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Where you going with that baton in your hand | Joe Jackson

Article from Making Music, May 1987

Joe Jackson abandons his customary line-up of keyboard, guitar, bass and drums, and installs more than 50 orchestral players instead. The result is his new "Will Power" LP, where the orchestral is mixed with samples and synths in a totally instrumental score. Joe's never been short of a new direction or two, suggests Tony Bacon, but has he finally flipped?

"We did a listening party for A&M Records," says Joe Jackson, discussing his new all-instrumental "Will Power" LP. What's a listening party? He chuckles at the notion. "When the album was finished we brought it out to the record company HQ in LA, sat about 50 people down, gave them all drinks, and played them the new album."

It has five tracks. One is a 16-minute orchestral piece, another is a solo piano piece. Most tracks combine orchestral and electronic instruments. There is not one song. "When it finished playing to these record company people," Joe says, "there was this sea of blank faces. Followed by polite applause. Followed by everyone walking out. At that point I got very nervous."

Fortunately, the boss at A&M, Jerry Moss, is a big fan of Joe Jackson. "He likes to indulge me a bit, which helps. I think there are other people there who curse under their breath, you know?"

This indulgence probably stems less from A&M's willingness to innovate wildly — they are, after all, a record company — than it does from the fact that Joe has had continuing success with varied musical projects on A&M, like the "Night & Day" LP of 1982 which was Joe's biggest hit ever and not exactly the conventional output of a pop musician. More like mature songs in a thoughtful musical setting.

"I think at that point they started to think well, maybe we should leave this guy alone and give him the benefit of the doubt," Joe grins.

He's in London for a few days, away from his adopted home of New York to promote the new instrumental LP here. "I've had a feeling for some years now that I'm being given the benefit of the doubt," he continues. "A&M have made a bit of money out of me, had a couple of hit records, so they're willing to let me stick my neck out a bit."

On the new "Will Power" album, Joe indisputably sticks his neck out. As we've noted, this is an instrumental LP. Not only that, it is largely played on orchestral instruments, together with some unobtrusive synths, guitars and drums. A good deal of it is in what you might loosely call classical style. So how does a pop songwriter/pianist/singer, albeit one who has previously incorporated a recordshopful of influences into his work, come up with this assured piece of instrumental writing?

Record company biographies find Joe's 'classical training' a suitable hook on which to hang an explanation. But Joe doesn't think he learnt a great deal at the Royal Academy of Music during his three years there. He got more from his peripheral activities, his practical musical grounding at the time including rock 'n' roll bands on the cabaret circuit, jazz big bands, orchestral work-outs, and solo piano in pubs.

I really learnt orchestration by studying scores and listening a lot," he clarifies, "plus I seemed to have a certain talent for it. Of course I did go to orchestration classes at the Royal Academy, but I really learnt most of it myself. There's really no substitute for studying the scores, listening to music, going to concerts. I never stopped doing that."

The original motivation for an instrumental piece came from Joe's clued-up Japanese publisher who last year secured an orchestral commission from a company there. Joe thought he could do it, of course, but suffered a good deal of nerves before actually starting the job. His biggest guide turned out to be his ear; the successful result gave him such a confidence boost that he began to think about doing a wholly instrumental LP. "I thought yeah, I can do it. It works!"

I wondered whether Joe, once he'd decided to do an instrumental LP, had considered doing it all electronically — perhaps on a Synclavier like Frank Zappa's much-publicised "Jazz From Hell" escapade? "It was a consideration because you know that it's possible, but that approach doesn't appeal to me. I don't like the idea of: well, I want some horns on this, but I can't be bothered to get a horn section in and pay them and work out horn arrangements and stuff, we'll use a horn sample and play it on keyboard. But if you're going to take a sample of, oh... hitting the radiator with a sock filled with custard or something — sampling that and using that in a musical context is to me a creative use of the technology."

There is some sampling on the record — 'No Pasaral' is the obvious example, most of which is sampled and sequenced. Not that this had been Joe's original intention.

"I wrote it for the 50-plus ensemble we used on the record. The first two-thirds of it consists of repeated rhythmic patterns which gradually accumulate and which had to be played really precisely for the piece to work. But we just couldn't get that precision from this human string orchestra. We did thousands of takes and ended up with something that we could probably have edited together all right. But Ed Roynesdal, who did a great job with all the Kurzweil programming and so on, said it would be really easy to sample and sequence.

"So we sampled the live sounds of the instruments: a whole string section played pizzicato, and all sorts of dead sounds like damped guitar, xylophone, piano, mixed synth sounds and so on. We sequenced that whole section and got it absolutely precise, it really worked well. And only then did I realise that I'd written it with that precision in mind — I don't think a composer 20 years ago would have written a piece like that. I think it was because my subconscious musical brain was used to drum machines and sequencers and so on."

On the title track, which has some of the more prominent electronic instrumentation on the album, there's a long synth passage that Joe and Ed also decided to sequence — for a different reason. "It was easier to sequence than risk one bum note in the take and have to do it all again. That's a reasonable use of the technology, too, I think."

The recording work was helped by the presence of experienced classical engineer Paul Goodman (he's won Grammys for best classical engineer; he's 'about 60' and some 30 of those years have been spent at the RCA New York studio used for "Will Power") and rock engineer Michael Frondelli (who worked on Joe's exceptional "Big World" album, recorded live direct-to-digital-master after tortuous mixing rehearsals — the first album to be mixed before it was recorded, says a sleevenote). But with "Will Power" successfully captured on tape, Joe now has to deal with preset attitudes to 'instrumental music'.

He recounts: "A lot of people immediately ask, 'Oh, is it for a movie?' It's like it's all right if it's for a movie. It's become very established that music isn't just music. That's not enough, it's got to have an image or go with something visual, or whatever.

"At one point people from A&M, before they heard 'Will Power', were saying to me, 'Can we market it as a new age record?' I was restraining myself from hitting them. Because I think this new record is almost the complete opposite to new age music, I've tried to do something that jumps out and grabs you and makes you think a bit. New age seems to be the opposite — but I suppose if you can get people to listen to new age and accept instrumental music then maybe it'll pave the way for some good instrumental music."

But there's another consideration here. Pop musicians are supposed, by law, to have a few hits if they're very very lucky, and then fade away. With the honourable exceptions of perhaps David Bowie and certainly session players, pop musicians are not supposed to have careers. Developing your music in different directions as Joe does seems to some people suspiciously like mould-breaking.

"There's no reason why pop musicians shouldn't have careers," Joe says, "it's just that pop music business has always been geared to rapid turnover of pretty young faces, and it still is geared to that to a great extent.

"I think it shows signs of changing. Maybe pop's days are numbered? I mean, people can carry on playing pop music, rock 'n' roll, whatever, for hundreds of years to come. The same way as people still play Bach after 300 years, and people still play jazz even though you could probably say that jazz isn't the cutting edge of new music any more. I think the same thing will apply to a certain extent to pop music in years to come, it'll become like a classic form of music that people play or listen to because they like it.

"It's not quite time to let go of it yet, but I think we're in a period of transition. I could be wrong — and I'm probably prejudiced by the fact that I don't really fit into it that well myself: I do want to progress and have a career. But I can't be the only one, there must be a lot of other people out there who want to do something musically with a bit more depth as they mature."

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Secondhand Synths

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987

Interview by Tony Bacon

Previous article in this issue:

> Exercise Time

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> Secondhand Synths

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