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Joe Jackson

Stepping out as a sardonic contemporary of ELVIS COSTELLO and GRAHAM PARKER, before shrugging off the mainstream altogether, English all-round entertainer JOE JACKSON has been his own man for the best part of five decades; admirers artistically leagues apart as TORI AMOS and ANTHRAX. From new wave classics, `Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ and `It’s Different For Girls’, to an artist possessing a defiant penchant for eclecticism, he was always going to find a sympathetic redoubt in movies and the like, even if it was a field in which he hadn’t particularly come up trumps.
Born David Ian Jackson, 11 August 1954, in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, he was raised from a very early age in the Paulsgrove district of Portsmouth, prior to relocating with his parents to nearby Gosport. JACKSON left school with top grade music honours and enrolled at the Royal College of Music in 1973. After a spell in Johnny Dankworth’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra, he joined Portsmouth outfit, Edward Bear, who morphed into pub rockers ARMS & LEGS. Comprising “Joe” – the nom de plume given to him by his group – on piano, violin, vocals and harmonica, main composer Mark Andrews (vocals), Graham Maby (bass), Clive Bates (guitar) and Dave Cairns (drums), the quirky quintet failed to generate sales for MAM Records singles – `Janie’, `Heat Of The Night’ and `Is There Anymore Wine’ – between April ’76 and February ’77; note that JACKSON’s `She’ll Surprise You’ featured a B-side – twice!
Later in ‘77, Joe became a musical director for Opportunity Knocks (a TV talent show hosted by corny compere Hughie Green) and winners Coffee And Cream. This sugar-sweet period in his career was his foot in the door. The following year, the piano man exited stage left from the cabaret scene to London, where he recorded a demo tape, which A&M’s David Kershenbaum approved. David produced JACKSON’s inaugural solo attempt, the poignant and priceless `Is She Really Going Out With Him?’; though it flopped first time around.
The debut album, LOOK SHARP! (1979) {*9}, fared better, and almost immediately started its long climb into the US Top 20 (UK Top 40). The set’s jazzy new wave power-pop and his acerbic lyrics inevitably drew comparisons to the “Stiff” brigade of COSTELLO, LOWE, WRECKLESS ERIC et al, whilst it took a Top 20 re-spin of “Is She Really…” to catapult him in to one of Britain’s most promising talents. How interim 45s, `Sunday Papers’ and `One More Time’, didn’t succeed sales-wise was indeed a conundrum of sorts, whilst The JAM-like `Throw It Away’, 50s back-pedal `Baby Stick Around’, the cod-reggae `Fools In Love’ and the punk-rock `Got The Time’, were bristling with catchy hooks to die for.
At a time when artists wrote enough songs for two albums a year, I’M THE MAN (1979) {*8} and its accompanying Top 5 hit, plus the street-smart sequel `It’s Different For Girls’, carried on in a similar cross-genre vein. And although the title track (and later `Kinda Kute’) failed to propel the set further up the ladder to fame, other songs such as `On Your Radio’ and `Get That Girl’, were almost within touching distance of the incumbent ska and mod revival scene.
Joe duly veered off in to more unsettling, eclectic musical textures with 1980’s self-produced BEAT CRAZY {*8} – the waters tested with an exclusive cover of JIMMY CLIFF’s `The Harder They Come’. Although both were credited to the JOE JACKSON BAND, the quartet’s line-up remained identical to that which played on the first two sets: namely bassist Graham Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer Dave Houghton. Without a hit in sight from the likes of `Mad At You’, `One To One’ and the title track, the LP still managed healthy Top 50 sales on both sides of the Atlantic.
For Joe Jackson’s JUMPIN’ JIVE (1981) {*7}, only Maby remained from the original formation; others involved were Pete Thomas (sax), Rauol Olivera (trumpet), Dave Biteli (wind), Nick Weldon (piano) and Larry Tolfree (drums), alongside an array of jazz musicians employed in a fairly successful coup d’état to update the 40s swing style of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. The exotic musical landscape of New York was JJ’s flashy foray into this field, having relocated there lock, stock and barrel, following the breakdown of his marriage. A sprawling array of cover versions were the order of the day for this Top 20 recording, though only the title track gleaned chart status.
The pianist proceeded to soak up the spicy Latin jazz/salsa influences for his self-penned, Jack Douglas-produced NIGHT AND DAY (1982) {*8} album. A transatlantic Top 5 hit, it spawned JACKSON’s biggest hit to date in the dance floor friendly `Steppin’ Out’, and almost one-that-got-away in the love-lorn `Breaking Us In Two’. Of course the concept’s title was lifted from a Cole Porter cut; a nostalgic simpatico for the imperious 27 year-old Joe who was writing out of the box and into the hearts and minds of a whole new generation.
