Album Review: Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion in “What a Racket!”

By Jason M. Rubin

If you’re brave enough to dip your toes into a musical unknown, there are pleasures aplenty to be had in this recording, in which Joe Jackson takes us on what purports to be a musicological excavation of the works of a long-forgotten figure of the English Music Hall era.

More than any other rock performer — including such mercurial songwriters as Bob Dylan and Neil Young — Joe Jackson has been committed to confounding his fans throughout his career. Remember, this is the guy who set the standard for sneery new wave in the late ’70s, then veered off into reggae and dub, swing jazz and jump blues, Nuyorican, classical music, and musical theater, with occasional returns to rock. Jackson is no dilettante in any of these genres: he studied musical composition at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music on a merit scholarship. He also doesn’t seem to care whether any of these excursions are successful — he’s in it for the adventure, and his fans are welcome to come aboard or beg off as they wish.

On his newest album, with the absurdly complex title, Mr. Joe Jackson Presents: Max Champion in “What a Racket!”, Jackson takes us on what purports to be a musicological excavation of the works of a long-forgotten figure of the English Music Hall era, Max Champion. Music Hall — akin to America’s vaudeville in historical time frame, working-class origins, and variety of entertainments — is not a new mine for pop music; among others, Paul McCartney has had a long-held fascination with the form. What gives this project a particularly Jacksonian conceit is that Max Champion never existed. Jackson has made up an elaborate backstory to justify his desire to write and record 11 songs in this very old-fashioned stye, featuring cockney vocals, Gilbert & Sullivanesque patter, and backing by a small orchestra. But in fact there was no Champion (other than Jackson himself), and the one photo of him looks a lot like Jackson in disguise.

Does any of this matter? To my mind yes, because it actually drew me into an appreciation of what Jackson has accomplished here. I will admit I turned my nose up when I first heard the concept of the album and one track on YouTube about a month ago. When asked to review it, I envisioned saying that this musician I have admired for so long has finally made it impossible for his fans to follow him. Then I heard the album. It’s peculiar but delightful. Even at a modest 11 songs spanning 41 minutes, the fascination begins to wear off toward the end. But I expect repeated listenings may fix that. The best of the material, though, shows Jackson to be flexing brand new musical muscles. Unlike Jumpin’ Jive, his album paying tribute to Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, Jackson has composed a set of songs that really feel authentic to the time period they are meant to convey — kind of like Eric Idle and Neil Innes’s brilliant Beatles parody, The Rutles.

It’s not hard to see why Jackson would be drawn to Music Hall. He and it share a certain bawdiness, humor, and keen interest in variety. Some of the tunes on this album feel like drinking songs, with the pints served by saucy, busty barmaids. The opening track, “Why, Why, Why?” is about the futility of life — but rather than be down about it, the singer exhorts all to drink and joke. Relentlessly tuneful, “The Sporting Life” pokes fun at Jackson’s own unathleticism. A couple of songs feature Gilbert & Sullivan–inspired tongue-twisting word salads; one, “Think of the Show,” is structurally and melodically similar to “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song” (recorded by Todd Rundgren back in 1974) from the G&S comic opera Iolanthe.

The risqué aspects of Music Hall are on ribald display throughout. In a romantic-sounding waltz tune titled “The Shades of Night,” the singer walks the streets at night looking into people’s windows, hoping to peep at couples having sex. Jackson’s fillip at the end of the song is pretty delicious. Similarly, the ballad “Dear Old Mum” notes that “Mum” had 10 kids, who all were “happy and hygienic” — until they started dying one by one while Mum drank gin and turned tricks. But the song most laced with double entendres is “The Bishop and the Actress,” which features this verse:

Said the bishop to the actress, it’s you that I adore

But we mustn’t meet out in the street

I’ll come in your back door

Said the actress to the bishop, proceed with caution there

A man in your position

Must take care

 

Though the album stylistically brings forth the ghosts of Music Hall, sonically it resembles Jackson’s previous album, 2019’s Fool. As with that album, What a Racket! features a dark (or perhaps sepia-toned) atmospheric production that perhaps preserves the echoes of the era that our restlessly curious and creative hero is currently focusing on. The real question is where Jackson will go next. He apparently is planning to tour this album next year, so that question won’t be answered anytime soon. In the meantime, if you’re brave enough to dip your toes into a musical unknown, there are pleasures aplenty to be had in this recording. Whether or not there ever was a Max Champion, what’s important here is that there is indeed a Joe Jackson, who continues to challenge the lazy ears and programmed tastes of the listening public. After all these years, Jackson just wants to have fun, and that’s a good thing.

Note: Jackson’s tour will land at the Wilbur in Boston on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. The evening promises an opening set by Jackson on his own, followed by a set featuring the new album backed by a nine-piece band.


Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years, more than half of those as senior creative lead at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency, where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. jasonmrubin.com.

12 Comments

  1. Dave on December 1, 2023 at 9:51 am

    As much as I love the style, the spirit, and the writing of these songs, it is the backstory that really amazes me. It is brilliant.

    You fittingly mention The Rutles. It was Spinal Tap, ‘A Mighty Wind’, and The Dukes of Stratosphear that came to mind for me.

    As with those, JJ captures the era perfectly. And, like Spinal Tap, I assume that more than a few people will buy into Max Champion being a real historical figure. It’s that convincing. Joe Jackson has always been too talented and ambitious for his own good. But for those of us who have stayed with him for the past 44 years, it’s been an amazing ride.

