Monday, August 9, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #78

“Look man, I’m no cheapskate Elvis Costello. I’ve never tried to impersonate him. For a start, we’re more humorous, more tongue-in-cheek than him. He’s more bitchy and venomous, like a middle-aged child.” - Nick Watkinson of The Jags (source: Magnet Magazine)

The Jags were a band that suffered unjustly as a result of their initial success.  Over the course of their four-year existence, these six fellows from London gave the world two albums and one of the most fantastic debut singles of the era; however, the very song that brought them their greatest renown also cast the shadow that stunted the growth of their career.

Formed in 1978 and signed to Island Records by 1979, Nick Watkinson, John Alder, Steve Prudence, Alex Baird, Michael Cotton and Patrick O'Toole saw their very first single, "Back Of My Hand (I've Got Your Number)," spend 10 weeks on the UK pop charts and peak at number 17.  With its jangly guitars and stop-start verses, the song was a bona-fide hit and seemed destined for even greater chart heights.  Unfortunately, there was this fellow named Elvis Costello who had been hanging around the charts for a couple years already, and who had become the darling of the music mags and appointed King of the New Wave of by rock critics everywhere.  Didn't this upstart band's record sound suspiciously like Costello?

The short answer was, yes, in many ways, it did.  The lyrics certainly weren't at Costello's level of skewering wordplay (who else's were?!?), but Watkinson had a voice that veered very close to E.C.'s and a penchant for Costello-esque phrasing.  Close your eyes and listen to Watkinson deliver the final line of the first verse ("you wouldn't phone those guys who mess around wit' choo") and, damn, that almost could be Elvis himself!

By the time The Jag's first LP, Evening Standards, hit the shelves, the unnecessary backlash had begun.   The critics were bound and determined that no one should approach the throne of Costello, and wrote The Jags off as a poor imitation.  Never mind that nothing else on the album sounded like Costello, but was in fact solid power pop material that by all rights should have gone over big.

Their second album, the brilliantly titled No Tie Like A Present, came along a year and a half later, but was a pale imitation of the first record.  You can hear the band struggling to distance themselves from the Costello-imitator tag even further, resulting in a self-conscious paint-by-numbers record of solid but uninspired pop rock.  When the album failed to sell, The Jags called it a day. (Both albums in their entirety, along with a few bonus tracks, were combined for a 2001 CD, The Best Of The Jags)

Really a shame, because that first single remains one of the most enthusiastic and enjoyable records of the time, and the clip below captures the band in those heady early days when their potential seemed limitless. Enjoy this week's NW4NW entry, "Back Of My Hand (I Got Your Number)" by The Jags:

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  1. Many songs had "that sound" at the time.....1979. I hear a Joe Jackson influence more than Costello, but I don't think of the Jags as a knock off at all. Back Of My Hand is a brilliant pop song, executed with style and class. Something to be proud of.

  2. Yes, the Joe Jackson influence is there as well...and damn I miss "that sound!" Thank you for your comment!