"All of a sudden, there was punk rock," says Joe Jackson. "It was Shock! Boom!"
Jackson rolls his eyes and continues. "I hate songs that go, 'Ooooh, ooooh, baby,' and don't say anything. But bands like the Dead Boys are just as bad.
"That's the American idea of punk: let's be as sick and outrageous as possible. The American idea of spitting and safety pins is a misinterpretation of New Wave, because it doesn't allow for the real attitude, which is 'Let's do something better'."
In contrast to the gushing admiration of the rock press, Britain's New Wave rock 'n' roll has met grudging resistance from the American public. But some proof that acceptance is finally coming can be found at the Baltimore Orioles' Memorial Stadium, where Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" has recently been played between innings.
The song is prime New Wave material: short on tricks and polish; long on angry drama. Over a bare bones bass phrase, Jackson sings of staring in disbelief from his apartment window at all the jerks that women pick for boyfriends. With a rumble of drums and a crash of guitar, the disbelief gives way to an explosion of anger. The song, which reached the Top 20, was one of the best reasons for flipping on the car radio this summer.
In person, Jackson is a less-typical New Wave character. The milk-white, side-laced, pointed shoes that dominate his first album cover are straight from his own wardrobe. In concert, he favors dark pin-striped suits and broad, polka-dot ties. But before long, his 25-year-old baby face is flushed and his close-cropped light hair sticks up like sweat-plastered straw.
Jackson brings his show to the University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum tonight.Backstage before last night's show in Towson, Jackson described the emergence of Britain's New Wave as he ate a vegetarian dinner. He was in Portsmouth playing in a band called Arms and Legs in 1976 when the revolution hit.
"It was a different attitude. Instead of technical musical proficiency, the songs emphasized relevance to what happens in people."
Arms and Legs soon broke up. While Jackson pondered his next move, he supported himself by playing piano in the Portsmouth Playboy Club. He would tinkle the keys for "Moon River" behind cabaret singers while devouring all the punk records he could in his off hours.
What he heard changed his approach to song writing. "Especially after I saw the Class," he says about the British group, coming to Ritchie Coliseum Sept. 29. "I thought, 'These guys really mean it.' I used to be okay writing music, but I didn't do too much with lyrics. It never occurred to me to write about what was going on around me and what I thought about it."
So Jackson took the proceeds from his Playboy job and recorded an album's worth of songs at a Portsmouth studio. He used a stripped-down rock 'n' roll trio; bassist Graham Maby [from Arms and Legs], guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer David Haughton. With John Telfer of Albion Records as his manager, he landed an American deal with A&M Records in August 1978. They quickly re-recorded the demo album and released it as "Look Sharp!"
Jackson's glowing white shoes occupied the front cover. "I have a fascination with black and white," Jackson admits. His entire wardrobe, and even the backdrop behind the stage on his current tour, are in the same tones.
The album's title song is not really about looking sharp, but about thinking sharp. After sneering at advertising pitches and political panaceas, Jackson advises his listeners: "You gotta look sharp! You gotta have no illusions/Just go your own way looking over your shoulder."
Jackson denies any role as a social critic, "I don't think you change anything by chanting, ' . . . the government,'" he claims. "I don't want to preach and I don't want to be preached to. I'm trying to make people think. I'm not giving them a slogan to sing along with. A song that sums it up is 'Don't Ask Me.'"
On this song, Jackson sings "I got ideas but I don't know it all/and when I speak my voice is small." It is one of three Jackson cuts [including two live tracks] on A&M records' recent New Wave anthology, "Propaganda." Jackson's next full album, "I'm The Man," is due out Oct. 10.
"I just like people who are sincere and say what they mean," he says. In that category, he includes: "Definitely Graham Parker; definitely Bruce Springsteen," as well as top British punk bands like the Class and the Jam. "And I listen to a lot of reggae," he adds."It's really my favorite music. It's getting to be a part of British culture because so many West Indians are living there."
Unlike America, where reggae is still an exotic import item, reggae clubs and records are as common in Britain as jazz clubs and records are here. Jackson is not a member of Britain's Rock Against Racism organization, but he supports their ideals.
"Rock 'n' roll in its very nature is about the joining of the races," he says. "There would be no rock 'n' roll if there hadn't been black music. I don't see how you could be in a rock band and not be against racism. Every white person in a rock band is going to have two or three heroes who are black." Jackson's band plays only three non-originals on their tour: Chuck Berry's 'Come On,' Toots and the Maytals' 'Pressure Drop,' and Fats Domino's 'Ain't It A Shame.'
"I've always been into music more as a listener than as a player," Jackson concedes. "I've always liked things that were new and outrageous. I hope I never get to the point where my mind is closed to something. That's the point at which you quit, I guess."