Born Joe Jackson August 11, 1954, at Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England; studied at Royal Academy of Music, London, from September 1971-74. Addresses:

Self-styled, eclectic artist Joe Jackson has been a prominent name in modern rock since his seminal new wave albums Look Sharp! and I'm The Man were released in 1979. Since then,the chameleon-like Jackson has experimented with styles of music and production, which has included instrumental albums and eight soundtracks. After roaming the terrain of pop music for two decades, Jackson released Heaven and Hell, which placed him on the Sony Classical label and returned the artist to his roots at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied as a teenager. Jackson had finally decided that the pop world had never really acknowledged the scope of his records and is a place whose boundaries are often too restrictive and imposing. Undeniably, there has always been a strong rock influence in his work, but Jackson has progressively continued to mix a stew of assorted genres into each album. "All I can say is, it just doesn't feel natural or honest to me to work within the limits of one clearly defined genre," Jackson claimed in a press release for the album Night Music.

While going to primary school in Portsmouth, England, Jackson took up violin lessons at the age of 11 as a way to avoid taking school sports. He soon developed an interest in creating his own compositions, and talked his parents into buying him a piano to create his own music. Joe gained a love for Beethoven along with rock and jazz?- from the beginning his musical appetite was marked in its diversity. When he was 16, Jackson began taking formal lessons and began to play in public. Within two years, he entered the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London on a piano scholarship. During his sojourn at the Academy, he focused on composition, piano, percussion, and orchestration by day, and played in a string of fleeting Top 40 cover bands in the evenings.

One of these bands, Arms & Legs, was signed in 1976 by the MAM U.K. label and quickly released three singles which Jackson now calls "disastrous." After spending only one year together, Arms & Legs went their separate ways, and Joe headed home to Portsmouth to perform at the Playboy Club, where he began to assemble a collection of demo tapes. After inviting back the previous bass-guitarist from Arms & Legs, Graham Maby, and collecting Gary Sanford for guitar and Dave Houghton for drums, Jackson had composed enough material to confidently craft his solo debut. Jackson was signed to A&M records and began recording in August of 1978 to produce what would be the album he would be forever known for, Look Sharp! Packed with catchy singles, the album captured the energy of punk and new wave, and showed clear signs of an ironic, subtle songwriter.

Fresh from the studio, the Joe Jackson Band toured the London area in the fall of 1978, supporting a local band named the Pleasers. Meanwhile, Jackson's band recorded the single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and released it on Halloween 1978. The single was aired for the Tony Blackburn show on November 3, and while it would later become a new wave staple and one of Jackson's signature tunes, it failed to make the U.K. charts its first time around.

In January of 1979, the album Look Sharp! was finally released, resulting in invitations for the band to create more BBC sessions for the John Peel and Kid Jensen radio shows, both crucial showcases for new talent in the U.K. From April until June, the Joe Jackson Band continuously toured the United States and Europe. After some delay, the exposure from these many gigs and radio airings pushed "Is She Really Going Out With Him" to Billboard's Top 40, reaching number 21. The single was subsequently re- released in the U.K. due to public demand and this time peaked at the Number 13. All the while, Jackson had gained appreciation from critics, who gave kudos to the performer for the freshness of his songwriting, as well as for the energy of his live performances.

Working industriously, Jackson and his outfit went on to make two more albums in as many years. The first, I'm The Man, scored a Number five hit in the U.K. with "It's Different For Girls" and the album itself snare Jackson the prestigious Edison Award for music, awarded from Holland. As a New Musical Express writer saw it, "an excellent debut album has been chased back home by a sequel which refines, expands, extends, and finally surpasses its creators opening gambit." Beat Crazy was the follow-up, as well as the last album to feature the original Joe Jackson Band line up. Eschewing the new wave style of Jackson's earliest efforts in favor of a blend of influences including ska and reggae, Beat Crazy failed to chart heavily with its singles, and by 1980 the group had split up.

Never an artist to become crestfallen after commercial letdowns, Jackson forged ahead in his intake of a world of musical styles. In between I'm The Man and Beat Crazy, Jackson had produced three tracks for reggae artist Lincoln Thompson, as well as an album for the reggae group The Rasses, entitled Natural Wild, and these interactions only bolstered Jackson's growing interest in music other than contemporary pop. In addition, while he was recuperating from an long illness in 1981, Jackson began listening to 1940s jump and swing music at his home. He decided that it would be fun to make a cover album ofthat era's music and took a holiday from his own writing and recorded the album Jumpin' Jive with longtime associate Graham Maby and a group of professional jazz musicians. As Hi-Fi News & Record Reviews commented, Jackson "obviously loves and understands the music with which he is dealing and is not merely content to employ it as this year's gimmick."And yet as with much of Jackson's output, it received well-favored reviews, but fell flat commercially.

Jackson returned to his own writing for the next album, 1982's Night and Day, which was conceived and recorded in New York City. Perhaps the melancholic urban romance of that city was a key influence of the flavor of Night and Day, which was an instant success in the U.S. While hinting at the somber coolness of intimate club jazz, the album stayed for the most part within the parameters of the pop music format, perhaps one reason for its strong commercial reception. In the words of a critic writing for Italian magazine Mucchio Selvaggio, "thanks to this album Joe Jackson can be called a 'great musician;' he shows us his eclecticism, intelligence, and respect for the New York musical history. A real sound poet." Its first single, "Steppin' Out," rode up the charts to Number six, and Jackson was asked to play on the NBC television show Saturday Night Live in October of that year. The Joe Jackson band, with a new roster of members, supported the album with an 11 month tour, and the re-release of "Steppin' Out" in the U.K. and the popularity of the moody ballad "Breaking Us In Two" raised Night and Day to number three on the charts.

