Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh

Patrick Walsh

Listening to Joe Jackson’s Night and Day

    Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.—Art Blakey

    We’ll leave the T.V. and the radio behind
    Don’t you wonder what we’ll find?
    Steppin’ out tonight.
    —Joe Jackson, “Steppin Out”

Elegance and light. Those are words that spring to mind when I listen to Joe Jackson’s 1982 album Night and Day. Refreshment too; if Night and Day was a drink, it would be a tall glass with three cubes of ice, a pour of Italian sparkling water, a tint of cranberry, and a squeeze of lime.

As I often do with classic records, I’ve been listening to Night and Day a lot lately, especially its perfect Side A (remember, we’re talking vinyl here.) And often while I listen, I look at the entertainingly crafted album sleeve.

As an object in itself, Joe Jackson’s Night and Day album emits a refreshingly clean look of elegance and light, qualities in keeping with the title’s nod to Cole Porter. In its graceful minimalism, Philip Burke’s good-natured caricature of Joe Jackson seated behind a grand piano evokes Al Hirschfeld’s renditions of earlier generations of crooners, bandleaders, and Broadway stars. A stylized nighttime Manhattan skyline twinkles in vibrant blue, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Twin Towers easily identified.

On the back cover, below the list of songs, reads the proud imprimatur of artistic manufacture: Written and Recorded in New York City. Like Cole Porter, Joe Jackson set up shop in Manhattan.

The full-sized color photo inside the cover depicts Jackson and his ensemble in their SoHo studio. Like a cross between a commissioned portrait and a still-life by an old Dutch master, the picture compels one to pore over its details. The album’s sound is built around piano and that’s reflected in the group’s set-up. Jackson and his loyal bass guitar player, Graham Maby, pose within a tight U-shaped cluster of keyboards and fender amps, a glockenspiel atop one rampart, a saxophone crowning the other. On one side of the U, Sue Hadjopoulos sits behind her array of congas, bongos, and timbales, a xylophone close by; on the other side, Larry Tolfree stands behind his drum kit.

As the studio is both a working and living space, various ancillary items can be seen too, some incidental, others placed with thematic purpose:

    an LP of Marvin Gaye’s Super Hits
    a sleeve of Carr’s Table Water Crackers
    a jar of honey
    two Grolsch beer bottles with those nifty re-sealable porcelain tops
    a “wing-type” corkscrew
    screwdrivers, twine, and a roll of duct tape
    lots and lots of lollipops (including one in Jackson’s hand)
    a box of Turkish Special cigarettes (Filter Tip)
    several matchbooks
    and plenty of ashtrays

After the lyrics, personnel responsibilities, credits, and attributions, there’s a kind of epigraph, a quote from Duke Ellington: “I am an optimist. From where it is, music is mostly all right, or at least in a healthy state for the future, in spite of the fact that it may sound as though it is being held hostage.”

As a commentary on the state of musical affairs in 1982, you can interpret that one as you wish. Joe Jackson lets the music do the talking.

The album comes out of the gate with “Another World,” a first throat-scouring gulp of pure ahhh. I immediately hear the bright Latin influences of pianist Horace Silver and the king of the timbales, Tito Puente, but most of all I hear Joe Jackson and his group of superb musicians. The song has a wonderful Oriental lilt, reminiscent of the title track of Steely Dan’s Aja, courtesy of a deft deployment of the xylophone in the chorus. It is like one stepped into another (or “anuddah” in Jackson’s delivery) world.

All the tracks on Side A overlap, so as “Another World” fades out, “Chinatown,” almost discordantly, fades in. It’s an odyssey for a plate of authentic Chinese food, but the narrator takes a wrong turn; with “Trying to find Chinatown” as his refrain, he witnesses gritty scenes once more common downtown, such as a homeless man pushing a cart full of empty cans and “a guy laid out with a knife in his back.”

Every time I listen to the next song, “T.V. Age,” I wonder what Joe must think of the device-addled zombie hordes roaming the streets now. He offers this tonic dose in a singing style best characterized by that tired commercial come-on but wait there’s more! As Nabokov once said, parody is a game, satire is a lesson:

    Here we stand—
    (remote control buttons in our sweaty little hands)
    As one man—
    (we’re lining up and waiting for someone’s command)
    We don’t move—
    (we send out for food, get the news on video)
    I can prove—
    (there’s no need for movies, we’ve got HBO)

    In the
    T.V. Age

    Times must change—
    (this ain’t the stone age, we don’t have rocks in our heads)
    What’s so strange—
    (we don’t work no more, so why get out of bed)
    T.V. rules—
    (pretty soon you won’t be able to turn it off at all)
    All you fools—
    (then it’ll turn you off—your backs against the wall)

    In the
    T.V. Age

“T.V. Age” sits in almost comic counterpoint to the last song on Side A, “Steppin’ Out.” But first comes the merengue-infused “Target,” a cautionary tale of how a bullet is an equal-opportunity employer: “Uptown—downtown//No one’s fussy I’m a target//Black, white—day, night//No one’s fussy I’m a target.”

Ah, but then comes sublime refreshment. And not imported fizzy water, either—this one suggests the clink of Champagne flutes. No song better epitomizes the aesthetic vision behind Night and Day than “Steppin’ Out,” the biggest hit off the album and, at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, Joe Jackson’s highest charting single in America. As graceful as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as opulent as the city in which it was recorded, “Steppin’ Out” promotes a philosophy, as well as the vigorous tapping of feet: get out there and live, firsthand, exuberantly, face-to-face.

Elegance and light. Or as Joe Jackson sings, electricity so fine….

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Patrick Walsh’s articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2016 Patrick Walsh
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine



March 2016

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