School was cruel. Blessed with an abundant record box of singles I had a passport to the parties but it came at a cost. Spending my paper-round money on vinyl but still clad in jumble sale garb didn’t go unnoticed by my mates, So a throwaway jibe about me being “square” stuck fast. To be honest Joe Jackson didn’t help at all. I loved his early singles which my brother played for me. By the time Steppin’ Out was released – conveniently coinciding with my first bout of teenage acne – I was hooked. Joe though, was certainly no Smash Hits cover star.
A Dylan-obsessed English teacher then invited the class to bring in song lyrics for analysis and discussion. After the Howard Jones and Duran Duran fans… there was me. Chatting on about the ‘social comment’ and observational words of Joe Jackson. Not cool. Even then he looked like someone’s balding uncle yet I still lapped up every song and sought out as many features in the music press and telly as I could. My regional television news in Hampshire did a piece on Joe and Steppin’ Out and how he was now living in New York. Bereft of his latest vinyl, spotty and square me wrote to him care of his record company bemoaning the fact that my local Our Price didn’t stock his records. He wrote back with a copy of Steppin’ Out and a signed photo. Yeah sure I know now it was probably a PR responding but a lifelong connection was forged.
Fast forward way too many years and I find myself at London Palladium nervously excited hanging out at the stage door asking for my pass. As I wait in the lobby I spy a letter addressed to “Mr Joe Jackson, London Palladium”. I imagine an awkward adolescent fan-boy, newly introduced to Joe’s back-catalogue, waxing lyrical, expressing gratitude for Joe’s musicality and perceptive turn of phrase. Another ‘square’. I head for the plush surroundings of the Palladium stalls hoping his hero reads his letter.
The well-preserved auditorium is a very long way from the spit and sawdust pubs where Joe honed his craft in the early 1970s. Excited much?
As Joe arrives on stage for this final night of his Sing, You Sinners tour he takes his seat behind his keyboards. Looking around, it’s obvious the audience has grown and matured with the sixty something singer.
What will we get tonight – new wave jagged pop, soulful ballads, Latin jazz or sophisticated AOR pop? Will the real Joe Jackson please stand up! No, he remains seated for the whole set. Genre-hopping Joe will do exactly as he pleases, thank you. Launching into a medley of three songs from his 1979 debut album Look Sharp intertwined with three songs from his most recent album Fool from 2019 Joe is clearly on a mission at this, his fiftieth gig of the tour. Sunday Papers from his debut was an acutely observed track back in 1979 and it remains relevant today with Joe singing sarcastically, “if you want to know about the bishop and the actress…if you want to know about the stains on the mattress…” describing the sleaze and sensationalism of the gutter press. The title track Look Sharp is an angular gem which back in the day was misunderstood as being a statement of style over substance when really it was an attack on hipster “cool” – setting the tone for the rest of his career.
Occasionally the universe has warmed to Joe and he’s been reluctantly pulled in to the cool orbit of the music press – notably with his debut and a few years later with his Night And Day album. At other times he might as well have been living on Jupiter for all the attention his music received. Quite frankly Joe couldn’t care any less. His memoir Cure For Gravity summed up his attitude as he described his career only up to the time he became noticed – writing instead about down and dirty gigs in dodgy pubs with out of tune pianos. Humble Joe just felt the pop life was too boring to write about!
The newer songs in the medley include the light and absorbing tale of Dave – an everyman leading a simple life. Joe gives it a Bowiesque delivery with echoes of Albarn/Coxon in the song writing. Fabulous Absolute is a punchy contemporary take on the new wave pop that first put this Portsmouth bloke in the spotlight.
Joe’s always let the music do the talking and the gig is almost half an hour old when he finally speaks to an enthusiastic crowd. He chats about the title of his Fool album and how people “don’t know their Shakespeare” and how the fool doesn’t play by the rules and is the “wild card” and “often he’s the smartest guy on the stage…”. Yes you are Joe and as if to emphasise the point his band leave the stage for Joe to perform alone. First though, there’s an enquiry from the audience about what Joe’s drinking in his mug – is it tea or coffee…whisky? Joe advises that whisky is for “after the show” and actually he’s swigging back herbal tea. Joe adds that it’s the last night of the tour and confides “you have no idea how sick I am of this f***ing tea!”.