During the Night and Day tour, Jackson accepted the invitation to score the film Mike's Murder, a fairly forgettable thriller starring Debra Winger. Some of the songs were leftovers from the Night and Day sessions along with a number of original instrumental tracks. While some of the soundtrack's material got a decent amount of radio play, the film was cut so harshly that most of Jackson's score did not make the final product. Nevertheless, the album's material was strong and became the first in a number of successful film collaborations for Jackson.

The next album from Jackson was released in March of 1984, called Body and Soul, and featured the Number 15 single "You Can't Get What You Want."The single as well as the album demonstrated mastery in the kind of cosmopolitan pop he had been known to invent. As a critic for Ciao 2001 magazine assessed, "Body and Soul is a masterpiece of a thirty year old boy who doesn't know how to be a rock star and doesn't want to; an out of time musician able to charm with a few piano notes." The album's almost unanimous critical acclaim bolstered his reputation as a composer breaking ground between pop and "serious" music. Consequently, after the album's promotional tour, Jackson was again invited to compose afilm score, this time for a Japanese IMAX film called Shijin No Ie or House of the Poet. Comprised of a twenty minute piece with a full orchestra, the score was reworked and released later on the album Will Power as "Symphony in One Movement".

In January of 1996, the album Big World was recorded live at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City, which generated a video of the performances alongside the three- sided LP. The expansiveness of the record allowed for Jackson to include the same songs twice, but in radically re-orchestrated versions that showed Jackson's imagination in arrangements as well as songwriting. Stretching the limits of pop to its limits, Big World was perhaps a preparation for Jackson's next album to come out, which was a decisive deviation from the pop world.

Jackson's studio band was mostly kept intact, but was buttressed by a full piece orchestra. The album, called Will Power, contained all instrumental material and was perhaps a slap in the face for those expecting standard popular radio fare. Taking yet another step in this direction, Jackson swung back to another soundtrack project when film maverick Francis Ford Coppola gave him the opportunity to use some well-known British jazz performers in creating a score for the film Tucker: The Man and His Dream, which was released by A&M.

Following the 1988 album Blaze of Glory, which essentially went unpromoted,Jackson took a break to recoup, even though this album still is one of the artist's own favorites, and ranks "right up there with Night and Day," as critic Jim Bessman agreed. While laying low, Jackson spent his time at small clubs trying out material for what took shape in his next album Laughter & Lust, which was released on the Virgin records label. Between recording and touring, Jackson again wrote the score for the movie Queens Logic, after which he took a well-deserved break.

The album Night Music was welcomed in 1994 to rave reviews by the critics, but the air time it received was as weak as Blaze of Glory. A review from Harburger Nachrichten in Germany explained the predicament: "I really like it, but I can't review it unless it starts getting a lot of airplay or gets into the charts." The press volleyed the album back and forth saying it was too old for their audiences, or chided Jackson for his refusal to create another pop single. His mature blends of music just didn't fit in anywhere. Even if it was worth listening to, there seemed no way to promote it properly. Along with these troubles, some commentators thought he was taking himself too seriously. An article in the Stereo Review stated that Jackson had "abandoned regulation pop music instrumentation as if conventional pop structures would unfairly rein in a prodigious, sweeping talent such as his the only thing missing was a sign on the stage reading 'Quiet! Artist at Work!'"

Jackson has taken it all in stride, as he sees no viable alternative. "I'm totally aware that what I do doesn't fit very neatly, and that makes life difficult at times," he told journalist Gary Graff in his own defense. He fears that the critics still see him as the angry young man from his early rock and roll years and Look Sharp! Now that he has matured out of single-making pop structures he explains that "to me, it feels a bit like I'm the ugly sister of Cinderella, and they keep trying to force the glass slipper onto my foot; but I don't WANT it. I mean, I'm PROUD to be ugly!"

Heaven & Hell brought Joe Jackson home to where his compositional roots lie. It was released in Sepember of 1997 on the Sony Classical Label, denoting the final severance from the milieu of commercial popular music. A concept album whose music embodies the seven deadly sins, Heaven and Hell featured introspective pop singer Suzanne Vega, classical soprano Dawn Upshaw, and Crash Test Dummies' lead singer Brad Roberts, and may stand as the ultimate testament to Jackson's vibrant eclecticism.

by Shaun Frentner

Joe Jackson's Career

Played in pub band Edward Bear; signed recording deal with MAM UK for three singles before break-up in 1976; Joe Jackson band formed,1978; released debut album Look Sharp, containing his first hit single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", 1979; Night and Day released in 1982 with single "Steppin' Out" charting; played in live TV concert "Rockpalast" in West Germany, 1983; "You Can't Get What You Want" from Body and Soul, 1984; played piano for Suzanne Vega's single "Left of Center" from the movie Pretty In Pink, 1986; Jackson band signed onto Virgin America for two albums, 1991; switched to Sony Classical for Heaven & Hell, 1997.

Joe Jackson's Awards

band received the prestigious Edison Award in Holland for the second album I'm The Man, 1979

Famous Works

Further Reading



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