  2. Wesley Fisch on January 16, 2024 at 10:09 am

    Joe Jackson’s album is awfully close in concept to Mary Lee Kortes’s latest (Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley) — an album he supported in its crowdfunding stage and he also played on long before his Max Champion project. Interesting!

    • Jeff Stoffel on January 18, 2024 at 5:20 am

      How interesting – thank you very much for sharing this information! I remember Mary Lee (with her band Mary Lee’s Corvette) opening for Joe on his Laughter and Lust tour.

    • Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 1:09 pm

      Somewhere on the internet, a fan posted about an early concert of his where a cop was pushing around an audience member. Joe without pausing his singing defused the incident by plucking the hat off the cop placing it on his own head infuriating the cop, who let the fan go. I think he’s smarter and nicer than most people but extremely private. I’ve seen this maneuver before and there’s a term of art for it but it escapes me at the moment.

  3. Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 12:55 pm

    Yikes. I hope she isn’t offended that she might be compared to his album. I like his album a lot. Its perfect for me like a big box of smart unique candy.

    She has a lovely voice. I thought it was the singer for the opening credits of “Anne with an E.” Maybe this link as the original concept will bring attention to her. Maybe she should trust her friend whose only ever helped her in the past.

    Are answer songs in this case answer album no longer a thing? Like when he did tv age as a shout out to David Byrne. Iirc he did an answer song for Roxy Music as well.

    I remember in an interview that he said IS SHE REALLY GOING OUT WITH HIM is from some old 60s song and of course night and day is Cole Porter.

    I doubt Joe Jackson didn’t know what he was doing or NEEDED to copy the beulah Rowley concept to make Max Champion more enjoyable. I think committed fans want to see his face when he sings Bishop and the Actress cuz … ewwwww.

    • Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 2:03 pm

      More on answer songs:

      Suzanne Vega recently shared that she did one for Elvis Costello:

      https://youtu.be/45bp1VT8d2Y?si=Dal0HBHzAvzvp7ak

      I don’t know “Lipstick Vogue” but it makes me wonder if Joe Jackson answered with “Cosmopolitan”.

      Obviously, he had no idea Elvis Costello minded being called an imposter tee hee in 1979 by Joe

      Possibly to the point that UNDER LIME might be about Joe Jackson cuz the video shouts out to I’M THE MAN, GOT THE TIME, BREAKING US IN TWO (also an answer song using the opening music of the song hes answering just like he used LOVE IS HERE TO STAY in his EVER AFTER song) and GLAMOUR AND PAIN.

      im sure im.missing a bunch of other references but other than Elvis Costello doesn’t forgive a jibe from 1979, does anyone think MAX CHAMPION is an answer album character to Elvis Costello’s Jimmy the vaudeville HAS BEEN?

      Haha. JIMMY IN THE RAIN as in Joe Jackson’s Rain album recorded in Berlin which is on the MAP in the UNDER LIME album.

      At least, Mr. COSTELLO got a better band name out of that 1979 injury.

  4. Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 2:11 pm

    Video

    The under lime VIDEO which elvis costello said he drew himself …

    It has a map circling nearly Germany so he obviously thinks Joe lost his momentum by decamping for Berlin.

    And I think Glamour and Pain is a shoutout 2 Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush cuz the trans hooker is floating outside the window of her tacky client.

    https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoM5g-3LrG9W26HIfjjrMfZ_pQA-oIx5i&si=xj4sRdknQ-wAbM3M

  5. Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 2:19 pm

    Another answer song is Human by Human League that is the exact same story as Joe Jackson’s BIOLOGY when Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were his label mates at A and M.

    And Herb Albert still goes to his shows according to a tweet by Rosie Vega so y would Herb Albert see a concert by someone dishonorable?

    I think the answer album WHAT A RACKET was well intentioned. I hope Beulah Rowley gets looked at as a result bcuz I think that was the intention of the artist who created the answer album.

  6. Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 2:33 pm

    I think THE BEST THAT I CAN DO by joe jackson is an answer song to Christopher Cross’ Arthur’s Theme.

  7. Jennifer Eng on February 13, 2024 at 2:44 pm

    I think SHADES OF NIGHT on the new album is an answer song to ON THE STREET WHERE SHE LIVES from My Fair Lady which is set during the music hall era and Eliza’s dad is played by a music hall star.

    Tom Carradine a music hall enthusiast who does shows in London and appears in the WHAT A RACKET documentary has a video performing WOULDN’T IT BE LOVELY from the same musical.

  8. Jennifer ENG on February 13, 2024 at 5:49 pm

    Breaking US IN TWO Answers badfinger day by day

    Is she really going out with him he said is from shangri Las leader of the pack:

    https://youtu.be/cyRhId0nk6M?si=rU_zXKJYZNqU64iq

  9. Jennifer ENG on February 19, 2024 at 9:07 am

    I think the character Jimmy the Vaudevillian is about Joe Jackson who covered the 1930s LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRIES around 1979 and WHO would know that other than a circa 1979 grudge bearer over a throwaway remark about an IMPOSTER?

    Remember Roxanne Shante’ in the 80s?
    Those were answer songs.

    An answer song, response song or answer record is a song (usually a recorded track) made in answer to a previous song, normally by another artist. The concept became widespread in blues and R&B recorded music in the 1930s to the 1950s.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org › wiki
    Answer song – Wikipedia

    I just can’t imagine the resentment harbored by anyone who didn’t know that answer songs are a thing. And he wouldn’t know to correct them if no one brings it up but just cancels him behind his back.

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