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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 was followed within a year by the very similar I'm the Man, 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, 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 innovative song-cycle based on the Seven Deadly Sins, Heaven and Hell (1997), and the album Joe considers his best (and most uderrated): Night and Day II (2000). The turn of the century saw a burst of creativity: Jackson also won his first Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Album for the non-traditional, non-orchestral Symphony No.1) and published A Cure For Gravity.
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.
Since then Jackson has made quite a few solo appearances, including on an unusual triple-bill tour with Todd Rundgren and the string quartet Ethel. He has also guested on Rickie Lee Jones' It's Like That and William Shatner's Has Been, (produced, arranged and co-written by Ben Folds).
In the last few years Joe Jackson has been awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Music and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Portsmouth. He is currently living mostly in London, and working with writer Raymond Hardie and director Judy Dolan on Stoker, a theatre project about Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. In June/July 2006 he did a short piano-bass-and-drums tour with Graham Maby and Dave Houghton, an experiment which looks like leading to more gigs in 2007 as well as a possible album.
Joe Jackson Song List
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