One of the things I have really enjoyed about writing these posts about my favorite songs is the discussions the post sparks among a startlingly loyal subset of my friends who I guess have a similar tendency towards long-form musings on (mostly) classic tunes. One of the regular fixtures is good old pal Dorian Ham, a very special person who I have known for almost 20 (!) years. Even though Dorian likes way too many things and he and I disagree on a lot, we have a similar zest for such discussions and I find myself looking forward to his sharing his perspectives on my song posts, even if he’s here to pick apart my genre designation or song choice by a particular artist. You know, I’m here for it.
I met Dorian through Josie, very shortly after we moved to Columbus. He was working near campus and Pete and I would often run into him and have 5-10 minute Dorian Conversations, which usually consist of his talking and me laughing. As we do, I got to know him over the years at mixed social gatherings. One of the reasons I like Dorian so much is that he and I have compatible habits at mixed social gatherings, in that we like to huddle in the corner to talk about TV instead of mingling. We have kept in touch since moving and we’ve managed to see each other about once a year. One of the more memorable of our annual meet-ups was last year in New York at Josie’s living wake at which he gave the very BEST speech, which made everyone in attendance laugh out loud through tears. That’s his role. Bring the room up.
The second-most memorable interaction I had with Dorian occurred at a no-account Sunday night at Andyman’s Treehouse, a time and place at which Dorian had a semi-regular residency as a DJ. I actually hate going out on Sundays, so I didn’t get to see him spin very often, but on this particular night, I was very glad I did. Over idle conversation with my table-mates I heard a very familiar tune, but it was like one of those songs where you only know the non-lyrical hook* and even in Internet Times, it’s impossible to uncover unless you hear it in the same place at the same time with a friend who knows what song it is. In this case, as it turned out, it was the “dun-duh, dun-dun-dun-duh, dun-duh-duh-duh” in “Steppin’ Out.” Without excusing myself, I jumped out of my seat and ran up to the DJ booth and demanded Dorian let me into this club. He held up the sleeve and there it was “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. He couldn’t hear me so I clasped my hands together and mouthed “thank you” and my life was just that much closer to complete.
*I had this same issue** for a long time with “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits before my pal Natalie hooked me up when we heard it in a restaurant over brunch. It was one of those times where we were in mid-conversation and my eyes glassed over and I was like “SHUT UP. WHAT SONG IS THIS.” And she knew immediately. And now that song is in a commercial, a placement I don’t actually hate because that non-lyrical hook is just so lovely. Comforting. Even for dad-rock.
**My friend Ian identified "Tears of a Clown" as another space-ambient song with a non-lyrical hook, which reminded me that the Electric Grandmother's "Brandon Vs. Columbia House" also falls into this category.
I don’t remember the following things about “Steppin’ Out”: When I first heard it, when I first heard anything by Joe Jackson, when I first saw the video, what I did to improve my situation after Dorian revealed the secret to happiness. I don’t know, I don’t have any of this information. I think sadly, Joe Jackson tips the high-quality scales of CVS Bangers (and in fact “Steppin’ Out” is on the definitive playlist, available here). This is to say that these songs are always kind of “there,” finding sinister nonspecific pathways into your consciousness, often in an ambient context in public places (such as a CVS, but also in min-malls as my friend Matt favors and grocery stores). The other unifying factor of this class of song is that it was released either in the 70s or 80s and is generally considered cheesy or at least cheese-adjacent by anyone born in 1975 or later* and that’s really unfair to Joe Jackson.
*To those born in 1974 and prior until about 1960, they are considered the pinnacle of culture. Look at any YouTube video of a song not widely appreciated among the younger generations released in the 70s or 80s and I can guarantee you it would either be “who is listening in 2020?” or “this is back when music was real and things were objectively better.” This is a recurring joke between Pete and I.
In his time, Joe Jackson was more associated with the likes of Elvis Costello than Foreigner and I giggle with delight when thinking back to the first time I heard his niche genre referred to as “piano punk.” As a matter of fact, Joe Jackson is so authentic, he’s actually a jazz man. His first mainstream hit of course was “Is She Really Going Out with Him,” released in 1979 but in 1980, he broke up his band, moved to New York and started playing jazz in small clubs because that’s what he was feeling. And evidently it was this time and place that inspired him to move back to pop and write “Steppin’ Out.” More on this can be found in this inexplicably misplaced Wall Street Journal article from 2018, a deep dive on “Steppin’ Out.”
Ohhhhhhh I do love that his move to New York inspired this song. I’ve mentioned that I am a sucker for songs about places and I like places very much. And cities, especially. Thematically, this tune highlights the glamour and decadence of 80s New York yuppie culture. As I mentioned in my post about “See No Evil” by Television, it’s fun to fantasize about the NYC of the past, even if they probably wouldn’t let me into the kind of club abstractly featured in “Steppin’ Out.” Despite going toe-to-toe with anyone in the glamor category, I don’t think I’m thin or rich enough to pull off being a New-York 80s yuppie, which makes me mad from an conceptual art perspective, but self-satisfied from an actual perspective.
Musically, this song is difficult to beat. Stripping away all accessories to pop song evaluation such as personal taste and emotional attachment, it’s one of the best-written songs of all time. I’ve already mentioned the hook, which truly captures the 80s yuppie glamor and wealthy freedom about which the song was conceived. It’s refined and infectious at the same time. It’s like a really attractive straight line, the substantially less-gritty equivalent of the guitar riff from “Sweet Jane:” so right. A glass of sparkling white wine placed upon a black lacquer grand piano lid. Somewhat overshadowed but just as important is the crazy, driving bassline, the perfect partner for that keyboard hook. It is driving and bouncy at the same time and is the exact sound that comes out of an 80s aerobic routine*. I can’t get that imagery out of my head.
*Complete with the pastel pink braided terry cloth headband and purple and turquoise leotard.
The vocal performance is understated but I think that’s appropriate. It’s gentle and takes a back seat to the piano hook and that amazing bassline. It goes well with the lyrics, which, as revealed by that WSJ article tells the tale of a bickering couple, who decide to end the fight so that they can go out and enjoy themselves and their city. I love that it’s so specific and this has sparked a number of online arguments about this theme, which I get. I think back c. 2014 on our wedding anniversary, Pete and I were late getting out of our place to get dinner, so we had to take a cab, which we didn’t want to do, but it fit our mood well, in spite of not bickering ahead of time. We were listening to “Steppin’ Out” a lot and it was a good stretch for us. We were getting our shit together. Independently, we both assigned this song to that dinner out. “You can dress in pink and blue just like a child. And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile, we’ll be there in just a while.” The imagery of anticipating a nice night out is so strong, people want to assign it to their own experience of having a nice night out together. That’s--kind of quaint, isn’t it?