Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Joe Jackson, the A&M sessionman

In interviews, Joe Jackson has described the mid-80's as his "workaholic" phase.

Right after the breakthrough success of Night and Day (1982), Jackson went on his intense quest to record the perfect pop album – a route led him through the jazz-influenced Body and Soul (1984) and the semi-live Big World (1986), as well as the film scores for both Mike's Murder (1983) and Tucker (1988).

Somehow, he found the time to play on other people's records as well – including two female artists who were on Jackson's then-label, A&M Records: Suzanne Vega and Joan Armatrading.

I'm not sure how this came about since I've never heard that Jackson was a great admirer of either artist's work. But I like the idea of this imaginary scene where he's called into some label executive's office.
"Mr. Jackson, we really appreciate what you've done for this company," the exec might begin by saying in a matter-of-fact tone. "But we need something more from you."
"But didn't you see?" Jackson might protest, his voice tightening as he spoke. " The album went multi-platinum. 'Stepping Out' was a huge hit. Heck, I even made a few videos for you guys."
"Yes, well..." the exec might continue, while staring uncomfortably at the gold records on his wall. "Joe, we really need you to be more of a team player for A&M."
Pure ridiculousness, I know. And Jackson didn't exactly sell out. The up-and-coming Vega and the veteran Armatrading were not Rick Astley or the Spice Girls. They were musicians who deserved respect – and some musical help from Jackson, who has only made a handful of musical cameos during his career.

Let's start with Armatrading, who really was armed with big guns for what the label hoped would be the record that would make her more than a cult artist, Secret Secrets (1985). Fresh off of producing hit albums for A Flock of Seagulls, OMD and Berlin, Mike Howlett took charge behind the boards. And an all-star backing band was assembled that included the great bass player Pino Palladino, Simple Minds drummer Mel Gaynor and Go West guitarist Alan Murphy.

And did I mention that the smashing looking cover was photographed by a guy named Robert Mapplethorpe?

Jackson plays on the final two songs of the first side: Accompanying Armatrading on the solo piano ballad "Love By You" and "Talking to the Wall."

While Jackson is more integral to the former piece, it's the latter piece that remains a personal favorite of mine. The song is musically adventurous, morphing from a smoky ballad to a brassy salsa number that could be a Night & Day outtake. All with surprising ease. It also allows Armatrading to showcase her flexible talents as a formidable singer.

Play "Talking to the Wall" by Joan Armatrading

Jackson has a larger presence on the Vega song, which I showcased last week during my radio show on the music in John Hughes movies. (It appeared on 1986's Pretty in Pink soundtrack)

In fact, as you can see at left Jackson received almost equal billing on the single that was released (though the anti-video Jackson, predictably, did not appear in the video of the song).

I've always thought that his performance on this song is rather tasty – and Vega's live performances of the song (usually just with her and the bass player) suffer because of its absence. There aren't many great piano solos during the 80s. But this is definitely one of them.

Play "Left of Center" by Suzanne Vega (featuring Joe Jackson on piano)

A Postscript: Eleven years later, Vega would return the favor by appearing on Jackson's symphonic Heaven & Hell (1997) album as the "fallen angel," contributing vocals to the song "Angel."

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