Joe Jackson has written about a great many things and explored many different musical directions, but his best known and most popular album remains Look Sharp! and I think it’s accessible for a reason. It’s not exactly a concept album, but it’s definitely a theme album. The theme is ‘angsty and alone’. This song is very much on theme; it’s the complaint of the disgruntled single guy, awash in desire and resentment. It’s selfish and childish and mean, and it’s damn near universal. The world is a cornucopia of beautiful women who are out of your league, and deep down inside, you know that your style and wit will never make up for your unfortunate lack of a chin. Now, obviously, this line of thinking is a dark and dangerous rabbit hole lined with fedoras, but it’s still something everybody has experienced to some extent. And this kind of post-teenage angst is exactly why the three-minute pop song was invented. Like, literally.
The B-52’s really don’t get enough credit. I mean, have you seen them? Like, really paid attention, though? Their good-taste-to-the-wind brand of eccentricity is like nothing else. And how about Kate Pierson? She’s the icon you didn’t know you were indebted to; one part drag queen, one part hipster dream girl. Being campy and kooky isn’t mutually exclusive with being edgy, either. The B-52’s were pretty experimental for a party band. Examine the extended intro of this song. I, for one, didn’t know until just now that the space wave noise was actually Pierson’s modulated voice. Unfortunately, the older video is ruined halfway through by the appearance of some kind of alarmingly hirsute talk show host, but the first half is a marvel of sustained weirdness.
Go ahead and tear it, tear up the paper…
Obviously, this is a pretty poignant metaphor for us literary types. When you’re obsessed with narratives, there’s nothing more frustrating than the basic inability to control or foresee your own. In this case the metaphor is for love affairs, necessarily constrained by the size and quality of the paper and haunted by everything that doesn’t fit on it. And in the end you crumple it up and throw it away, because it’s essentially disposable, essentially inadequate. That also holds true for life, which fails to provide a satisfying narrative arc, doesn’t work out just how you want it, doesn’t contain enough romance or adventure, doesn’t take the shape you want it to. If you’re lucky your life will be looked back on as one of those well-thumbed books with the cracked spine and coffee stains. If you’re not, it’s just a half-empty spiral notebook growing soggy in some box in the basement.
You know who I haven’t listened to in a while? The great, underrated John Cale. I haven’t listened to Sabotage in so many years, I forgot it existed. Wow, what a great record! It really showcases the full range of Cale’s weirdness, from his affinity for pure tone-noise to his deft handed ballads. This song is of the latter category, sung by percussionist Deerfrance. In the vein of Moe Tucker’s contributions to the Velvet Underground, a vulnerable female voice balances out the aggression heard elsewhere. It’s hard to find out much about Deerfrance; a web search predictably yields many pictures of antlered wildlife (and the woman in the photo above is Cale’s first wife, the fashion designer Betsey Johnson.) But she was a habitue of the punk scene at CBGB’s, a member of Cale’s band from 1978 to 1981, and later formed her own band, Extra Virgin Mary.
One Step Beyond Madness sounds like something out of D.H. Lawrence, but that’s a mashup I’m still waiting to see. In fact, nothing could be further from what the name implies. Madness was all about good times, and this song, though it’s not much of an actual song in terms of, oh you know, lyrics and structure, is a classic. It really harks back to a different time, a time when slapdashery was a whole lot more acceptable, when a young band could establish themselves on the strength of silly zero budget videos, and if a rough demo accidentally became your first hit single that was cool too. Anyway, it was one hell of an introduction.
Just Joe Jackson being a romantically disgruntled nebbish. Being a weird looking, neurotic little man who doesn’t get much luck isn’t exactly an edgy angle, but Jackson runs with it. And as such he’s really one of the underrated greats of New Wave.
Like a transmission from a time machine. Takes you back to 1979, when Bob Marley was at his peak as an activist; so different yet so very much the same. One of Marley’s main concerns was, of course, the status of Black people in the new world; another was the struggle of many African nations to liberate themselves from European colonization. Though for most Americans ‘colonialism’ conjures up nothing more than vague images of The Jungle Book and Victorians in funny hats, in reality large parts of Africa remained under partial or full European rule well into the 1980’s, and the problems we so often hear about – poverty, civil unrest, environmental erosion, famine, disease, etc – are a direct result of colonial damage. In the 70’s, Bob Marley and many activists dreamed of pan-African solidarity and unification, black people coming together to build new, strong and vibrant communities independent of European oppression. It was a nice fantasy, but wholly unrealistic, failing to take into account the amount of damage that had been done to indigenous cultures and communities. It was also naive on the part of New Worlders; Africa is huge and vastly diverse, and Africans don’t necessarily see themselves as being in solidarity just because they’re all black to European and American eyes. It was a bitter disappointment of those dreams when, as the tide of colonialism swept out, many states fell into bloody ethnic and religious disputes, their recent history marred by civil war and all-out genocide. On the global stage, African leaders have to deal with being treated like the special-needs kid on the playground, subject of condescension and sympathy mixed with revulsion. Back home in the new world, black lives are trash, just like they’ve always been. Yes, there’s a liberation movement, stronger and louder than it’s been in decades, but it’s got a ‘here-we-go-again’ bitterness to it, with little of the idealistic rhetoric that marked Bob Marley’s brand of activism. When Bob Marley urged the oppressed to get up and stand up, there was a faith that real and lasting equality – for Black people, for the poor, for women – was imminently within reach; now we’re all just fighting to keep from sliding three steps back.