Joe Jackson's Look Sharp! and Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Armed Forces are both iconic albums that emerged in the vibrant and exciting musical landscape of 1979, and they will both forever be tied together as they were both released on the same day of that year: January 5th. This pivotal year - the last one of the 70’s - saw the continuation of the punk and new wave movements - and perhaps even the beginning of their downward trend. Nonetheless, the year found artists influenced to experiment with wildly different sounds and themes. An examination of both records provides insight into the musical and personal evolution of Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.
Joe Jackson's Look Sharp! marked his debut as a solo artist. The album's energetic blend of new wave, punk, and pop showcased Jackson's versatility as both a musician and a songwriter. Songs like "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Sunday Papers" catapulted Jackson into the spotlight, capturing the sensibility of the late 1970s with their ultra-catchy hooks and razor sharp lyrics. Jackson's piano-driven sound, infused with elements of ska and jazz, firmly distinguished him from his “pub rock” contemporaries.
Contrastingly, Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Armed Forces represented a more complex phase in Costello's career. Building on the success of his previous albums, here, Costello incorporated a broader range of influences and created a sophisticated sound that blended pop, rock, and whiffs of heavy new wave darkness. The album's lyrical content tackled political and personal issues with tracks like "Oliver's Army" which addressed the impact of militarism and imperialism. Costello's vocal whine and sneer coupled with the Attractions' usually polished instrumentation showcased a band at what many consider to be the height of their creative powers.
In my collection, I only have one vinyl copy of Look Sharp!, an original which was pressed at the RCA Records Pressing Plant in Indianapolis. On the other hand, I have four original pressings of Costello’s, Armed Forces: two original American copies, both pressed at the Pitman pressing plant in New Jersey; I rarely have two identical pressings in the collection, but in this case, I do. While one came into the collection by way of sentimental donation, the other is probably the original that I purchased in my brutal youth.
Two UK pressings also live in the collection: an original 1979 pressing on Radar Records (with the dead wax inscription, “Our Place...Or Yours”, and a 1984 UK repress on Imp Records (which is also a Porky Prime Cut). I could never get over the fact that Elvis lived on the great Columbia Records in the States, but had his albums released by a plethora of minor labels in Europe.
Also, significantly and of contrast between the two albums is the fact that Elvis’ album sported two different covers: one of stampeding elephants in Europe and another abstract painting for the States.
The overall mood of the albums also differ sharply from one another. Look Sharp! exudes a sense of youthful exuberance and rebellion, with Jackson's energetic performances and the album's overall fast-paced tempo. In comparison, Armed Forces carries a more sophisticated and introspective tone, reflecting Costello's maturing songwriting and the band's musical evolution.
Musically, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello evolved in distinct directions following the release of these albums. Jackson continued exploring diverse genres, releasing albums like Night and Day (1982), which delved into jazz and Latin influences, showcasing his adaptability and maturity as an artist. Over the years, Jackson experimented with classical music, reggae, and even electronic sounds, demonstrating a stoic willingness to push boundaries and challenge expectations.
Elvis Costello musical transformations throughout the decades have been well noted by his fans and music consumers alike. His discography boasts collaborations with various artists, exploring genres ranging from country to chamber pop. His willingness to adapt to different musical landscapes reflects a constant and restless quest for artistic reinvention.
Look Sharp! and Armed Forces capture Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello at a critical juncture in their careers, reflecting the musical and personal landscapes on January 5th, 1979. While Jackson's debut showcased his versatility and energy, Costello's album marked a more sophisticated and politically charged phase. Subsequent years witnessed both artists embracing diverse musical styles and evolving personally, contributing to their enduring legacies in the world of music.