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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
The response to last month's WILT was phenomenal, though I suspect that my writing about Adele may have had something to do with that. So, now what? I may as well break all my own rules and: write about my own records, digress on the art of bass playing, indulge in a rant about the music industry, and launch my first ever Customer Survey. Oh boy. Here we go.
THE JOE JACKSON BAND: Various live recordings and out-takes
Why am I listening to this? I never listen to my own music. This surprises some people, but for me, it would be a bit like regularly looking in a mirror to check that my eyes haven't changed colour or something.
So yes, there's a reason, which is that Universal Music, who own the copyrights to my old A&M stuff, are thinking of releasing a boxed set of the complete recordings of my 'original' (i.e. first-recorded) band. I immediately pointed out that this band reformed in 2003 and made a new album of original songs and then a valedictory live album. Those masters are owned by a different company, but apparently that obstacle can be cleared, in which case a set including the two Ryko albums can happen. There's a problem, though: conventional wisdom dictates that this kind of boxed set doesn't sell unless it contains a significant amount of unreleased material. And there isn't a whole lot of unreleased material from this band. In fact, everything worth releasing was released long ago.
THE RECORDED LEGACY
Let me back up a bit here. The Joe Jackson Band released two albums in 1979, Look Sharp and I'm The Man; and a third album, Beat Crazy, and a 3-track EP, The Harder They Come, in 1980. And that was that, apart from a couple of B-sides (songs we didn't feel were quite good enough to go on the albums) and some live recordings of varying quality, most of which have already been released: a sprawling, uneven double CD, Live At The BBC, appeared in 2009, though for me, the first side of the double album Live 1980-86 probably best captured that band on its 'first farewell tour'.
Beat Crazy was the archetypal 'difficult third album', on which we tried to change things up a bit and somewhat lost the plot in the process. So we took some time (more than twenty years) off, and came back with a killer fourth album, Volume 4. We did record a cover of Todd Rundgren's Couldn't I Just Tell You (which was tacked on to the album in Japan) but we didn't record, or plan to record, anything else before we hit the road for about eight months. But then there was this:
THE JOE JACKSON BAND: Afterlife
This album was taken from four shows near the end of that tour, and as far as I'm concerned, it represents this band at its peak. In other words, it's really the only JJB Live album you need.
I suppose it's a bit big-headed to give my own record a rave review, but I have an excuse: I'm really raving about a band, and an experience (an experience which, like all live performance, was co-authored by the audience), and especially, a bass player. Listening to this for the first time in quite a while, I was drawn over and over again to the bass. By the end of it, I was grinning from ear to ear. What's so great about Graham Maby? Where do I start? Maybe you've never had to play with a mediocre bassist. Most of them are so sure no one's really paying attention to them, that they get away with murder. But Graham never fumbles from one note to another: everything is cleanly articulated, focussed, and deliberate. Most bassists get away with playing any notes that more or less fit in with the chords; Graham plays endlessly inventive lines that still never seem to get in the way of anything else. Most bassists either sound too muddy and indistinct, or go to the opposite extreme and start turning into lead guitar twangers; Graham's sound is always both fat and clear as a bell. Most bassists lean heavily on the drummer, but Graham makes the drummer sound better; and if he ever has to work with a bad one, he'll uncomplainingly lay down the whole ferocious groove all by himself. He is humble yet exudes and inspires confidence. He is very handsome . . . all right, that's enough! He'll be asking for a raise . . .
Universal Music doesn't care about any of this; in fact, they'd rather leave out Afterlife, but they've proposed to include some of it, as a compromise; what they really want is to leave plenty of room for 'out-takes' and live recordings that are nowhere near as good, on the basis that that thev have not been previously released. Note that neither I nor my then–producer David Kershenbaum were involved in selecting or mixing any of this stuff. Note also that in the JJB's first short lifetime, I hadn't gotten around to rearranging the songs very much, so what you get is the same few songs repeated pretty much the same way, over and over.
