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Look Sharp!
Joe Jackson

A&M 4743
Released: March 1979
Chart Peak: #20
Weeks Charted: 39
Certified Gold: 9/11/79

Joe JacksonJoe Jackson looks very sharp indeed on this head-turning debut album that not only crackles with the vivacious sonic vigor of mid-Sixties Merseybeat, but also makes explicit (even more than the Clash or the Police) the New Wave/reggae connection. In the process, Jackson comes on like a feisty cross between Billy Joel and Elvis Costello, and even pulls off an uncanny Keith Relf impersonation. Not bad for a Royal Academy of Music graduate.

Cut live in the studio and perfectly captured by David Kershenbaum's crisp, lucid production, Look Sharp! is a stripped-down pean to spontaneous combustion, from the neo-Yardbirds raveup of "One More Time" (complete with dead-ringer Relf-ian warblings and recherché harp playing) through the vintage Beat-Boom wallop of "Got Time" to the Rockpile-style pummeling in "Throw It Away."

Even though "Is She Really Going Out with Him" cops its title from the Shangri-Las and "Pretty Girls" opens with a quote from Manfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," Jackson is no cloddish revivalist. Instead, the LP's most engaging characteristics are its pervasive Caribbean consciousness -- partially invoked by the smoky lope of "Fools in Love," but instantly apparent in such other reggae-tinged tracks as "Pretty Girls" and the punchy "Sunday Papers" -- and his sometimes acidulous social commentary. In "Sunday Papers" ("If you wanna know 'bout the bishop and an actress.../If you wanna know 'bout the stains on the mattress"), he sounds almost as fed up as Billy Joel, while avoiding Joel's terrible tendency toward bombast.

Joe Jackson - Look Sharp!
Original album advertising art.
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More to the point, however, is Jackson's occasional resemblance to Elvis Costello, both lyrically ("Fools in love/Are there any creatures more pathetic?") and melodically (the chorus of "Happy Loving Couples" is a semiclone of Costello's "Welcome to the Working Week"). Most of the time, though, Joe Jackson is his own man. With proper promotion, he could easily be this year's model in the post-New Wave sweepstakes.

- Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 5-31-79.

Bonus Reviews!

Well, first of all, you baseball buffs will be interested to know that this is his real name. This Joe is hardly shoeless (check the cover and that spiffy pair of white Densons), and, being English, he's probably a soccer fan (I have it on good authority that he's never heard of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, "say it ain't so," and Hannibal, Mo.). Second, he's much taller than he looks in the photo on the back of the album, and not terribly angry, so let's hear none of those Elvis Costello comparisons some people are already beginning to make ("New Costello" seems to be replacing "New Dylan," which probably makes both Elvis and Bob very happy, if perhaps for different reasons).

Jackson is yet another in the seemingly endless procession of post-punk English pop craftsmen that recalls nothing so much as the halcyon days of 1964-1965 and the British Invasion. His rock-and-roll is predicated on both melody and riff (just like the old days), it is primitively spare in a knowing and sophisticated way (here the Costello comparison is apt, because his band gets exceptional mileage out of a sound quite devoid of overdubs), old-fashioned romantic, and quite irresistible. I wouldn't be at all surprised, in fact, if Peter Asher wound up producing some of these songs ("Is She Really Going Out with Him?" in particular, which has a Hook for the Ages) for the next Linda Ronstadt album, and that's not meant as a criticism. This kind of stuff will always sound timeless: it's not a throwback, and it's certainly not the Sound of the Eighties, just a wonderful pop-rock confection that will remind you of everyone from Paul McCartney to Steely Dan while it offers a little something for the mind as well as the ear. An auspicious debut.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 6/79.

Jackson is a young English singer/songwriter of the Elvis Costello school of sensitive new wave songsters. Jackson sings with a higher voice, his music is not as compressed and taut, and he doesn't sound as angry as Costello, but the same elements of solid but sparse instrumentation, a somewhat declamatory style in the singing and sense of late '70s and early '80s frustration is present in the work of both artists. Backed only by guitar, bass, and drums, Jackson plays piano and harmonica. Best cuts: "Sunday Papers," "Throw It Away," "Pretty Girls," "Baby Stick Around."

- Billboard, 1979.

In which an up-and-coming professional entertainer tricks up Britain's latest rock and roll fashion with some fancy chords and gets real intense about the perils of romance. Well, better "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" than "Sunday Papers," the social-criticism interlude, which inspires fond memories of "Pleasant Valley Sunday." B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Further reading on
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New wave was punk for the masses and it never really caught on, but Jackson's brand, particularly as exemplified on Look Sharp! was about as popular as it got, with "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" included here, being a major hit for him. Joe Jackson is a calculated musician of talent but little exposed soul. Still, this recording is filled with bright, catchy music and is a prime example of the seventies new wave movement. The sound on the disc is very bright, at times to the point of harshness at high volume, and the sound stage is somewhat confined. Other than that, it is clear and clean. B

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Hyperactive new-wave rock overlaid with the intelligent, caustic world view of a man as angry as any punk, but far more perceptive. Includes the hit "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Look Sharp! presents hyper and bitter pop with a good beat. Jackson rails with intelligence and inspiration against numerous targets, scoring direct hits with the ugly-guy opus "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and the vituperative white reggae of "Sunday Papers." * * * * 1/2

- Allan Orski, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

By 1978, the clangor of punk and New Wave had penetrated the boardrooms of America's major labels, each of which wanted an Elvis Costello to call its own. So A&M Records took the bait when American producer David Kershenbaum presented Joe Jackson, a high-strung Englishman and gifted pop tunesmith.

On his debut Look Sharp!, Jackson had no compunction about copping the wired reggae of Costello's "Watching the Detectives" for "Fools in Love," nor did he shrink from traditional boy-girl sentiment ("Is She Really Going Out With Him?") or unabashed lechery ("Pretty Girls"). The merger of edginess and ear candy on tracks such as "One More Time" and "Sunday Papers" connected immediately with fans who couldn't abide the brutal fun of "God Save the Queen." Look Sharp! made the Top Twenty, providing A&M bigwigs with a certified punk auteur -- one they could take to dinner at Mr. Chow's with no fear of his gobbing into the brandy snifter. * * * * 1/2

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 2/5/04.

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