Music/Popular Culture

What does Joe Jackson's "Look Sharp" know about Alex Chilton?

by Matthew Record

I remember listening to an old interview of Alex Chilton that aired on the radio shortly after he passed away and more than anything else I was struck by the diffidence and blasé attitude he seemed to have about his own place in the history of pop:

“I guess in the late ’70s. I spent some time in New York, and it seemed like everybody I ran into there, you know, claimed to be a fan of the Big Star albums, and that sort of stuff. And so, you know, I guess it was around then that I began to see that even though we hadn’t sold any records or made any money out of the albums, that they were still some kind of success in a way, you know.”

It wasn’t quite stunning but I’d always heard Chilton spoken of in the most reverent terms; he was a man who had more credibility with indie pop hipsters than the Pope has with Catholics and he spoke of his own brilliant musical career like a dentist discussing his unsuccessful private practice at a holiday party.

The fact is, when it came down it, he lived a modest middle class life, he played golden oldies at state fairs because the money was good and the sets were short and he died in large part because he put off going to the doctor for days because he didn’t have health insurance. It’s an obvious point but it’s one that isn’t made very often: you can’t pay your damn bills with credibility.

The way the word “pop” was applied with reverence to Chilton long after the last Big Star record was released, “pop” has been used as a baton to beat Joe Jackson repeatedly about the head. To wit, you won’t find many descriptions of Jackson’s early work that doesn’t use the word in the first couple sentences and it’s used with some measure of distaste.

For both men, though, pop music seemed to be more a means to an end – just what you did because that’s how you made music. Jackson says in his own autobiography: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around does it make a sound? Or: Does music even exist, if no one’s listening?” Both Jackson and Chilton seem to have a workmanlike attitude toward their own music. Sure, follow your muse, make music you can be proud of, but why even bother if no one’s going to listen? Making pop music wasn’t a conscious choice any more than it was a conscious choice to make music at all. It’s just what you do.

For his part, the line on Joe Jackson in the early days was that he married an acerbic wit with a decidedly pop aesthetic. He was too poppy for the punk-rock kids but too smart for the room; that’s the reputation, anyway, but I think that misses the mark pretty substantially on both accounts.

Take as a case study Jackson’s debut, Look Sharp! This record features a great share of both pop craftsmanship (as evidenced by the smash hit “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”) and sharp wit (check lines like “If you want to know about the gay politician / if you want to know how to drive a car / If you want to know about the new sex position”) from the trade winds groove of “Sunday Papers.”

But the reason I say any focus on the pop aspects of or the clever wit of Look Sharp! misses the point is because this is an angry – and if you’ll pardon the buzzwords, edgy – album. More to the point, it possesses the unsubtle obtuseness one would expect from an angry record. More often than not Look Sharp! isn’t particularly incisive, nor is particularly polished.

Take, for example, the little bit of rock n’ roll perfection that opens Look Sharp!, “One More Time:”

“One More Time” is angular and open and incredibly fresh sounding even 30 years after the fact. It’s not that Jackson isn’t working within the pop milieu, it’s that the label is being applied in a more specific and pejorative sense. Sure, there’s a verse-chorus structure, but is it really that much easier to swallow than “Radio, Radio” or “Kick Out the Jams?”

In a backwards way, I think critics like to reference Jackson’s wit almost as a way of punishing him. Eventually, he followed his muse out of rock and into low-middlebrow forays into the worlds of jazz trios and classical. In the end, he was a quick-hipped dilettante with one eye toward the door and the scions of rock and new wave hated him for it. In other words, we were almost threatened by Jackson and it was easier to just toss a pithy reference to his wit or intelligence and dismiss him. He wants to leave? Fine, fuck him. Mr. Big Shot.

But again, I think this misses the point and in a strange way gives him too much credit. Take “Fools in Love,” with its mellow ska upstrokes set against an evisceration of modern love. I can only guess was deemed a little too clever for the charts when it was released as a single. I guess but there simply isn’t the poetry to back it up:

“Fools in love they think they’re heroes / ’cause they get to feel no pain / I say fools in love are zeros / I should know, I should know / Because this fool’s in love again.” Nothing about rhyming “zeroes” with “heroes” strikes me as interesting poetry.