I should say that I've never been one to fight with my record company just for the sake of it. There was a time when everyone seemed to be doing that, and it seemed cool (I remember when Graham Parker, during a dispute with Mercury Records, recorded a song called Mercury Poisoning). I'm not saying I've always seen eye to eye with record company people, but I always thought we were more or less on the same team. Anyway, fighting your record company no longer has that rebellious 'stick it to The Man' cachet. The record industry has all but collapsed, and now more than ever, we're all in it together, which is another way of saying we're all fucked.
Apart from which, Universal have been pretty decent lately. I was allowed quite a bit of input into the A&M Years compilation they released last year, and it turned out quite nicely. For that matter, they could have already put out some dog's dinner of a boxed set without even telling me.
Still, I have one pet peeve about the music industry in general that never goes away, and that is their insatiable, and indiscriminate, demand for 'extra' material. Alternate takes, out-takes, bonus tracks, edits, remixes, special tracks for special editions or special occasions or special territories or special people . . . no matter how much you give them, or how good it is, it's never enough. OK, I know some artists are more prolific than me, or have a better hit-to-miss ratio. But for the love of God, what is so hard to understand about the following?:
"I've given you the absolute best I've got. I've worked my arse off and this is what I what I feel confident about presenting to the world. There isn't anything else, or if there is, it's in the trash where it belongs. Who says so? I say so. Why? Because I'm the bloody artist, that's why. That's what artists do: we experiment and re-write and edit and fine-tune until we get it as good as we can. And that is what we want people to hear".
I think the rot probably set in with the advent of the CD. One of the many great things about vinyl was that it forced artists to focus, and to put out 40 or so minutes of their absolute best. Then suddenly we had much more space, and everyone wanted to fill it up. But more often than not, less is more, and more and more becomes less and less. Too many albums still have too many tracks. On top of which, record companies shower us with stuff that the artists and producers rejected, hoping we're dumb enough to perceive it as some kind of exciting 'bonus'. Well, I'm a big fan of Charlie Parker, but I want to hear him blazing and soaring at his best, not strung out on heroin while some creep kept the tape rolling and smuggled it out of the studio. I'm a big fan of Duke Ellington, but I want to see him in his sharp suit, not in his underpants. I'm a big fan of David Bowie, but if he doesn't want to make an album for ten years, that's his decision and I respect it. I don't want to hire a private detective with an iPhone to catch him singing in the shower.
Whatever, say the record company marketeers: single-artist boxed sets don't sell unless they have forty percent Previously Unreleased Content. The reasoning (which is not completely mad) is that hard-core fans have all the original recordings anyway. The problem is, there's a complete disconnect between marketing theory and artistic reality. And this disconnect continues to flood the market with third-rate, or tenth-rate, material. And while this may not be the main reason for the decline of the industry, it surely doesn't help.
So, back to 'my' boxed set (which may or may not happen): I've agreed to include a couple of lame B-sides, the Rundgren cover, and some so-so live recordings. These really are the last dregs, but it's still not enough, which is why I'm sitting here ploughing miserably through things like: (a) four takes of 'One More Time' which, even to my ears, sound exactly the same; (b) three takes of 'Is She Really Going Out With Him' marked 'Not Bad', 'Good', and 'Brilliant' (the last having been used on the album); (c) one and a half minutes of Graham Maby, Dave Houghton and yours truly jamming aimlessly between takes; (d) 'Beat Crazy – Instrumental' (no, not a different arrangement or anything, just the track without the vocals); (e) a mix of 'On Your Radio' identical to the album version except for a very slightly different echo effect on the vocal; etc, etc, etc.
This is not even scraping the bottom of the barrel. The bottom fell out years ago. But what do I know? Let's let the fans decide! Do you want a boxed set containing stuff like this?
☐ Yes! I worship Joe Jackson, verily, might I grovel in the dirt merely to touch the hem of his garment. I wish to posess anything and everything which emanate-eth from him, even his toenail clippings, yea, even unto the toenail clippings already chewed by his dog. Just so long as there is 40 Previously Unreleased Content.
☐ Duh, I dunno! I suppose some of it might be kind of interesting. I guess I might take a chance on it. Or maybe not.
☐ No! Who are you trying to kid? Putting out all this crap isn't a gift to the fans, it's an insult.
Full results will be posted next month.