In the days of Britain's post-punk new-wave music scene, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson shared an almost-equal reign as smart, angry young singer-songwriters. Two decades later, Costello's reemergence with Burt Bacharach on their critically acclaimed wounded-love collaboration, Painted From Memory, begs the question: What's doing with Mr. Jackson?
In 1979 the lanky Portsmouth, England-raised pianist hit the singles chart with ''Is She Really Going Out With Him?'' his wry pop ode to youthful angst (''If my eyes don't deceive me, there's something going wrong around here'') from his debut album, Look Sharp! Though Jackson would later dismiss his early fame (''I was young, I was stupid, and I had a good time''), the album went gold and put him on the transatlantic map.
Jackson's commercial success peaked with 1982's Gershwinesque Night and Day and its infectious top 10 single, ''Steppin' Out.'' But by 1984, Jackson's then-controversial stance that videos were killing music and his vow that he wouldn't make any more (he did) nailed his reputation as a sour star and helped squash his marketability.
''What Jackson did after his early success was indulge what turned out to be an extremely superior musical intellect,'' notes Ira Robbins, editor of The Trouser Press Record Guide. ''He always managed his career to his own taste, pretty much regardless of the commercial benefits.''
Working-class born and classically trained, Jackson has embraced everything from reggae (Beat Crazy) to cool jazz (Body and Soul) to '40s swing (Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive), as well as concept pop (Blaze of Glory), traditional rock (Laughter & Lust), and film music (Mike's Murder, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Queens Logic). As he explained in 1994, ''All I can say is, it just doesn't feel natural or honest to me to work within the limits of one clearly defined genre.''
Last year, twice-divorced Jackson, 44, who lives in New York City, released Heaven & Hell, a neoclassical-rock song cycle about the seven deadly sins, with himself as Pride and featuring Suzanne Vega as Lust. He's at work on a symphony, due out next year on Sony Classical. And in January, cashing in on the current swing craze, his former label, A&M, is rereleasing Jackson's prescient 1981 album Jumpin' Jive so that a new wave of swingers can learn how to look sharp.
Time Capsule: Oct. 23, 1979
At the Movies, capitalizing on the roller-skating fad, Skatetown, U.S.A. spins into theaters, starring Scott Baio and, in a supporting role, Patrick Swayze. Variety calls Swayze's skating ''terrific''; eight years later he gets to show off his Dirty Dancing moves. On Television, future Nick at Nite staples Laverne & Shirley (with Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall) and Happy Days are Nos. 1 and 3 in the Nielsens. In Bookstores, Stephen King's The Dead Zone is a fiction best-seller. In 1983, David Cronenberg revives it as a film starring Christopher Walken. And In the News, as part of a controversial mayoral plan, city-owned radio stations in New York announce names of men convicted of patronizing prostitutes. In 1995, actor Hugh Grant's arrest for soliciting a hooker in L.A. is all over radio and TV news shows.