Joe Jackson is arguably one of the most talented musician in popular music over the past 40 years. He has had success in many different genres whose abilities and interests have transcended any one label. His initial international success began as part of the new-wave movement of the late 70’a & early 80’s and his popularity and creativity continues to drive the scene.
Joe Jackson was born on August 11, 1954 in Burton-on-Trent, England, but grew up in the South Coast naval port city of Portsmouth. A skinny, asthmatic kid, he loved books and originally wanted to be a writer. At age 11, though, he joined a school violin class in order to escape the humiliation of Sports periods in which it was very often him, rather than the ball, which got kicked. Much to his own surprise, he found himself fascinated by music and eagerly studying music theory and history.
A couple of years later, Joe had switched to the piano, mainly because of his new ambition: to be a composer. His first efforts were pieces for piano and small groups of instruments. Within a few more years, though, he was writing songs, and leaning more towards the pop world.
At age 16 Joe played his first paying gig, as pianist in a pub next door to a glue factory just outside of Portsmouth. This was followed by other pub gigs (in which he was often trying to entertain crowds of drunken, bottle-throwing sailors) and accompanying a bouzouki player in a Greek restaurant.
At age 18 Joe won a scholarship to study Composition, Piano, and Percussion at London’s Royal Academy of Music. During the three years he spent there, he broadened his horizons further by working with a Fringe theatre group, studying Jazz with John Dankworth at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and playing in pop cover bands with names like Edward Bear and The Misty Set. By the time he left the Academy, he was the co-leader and songwriter of Arms and Legs, a proto-punk outfit which released two singles on the MAM label before burning out somewhere around 1976.
Joe then took a detour through the Cabaret world, as pianist and musical director first for the Portsmouth Playboy Club and then for singing duo Koffee N’ Kreme. The main purpose of this was to save money to make demos of his own songs.
By 1978 Joe was living in London and hawking an album-length demo, with his own band (Graham Maby, Bass; Dave Houghton, Drums; Gary Sanford, Guitar) standing by. That demo – already called Look Sharp – eventually found its way to American producer David Kershenbaum, who was in London in the capacity of talent scout for A&M Records. Joe was immediately signed and Look Sharp more professionally re-recorded in August ’78. The Joe Jackson Band finally started to play regular gigs and the album was released in January 1979.
Joe Jackson’s story up to this point is much more fully, fascinatingly, and hilariously recounted in his book A CURE FOR GRAVITY. From here on, though, it becomes more a matter of public record. Look Sharp (containing the hit Is She Really Going Out With Him) was followed within a year by the very similar I’m The Man (containing the hit It’s Different For Girls) and in 1980 by the darker, more reggae-influenced Beat Crazy. At the end of 1980, drummer Houghton decided to quit, and Joe decided to dissolve the band and try something new.
In 1981 Jackson recorded Jumpin’ Jive, a ‘musical vacation’ paying tribute to Swing and Jump Blues artists such as Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. Returning to songwriting, Joe spent a large chunk of 1982 in New York. The result was Night and Day, a more sophisticated and melodic record built around keyboards and Latin percussion, rather than guitars. With a new guitar-less band, Jackson hit the road for a whole year, and the album became his biggest success, spawning the hit singles Steppin’Out, Breaking Us In Two and Real Men and going platinum in the US. During the tour Joe also somehow found time to write his first film score, for James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder. (He would go on to write several more, including most notably for Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker in 1988).
Now based in NYC, Jackson’s next album Body and Soul (1984) was in a similar vein to Night and Day but featured a horn section (which, along with the Blue Note-inspired cover art, led many people to wrongly assume he’d made a jazz record). For Big World (1986) Jackson stripped everything down to a 4-piece again, and recorded live, direct to 2-track master. In 1989 he went in the opposite direction with the majestic, semi-autobiographical Blaze of Glory, and toured with an 11-piece band. Laughter and Lust (1991) was more like a mainstream (though still idiosyncratic) rock record, but yet another lengthy world tour left Jackson exhausted and at a creative dead end. As he sees it, his workaholic phase – which also included several film scores, a live album (Live 1980-86), an instrumental album (Will Power, 1987), guest appearances with Suzanne Vega, Ruben Blades and Joan Armatrading, and endless touring – was over.
Joe’s work during the rest of the 1990s was his most challenging and eclectic: the gentle, soul-searching Night Music (1994), the ambitious and original song-cycle based on the Seven Deadly Sins, Heaven and Hell (1997), and the album Joe considers his most underrated, Night and Day II (2000). The turn of the century saw a burst of creativity: Jackson won his first Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Album for the non-traditional, non-orchestral Symphony No.1) and published his book A Cure For Gravity. Described by Joe as not an autobiography but ‘a book about music thinly disguised as a memoir’, it was well-reviewed and has been translated into German and Dutch.
In 2003 Jackson astonished everyone, including himself, by re-forming the original Joe Jackson Band for a stunning new album, Volume 4, and a lengthy tour. The reunion was always intended as a one-off, but it also produced a live album, Afterlife, in 2004.
By this time Jackson was living mostly back in London. He made quite a few solo appearances, including on an unusual triple-bill tour with Todd Rundgren and the string quartet Ethel. He sang and played piano on Rickie Lee Jones’ It’s Like That and William Shatner’s Has Been(produced, arranged and co-written by Ben Folds). He made his first film appearance, as a pub pianist, in The Greatest Game Ever Played, which also features some of his music. He was also awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Music and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Portsmouth.
Around this time Joe started working with writer Raymond Hardie and director Judy Dolan on Stoker, a musical theatre project about Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. Though Stoker has been workshopped, performed a couple of times for small invited audiences, and attracted a lot of interest from theatre companies around the world, it has yet to find the backing for a fully staged production.
In 2006 Joe turned his attention back to pure songwriting and did a short Trio tour with Graham Maby and Dave Houghton. Having failed to happily re-establish himself in London, he moved to Berlin, where his next album Rain was recorded in 2007. Consisting of ten powerful, timeless new songs, Rain creates a surprisingly epic sound with just voices, piano, bass and drums. The trio toured for the next three years, and played more shows than any other J J lineup, including Joe’s first visits to Mexico, Israel, Croatia, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Turkey. A live album, Live Music, was released in 2011.
Joe Jackson’s most recent album Fast Forward was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. Composed, produced and arranged by Jackson, Fast Forward features four sets of four songs each recorded in four different cities – New York, New Orleans, Berlin and Amsterdam – each with a different set of guest musicians. The New York sessions feature Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Regina Carter, and Graham Maby; the Amsterdam sessions feature the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Stefan Kurger and Stefan Schmid from Zuco 103, as well as Mitchel Sink from the cast of Matilda; the Berlin sessions feature Greg Cohen and Earl Harvin; and the New Orleans sessions feature a horn section led by Donald Harrison in addition to three members of the funk band Galactic: Stanton Moore, Robert Mercurio, and Jeff Raines.
Jackson is currently living in Berlin but returns frequently to both New York and Portsmouth. Later this year, he will be touring Fast Forward extensively around North America.
Jackson was married to his wife, Ruth, for two years, but the marriage ended in divorce and was later called a “disaster” by Jackson.
Jackson has actively campaigned against smoking bans in both the United States and the United Kingdom, publishing a 2005 pamphlet (The Smoking Issue) and a 2007 essay (Smoke, Lies and the Nanny State), and recording a satirical song (“In 20-0-3”) on the subject.