The Story Behind Joe Jackson's 'Steppin' Out'

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British singer-songwriter Joe Jackson in New York City in March 1987, five years after the release of his hit ‘Steppin’ Out.’

British singer-songwriter Joe Jackson in New York City in March 1987, five years after the release of his hit ‘Steppin’ Out.’


Photo:

Michael Putland/Getty Images

With the decline of punk and disco in 1981, British and American new-wave artists filled the gap with songs driven by synthesizers and programmed dance beats.

“Steppin’ Out” by British singer-songwriter Joe Jackson came early in the transition. Released in June 1982, the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard pop chart, while the album, “Night and Day,” peaked at No. 4.

Recently, Mr. Jackson, who played all the instruments on “Steppin’ Out,” and David Kershenbaum, who coproduced, looked back at the song’s evolution. Mr. Jackson’s U.S. tour begins July 6. Edited from interviews.

Joe Jackson, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Sept. 24, 1982, says he often reworks his arrangement of ‘Steppin’ Out’ for performances.

Joe Jackson, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Sept. 24, 1982, says he often reworks his arrangement of ‘Steppin’ Out’ for performances.


Photo:

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Joe Jackson: December 1980 was a turning point for me. My band had just finished touring when my drummer, Dave Houghton, gave notice. I considered replacing him and carrying on. Instead, I broke up the Joe Jackson Band and took a break from pop. I wanted to try something different.

I set to work arranging some of my favorite late-1940s jump blues and jazz songs. It was a bit of fun—a vacation from my own music. My album, “Jumpin’ Jive,” came out in June 1981, and I toured until September.

That fall, I left London to live in New York. A lot was going on there, musically. I took a sublet in the East Village and went out to jazz and Latin clubs. One of the first songs I wrote for my next album, “Night and Day,” was “Steppin’ Out.” I was inspired by New York.

I envisioned playing a diverse range of keyboards. I wanted them to conjure up the dazzle of neon lights and the feel of cabbing from club to club to take it all in. It would be a romantic ballad set to a disco beat.

As soon as I finished the music, I wrote the words. I thought of a couple who had just fought and were making up. They were telling each other, “Let’s forget it and take advantage of the city. Let’s just throw ourselves into the night.”

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Watch a video of Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’

For me, lyrics have always been the hardest part of writing a song. I sweat over words. I don’t want them to sound dumb and clumsy and meaningless. So I did a lot of editing.

Except for the first verse, I started each with a different pronoun—me, we, you. I used them as cues for the narratives that followed. The lyrics were intuitive and had nothing to do with my personal life. They just felt right.

The first verse set the scene: “Now / the mist across the window hides the lines / But nothing hides the color of the lights that shine / Electricity so fine / Look and dry your eyes.”

The next verse urged the other person to forget the argument: “We / so tired of all the darkness in our lives / With no more angry words to say / can come alive / Get into a car and drive / to the other side.”

The rest is about heading out and the anticipation of arriving at a club: “And in a yellow taxi you turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while / If you follow me.”

Even though the song is set in late ’81, I viewed it as a trip through New York of another era. I imagined the couple going to CBGB or the Village Gate but dressed up, as if in a movie set in 1940s New York.

Once I had written the music and words, I recorded a low-tech demo at a Long Island studio. For the basic rhythm track, I played a Yamaha CP-70 electric piano set to sound like an acoustic piano. It would sustain a warm, human feel after I layered on the synthesizers.

For the bass, I used a Prophet-5 synthesizer. I liked Kraftwerk’s electronic dance beats and bass riffs on albums such as “Computer World.” I set the synth bass so it had a completely precise and metronomic sound. I also used a Boss DR-55 drum machine. I just pressed the “club beat” button.

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Watch Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World,’ which Joe Jackson said inspired the bass line in ‘Steppin’ Out.’

After the basic rhythm track was done, I overdubbed a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. I also added a glockenspiel, which sounds like bells.

Then I asked A&M’s David Kershenbaum if he’d come to the recording sessions for an extra set of ears. David had signed me to the label in London in 1979 and worked with me on two albums.

David Kershenbaum: When I first met Joe in the late ’70s, his style, dress and music were very much in sync with the surfacing new-wave movement.

As we worked on his first two albums, I quickly discovered he was a superb musician who could write top-notch songs. Even more interesting was how he absorbed influences and the way they turned up in his music.

By 1981, I was head of A&R at A&M. When Joe played me his demo for “Steppin’ Out” that year, it ran about four minutes and 15 seconds. That was long for a single. The song also didn’t have a chorus. That’s what everyone sings and remembers. I still loved the song.

Mr. Jackson: We recorded at Blue Rock Studio in New York’s Soho neighborhood on Greene Street. Soho then was a gritty neighborhood of warehouses and loft rentals. At night, it was deserted.

I recorded the album in January and February of 1982, late at night. Those hours suited me. The studio was small, which was perfect, since I didn’t need much room to record all the instruments.

Mr. Kershenbaum: When we recorded “Steppin’ Out,” Joe played the acoustic grand piano that was there. He also had a Prophet-5 synthesizer. We programmed his driving bassline on a Minimoog.

Mr. Jackson: Next I added a Yamaha CP-80 keyboard. Later, drummer Larry Tolfree overdubbed a real snare drum on top of the fake one to give it an authentic sound.

On the Fender Rhodes, I played notes in my right hand to make the acoustic piano’s notes sound shinier. The Hammond organ added texture and depth to the background. The glockenspiel came last. I didn’t use a guitar on the song or the album.

Mr. Kershenbaum: The acoustic piano was Joe’s signature sound. It made “Steppin’ Out” richer and orchestral. When Joe finished recording the music, it was air tight. He really nailed it. The next step was to record his lead vocal.

Mr. Jackson: I recorded my vocal while listening to the instrumental track on headphones. Then I overdubbed the vocal two more times to give it dimension and for a choir effect.

Mr. Kershenbaum: I used a British Calrec mic to record Joe’s vocals. The mic captured a pure sound and didn’t make Joe’s voice sound processed or slick. I had bought it in England years earlier and brought it to the recording session.

Once we finished, I mixed the tracks. That took a day or two. Back then, I traveled with a pair of 6-inch tall German Visonik David DIN 45 500 monitor speakers. They were small—the size of paperback books. But they had the depth and dimension of much larger speakers.

Monitor speakers in the studio could be deceptive, causing you to worry just about a song’s components. I wanted all of it to stand out. As I mixed the tape, I put my head between the Davids to hear what the finer detail sounded like.

I heard the song for the first time in the summer of ’82, in a store in L.A. It was playing softly. I remember thinking how glad I was that I mixed it on those small speakers. Every aspect of the song came through.

Joe Jackson, performing at L'Olympia on Feb. 18, 2016, in Paris, has lived in the U.K. and New York and now lives in Berlin.

Joe Jackson, performing at L’Olympia on Feb. 18, 2016, in Paris, has lived in the U.K. and New York and now lives in Berlin.


Photo:

David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images

Mr. Jackson: After the single and album came out, I went home to the U.K. for a while, but I wasn’t happy. So I returned to live in New York and went on the road for a year.

Today, I often rework my original arrangement of “Steppin’ Out” before we go on tour. I’m currently performing the slow version that works really well in concert. I may try a Latin version next.

I don’t like New York much these days. It’s as if the city and I had a hot love affair and now we’re just friends, but we still have to see each other to remain friends. Today I live in Berlin. The New York I knew in late ’81 and ’82 is gone.

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