Joe Jackson – Right and Wrong
Big World, 1986
Everyone has a different definition as to what constitutes “Music That Doesn’t Suck”. In my case, there is a long list of criteria. The Requirements…. (some of them, anyway!)
- Well written (lyrics, melody, arrangement)
- Infectious “hook” (guitar riff, bass line, or rhythm)
- Cool chord progressions and structure
- Fantastic musicianship
- Great recording
- Local interest (to me)
- KICKS ASS!!!!
I wanted to find one song that would illustrate, in a most excellent way, the “must-have” qualities that Savage Guitar deems necessary to place a tune squarely into the category of “Music That Doesn’t Suck”.
Enter Joe Jackson’s 1986 release “Right and Wrong”. This song has all of these above mentioned desirable qualities, not to mention political implications and Cold War ramifications.
“Right and Wrong” is a track from Jackson’s “Big World” album. “Big World” was recorded live at the Roundabout Theatre in New York on January 22-25, 1986. The vinyl version of this recording was unique in the fact that it was a double album, but only 3 sides contained music. The 4th side was blank. I bought the original release on CD and was amazed at the clarity of the recording. This album was the first commercially released live digital recording. The stage mix was fed directly into a 2 track (stereo) digital recorder…..No multi-tracking……No overdubs…..No post-production…..No BS!……JUST PURE MUSIC!
In my estimation, “Big World” was THE pluperfect recording of a live performance.
As I researched background info on “Right and Wrong”, I spied a name contained within the liner notes. Listed amongst all the credits printed in microscopic 3 point type, as a backing vocalist, is Pete Hewlett. Stop Everything!…. (Subtle lyric reference cleverly inserted)…… I know that dude! He’s a Pittsburgh guy. Our paths crossed many years ago when he was playing in the local ‘Burgh (Pittsburgh) band Sweet Lightning with Sid McGinnis of David Letterman/Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra fame.
Along with Joe Jackson, Pete has toured with Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and many other monster names in the recording industry. This dude has a resume that most musicians only dream about.
Hewlett and I share a few mutual friends, through his work at WQED hosting “Live in Studio A”. I gave him a call to gather the necessary background intel on the very special “Big World” recording.
Pete tells me that the goal of this landmark record was to create a studio quality recording in front of a live audience. This would allow the band to feed off of their ambience and presence. Also, this would permit the folks in the theatre to feel as though they were sitting in on a live studio session. The audience was instructed not to applaud or make any noise until well after the music stopped, although, according to Pete, sometimes the performance was interrupted by the producer and engineer for various technical and musically aesthetic reasons.
To prepare for this recording, Joe Jackson and the band played what Pete called “spot dates”. According to Pete, there were 4 or 5 un-announced shows at a handful of local small clubs in towns such as Wilkes-Barre, PA and Hoboken, New Jersey. Hewlett tells me that these live “bar gig” rehearsals were intended to prepare the musicians for their upcoming recordings at the Roundabout Theatre, by giving them a “local band feel”…….I gotta say…..That is one HELLUVA local band!
Let’s get to “Right and Wrong” itself. Joe Jackson’s post-punk, Perestroika era masterpiece was inspired by a speech President Ronald Reagan delivered in which he was defending his administration’s policies. (Remember when we had a real President in the White House?) Reagan’s message was that the issues at hand should not be clouded by partisan politics, ideology, or Cold War posturing. Differences and disagreements should and could be settled solely on what is right and wrong.
The live performance is counted off by the southpaw, wrong-handed, Gary Burke at the drum kit. This guy is a machine!…… A human metronome!…. He is as solid a drummer as you will find anywhere on the planet and possibly beyond. Nothing fancy, but Burke hammers out a solid foundation on which to build.
After a few swats on the snare, Rick Ford starts laying down a killer bass line dowsed with attitude and delivering nothing short of a sophisticated swagger. A few bars later, Vinnie Zummo starts adding the guitar layer……Very tasty stuff! Zummo is playing a Steinberger guitar. This guitar is the brainchild of Ned Steinberger and was one of the first guitars to utilize a headless design and incorporate carbon fiber and graphite as the body material of the guitar itself. These were odd instruments to play, in my opinion. They were like playing a 2 x 4 or a canoe paddle with strings on it…..There just wasn’t much to grab on to!
As Joe Jackson adds the main vocals, the 3 piece group is backing him with an astonishingly full sound. You must remember, this is a 3 piece group on a live recording with no post production or overdubs….AMAZING! …..The background vocalists serve not only as singers, but as the 4th instrument of the group by adding their ultra-precise harmonies. This also contributes tremendously to the fullness of the recording/performance. By the way, Pete Hewlett is the guy wearing the red jacket.
Dynamically, “Right and Wrong” has exceedingly soft moments contrasted by massive crescendos which all are perfectly placed and balanced. The intricately delicate backing vocals give way to Jackson’s explosive raspy tones. The arrangement then mellows as Jackson caresses the ivories on the grand piano for a short, but oh-so-tasteful solo.
Jackson guides this extremely tight ensemble through many dynamic changes en route to a climactic finish. After one last hard hitting chorus, the accelerant is squelched…..The throttle is dialed back…… “Right and Wrong” ends with the most deliciously dissonant chord ever conceived, while simultaneously being sweetened with a luscious vocal compliment by Pete Hewlett and friends.
TOO COOL! …… I LOVE THIS RECORDING!
Take a listen to “Right and Wrong” and tell me that the bass line won’t stick in your head for days.
Then, savor an awesome performance by Pete Hewlett on 2005 edition of WQED’s “Live from Studio A Holiday Jam”.