Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Back: Back of My Hand

The Jags: Back of My Hand

One of the fun things about writing for this blog is that I never really know where the piece is going to go when I start doing my “research.” There are so many songs that have the word “back” in their title (and even more with the word in the lyrics, and even more songs that I could write about, if I took a broad view of the theme). When I saw The Jags’ “Back of My Hand” come up in my search, I thought, “hey, this would be easy—a fun song that I remember from college that has pretty much been forgotten.” And yet, when I started to look into it, it became more interesting. 

The Jags were formed in 1978 by the Yorkshire-based songwriting team of singer Nick Watkinson and guitarist John Alder with Steve Prudence on bass and Alex Baird on drums. In July of 1978, they signed to Island Records and released a four-track EP, which included an early mix of “Back of My Hand.” It’s a great song—catchy, fun, but with a little edge. And no, it isn’t about hitting someone—it’s about the excitement of getting a girl to write her phone number on your skin, since the song long pre-dates cellphones. 

After dealing with the almost mandatory management issues, the song was remixed by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes (The Buggles), and the resulting single release became a modest hit in both the US (peaking at 84) and UK (hitting 17), at a time when “new wave” music was not common on the charts. It was, I suspect, more popular on college radio (I definitely played it a few times) and more adventurous commercial stations that were beginning to embrace new wave music. That version was on the US release of their first full album, Evening Standards, although a newly recorded version was on the initial UK pressings. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure which version is embedded above, but I kind of think that it was the original version, not the Buggles remix. 

But here’s the rub. When I thought about writing about this song, my first thought was, “The Jags—that band that sounded like Elvis Costello.” And constant comparisons to Mr. MacManus appeared to torpedo the Jags. It’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. I remember that Costello was, initially, compared to Graham Parker, without damaging his career, and early Costello comparisons didn’t prevent Joe Jackson from becoming a star. So, the only conclusion must be that the Jags just weren’t that good. 

That conclusion would be wrong. 

In researching this piece, I found a number of reviews that call the song “a power pop classic,” their output in general as being of “uniformly high quality,” and having “a range of power pop that few—including Mr. Costello—ever achieved.” And I have to agree—the band was tight, and they wrote clever new wave pop songs that deserved better than just being dismissed as knockoffs. Yes, the Costello influence is hard to miss, but there’s also other things there-Thin Lizzy, maybe the Kinks. It’s a similar situation, I think, to the Knack, who were turned into a punch line despite some excellent songs because of, well, because of a bunch of reasons that I wrote more about here

After “Back of My Hand,” the Jags had some personnel changes and recorded a second album. While band members insist that they never tried to copy Elvis, as one member noted, for the second album, they tried not to sound like him. The album was unsuccessful, the band members feuded, there were legal and management squabbles, and the band broke up. As far as I can tell, none of the members appeared to join other known bands, it seems that their music is out of print, and some of it never was even released on CD. In fact, the version that I’ve uploaded is from a compilation, and the Amazon purchase link is from the soundtrack for the 2006 Owen Wilson movie, You, Me and Dupree

Then I found an article from 2013 entitled, Donate to Fund for UK Power Pop Legends The Jags’ Watkinson, in which I discovered that Watkinson had since about 2009, been, as the article put it, “living as a transvestite and performing at select clubs in the greater London area, generally under the name Virginia Plain.” The reason for the funding request was that Watkinson’s home was destroyed by a fire set when a lodger fell asleep with candles burning. And, of course, the flat was not insured, and the culprit fled and never paid a penny. Another article that I found about this situation noted that Watkinson was earning a “living as a gardener.” 

It's kind of a shame that such a talented songwriter isn’t writing songs, and that a talented band never really made it. But it shows how everything has to align for an artist to succeed.