The Simplistic: Joe Jackson, “Wild West” (1986)

Joe Jackson’s 1986 release Big World sounds great because it was recorded live in the Roundabout Theater in Manhattan.  But the greatest claim for it is that its first two songs hit a certain lyrical pop target that Joe Jackson has a notable knack for hitting—the well-judged simplistic.

What could be more intensely oversimplified, and at the same time inescapably relevant, than “Right and Wrong”?  Mustn’t this singsong always be running around our brains?

“Right and Wrong”

Talkin’ ‘bout right and wrong
Do you know the difference

Between the right and left and the east and the west
What you know and the things that you’ll never see?

A bit more complicated (and so all the more impressive) case of the simplistic is Jackson’s portrayal of the “wild West,” which we’re bound to understand as a cartoon of America:

“Wild West”

You keep pushin’ on when your friends keep turning back
And you keep building towns and laying railroad track
And things get crazy and you have to use that gun

And you wonder if this is the way the West is won

But keep thinkin’ that way and you won’t get nowhere
‘Cause you got a right just to get where you’re goin’ to
Gotta keep running, gotta be the best
Gotta walk tall in the wild West

The music is exactly good-simplistic in the right way.  Just two chords in verse part A and three chords in verse part B (with a couple of lemony new ones added in the turnaround at “gotta walk tall in the wild West”).

But this guy is British, an outsider!  What right does he have to boil America down to a crude storyline about taming the West with the gun?  Whoops, did we do that ourselves?  Anyway there seems to be enough truth in this to make the speakers vibrate twice as loud when “Wild West” is on. Damn right I gotta right just to get where I’m going to.

“Wild West” continued, now all hopped up


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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