How Joe Jackson Pushed Boundaries With ‘I’m the Man’
It was the era of the angry young man.
That was the label applied in the late ’70s to Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker – songwriters and frontmen who became famous on the heels of the British punk explosion. Although these fellows created music as unfettered as the Sex Pistols and the Damned, they seemed to channel the movement’s gritted-teeth rage with their lyrics more than their music. Call it pub rock, call it punk rock, call it New Wave – this was energetic rock with a point of view.
Jackson, Costello and Parker not only shared the “angry young man” banner, they also shared a complete hatred for the label and its limitations. It’s no wonder that all three would rebel against their ties to punk, especially Costello and Jackson who would dive heedlessly into excursions into country, jazz, R&B and classical works later in their careers.
But even with his second album, Jackson was already resisting the label stamped on him. I’m the Man was released in October 1979 – only 10 months after his debut LP, Look Sharp! – with Jackson looking anything but sharp on the cover. Sporting a thin mustache and wearing a suit jacket loaded with stolen jewelry, Joe looked like the kind of petty criminal known as a spiv in the U.K. His tongue firmly planted in cheek, he told Rolling Stone, “I think people always want to put a label on what you do, so I thought I'd be one step ahead of them and invent one myself – spiv rock.”
Regardless of what you filed it under, I’m the Man packed a wallop of great tunes, edgy vocal performances and cutting lyrics. The album was received by critics almost as positively as Jackson’s debut and performed well on the charts – getting to No. 12 in the U.K. and No. 22 in the U.S. As with Look Sharp!, the album was recorded with the four-piece Joe Jackson Band featuring Jackson on vocals and piano, Gary Sanford on guitar, Graham Maby on bass and David Houghton on drums – a lineup that initially held for just one more album, because of Jackson’s musical meanderings. (They reunited in the 2000s to record and tour.)
Back then, this foursome was as tight a musical outfit as existed – and I’m the Man provides great evidence of this, perhaps most notably on the title track, the punkiest performance in Jackson’s entire discography. Over pounding drums, charging guitar and an acrobatic bassline, Joe impersonates a salesman who specializes in fads and offers his own commentary on the disposable nature of pop music in the process. He sneers: “I got the trash and you got the cash / So baby we should get along fine.” Maybe he wasn’t kidding about “spiv rock,” after all.
The album also featured Jackson’s biggest-charting hit in his native U.K., the No. 5 "It’s Different for Girls." Joe said the song came about after he overheard someone use the cliched phrase in a conversation. He then invented his own conversation in the lyrics, turning the cliche on its ear where the female is seeking mere sexual gratification (“She said just give me something, anything / Give me all you got but not love”) and the male pines for something more. It’s a clever piece of work and Jackson’s bellowing vocals gives each line the appropriate amount of acid, but it’s the musical accompaniment (which does not include Jackson’s piano) that creates the tense atmosphere. The throbbing bass line and those stringing strains of guitar set the table for a lovers’ quarrel to explode, as it does in the chorus, and then fade into dismissive dissatisfaction on both sides.
I’m the Man rocks throughout, but it's also dotted with moments of nuance, from the jazzy bits of piano that spar with jagged guitar riffs on "The Band Wore Blue Shirts" to the reggae feel of "Geraldine and John." Together, they make I’m the Man the perfect delivery method for Jackson's witty, and only occasionally angry, songwriting.