The Joe Jackson Band: Jackson thrives

The Joe Jackson Band were the New Wave group who told punks it was different for girls, then called it a day after three years. The front man went on to swing music and won a Grammy. So, asks Simon Beckett, why reform the band now?
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It's not unusual for a band to take time out between albums. Two or three years, say, to recharge batteries and pursue those all-important solo projects. Even so, a gap of more than two decades is pushing it by any standards. But that's how long it has been between The Joe Jackson Band's last album and the album they're now touring, Volume IV. "A little bit late, but better late than never," Jackson grins. "It's good, though, innit? I think it's the best thing we've done as a band."

At 48, one of the most likeable - to say nothing of varied - singer-songwriters of his generation looks pretty much as he always has done - tall, thin and striking in a left-field sort of way. You have to look twice to realise that the cropped hair is actually grey rather than trendily bleached. It is now 25 years since The Joe Jackson Band - Jackson, the songwriter, on vocals and keyboards, Gary Sanford on guitar, Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums - was one of the best New Wave bands of the post-punk era. Over an intensive three-year period between 1978 and 1980, they released a hugely successful trio of albums, Look Sharp, I'm The Man and Beat Crazy, containing hits such as "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "It's Different for Girls".

The band split amicably (a pleasing break with convention) at the end of 1980, when Houghton decided that he had had enough of world tours and the big time. So why have they reformed now? "I realised this year would be our 25th anniversary, and was playing with the idea of some sort of reunion. My first thought was, maybe it would be fun to do a little tour and play the old stuff. Then I thought, naw, that'd be cheesy." Gradually, though, the idea of playing new material instead took hold of Jackson. "I already had about half a dozen songs we could do. I realised they would pretty much all work with this band, which was interesting because I'd not thought of them that way at all. I started to think that maybe if we did a new album together, it would actually be a lot more worthwhile."

Produced by Jackson, Volume IV is an unmistakable return to the more overtly pop style of those first three albums. With elements of jazz, funk, glam and even ska, the songs combine deceptively simple melodies with the rawness and energy that was the hallmark of the band's early hits, from the stomp-along "Little Bit Stupid" to ballads such as "Blue Flame".

But Jackson rebuffs the idea that the album might be seen as just another example of an old band cashing in on the current taste for all things retro. "It feels very fresh, not like some kind of tired exercise in nostalgia," he says. "I actually think it's part of the creative process to sometimes go back. You can't only and always go forward - it's just not possible. Every artist refers back to something they did before, periodically. You revisit it and update it. I think what we've done with this album in some ways revisits 1979, but updates it and shows where we've come since then. Which is really cool, I think."

Born in Burton-on-Trent, Jackson grew up in Portsmouth (where he still has a house) at a time when fish and chips and fights between sailors were pretty much all the town had to offer. A skinny, sickly child who was no good at sports, Jackson saw himself as very much the misfit even within his own family: "stuck in the wrong place, with the wrong parents", as he was to put it later. Music became both a passion and an escape route.

But even in this he was never entirely sure where he fitted into the scheme of things. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, in London, where he spent three years training in piano, composition and orchestration, Jackson also had a less classical musical education - before his first album, Look Sharp, launched him into the heady realms of pop stardom on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979, his musical career included gigs as the pianist in a Greek restaurant and as a featured performer at Portsmouth's very own Playboy Club, and even a stint as musical director of the Seventies club act Koffee'n'Kreme.

A background that consisted of such musical extremes (Mahler and Bartok by day, drunken skinheads and "Donald, Where's Yer Troosers?" by night) perhaps goes a long way to explaining the varied nature of Jackson's work. After splitting with the original band, he confounded expectations by releasing Jumpin' Jive, a marked departure from New Wave, reflecting the influence of jump and swing artists such as Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. Since then, along with his more mainstream albums, there has been an innovative song cycle based on the Seven Deadly Sins (Heaven and Hell), film scores (including for Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker) and two instrumental albums, one of which,Symphony No. 1, won the Grammy for best pop instrumental album in 2001.

"'Eclectic' is the word," he acknowledges, wryly. "I could never understand people who were obsessive about one specific genre of music. Surely, if you were genuinely moved by music, you would respond to some degree to any kind of music if it was half-way good. This kind of tribal warfare around it is something that I've always been vaguely amused by."

However, the wide-ranging nature of his work has led to accusations of pretentiousness and arrogance from some critics. It's an attitude that seems both to irritate and to bewilder him. "If you write something called a symphony, for instance, then you're called pretentious and elitist without people even hearing it or knowing a symphony from a hole in the ground," he says. "There's this great myth that elitism only happens in the rarefied world of classical music, or perhaps jazz. But snobbery and elitism are absolutely rampant in the pop/rock world. There's so much pretentiousness and posing and posturing. Just watch MTV. And yet the whole of pop culture is in denial about it. You can be as pretentious as you like, as long as you do it in some kind of accepted, rock way."

Jackson may regard the merry-go-round of the pop industry with amused detachment now, but it wasn't always so. In the Eighties, he found himself stuck on the pop-star treadmill, constantly chasing the Holy Grail of charts and sales. Finally, in 1992, the pressure became too much. "After the Laughter and Lust world tour, it all turned to shit, basically. I had real bad writer's block. I couldn't even listen to music. I just lost it, totally. It was awful," he recalls.

The block lasted for two years. He worked his way out of it by producing what he intended to be a gentle, introspective album of songs called Night Music. The past few years have seen him win the Grammy, produce what he feels is his best work to date - Night and Day II - and write a well-received autobiography.

He is, he says, proud of the band, and of the fact that, after 25 years, he's still making music. "People ask, 'Is it just picking up where you left off?' It's not quite like that, because so many years have gone by. But it's as if we took just two or three years off, not 20. And then came back and made this killer fourth album."

You get the impression thatJackson is happy with where he is. He laughs. "I still feel like a misfit, but now I feel all right about it. You create your own niche, somehow."

'Volume IV' is out on Rykodisc. The Joe Jackson Band tour begins at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12 (0870-771 2000) on 4 June