MIKE’S MURDER (1983) {*6} was JACKSON’s inaugural soundtrack for what was, by and large, a fine film in its original print, and – despite enforced alterations – still is. Too much to stomach for preview audiences, the movie was toned down at the requests of its corporate overseers. In essence, this wasn’t a gratifying experience for the man. When the much-revised movie eventually hit the streets several months after the soundtrack, the bulk of the new wave star’s debut score had been superseded by the music of (the frankly more experienced) JOHN BARRY.
And it’s tempting to suggest that only diehard JACKSON fans preferred the angular contribution recorded here. The acting singer, for whom JJ writes his vaulting, undeniably melodic cadences, rarely sounds like he should be the composer himself. Straying from the formula, `Moonlight’s gentle balladry served to remind that Joe was no crooner. The second side of the album, by contrast, delivered three disciplined, atmospheric instrumentals much better suited to the job. Nothing groundbreaking, but `Zemeo’s understated jazzy development and authorative execution was a deal more diverting than any of the braying songs.
JACKSON recruited another new group of musicians for 1984’s BODY AND SOUL {*6}, while 1986’s BIG WORLD {*5} was an ambitious live double-set featuring all-new material recorded over three successive nights. The vocal-free WILL POWER (1987) {*4} saw JACKSON dabbling in classical orchestration and accordingly failed to chart, while 1988’s retro-spinning LIVE 1980/86 {*6} and the autobiographical BLAZE OF GLORY (1989) {*6} – seeing a return to the UK Top 40 – covered all the man’s stylistic bases to date.
Turning the page back to 1988, despite a puckish retro-jazz score, his music was used in the final cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM {*7}, the second and final JACKSON soundtrack to see a commercial release. As a man whose records had consistently fallen between the cracks in the pigeon-holed wall, Joe couldn’t hope for a more amenable genre than this soundtrack. In creating the music for Coppola’s lavish portrait of a maverick, the pianist got to immerse himself in period jazz while exploring as many stylistic sidesteps, compositional whims and counter whims as dramatic device would allow. He’d already affirmed his fondness for the era with “Jumpin Jive” (here echoed on `Rhythm Delivery’); plus the rakish Dutch-only hit `(He’s A) Shape In A Drape’ and, with the artistic license of cinema, shaved into the aggro-slapstick of `Tiger Rag’, it’s the kind of prescribed freedom which saw pizzicato wit tempering the gravity of previous orchestral dalliances on ELFMAN-esque opening theme, `Captain Of Industry’. Elsewhere it was a case of fine balance. `Car Of Tomorrow – Today!’ justified its exclamation mark with trio elegance, R&B trio and big-band brashness, segueing in and out of an ornamented symphonic motif he’d develop – with typical JACKSON adaptability – into both a love theme and a creepy piece of underscore going by the wry title, `Hangin’ In Howard Hughes’ Hangar’. Joe also managed to find space for the piece amidst the harmony-muted moans and satin soul of `The Trial’; an almost QUINCY JONES-like montage drawing up the soundtrack’s more reflective narrative strands. The bloodshot Ellington-ian shuffle of `No Chance Blues’ also mooched around on a second wind, however JACKSON’s dynamic quirks were dove-tailed most effectively with the film on the emblematic, mechanistic motifs of `Factory’ (and especially `Speedway’), all woodblock counterpoint and bomb-ticking timpani breakdowns.
Parallel to an extended immersion in contemporary classical music, JACKSON nevertheless plugged away at film scoring for another decade or so, composing unreleased music for pre-“Friends” buddy film, Queen Of Logic (1991), ménage-a-trios comedy Three Of Hearts (1993) and interactive thriller, I’m Your Man (1998).
Switching labels to Virgin America at the turn of the 90s, the fresh decade saw the man pen his most direct, accessible material in years a la LAUGHTER & LUST (1991) {*6}; a welcome diversion from his constant experimentation; and that included straightforward pop/rock beaut such as `Stranger Than Fiction’, the irony-laden `Hit Single’, and his version of FLEETWOOD MAC’s `Oh Well’.
On the other side of the spectrum, 1994’s NIGHT MUSIC {*3}, continued to spin his web from outside the mainstream pop world. A song cycle of sorts that drew from classical music as well as pop, this was a self-indulgent stretch too far, even for his most loyal supporters. In another ironic twist, the album concerned itself with writers’ block; guest vocals were provided by CLANNAD’s Maire Brennan.
Sony Classical would indeed take the reins for JOE JACKSON (& friends) next flirtation with the other side. HEAVEN & HELL (1997) {*4} was another high-brow effort. It was a finely balanced record that comprised of seven pieces relating to the biblical seven deadly sins. The likes of “friends” SUZANNE VEGA, JANE SIBERRY, Kenny Aronoff, Brad Roberts (of CRASH TEST DUMMIES), Dawn Upshaw and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, were behind the project to marry contemporary pop with classical credence that somehow left its listeners in musical purgatory.
