Joe Jackson Band: Beat Crazy US CD 
- Beat Crazy
- One To One
- In Every Dream Home [A Nightmare]
- The Evil Eye
- Mad At You
- Crime Don’t Pay
- Someone Up There
- Pretty Boys
It’s funny about Joe Jackson. He was one of the first “New Wave” artists to get a toehold on the notoriously conservative Orlando FM Rock radio stations where I grew up. He was also the first rock concert I ever attended [“Night + Day” tour 1983]. But I’ve never really rated Joe Jackson all that much. I’ve got friends who are much more ardent in their fandom. Of the three legendary “Angry Young Men Of New Wave®” Joe rates a distant third behind Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. In the last 20 years, Parker and Jackson have basically switched places on that list, and let me owe up. The only one of them who I would like to own their entire output is just Parker!
Never the less, when my wife suggested stopping into Mr. K’s to while away an hour last Sunday [okay – throw me into that briar patch] one of the two CDs I was motivated to buy was Joe Jackson’s third album, “Beat Crazy,” which not only have I never owned before, I’ve never even heard it! Sure, sure. I was familiar with the title track, “Mad At You” and the pungent “Pretty Boys,” but the juxtaposition of those three songs, the insanely beautiful cover art [by Willy Smax], its ready availability at the right price, and the je ne sais quoi of my day off work conspired to move my hand for the first time in 35 years on this title. How was it?
Pretty interesting! First of all, I had never heard the amazing title track back in the day, but exposure to it over the years on Chas’ Crusty Old Wave® program gave me tantalizing glimpses of its dubbed out, feverish vibe. I was cool to ska in the ’79-’80 milieu of its contemporary ascendency. When Jackson’s third album dropped with ska coloring, I felt that it was about the trendiest thing that he could have done at that point, so I was not impressed. I was mainly into New Wave synth rock [about to coalesce into New Romanticism] so ska, at the time, was the retrograde enemy in UK pop. Exposure to “I Just Can’t Stop It” got me straight with second wave ska later in the year, so I came ’round eventually! I love this track for the crude, brash dub effects that producer Jackson troweled on with no subtlety at all. Also, his crafting of the song as a call-and-response duet between bassist Graham Maby with himself sounded fantastic! Gary Sanford’s deeply twangy Duade Eddy riffs that propel the tune forward were also a treat. The dizzy cover art managed to capture the frenzied vibe achieved here exceptionally well.
The next track, “One To One” was sagely picked by A+M US as the album’s lone single Stateside. With so much of the album swimming in ska and dub reggae, this made all of the sense in the world. It took Moon Records and another decade before ska was anything but a UK pop cult that didn’t really cross the big drink. What was fascinating about this song was the clarity with which Jackson telegraphed his future intentions at sophisticated, jazzy pop where he would have his greatest success. But “Night + Day” was a few years down the road. This track could have been released on that one, or even more appropriately, “Body + Soul.” Even so, the arrangement here was more electric than anything on those albums! It’s just voice, a bit of piano, and unrelenting, metronomic rim hits from drummer Dave Houghton, seasoned with the barest hint of organ. It’s one of the most minimal things from Jackson I’ve encountered and it makes me want more of this.
“The Evil Eye” was a surprise, in that Jackson wrote a odd bit of character study like that. It feels out of place on this album as it crafted a portrait of a paranoid young man who practices voodoo to strike back at all of the people who “crossed” him. This tune did win extra bonus points for name-checking The Cramps that early in their career in a song about voodoo.
“Mad At You” might have been the reason why I picked up this CD from the racks in the first place. I have very fond memories of the way over the top music video that I had seen in 1980 on “Rockworld,” years before MTV captured my eyeballs. I loved the scenes of Jackson emoting with a huge plate beans at the dinner table while Jackson in drag, portrayed the girlfriend rousing his ire. The violent guitar skank that the tune was built on was infectious, and the simplicity and directness of the chorus [“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, at you!!!” x 2] simply could not be beat. The song [and its video] had been burned into my brain for years. What I did not know, was that the album version of the tune was twice as long as the single edit I had heard 35 years ago, and it featured another three minutes of dub mix. That as fussy a musician as Jackson would indulge in three minutes of such musical “filler” did not seem like something that he would do.
“Side Two” began with “Crime Don’t Pay,” a strange number that seemed a little sloppy coming after the dubbed out excess of “Mad At You.” The construction and arrangement of this number was perverse in the extreme. After 1:15 of instrumental introduction, Jackson finally appeared to sing a narrative for about a minute that eschewed verse/chorus structure, and then reverted to instrumental vamping after a false stop at the 2:30 mark. If the last song were a bit indulgent, than this one seemed to be crossing a line. Due to its structure, it seemed far longer than it’s 4:24 length.
“Battleground” was a heated number than pulled no punches as it explored the dub poetry style of Linton Kwesi Johnson. Johnson received a dedication in the liner notes, so it was intentional. “Biology” was a real highlight and one of the cleverest songs here. Jackson was always up for pointed social commentary and this one delivers a strong payload. The man in the song explains to the woman why he cheated to the woman. The chorus featuring “B-i-o-l-o-g-y… can’t you see” is a kind of genius. I love it when the woman in the song pulls a reversal on the man and justifies her straying to the man in her own way. Quid pro quo.
I was familiar with “Pretty Boys” from the ubiquitously remaindered “Times Square” soundtrack. I didn’t remember the song packing such a powerful lyrical wallop though. It’s not just a screed against manufactured pop stars. That’s just the tip of the iceberg here! Jackson managed to extrapolate the roots of society’s many ills to the mindset that just began with empty, disposable pop stars. The nimble ska bounce here seemed pretty infectious. Maybe it was so upbeat that I never noticed where the lyrics actually went in the later verses. It’s hard to believe that the song only got a single release in The Netherlands.
This album actually managed to reel me fairly strong. I can’t say that it was something that ever happened with other Jackson albums I owned or had heard. The one factor here that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb was that it was Jackson’s first self-production, and as such, it sounded more raw and tentative than the much slicker albums that preceded and followed it. That rough vitality, coupled with the eclectic program of material that dallied with ska while telegraphing his forays into more sophisticated music seemed to be winning to my ears. However, I am all too aware, that this will probably not lead to a more common case where I want more Joe Jackson material in the Record Cell. I’m savvy enough to realize that this album, which I enjoy more than all of the other Joe jackson albums I’ve heard or owned, was a case of it being the awkward transitional album rather than being seen as an end to itself.
“This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?” – Joe Jackson, liner notes
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