David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 136: Joe Jackson (I'm The Man)

April 9, 2022

Note: After a 19-month hiatus, I have decided to return to my 365 Artists/365 Days list started (and then stalled) during the first half of the pandemic. I simply plan to write this as inspired and not hold to the expectation that I produce one every day. Hopefully God/fate gives me 230 inspired days over the rest of my life to complete this. The website will still house academic and non-academic blogs and poems.  Given all of these options, hopefully, I maintain my sanity by writing.

I am showing lots of hubris, thinking that more than a few people want to read this stuff.  All I know is that my Cocteau Twins post gets more random hits than any poem or academia-based rant, a reminder of the beauty of keywords.

Still, if I am arrogant enough to do this, it's appropriate to start with "I'm The Man."

Joe Jackson's "I'm The Man," the title track to his second album, is purely and simply delicious. It says everything about who he was at the time and everything he was going to become.  And that is saying a lot for an artist who made two straight new wave/punk albums, then made a ska album, then made a swing/blues album, then made a jazz rock album (in which he pretty much comes out as gay), then made a film score, then made a straightforward jazz album, then made a straightforward rock album (sold as three sides of music over two albums), then . . .  oh, who freaking cares? Which unfortunately was part of the problem.  He may have made too many turns that those of us following him got lost.

"I'm The Man" is as punk as anything from Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, and as caustically wry as anything from Elvis Costello's This Year's Model.

Musically the song explores the limits of the guitar/bass/drum dynamics (with a little bit of piano, Jackson's forte, barely thrown in). And those limits are off the chart: Graham Maby's bass up front in the mix; Gary Sanford's clicking guitar work and David Houghton's manic drumming providing the texture through the verses.  The chorus delivers frantic punk with all 4 singing "I'm The Man," while the bridge features Maby's bass pushing up against Sanford's shredding of the guitar.  Several live clips from the time show the band destroying the drum kit as if they were emulating The Damned or The Who.

On an album that has a lot of pure pop ("Kinda Kute," "Get That Girl," and "It's Different For Girls"), "I'm The Man" declared with a vengeance, along with "Don't Wanna Be Like That," that Jackson was likely to be a slightly more sensitive version of Johnny Rotten, a role that if he had gone on to play probably would have led to self-destruction.

Instead, Jackson sought a future where he could redefine himself as self-declared flavor of the month: jazz hipster, cool lounge act, soundtrack scorer, big band swing leader.  He announces this intention with the lyrics to "I'm The Man."

The narrator of "I'm The Man" is basically the persona Jackson takes for the album cover:

The sleazy street side con man who "can sell you anything" gloats through the first half of the song, recounting his role in hula-hoops, yo-yo's, Kung Fu, giant rubber sharks, and skateboards, all sold to us through our sons.

However, in the last verse, after Sanford, Maby and Houghton (and Jackson tinkering on the piano) have completely destroyed, in every good way possible, the semblance of respectability, Jackson seems intent on announcing his future plans . . . as his own man:

"Right now, I think I gotta start a new trend/

'Cause the line on the graph's getting low and we can't have that/

And you think you're immune/

But I can sell you anything/

Anything from a thin safety pin to a pork pie hat."

Trust me, for those of us who loved Look Sharp and I'm The Man, the reggae sounds of Beat Crazy did not go over well. Reggae seeped into punk and new wave, with The Clash, especially, loving to dabble in it; Jackson wasn't quite starting a new trend, but he was in a period when he would try to sell us anything while the line on his record company graph kept getting lower. If Beat Crazy was out of left field, Jumpin' Jive, an album of all covers of old swing standards, wasn't even from the same field of play.

The rest of Jackson's career is a series of thin safety pins (Will Power, Night Music), pork pie hats (The DukeHeaven and Hell), both of which present provocative interpretations of music, and some good giant rubber sharks (Night And Day, Big World, and Laughter And Lust). Just recently, as "I'm The Man" predicted, he's made a comeback with his "Sing You Sinners!" tour.  However, like much of the world has learned, there is no easy transition back to a pre-pandemic world for Joe Jackson. We've already elevated the flim-flam artist to presidency and can't seem to escape the flames of his hell.  I will sing with you, sir. 

"I'm The Man." Joe Jackson. I'm The Man. A&M. 1979. Link here.

<-Day 135: The Doors. "The End."

Day 137: Soul Asylum. "Runaway Train."->

See complete list here.