Born August 11, 1955, in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England; married wife, Ruth, in 1981. Education: Attended the Royal College of Music (London) for three years. Addresses: Record company --A & M Records, 1416 N. LaBrea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028.
In the modern music business, performers tend to hunt for a successful formula and then stick with it for as long as it continues to sell records. Joe Jackson has defied that convention, challenging himself and his listeners by making nearly every one of his albums in a different musical style. "There's this mentality in the music industry, 'Play it safe, stick to the format, give the people what they want,'" Jackson told David Wild in Rolling Stone. "I hate that expression, it makes me angry. The people don't know what they want--they just want something good." Jackson has proven his point by maintaining his popularity while experimenting with jazz idioms, pop conventions, Latin rhythms, Broadway-style tunes and even orchestral music.
At the age of twelve, Jackson was already writing instrumental music and developing his skills as a pianist. His great loves were Stravinsky and Beethoven, and he even attended the Royal College of Music in London for three years. Strangely enough, it was in this classical environment that he became convinced that the pop song was the most important musical form of his era. Accordingly, he tore up all his previous compositions, dropped out of the Academy, and began working on a repertoire of pop songs. He supported himself with various commercial gigs, including a stint as the house pianist at the Playboy Club in Portsmouth, England.
Eventually, he made his way to London, where he formed the Joe Jackson Band, featuring Graham Maby on bass, Gary Sanford on guitar, and Dave Houghton on drums. Before long the group had signed a contract with A&M Records and in 1979 they released their first album, Look Sharp. The album reflected Jackson's careful study of pop forms; despite a no-frills, stripped-down sound that led many to identify Jackson as a New Waver, it was full of catchy lyrics and irresistible hooks. Thanks to the single "Is She Really Going out with Him?," Look Sharp went gold in 1979, just before the release of the band's follow-up album, I'm the Man; it too went gold. Joe Jackson was on top of the pop music world.
He was growing restless, however. Having mastered one form, Jackson saw no sense in repeating it, no matter how lucrative such a move might have been. Accordingly, he began work on Beat Crazy, a collection of reggae-influenced songs. Released in November 1980, it was one of his only albums to draw both harsh reviews and sluggish sales. Two months later Jackson broke up his band. An extended illness followed. Jackson told down beat contributor Bill Milkowski that during his convalescence, he "was listening to [jazz great] Louis Jordan. I had split up my first band, I really didn't know what to do next. So I thought, 'What the hell, I don't have to do another album just yet. Why not do something just for the fun of it?'"
He proceeded to put together a swing group called Jumpin' Jive, and to write some songs in the style of Jordan. "I thought at first we'd just do a few gigs, maybe do an EP or something. And it just snowballed, until we did an album and A & M put it out. Next thing I knew we were doing a British tour and then an American tour. And that album seems to be pretty popular still. A lot of people come up to me and tell me they like it."
Following the Jumpin' Jive tour, Jackson rented an apartment in New York City's East Village. His intent was to absorb the city's unique atmosphere and then distill his impressions into his fifth album. That album, Night and Day, was a unique blend of jazz, salsa, and pop. "It's not nine songs about New York," Jackson explained to David Fricke in People. "It's nine very universal songs that are influenced by New York's rhythms and sounds." However it was categorized, the album quickly became Jackson's greatest success thus far. The single "Steppin' Out" became his first to reach the top ten, and it also won him Grammy nominations for record of the year and best pop male vocal performance. Even jazz critics, who had scorned Jumpin' Jive, responded enthusiastically to Night and Day. down beat 's Bill Milkowski admitted that Jackson deserved "newfound respect as a composer of alternately witty and sensitive songs, more sophisticated and worldly-wise than your average punk-rocker."
Experimentation with jazz and Latin idioms continued on Body and Soul, praised by Milkowski as Jackson's "most pure and personal statement to date.... This introspective album ... [is] a direct expression of emotion rather than the detached, ironic observation that marked much of his earlier work." Mark Peel of Stereo Review was also favorably impressed by the lush, emotional quality of Body and Soul. He commented: "Anyone without the kind of 'New Music' credentials Joe Jackson has would be hooted off to Las Vegas ... for making music as unapologetically romantic as that on his new 'Body and Soul' album. But Jackson's honesty and intelligence let him get away with it."
Following the release of Body and Soul, Jackson took a two-year hiatus from recording. When he returned in 1986, it was with Big World, an album notable for both its eclectic collection of musical styles and for the unusual recording techniques used in making it. Reacting to the overproduced sound dominating pop music, Jackson had produced an entire album live, with no overdubs, retakes, or studio remixing. "I feel it's a very honest statement," the musician told Milkowski. "I want people to know, even if they don't like it, that it's a real performance and that no one's had his voice electronically altered to sound in tune. The drums haven't been triggered by drum machines but were actually played by a drummer, and that kind of thing. It's sort of like truth-in-advertising."
Big World included sounds ranging from folk, funk, and hard rock to waltzes, tangos, and honky-tonk soul. Concerning this wide variety, Rob Hoerburger wrote in Rolling Stone that "unfortunately, the big world proves just a little too big, even from someone as industrious as Jackson. In the past, his album concepts have been narrow enough for him to pay tribute, redefine, diverge and return. But there's no unity in Big World." Milkowski did not concur, finding in the album a cohesive commentary "on how the very nature of travel allows one to step outside his or her own particular, nationalistic view of the world through an interaction with exotic cultures, customs, and musics."
Joe Jackson has given many reasons for his chameleon-like approach to music. He told Joe Contreras in Newsweek, "I don't think I'm original enough to have a definite style of my own that will stand up as a style. I use different musical styles in the same way I wear different clothes." On a more profound level, he told Milkowski, "I think my music is a mixture of a lot of different things because I am by nature, I think, a traveller and by nature pretty cosmopolitan." By working with various styles, he hopes to "promote open-mindedness.... The world is getting pretty dangerous these days, and a lot of the problems are caused by the people in power being inflexible and not well-informed and not really understanding the other guy's point of view. So it's important to avoid being narrow-minded, and listening to the music of other cultures is not a bad start."
by Joan Goldsworthy
Joe Jackson's Career
Began playing piano in childhood, was a composer of instrumental music by age 12; worked at various musical gigs after dropping out of college, including a stint as the house pianist at the Portsmouth, England, Playboy Club; leader of the Joe Jackson Band, 1977-80; released first album, 1979; solo artist, 1981--.
- LPs; released by A & M
- Look Sharp 1979.
- I'm the Man 1979.
- Beat Crazy 1980.
- Jumpin' Jive 1981.
- Night & Day 1982.
- Mike's Murder (soundtrack), 1983.
- Body and Soul 1984; reissued, 1986.
- Big World 1986.
- Will Power 1987.
- Live:1980-1986 1988.
- Blaze of Glory 1989.
- Also wrote and recorded the film soundtrack Tucker: The Man and his Dream.
January 20, 2004: Jackson's album, 25th Anniversary Live, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_6/index.jsp, January 21, 2004.
- down beat, May 1986.
- Newsweek, March 14, 1983.
- People, February 14, 1983.
- Rolling Stone, September 11, 1986; July 16, 1987; May 18, 1989.
- Stereo Review, July 1984.