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Profile of Adventurous '80s Singer-Songwriter Joe Jackson


Joe Jackson
Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images


David Ian Jackson on August 11, 1954 in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England


Though lumped immediately in with the post-punk/new wave artists so prevalent at the time of his late-'70s emergence, Joe Jackson was always more ambitious, eclectic and engaging than almost any of his peers. With his talented four-piece band, Jackson released a string of tough, smart guitar pop records that established him as one of the most promising acts of the early '80s. However, never one to cling too tightly to one pattern or approach, Jackson displayed a versatility throughout the rest of the decade that always drew strong critical reception even if it possibly kept him from being a bona fide hitmaking star.

Early Years:

Despite a background in violin and piano of the classical variety, Jackson gravitated as a teenager toward playing pop and rock music in bars. His anti-establishment tendencies led the fledgling songwriter to find a kinship with the growing punk and new wave movements in England, and the Joe Jackson Band turned out to be one of the tightest ensembles to take up the mantle for the integrity of rock and roll. Quick releases Look Sharp!, I'm the Man and Beat Crazy found considerable success in America, though Jackson shifted quickly in 1981 to a drastically different musical direction.

Joe Jackson the Jazz & Pop Sophisticate:

Not that anyone had particularly questioned Jackson's acumen as a musician during his initial straight-ahead rock phase, but the singer-songwriter had by 1981 disbanded the Joe Jackson Band to explore various musical interests and his own sweeping talents. Following a covers album of big band standards, Jackson emerged as a distinct '80s solo artist on 1982's Night and Day, a Top 5 record that deftly drew from pop music of an earlier age. "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two" became significant pop hits despite a sound quite disparate from Jackson's early work that spotlighted jazz influences.

More Boundary Experiments, Modest Hits:

Having seemingly left behind the guitar-based rock of his initial recordings, Jackson settled into a pattern of modest commercial success and widespread commercial acclaim as an inventive, eclectic and independent artist. Mid-'80s releases Body & Soul and Big World yielded gems like "You Can't Get What You Want ('Til You Know What You Want)" and "Right and Wrong." The latter tune and the album that featured it were recorded live in front of an audience and presented without overdubs, a gesture that further confirmed Jackson's earned status as a serious artist.

Jackson Dabbles in Film Scores & Classical Music:

Jackson foreshadowed his '90s focus on classical music with 1987's Will Power EP and then rounded out the '80s with an exhaustive live album, a film soundtrack and one more studio release, 1989's Blaze of Glory. "Nineteen Forever" was a modest hit on the niche charts only and certainly offered no signal of a return to Look Sharp! form, but no one expected the ensuing decade to culminate in a classical music Grammy award for 1999's Symphony No. 1. After a decade of consistent musical output, Jackson the Renaissance Man also had a 1999 memoir published that focused on his formative musical years.

Welcome 2003 Return of the Joe Jackson Band:

By the dawn of the 21st century, Jackson clearly retained his strong reputation as a major rock, pop and classical music talent, but 2003 also saw the reformation of the original quartet that launched his career in the late '70s. Volume IV found the original Joe Jackson Band in vintage form and Jackson the songwriter energized and capable of presenting top-notch pop/rock tunes, perhaps most notably the typically wry, guitar-heavy "Still Alive." The artist has hardly slowed down since, maintaining a healthy vitality toward writing, recording and performing well into his fifties and beyond.
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