Even more straightforward in its classical motifs, SYMPHONY No.1 (1999) {*5} was conceived as a symphonic piece, although with the likes of rock-god STEVE VAI and jazz trumpeter TERENCE BLANCHARD on board, the record never completely abandoned the realm of pop and jazz idioms. On a completely different note, SUMMER IN THE CITY: LIVE IN NEW YORK (2000) {*6}, documented a summer ‘99 gig, wherein the breadth of JACKSON’s musical reach was demonstrated in a choice of covers which ranged from The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL’s title piece, STEELY DAN’s `King Of The World’ and The BEATLES’ `Eleanor Rigby’, to Duke Ellington’s `Mood Indigo’ and a medley of Billy Page’s `The In Crowd’ with his own `Down To London’.
Later that same year, JACKSON, always full of surprises, released NIGHT AND DAY II {*5}, a belated sequel to his early 80s classic, and one that featured MARIANNE FAITHFULL as guest on `Love Got Lost’. It’s worth also mentioning that long-time bassist Graham Maby and drummer Gary Burke were still on board.
2003’s VOLUME 4 {*7}, meanwhile, found the JOE JACKSON BAND (i.e. Maby, Sanford and Houghton) reunited for the first time in over twenty years. It was his first on Rykodisc Records. While any fan expecting a re-run of those triumvirate, late-70s glory days could only ever be in for a let-down, this was the most authentic and committed JJ had sounded for many a year; eclipsing most of his work since way back. As belated reunions or sequels go, the piano man had plugged in the plus-signs and taken out the trash via `Take It Like A Man’, `Awkward Age’ and `Still Alive’.
Concert set, AFTERLIFE (2004) {*7}, continued the band theme in order to revisit the new wave nuggets he first made his name with, alongside aforesaid fresh material from his previous effort. In a way the record ticked all the boxes for older fans reminiscing the immense promise and talent JACKSON had shown all these years ago; he was indeed `Steppin’ Out’ again as the TV ad for Lincoln Mercury automobiles suggested. He even contributed a cameo and a song (alongside Dawn Upshaw) to the original score of the movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played.
JACKSON’s next album, RAIN (2008) {*7} was another critical success story. Minus the guitar of Sanford, the piano man was free to tinkle at the ivories for the most part, whilst his pronounced Englishman in New York-meets-GRAHAM PARKER singing vox soared over the rhythm section. There was no doubting the timeless class of JJ (on the sophisti-pop of `King Pleasure Time’, `Too Tough’ and the high-pitched `Wasted Time’), though it’d be hard for nostalgic fans to push Joe back into chart-land contention.
That feat and recompense would be harder still a la LIVE MUSIC: EUROPE 2010 (2011) {*6}, a marriage of most of his styles, and billed as JOE JACKSON TRIO. The significant factor for JJ was his confidence to capture back-to-back cover material such as The BEATLES (`Girl’), IAN DURY (`Inbetweenies’) and BOWIE (`Scary Monsters’).
Turning his back on conventional pop music for another stab at trad jazz, JOE JACKSON once again paid homage to his idol, THE DUKE (2012) {*6}. Of course, Joe had unveiled his love of Ellington and the 40s swing era back in the 80s, but here it was fully-blown and with no prisoners taken, unless one counted IGGY POP’s vocal turn on the twiddly `It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ and STEVE VAI’s guitar licks on `Isfahan’. Jumping aboard JACKSON’s jumping jive of late night high jinks, Sharon Jones had the X-Factor for `I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’.
EarMusic were steadfastly sticking with their plucky piano man for FAST FORWARD (2015) {*7}; a record for many a spirited split down the middle, in part, from night-time nuances to day-time rock’n’roll. Turning 60, JJ surrounded himself with seasoned cosmopolitan talent from Berlin to Amsterdam (namely Greg Cohen, Earl Havin, Stefan Schmid and Stefan Kruger) to New Orleans and New York (i.e. BILL FRISELL, Brian Blade and Galactic). The record was certainly worth its salt in Joe’s shock-effect re-hash of TELEVISION’s `See No Evil’, whilst the tone was dumbed-down for the angst-ridden `Junkie Diva’, a song pointing the finger at the controversial passing, at 27, of AMY WINEHOUSE.
JOE JACKSON and his band of merry men (bassist Maby, guitarist Teddy Kumpel and drummer Doug Yowell) struck a chord a two while touring the USA in summer 2018. He also found time to pen several songs, and by their final curtain call in Boise, Idaho, the decision was taken to cut them all at the nearby Tonic Room Recording Studios. Unleashed to the public in January 2019, FOOL {*8} presented Joe and Co with his best album for forty years. From `Big Black Cloud’ to the BACHARACH or BARRY-esque `Alchemy’, JACKSON should certainly have had a hit on his hands. And from the punningly-titled, 10CC-like `Fabulously Absolute’, the SQUEEZE-like `Dave’, and the PHIL COLLINS-esque `Strange Land’ (not forgetting the STEELY DAN-like `Friend Better’ and the folky title track), JJ’s subliminal magpie manifesto was awkwardly miles better than his life-long in/out Marmite effect.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG/ND // rev-up MCS Jul2019

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