Look Sharp! Joe Jackson certainly did as nattily attired on his debut release of that name. Joined by Graham Maby on bass, Gary Sanford on guitar and Dave Houghton on drums, pianist-singer Jackson delivered a record for the ages. Both Look Sharp! and Night and Day, Jackson’s fifth album for A&M Records, have recently been reissued as deluxe audiophile vinyl editions by the team at Intervention Records. Happily, they’re sonically every bit the equal of the label’s stellar reissue earlier this year of the artist’s sophomore disc, I’m the Man.
The jagged, confrontational “One More Time,” which opens Look Sharp!, certainly seems to justify the inevitable comparisons between early Joe Jackson and early Elvis Costello. (The two musically restless artists were born within two weeks of one another in August 1954 and have followed similarly adventurous trajectories.) The track introduces Jackson’s snarl as well as his already-developed melding of traditional, melodic pop songcraft and punk attitude. The young singer-songwriter offered his own jaundiced views on romance not only on “One More Time” but on the acidic “Happy Loving Couples,” the reggae-flavored “Fools in Love” (“Are there any other kind of lovers?” he queries) and the song that cemented his reputation as a talent to watch.
The sly, sarcastic “Is She Really Going Out with Him” earned Jackson a hit right out of the gate as it climbed to No. 21 in the United States and No. 13 in the United Kingdom. His sense of humor shines through on “Do the Instant Mash,” with Sanford’s dirtiest guitar, and on the withering “Sunday Papers.” Jackson’s observations are as true today as they were in 1979 (“If you want to know about the gay politician/If you want to know how to drive your car/If you want to know about the new sex position…” or “Well I got nothing against the press/They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true…”) but there are comparatively light moments on Look Sharp!, too, such as the danceable rock-and-roll of “Baby Stick Around,” complete with the band on harmonies.
The band members are at their most frenetic on the piano-pounding punk of “Throw It Away” and filled with gleeful abandon on the lament about “Pretty Girls” (“God, if you’re up there, listen to my prayer/In future man should have a different design/Give him a switch so he can turn off his libido now…”). Note the “down do be do do wops” that would do Neil Sedaka proud! On the closing track, the powerfully charged “Got the Time,” Jackson sings, “No such thing as tomorrow, only one-two-three-go!” His career would soon take off with the same energy and urgency. Houghton’s drums benefit greatly from the beautiful LP remaster, with incredible presence, and Maby’s anchoring of the tough title track has never sounded, well, sharper thanks to the clear bottom end.
After 1980’s Beat Crazy, Jackson “broke up the band” and brazenly defied all conventional wisdom to record Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, a collection of swing and jump blues-oriented covers. When he returned to the singer-songwriter mold with 1982’s Night and Day, it was with a mostly new set of musicians. Underscoring Jackson’s inventive spirit, the LP lacks guitar. The core band features Jackson on piano/keys (and occasional saxophone and vibes and Graham Maby on bass and percussion, plus Larry Tolfree on drums, timbales and percussion, and Sue Hadjopolous on congas, bongos, timbales, bells and various percussion instruments.
There’s enormous clarity to Intervention’s quiet, clean remaster as Night and Day opens on a duet between drums and Latin percussion, then Jackson on the plinking piano. The sounds are almost more important than the song “Another World,” though that’s exactly where Jackson takes the listener in a perfect lyrical and sonic opener. This is the world of the big city at night, and the Asian musical motif threaded throughout the opener leads directly into “Chinatown.” Driven by its nonstop, seductive rhythm, the singer chronicles an anything-goes Manhattan (of days gone by?) of multiple cultures meshing, and darkness lurking just around the corner.
Jackson offers mordant commentary on “TV Age” and “Target” (“I’m no one special/But any part of town/Someone could smile at me then/Shake my hand, then gun me down”) on which the infusion of salsa and Latin elements is positively invigorating. Underscoring the musical connections between each track on the LP, the two-note bass line of “Target” segues into “Steppin’ Out,” the hit single. With its instantly recognizable riff and powerful feeling of motion and excitement, “Steppin’ Out” captured the energy of movement “into the night, into the light” of Side Two. In the detailed remaster in which each instrument is rendered pristinely, this familiar track particularly shimmers anew.
It likely takes a bit of hubris to title an album after one of the greatest songs ever written, but Jackson made his bid to take a place alongside the likes of Cole Porter with the sophisticated, classy balladry on Side Two, the so-called Day side. The opening of “Breaking Us in Two” can’t help but recall Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” but the rest of the song is pure Jackson, with slinky piano driving a memorable, classic-styled melody and keenly-observed, vulnerable lyrics. An ode to personal freedom, “Cancer” reintroduces the salsa sound into the mix as Jackson sarcastically implores, “No caffeine, no sleep by day, no booze or nicotine, remember…everything gives you cancer.” The track also showcases the artist on saxophone as well as a dexterous piano solo.
“Real Men” finds Jackson pushing the envelope as he pointedly comments upon gender roles in frank, even uncomfortable fashion (musically, this is of a piece with the Day side but lyrically, it could belong on the Night side). But the edge of “Real Men” was just one facet of Jackson’s talent; his sweeter side closes Night and Day with “A Slow Song,” a rather anti-rock screed from a passionate performer. “Play us a slow song,” Jackson croons with angst; he even name-checks the famous 1936 Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern song when he sings, “This is a fine romance…” The mid-tempo ballad builds to a dramatic crescendo – and indeed, many more slow songs (and fast ones, too, to be fair!) would be in Jackson’s impressive future. Still, this sleek, tight LP may well stand as Jackson’s masterwork.
Both vinyl releases are housed in thick, sturdy Stoughton-printed sleeves. Look Sharp! is in a single jacket while Night and Day is a single-pocket gatefold. Original labels have also been lovingly replicated – a standard A&M label for Look Sharp! and a custom label for Night and Day. Remastering on both titles has been impressively handled by Kevin Gray from 1/2-inch safety copies of the original stereo masters, and as pressed on 180-gram vinyl, both sound even better than the original releases. While these LPs are geared for the audiophile market, they’re well worth seeking out for any fans of the albums equipped with a turntable. The vibrancy and crispness of both releases will doubtless make for a fresh listen, night or day.
Both Look Sharp! and Night and Day are available now from Intervention Records at the links below!