Joe Jackson Biography

11 August 1954, Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England. Having learned violin and piano as a teenager in Portsmouth, Jackson gained a place to study piano, percussion, composition and orchestration at London’s Royal Academy of Music. After leaving college in 1974 he joined the covers band Edward Bear. The line-up of Jackson, Mark Andrews (vocals) and Graham Maby (bass) changed their name to Arms & Legs and released three unsuccessful singles on the MAM Records label. Jackson returned to Portsmouth in 1977, where he worked as musical director to local cabaret act Koffee ’N’ Kreme and began working on his own demo material. Joined by Maby, Gary Sanford (guitar) and Dave Houghton (drums), he was signed up by A&M Records in the summer of 1978. His accomplished debut, ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’, was not an immediate hit; however, by the time Look Sharp! was released in 1979, the song had become one of the stand-out numbers of his live shows, and reached the UK charts, albeit some months after first nudging the US Top 20. Jackson’s first two albums revealed a confident writer of thoughtful lyrics, coupled with exciting new wave energy. ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ has a classic opening line, containing humour, irony and jealousy: ‘Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street’. While Look Sharp! and I’m The Man (featuring the UK Top 5 hit ‘It’s Different For Girls’) were power pop, the subsequent Beat Crazy (the last album to be recorded by the original line-up of the Joe Jackson Band) began a trend of changing musical direction, which Jackson relished. Jumpin’ Jive, although very fine, was a throwback to the music of the 40s; on this 1981 album he covered classic songs by Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan.

One of Jackson’s most satisfying works came in 1982 with Night And Day. The album was recorded in New York, where Jackson settled following his marriage break-up. The songs are introspective but positive; the hauntingly hummable UK/US Top 10 hit ‘Steppin’ Out’, with its mantric bass line and crisp piano, is a superbly crafted pop song that won him many new admirers. 1984’s Body And Soul came close to repeating the success, with ‘You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)’ entering the US Top 20. 1986’s Big World, minus the long-standing services of Graham Maby, was a three-sided direct to two-track disc recorded live at the Roundabout Theatre, New York City. However, the songs had less commercial appeal and Jackson’s fortunes began to decline. The instrumental, classically inclined Will Power (1987), although faultlessly recorded with a high standard of musicianship, put Jackson in a musical netherworld. He had come so far musically, in such a short time, his followers found it hard to keep up with him. A live album and the film soundtrack to Tucker both arrived in 1988 and despite the critical plaudits, following the commercial failure of the ensuing Blaze Of Glory (1989), his contract with A&M was not renewed.

It was inconceivable that a talent as great as Jackson’s would be without a contract for long, and by early 1991 he was signed to Virgin Records. Laughter & Lust was released to little commercial success, with Jackson finding himself in the difficult position of still being viewed as part of the new wave pop movement, yet having developed way beyond those realms. A serious musician who needs to be allowed to work without the constraints of commercial considerations, Jackson’s recordings in the remainder of the 90s left behind all remnants of power-punk. Having demonstrated that film scores and orchestral works are well within his boundaries, he was signed to Sony Classical in 1997. The same year’s Heaven & Hell served as a prelude to his first symphony, released in 1999. The recording won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album. During this period, Jackson also completed the first instalment of his memoirs.

In marked contrast to his classical recordings, Jackson worked with former colleague Graham Maby on a follow-up to the classic Night And Day, and re-formed the original line-up of the Joe Jackson Band to record 2003’s excellent Volume 4 (on Rykodisc Records). The quartet then released an excellent live recording, while in 2005 Jackson undertook an ambitious US/European tour accompanied by Todd Rundgren and a string quartet. The ensuing studio album Rain, released in 2008, featured the pared down trio of Jackson, Maby and Houghton.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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