Under ‘fun facts I didn’t know about famous albums’, Joe Jackson’s Big World was apparently recorded live, and not just live in the studio, but live as in, in concert. That fact amazes me, because until I perused the Wiki, I never would have guessed. I generally kind of hate live albums. They’re usually really sloppy, heavy on the hits, poorly recorded and used as a cash grab to keep the artist in cocaine and hookers until the next real album comes out. Not to mention that a lot of bands actually kind of suck at playing their own songs, especially some of the late greats who liked to perform while zonked out on a field hospital’s worth of pharmaceuticals, and the live album does nothing but reveal their laziness and lack of skill without the comfort of good studio production. But Joe Jackson, of course, does things his own way, and when he goes to make a live album, he’s armed with the best musicians, an invited audience and an entirely original set of songs. The production quality and sheer musical perfection of Big World belies its origin on the concert stage. It’s so the antithesis of a live record that I’m actually not sure what the point was in the first place. It just sounds perfect. I mean, check out the musicianship in that video.
Cab Calloway may not be a household name, but you’ve damn sure seen his signature moves or heard one of his songs. Fans have come to Cab Calloway through odd pathways, from the Betty Boop shorts that featured his animated avatar in the 1930’s, to his showstopping cameo in The Blues Brothers in 1980, to covers by unexpected artists like The White Stripes in the aughts. Like a lot of people, I came to this song through Joe Jackson’s cover. In the 80’s Jackson did more than anybody to guide rock fans into the world of swing and jazz music. His jazz covers proved that music that was swingin’ in the 30’s was still swingin’ right in tune with post-punk and new wave. That was a pretty surprising epiphany, given that rock fans tend to view jazz as being as stodgy and musty as their granddad’s old suits. Nobody could ever call Cab Calloway stodgy: he was always in the business of razzle-dazzle and good razzle-dazzle never fades. Calloway has managed to pop up as a cultural reference point in every decade, and being dead hasn’t slowed his roll. He just always comes back around, just as cool as the first day he did the Hi-De-Ho.
This song could not be more on point. It’s so on point it’s slightly discombobulating to realize that it’s coming at you from 1986. I don’t know what Joe Jackson’s been up to lately or what he thinks about this world of ours right now, but there’s plenty of inspiration if he wants to write a sequel to Big World. In the 80’s Jackson was a premier observational songwriter, the post-punk jazz-nerd who wrote wittily about everything from tabloid newspapers to world cuisine. Most of his observations are still relevant; things change but not that much. In this song, not one word is less true today than it was in 1986. Literally, just one; simply change ‘Commies’ to ‘Russians’ and the sentiment remains the same. Your TV-watching citizenry still doesn’t grasp basic concepts unless they’re spelled out in broad terms that a dull child could understand. Right and wrong? Nobody knows the difference.
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.
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.
If anyone deserves to be satirized, it’s obnoxious tourists, right? The kind of people who, as Joe Jackson helpfully explains, go and make nuisances of themselves in other people’s countries. You could go further here and start a conversation about cultural imperialism, colonialism and cultural appropriation, all things I’ve been reading a lot virulent debates about on the interwebses. Those are bad things, reasonable people agree. Just generally misunderstanding and disrespecting other people’s culture is agreed to be a very bad thing. But this is a light and funny song that only points towards those things. It’s only about annoying tourists with their expensive cameras and sense of entitlement. Americans are, as Joe Jackson also helpfully explains, the worst offenders because they have the most money for travel. But we’re not the only guilty parties, nor is America itself immune from being annoyed by large groups of tourists who gawk at the landmarks and express disgust at the local cuisine. If, like me, you’ve ever had to explain to a confused Asian lady what a sandwich is, you may know that feeling of frustration. You may also have noticed that foreign tourists either don’t know about tipping or just pretend that they don’t. If there’s one positive thing you can say about American travelers, it’s that we have horrific feelings of guilt if we don’t slip our servers a dollar or two, even if we’re in a country were tipping isn’t done. So that could be a song too.
Joe Jackson brought me to Louis Jordan. I know some jazz, but I’m by no means an expert. There must be many great artists who aren’t household names who I don’t yet know about. Louis Jordan was one, up until fairly recently, when I decided to track down the original artists of Jackson’s jazz album tracks. It turned out a lot of them were by Louis Jordan. I suppose that getting a wider fanbase on board with cats like Jordan was on Joe Jackson’s agenda when he made those records, and I hope he succeeded wildly. It’s a ballsy move for a popular artist to diversify and hope his fans follow. Not that it always goes according to plan, but when it does, everyone wins.
(photo: 35mm from reality)