Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Joe Jackson: "Pretty Boys" (from Beat Crazy)

Someone gave me a portable turntable for Christmas to play all of the ska and new wave albums that have been taking up space in my apartment for years (my high school/college-era turntable gave up the ghost a while back—and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but vinyl is making a welcome comeback, and I've been buying releases in this format again). So one recent Saturday afternoon, I broke out a bunch a LPs and decided to play the soundtrack to the movie Times Square that I picked up on eBay, which came out when I was around 12 or 13. It features a slew of great punk and new wave groups like the Ramones, XTC, the Pretenders, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, the Ruts, and Roxy Music, among others. Never saw the movie, but the Ramones’ track, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” was popular at the time because of the flick and was played about eight times (along with the B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster”) at the first dance I ever attended at this all-girls school (I was at a boys middle school at the time, so this event was momentous). I never got a girl’s phone number that night, but I found the Ramones (this is way pre-internet, people—you sometimes had to leave your room to be exposed to new things).

Anyway, this soundtrack has some nostalgic value to me, so I’m looking at the album’s gatefold sleeve and the needle hits Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Boys,” a tune I'd somehow missed growing up, but one that was immediately familiar, as it is almost a blueprint for the sound of the early to mid-80s New York City ska scene (along with Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives")—a potent mix of new wave and 2-Tone, notable for its prominent, fluid basslines; nervous, choppy guitar; and (an almost) complete lack of horns.

You can hear “Pretty Boys’” impact most clearly on The Toasters’ excellent 1985 Recriminations EP (the most new wavey release in their catalogue), which makes sense, since Joe Jackson produced it and even performs the melodica solo on “Run Rudy Run.” (Speaking of “Run Rudy Run,” compare it to the Ruts’ “Love in Vain” and tell me that Bucket didn’t nick a thing or two on the way out of the store.) You can also hear this new wave/ska mash-up influence on a whole slew of NYC ska bands on the 1985 NY Beat compilation (see The Daybreakers’ “Preying Man,” Urban Blight's “Escape from Reality,” Cryin’ Out Loud's “The Distance,” and Floor Kiss' “Why is the Boat So Small?”). Listening to it today, you’d think that a slew of the bands off this comp aren’t really ska at all (there are even tracks from an oi and a mod band)—just ska influenced. All in all, it's really a record that captures a very specific place in time—especially since the new wave tendencies in American ska would soon be shed as the scene evolved (for proof, check out these 1988/1989 releases: the NY Citizens' On the Move, The Toasters' Thrill Me Up, Bim Skala Bim's Tuba City, and the great US ska comp, Ska Face).

I find this whole business kind of fascinating, particularly since The Specials and English Beat made such huge inroads into the American new wave/college rock scene (both bands received regular airplay on WLIR, the NYC-area “modern rock” radio station), but their influence is not as immediately evident on New York or US ska bands at that time (think Fishbone’s debut EP and The Untouchables’ Wild Child, both of which were released the same year as Recriminations and NY Beat). Bands on the nascent US ska scene didn’t merely ape the 2-Tone era ska sound; they were inspired as hell by it, taking it and creating something of their own out of it.

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“Pretty Boys,” which is Joe Jackson’s mad rant against the pop music industry’s (and life’s) bias towards looks over talent, includes these great lyrics:

I wanna see a human being on my TV set
Want some action for the fat and thin man
They’re getting closer, but they ain’t got robots yet
Just a hero with a smile like a tin man—no brains and no heart!

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