Vocal cords lubricated, Piano beauty So Low from his 2008 Rain album begins this solo section. Real Men from his Night And Day album follows. A song so perceptive and laden with wise commentary on gender and sexuality it’s incredible to think the song was written in 1982 and not 2022. Get beneath the beautiful rise and fall of his exquisite piano and the song is an absorbing thesis on the nature of maleness and how the stereotypes have been subverted. This is Joe’s genius – a classic composer and an insightful lyricist. Definitely a song for the sociology students!
The humour returns with Joe stating “now for something completely different” and a “long standing tradition” as Joe announces it’s time to do the “cover version du jour”. Tonight he’s going all the way back to 1913 and a song he discovered when doing his research for his one and only film role in The Greatest Game Ever Played. Joe was “typecast” as a pub piano-player! The origin of popular culture and its roots in working class London fascinate Joe. The surroundings of the London Palladium seem wholly appropriate for his rendition of Who’s Your Lady Friend – cheekily performed with plenty of faux Cockney charm and swagger.
The band return for another brisk medley starting with the perhaps semi-autobiographical, nocturnal groove of Kings Of The City from the 2016 Fast Forward album “We were brought up in a boring town. Watching our feet sink into the ground…”. The chunkier almost Springsteen meets Dylan vibe of Blaze Of Glory taken from the album of the same name follows. Then the title track from the Fool album gets a lengthy Latin-tinged outro leading into the prohibition jazz mood of Sing, You Sinners. The medley continues with the instantly recognisable Is She Really Going Out With Him with Joe asking if there are “any sinners in the house?” and the audience response “yeah” has Joe remarking “well don’t sound so pleased with yourselves!”.
As the bass line rises Joe continues the banter, “they say you can save your soul by singing, I don’t know if it’s true or not but as a scientific experiment we’re going to take four bona fide, truly confirmed absolutely wretched and miserable evil depraved sinners and get them to sing…let’s see what happens!”. The stripped down virtual a capella version of Joe’s classic hit is fun – the devil does have all the best tunes! The very last beat seamlessly segues into another Jackson gem It’s Different For Girls and the Palladium is rocking. Fans are breaking out and starting to stand up and some of the security aren’t too impressed but it’s unfair as some of these people haven’t been able to let their hair down since 1980! Actually, a lot of these people don’t have much hair. By the time the frenetic kick of I’m The Man starts Joe is in full new wave punk mode albeit still remaining a wispy haired, balding figure seated at his keyboard. The Palladium erupts and the spiv punch of I’m the Man sounds like the perfect finale to end the last night of the tour but there’s still more to come even after the long drum solo at the end.
Joe returns for the encore and thanks everyone for coming and explains how even now it’s still a difficult time for touring so he’s especially grateful for everyone who has “filled the place”. Time to introduce the band. Doug Yowell on drums, loyal and ever-present bassist Graham Maby, and Teddy Kumpel on guitar and sitar. They launch into the rousing You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) from the Body and Soul album released in 1984.
After years of having this guilty pleasure and adoration of Joe Jackson this flirtation with this most stubborn music chameleon is almost over. Still time yet though for Joe to play the song which he sent me all those years ago. Introduced as “a love song, really a romantic ballad” Steppin’ Out is slowed right down to reveal it’s core elegance and beauty. At the end Joe is overcome with emotion and stands motionless, head bowed to soak up the applause.
Joe ain’t cool. He’s always detached himself from any trend and often stubbornly moved forward and switched direction when on the cusp of greater fame. He’s the working class kid who picked up some old Beethoven 78 records and ended up at the Royal College of Music before carving out a most eclectic career. Tonight he’s done it for me and all the other square kids. Good old uncool Joe!