled older man, lamenting about “kids today”, while Jackson chimes in after each statement from the young perspective. It’s a strong start to the record, but I suspect it took many fans off guard.

The record just has a general feel to it that was unlike anything else I’d heard up to that point. Keep in mind, I was 16, so it’s not like I had a huge body of musical knowledge to draw upon. For many people, including me, records like this, along with the aforementioned Clash songs, the first two Police records, and the amazing debut of The Specials were the gateway to Reggae and Ska.

Jackson is still angry on Beat Crazy, as evidenced is tracks like “Mad at You”, and “Pretty Boys”. He delves into dub territory with “Battleground”, which sets hard edged lyrics about racial tensions against a simple scratchy guitar. “One to One” boils down to the singer asking his girl why they never seem to communicate, and asking if telling her she’s beautiful when she gets mad is a sexist observation. “The Evil Eye” mentions Zombie rockabilly legends The Cramps, and tries unsuccessfully to emulate them. The song held a special place in my heart since the protagonist worked in a supermarket, just as I did in 1980. Whaddya know, I hated my old man boss too, just like Joe! “Biology” offers a neat twist on those who cheat on their girfirends/wives, and for perhaps the only time in recorded history, a singer talks in the voice of sperm cells. Sounds weird, I know, but the tune is cool. “Someone Up There” is a bit cliché lyrically, but the bass work of Maby is stellar as usual.

The album closes with “Fit”, a ballad about not fitting in. It’s an eloquent, well written tale railing against elitism and cliques, which any High School aged person could relate to. Funy thing, it still resonates now, 26 years later.

If you can find this out there, pick it up. You could probably find a nice used CD on Amazon for less than 10 bucks, and it’s a gamble worth taking. I would not steer you wrong, now would I?
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