Joe Jackson is back
The eclectic slide
By Serena Kappes
(PEOPLE) -- For Joe Jackson, the word "nostalgia" has always been a dirty one. "I always thought nostalgia was kind of a swamp that you might sink into and not be able to escape from," he explains.
So it's no surprise that the British singer-musician-songwriter-producer wasn't keen at first about the notion of reuniting with the members of the original Joe Jackson Band to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their seminal 1979 album "Look Sharp!" "I thought it was a terrible idea," he says.
He changed his mind when he realized that teaming up with guitarist Gary Sanford, bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton again didn't have to be a musty trip down memory lane. The result of his change of heart is the group's first album since 1980, "Volume 4" (released on Tuesday). "This band always had great chemistry, and it just came back more easily than we expected," he says. "(The new CD) really shows where we are now and not where we were 20 years ago."
Jackson, 48, is certainly no stranger to change. In his more than 25-year career, he has flirted with 1940s jump and swing music, post-punk New Wave, symphonic music (he won a Grammy for his classically-based 1999 album, "Symphony No. 1") and jazz. "I don't see huge barbed-wire fences in between different kinds of music," he says. "I'm more guided by taste and intuition than I am by rules."
The son of Ron, a British Navy man, and Vera, a homemaker, the Portsmouth, England-raised Jackson began realizing his musical talent when he was an 11-year-old violin student. By the age of 15, says Jackson, "I knew that I was a musician. There wasn't really nothing I could do about it."
At 18, he entered London's Royal Academy of Music on a composition scholarship and began playing in bands. "I was just interested in everything, trying everything," he recalls. Three years later, he graduated and took on various gigs — as musical director of a cabaret act, for one — before forming the group Arms & Legs, which earned him his first record contract in 1976.
The group was short-lived and, in 1978, Jackson formed the Joe Jackson Band, which recorded only three albums — including 1979's gold-selling "Look Sharp!," which spawned the singles "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Look Sharp!" — but garnered a lot of attention on the pop-music scene. Jackson also earned a reputation as an "angry young man." "I think that I had a rather defensive attitude a lot the time," he says. "I was a little scared of being overwhelmed by it all."
That pressure would increase with the dissolution of the group in 1980 and Jackson's foray into a solo career. With his 1982 album "Night and Day" and its eponymous single, Jackson became an unlikely MTV favorite and radio staple. "I didn't think anyone was gonna like it, I didn't think it would get played on the radio," he admits.
Jackson recorded prolifically through the remainder of the 1980s but hit a roadblock in the early 1990s. Exhausted from touring in 1991, he entered a depressive period that would last two years. During that time, he couldn't even listen to music. "I was just burned out. I couldn't write anything," he says. He "gradually found my way back into making music again," marking his return with 1994's "Night Music."
A new attitude accompanied Jackson's fresh start in music. "I could only really do something that I was excited about, regardless of whether it had mass appeal or not," he explains. The 1997 concept album "Heaven & Hell" and 2000's "Night and Day II" would follow. He also became an author, chronicling his life in the 1999 memoir "A Cure for Gravity."
Today, the twice-divorced Jackson — who splits his time between his New York City and Portsmouth, England homes — lives by "the Samurai Code, which is 'Expect nothing, but be ready for anything.'" Though he is touring behind "Volume 4" with his longtime mates, he doesn't expect to record another album with them. "That's not the plan," he says.
Possible future plans do include doing more soundtrack work (he has scored and contributed music to films including 1988's "Tucker," 1991's "Queens Logic" and 1993's "Three of Hearts") and possibly writing a musical, but, says Jackson, "I never really know what I'm gonna do next. I just think about the next gig."