Joe Jackson was the last of the three angry young men to be attached with the skinny tie/new wave label, and just like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, he did all he could to avoid such simple pigeon-holing. But a glance at the cover of Look Sharp!, his excellent debut, could excuse anyone for assuming he was just another lovelorn geek. That was only part of the story.
While he started out in the British pub-rock scene—see his excellent autobiography A Cure For Gravity for keen insights into this period—his influences were more, dare we say, esoteric than his contemporaries. For instance, Elvis Costello would soon betray a love for pop standards and country music, but Joe was more musical in his arrangements, not least because he was primarily a pianist. With a great interest in jazz and classical music (both of which he’d explore on record within ten years’ time) as well as prog-rock (which, thankfully, he’s avoided), his albums tended to be more engaging than confrontational. Still, Look Sharp! remains a New Wave classic, right down to the stylish packaging and edgy song selection.
“One More Time” kicks off with a slashing guitar and trebly bass, before a stop-time verse and harmonic pre-chorus about romance. Like all good punk rockers, he delivers a protest song (complete with harmonica solo) about the press in “Sunday Papers”, set conveniently in a household. The big hit was—and should be—“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, designed for audiences to shout “where?” at the right moments while maneuvering past the eleventh chords. “Happy Loving Couples” continues the complaints about women (or the lack thereof) before getting cut off in the control room in favor of the pogo-tastic “Throw It Away”.
Side two kicks off in the dance club for “Baby Stick Around”, a wonderful Merseybeat pastiche. The title track is another snide swipe at fashion, even if structurally it’s dangerously close to Steely Dan’s “Josie”. Since most of London was in love with reggae in those days, that’s the sound that drives “Fools In Love”, a wonderful cross between “Watching The Detectives” and “Nature Boy” with a jazzy piano solo. “(Do The) Instant Mash” doesn’t quite live up to its title, but “Pretty Girls” manages to update “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” without copying it. “Got The Time” chugs along for a great closer, and gained some thrash metal-cred in the ‘90s after it was covered by Anthrax, of all people.
As good as Look Sharp! still is today, it could have easily been a one-hit wonder. His resistance to categorization would keep new fans on their toes, while his excellent band—anchored by the incomparable Graham Maby on bass—were keen to keep up with him. But for now, he could say he recorded one fine album. (A later CD reissue, which hardly anyone noticed, added two B-sides to the program.)
Joe Jackson Look Sharp! (1979)—4
2001 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 2 extra tracks