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« Sheila take a bow | Main | "The wonderful, magnificent and talented Sharon Jones" »

What Joe Jackson is listening to

It's a small world.

Further to yesterday's post featuring Sharon Jones, who died on Friday, I was reminded that Joe Jackson – who comments occasionally on this blog – also worked with the American soul singer.

They collaborated on a track (I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues) on The Duke, Joe's 2012 tribute to Duke Ellington.

Two years later, writing on his own blog What I'm Listening To (WILT), Joe had this to say about Give The People What They Want, the third album by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings:

Sharon Jones sang the shit out of I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues on my Ellington tribute record The Duke, and is a real pro and a hell of a nice lady. This album is basically business as usual, and none the worse for it: classic, deeply satisfying soul-funk. Her first album, Dap-Dippin’, is the most raw-sounding, while I Learned The Hard Way is the slickest, with strings and French horns on some tracks, but pointing out what’s new each time can become an exercise in head-scratching.

Let’s see ... this one adds three ladies called the Dapettes, which works quite nicely, though I didn’t miss them when they weren’t there. The opening of Retreat briefly reminds me, of all things, of The Clash’s London Calling. You’ll Be Lonely features a trumpet solo somewhat reminiscent of Penny Lane. Making Up And Breaking Up sounds a bit like something Dusty Springfield might have done. (Was Dusty great or what?) But really, SJ & the DKs are like the perfect Martini: some formulas don’t need to be messed with.

Anyway it reminded me I was going to write about What I'm Listening To which I discovered only a few weeks ago. WILT is beautifully written, full of pithy insights and droll, sometimes humorous, observations.

'Writing about music is difficult,' he notes, '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.'

Written from the perspective of a "musician and a fan", readers discover that although he's "a bit uncomfortable" with having 'favourites' his favourite singer, "hands down, of all time", is Ella Fitzgerald.

His favourite record stores are Amoeba Records in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, Dussmann in Berlin and the "glorious" Concerto in Amsterdam; two of his favourite live albums are The Duke at Fargo 1940 (Duke Ellington) and Waiting for Columbus (Little Feat); and one of his favourite musicians is the late Horace Silver.

Although his taste in music is eclectic and the blog leans towards the obscure and the underrated (Värttinnä, Janáček, Señor Coconut to name three), he's not so snobbish that he ignores the most popular and successful artists – Adele, for example:

By the time you read this, Adele's new album will have been released, and there will be no escape. There will be no remote Pacific island, no benighted Congo village, no igloo in Greenland, where it won't be on the radio every hour. The statistics will pile on top of the already staggering ones she amassed the last time around. The number of audiocassettes sold in Indonesia alone, if placed end to end, would stretch all the way to the planet Neptune, etc etc.

More power to her, I say. While one person sneers (on principle!) at popularity and embraces anything obscure, another does the exact opposite – and they're both wrong. Sometimes an artist comes along who is both popular and really good. What do you say to that, eh, you clever bastards?

Discussing the song Hello, Joe writes:

I first heard this song in a supermarket in Antwerp and thought, that must be Adele's new single, it sounds pretty good. Two days later I heard it loud, in the back of a taxi, and I swear I had a lump in my throat by the time it ended. I've never been a fan of the Power Ballad as strenuously performed by the likes of Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey. But Adele is different. How can I put it? She's not trying ... she just is.

Those American divas all sound like they've been brought up, in true American style, to believe they are truly special, and the prettiest girl in the class, and if they only believe in themselves, and follow their dreams, they can be anything their hearts desire, grow up to be President, save the starving children of Africa, defy gravity, never die, blah blah blah, pass the barf bag. Whereas Adele says things like, I'd rather have lunch with me mates than go to a gym, and then she goes and sings her heart out and puts them all to shame.

Sometimes he reveals more about himself than the music. Reviewing the Pet Shop Boys' last two albums he writes:

There was even a song called Your Early Stuff ('You've been around but you don't look too rough / And I still quite like some of your early stuff'). Quite catchy, really, but I can't listen to it without feeling uncomfortable. On the one hand, I can totally relate. Quite a few people have told me they're my biggest fan, but what they really like is My Early Stuff. In fact, they like it so much, and they're such big fans, that they've never listened to anything else.

And yet ... I couldn't write a song like Your Early Stuff - or another song from the same album, Invisible, about feeling too old at a party. In the first case I wouldn't expect anyone to sympathise, and in the second, I'd think: no one my own age needs to hear this, and no one younger wants to. I would be embarrassed by those songs before I even started writing them.

If you think that's honest his diatribe about boxed sets – his own in particular – is positively heroic:

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 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."

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); © 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?

Sometimes music takes a back seat. The latest entry (November 2016) is ostensibly a review of The Beatles' Live at the Hollywood Bowl but before we get there Joe takes the reader on a hilarious diversion:

A couple of years ago I was exploring a funky neighbourhood away from the tourist hordes in one of my favourite cities, Prague. It was mid-afternoon, and, feeling peckish, I went into the only place that looked open. It had dirty net curtains and a dead plant in the window. Inside, it smelled of wet cardboard, and the clientele consisted of three morose, grumbling old geezers. The beer was cheap and astonishingly good. My kind of place. And guess what: the music was The Beatles. Which inspired two thoughts.

Firstly, the Czech Republic has the best beer in the world. Not too weak or too strong, too bitter or too sweet; fresh, smooth, thirst-quenching and addictive. Why is that so hard for other countries to do? I'll never forget my father, on his one visit to New York thirty years ago, trying an American beer he pronounced 'Bud Wheezer', and judged to be 'cat piss'.

To be fair, I disagreed. Surely cat piss has much more flavor? Fast forward, though, and (thanks to that great American tradition of hurtling in an evangelical frenzy from one extreme to another) every hick town in the USA now has a 'Craft' brewery, so we have: Choice!! Yes, a choice between Triple-Hopped Barrel-Aged Molecular Sour Pomegranate Dark Rye Ale, or cat piss. What's so hard about making Good Honest Beer?

If you want to find out what his second thought was you'll need to read the WILT archive for yourself. I've cannibalised it quite enough already. Instead I'll finish with some soundbites.

On mediocre bassists:

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.

On first albums:

There's no doubt that first albums are often romanticized or overrated. Sometimes they're the best thing the artist ever did (especially if the artist then conveniently went and died) but more often they're not; and anyway, if you can't do anything at least as good as your first album later in your career, you're not much of an artist.

On musical heroes:

I can't deny that almost all of my real musical heroes are dead, and I'm on record as saying, more than once, that I don't think we're exactly living in a musical golden age right now.

On the death of David Bowie:

I feel like I lost a friend recently. Well, not really a friend, but definitely someone who was a part of my life, whom I'd met three or four times, liked, and admired. I can't seem to either get my head around it or get it out of my head, so there's nothing else I want to write about this month.

Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, Let's Dance, Earthling, Heathen, The Next Day, and Blackstar. This is what I'm listening to, but I have nothing to say about any of it that hasn't already been said. Furthermore, a lot of what's been said is such complete bollocks, that I don't want to add to it.

As for the Pet Shop Boys:

The fact is it's 2016 and they're still around, still prolific, and still keeping the overall quality high. In the scheme of things, it's all pretty bloody amazing.

The same could be said of Joe Jackson.

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