Joe Jackson Biography
Last updated: 03/20/2012 11:00:00 AM
Joe Jackson was born on August 11, 1954, in Burton-on-Trent, England, but grew up in the South Coast naval port town of Portsmouth. An awkward, skinny, asthmatic child, he joined a violin class (aged 11) in order to escape from school sports, and soon fell in love with music. He claims that this saved his life.
Pretty soon Joe switched to piano and started to compose. His teenage musical hero was Beethoven, but he also loved jazz and rock, and by age 16 he was playing piano gigs, trying to entertain drunken sailors and skinheads in local pubs, or diners in a Greek restaurant. By age 18, he was playing clubs, discos and naval bases in bands with embarassing haircuts and embarassing names ('Edward Bear,' 'The Misty Set'). He also won a scholarship to study Composition at London's Royal Academy of Music.
In London, Jackson broadened his horizons further, collaborating on a Fringe theatre production called 'Schoolgirl Slaves of Soho' and playing piano in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. But he became disillusioned with the Academy and the prospects for a 'serious' composer, and plunged into the rock world, notably in the proto-punk band Arms and Legs, which self-destructed after releasing two unsuccessful singles. Jackson then spent a year and a half on the cabaret circuit (including a stint as Playboy Club pianist) in order to raise money to make demos and launch his own band.
In the summer of 1978 those demos were heard by producer David Kershenbaum, who got Joe signed to A&M Records. The debut album, LOOK SHARP, was recorded right away, but not released until 1979, to be followed in the same year by I'M THE MAN, and in 1980 by BEAT CRAZY. The Joe Jackson Band were wildly successful and toured constantly for three years, getting up to all the usual mischief.
After the breakup of that band, Jackson took a 'vacation' from his own music and made an album of old jump-blues and swing tunes, JUMPIN' JIVE. He then returned to songwriting with a style which was both more sophisticated and truer to his eclectic roots, and the next decade saw him constantly pushing the pop envelope without ever actually abandoning it. Joe recorded and toured throughout the 80s, releasing NIGHT AND DAY (1982), BODY AND SOUL (1984), BIG WORLD (1986) and BLAZE OF GLORY (1989). He also started to diversify into other areas, notably film scores, of which MIKE'S MURDER (1983) and Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER (1988) were released by A&M. There was also an album of instrumental compositions, WILL POWER (1987) and the double album LIVE 1980-86, which contained many new versions of older songs.
In 1991 Jackson signed to Virgin Records and made his last truly mainstream pop/rock album, LAUGHTER AND LUST. After a world tour which left him exhausted and in danger of 'just going through the motions', Joe took a couple of years off to re-think. The result was NIGHT MUSIC (1994), a gentle, soul-searching record and an artistic breakthrough. The pop envelope had been torn apart. Joe now describes himself as 'retired from the pop world . . . not so much in a musical sense, because I'll still write songs and everything I do will have pop elements. But I'm just not playing by the rules of the pop world any more, not thinking in terms of singles or charts or airplay or competing with anyone.' As a result, Joe says he is 'working with more freedom and enthusiasm than I've felt in years.'
Joe's next album, HEAVEN AND HELL (1997) was released in an innovative new partnership with Sony Classical. This was followed in 1999 by the non-traditional, non-orchestral SYMPHONY NO. 1, and his debut as an author, A CURE FOR GRAVITY, a 'book about music thinly disguised as a memoir'. Joe has since then created his own label, MANTICORE, in association with Sony. Its first release was SUMMER IN THE CITY, featuring new versions of old songs and covers recorded live in New York. Jackson's next release will be NIGHT AND DAY II, a sequel to his classic 1982 album.
Joe Jackson lives mostly in New York City but escapes regularly to a house in his home town of Portsmouth.
I saw Joe play his home town of Portsmouth last week and the show was absolutely stunning. Of course the encore was his own song, 'Home Town,' which I once had the privilege to discuss with him as we judged a song contest in Portsmouth. The original band (Dave Houghton on drums, Gary Standing on guitar and Graham Maby on bass) is looking as sharp as ever and they can still show the kids how to play the punk rock of 25 years ago. The man's a genius and he knows good musicians when he sees them.