The fact of the matter is that “clever diatribe” is a difficult thing to pull off without sounding affected (just ask Dennis Miller). Either Jackson was a painfully obvious lyricist with little sense of nuance, or he was, as we all were, angry in his early years and struggled, as we all do, to convey that anger in a logically cogent way.

Labels are a tricky thing, and the stickiness of “pop” when it comes to Joe Jackson is a sort of interesting exemplar of the arbitrariness behind how we raise up some men and sort of relegate others to certain purgatories. In a way, Jackson was always treated as a sort of craftsman first, as if we were being sold a bill of goods by a cynic. I don’t hear much evidence that Look Sharp! is any less sincere than what his peers were doing at the time, and more importantly, Look Sharp! holds up nicely against This Year’s Model as an artifact of the time.

Rolling Stone wrote of Jackson:

Ironically, the borderline-nasty wit and unchecked exuberance of these albums quickly gave way to self-seriousness and a middle-brow disdain of rock itself. Jackson turned into a bigger crank than his two old rivals Parker and Costello put together – and that’s saying a lot! The remainder of his in-print catalogue is marked by restless wandering from one musical genre to another. Sometimes the experiments works brilliantly; more often, they simply bewilder…

I think the phrase “turned into” a crank is exactly the dismissal that drives me nuts. He didn’t “turn into” a crank, he started that way. While we were willing to follow Costello into whatever genre experiments he cooked up, while we were happy to laud Alex Chilton for his steadfast worship of the pop gods, we didn’t give Joe Jackson the same room to operate. He was too pissy to satisfy our desire for pop music in easy-to-eat, bite-sized morsels and he didn’t condescend to us so we weren’t worried that we would look stupid if we ignored him.

You have to wonder if Jackson would trade his career for Chilton’s credibility. Or maybe, more importantly for us, the consumers of music, the critics and the scholars, what does it say about us that we would give with one hand while slapping away with the other two different men who followed the same exact impulse: to make music people would like, because that’s what you do. And since the reward for a lifetime of our admiration is dying too young because you can’t pay your bills, you have to wonder if anyone should really care what we think anyway.


Matthew Record is a social person by nature, he likes to be out among people and therefore the insular life of a writer suits him rather poorly. Matthew is a licensed Real Estate Appraiser currently studying to finish his long delayed bachelor’s degree in political science because who needs one of those?

Matthew is the drummer and driving force behind the indie pop sextet Fortune & Spirits. He is also an editor of and a staff writer for RazzberrySync, Inc and is, of course, the sole contributor to his own blog.

Matthew is from Long Island, NY and becomes enraged when people from Long Island root for the Rangers. We have one team and it’s the Islanders. Support them.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture

2 replies »

  1. For me, Jackson has always been a wonderful practitioner of the use of space. That, as much as his wit or musical point of view, defined his music for me. His heritage of studying classical music and jazz gave him a perspective where he could approach “pop” music from a different angle – one where beat and melody could be accentuated with this wonderful open space that was as distinctive as it was powerful in his early work.

    Just listen to the opening bars of “One More Time.” It’s almost as though the guitar part takes a breath in the melody. Or the aforementioned “Fools In Love.” As he sings, “I should know…I should know because this fool’s in love again.” Lots of white space there, too.

    I have not always enjoyed all the detours in his musical journey. But I have a great appreciation for Jackson’s wandering urges.

    • I’m a huge fan of Jackson’s New Wave work and, as was the case with Elvis Costello, kinda stopped paying attention when he moved on from that all-too-brief movement. But in 1979 he gave us two five-star albums, and that space you’re talking about is a big part of why they were so good. The pop sensibility? Yep. The wit? Oh, hell yeah. He was relentless with it.

      Great insight, considering him alongside Chilton. But if you’re looking for justice, the music world is just going to make you want to kill people…