Music

Joe Jackson: Rain

Photo: Jim Rakete

The eclectic pianist/songwriter delivers a treat -- ten perfectly crafted pop songs that recall his best work or maybe are his best work.


Joe Jackson

Rain

Contributors: Joe Jackson, Dave Houghton, Graham Maby
Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: 2008-01-28
Amazon
iTunes

Thankfully, pop music is full of chameleons, musicians who surprise fans by donning various hats over years of work. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Madonna have extended the range of pleasure we can derive from a pop song by daring to mutate the three-minute rock song like it was Silly Putty.

Joe Jackson emerged in 1979 with a "New Wave" debut album. Look Sharp harnessed the pop energy of the moment. The explosion of punk had just flattened the rock landscape, and there was suddenly a bracing new kind of pop song in the air: more direct, simpler, more urgent, audaciously tuneful. Jackson seemed to fall in with a pair of British predecessors -- Graham Parker and Elvis Costello -- who snarled with punk energy and not a little bit of anger but who also had traditional musical chops.

Just as Costello turned out to be a complex musician sharing more with Burt Bacharach than Rat Scabies, Jackson even more quickly revealed himself to be adroit and eclectic. Over the course of five albums in four years, Jackson hop-scotched from pulsing New Wave anger (Look Sharp and I'm the Man,1979) to reggae-infused rock (Beat Crazy, 1980) to jump blues and swing (Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive,1981) to Latin-tinged pop (the smash from 1982, Night and Day). It was an astonishing run of recordings -- both daring in range and satisfying as pop songcraft. The 1984 record Body and Soul attempted to be a summative statement, perhaps, and contained a hit single that may have crystallized the Joe Jackson Dilemma: "You Can't Get What You Want (Until You Know What You Want)".

In the coming years, Jackson would continue to experiment and grow -- composing song cycles, classical music, a "symphony" for a ten-piece band including Terence Blanchard and Steve Vai. He covered Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Steely Dan. But since 2000, Jackson has seen fit to focus more intently on his core strength: writing and playing thumping little pop gems that consolidate his various influences into a gleaming amalgam. Reuniting his Look Sharp band in various ways, Jackson sounds less like an old rocker trying to cash in on fan affection for the Good Ol' Days than a mature artist who -- perhaps -- was more consistent over the years than we all realized.

Rain is a jubilant and fresh pop record for Jackson's piano trio -- supported by longtime bandmates Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums. But this is not a faux jazz record or a genre exercise. It just happens to be a strong rock album without a guitar, a pop record that harnesses some fancy harmonies, sure, but also blows straight at you with hooks, beats, and thumping basslines. Jackson's voice coos and snarls, and his songs seduce and complain. It's well-crafted certainly, but it also punches its weight, making the piano pop of folks like Ben Folks and Ben Kweller seem a little wimpy. And that's a good thing.

"Invisible Man" is a whack of an opener, coming out with a strong series of jazz chords that sound for all the world like the opening of Steely Dan's "Your Gold Teeth II." It's a nervy move to invoke the much-derided fussy-rockers, but this is what Jackson does so well throughout Rain -- he marries pop power to a kind of sophistication. Throughout these quick ten songs, there are enough strong melodies for three albums by any other rocker. Jackson somehow gets to invoke his hero Gershwin without seeming like some old fogey.

The balance of these all-new songs, however, strongly rocking. "Citizen Sane" has a lyric that looks at getting clean and normal with genuine unease, and the music pounds appropriately. "King Pleasure Time" has a souped-up Motown bassline and a lyric about a gloriously predatory figure who wants you to party whether you like it not. "Good Bad Boy" is even more urgent, with Houghton driving the whole think on his toms. But even on these tunes, Jackson can hardly resist a harmonically contrasting release. Without invoking any of the cheesy sentimentality of a Billy Joel song, for instance, Jackson still gets away with being a pianist who simply enjoys a sweet chord.

On some other tracks, Jackson is more purely melodic. "Rush Across the Road" may be catchiest tune in Jackson's book, bar none. A story of not giving up on a lost love, the song continually bursts into discovery, with a Jackson vocal that combines his sneer with a purer kind of optimism. It's a golden song. "Waste of Time" is nearly as strong, a minor key lament of lost love that effectively uses Jackson's easy falsetto and the casual harmonizing between the band members. "The Uptown Train" strikes a more overtly swinging soul-jazz groove (again evoking Jackson's friends Becker/Fagen as well as the Ramsey Lewis Trio) that puts the falsetto in the foreground. These tunes are not only listenable, they are extremely relistenable.

If there is small misstep on Rain it might be " Solo (So Low)", where Jackson accompanies himself alone and indulges his jones for classical playing. It's a beautiful melody, but it feels misplaced on this record or maybe just placed in the wrong pianist context -- the accompaniment seems like faux-Chopin rather than authentic Jackson. The package also comes with a fairly inconsequential DVD: a live recording of three of these great songs, and "making of" movie, some interviews with the trio, and a "Joe Jackson Guide to Berlin". Jackson moved to Berlin at the start of 2007 and Rain was recorded there.

You might be tempted to make something of the Berlin connection here, but the interview on the DVD suggests otherwise. Rain is a less a New Start for a great pop tunesmith than it is a continuation and a honing of that artist's craft. These are mature songs that are nonetheless great fun to hear. These are sophisticated compositions that happily use the format of rock songs. Rain is just a great pop record -- pulsing and poetic and melodic in all the right ways.

It won't be topping any charts, of course, as it uses somewhat old-fashioned tools to create songs that could have been on the radio decades ago. But that shouldn't diminish their pleasure at all. For those who claim that artists today simply don't write great songs any more, Rain is a conclusive cross-examination. Ten very good to great songs, stamped with the signature of a musician who knows what he is about. That, kids, is what we used to call an "album", and this is a very fine one indeed.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image