Right as Rain
Joe Jackson Makes 2008's First Great Record

I’m coughing my wet lungs up right now, so I’m going to try to keep this one brief. But considering I’m going to be talking about the best album I’ve heard in months, it’s going to be hard.

I’ve been a fan of Joe Jackson’s work for as long as I can remember. When I was eight years old, he made his masterpiece, Night and Day, and I can remember hearing “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two” on the radio as a young kid. I actually remember seeing the video for “Steppin’ Out” on MTV in the ‘80s – for a very brief period, it was everywhere.

Of course, as a young pianist, I was drawn to Jackson’s playing. (But then, I liked Yanni too, so what the hell did I know.) Amazingly, though, I’ve stuck with Joe Jackson, and my appreciation for his music has grown with me. Many years after I first heard his songs, I learned the historical context – Jackson was one of the progenitors of British new wave in the late ‘70s, along with folks like Elvis Costello and Paul Weller. His first three albums are still considered among the best of the angular, punky pop of the time – so much so that many people just can’t get beyond them.

Okay, Look Sharp is a terrific album, no question. Jackson’s debut was out-of-the-box electric, and spawned the hits “Is She Really Going Out with Him” and “Sunday Papers.” And the next two records, I’m the Man and Beat Crazy, were also swell. Jackson had made his name as a tie-wearing, sneering, sarcastic pop songwriter with a cynical take on relationships, and it worked. But he wasn’t satisfied.

I have probably said this every time I’ve talked about Joe Jackson, but he is one of a triumvirate of late-‘70s British songwriters who evolved into three of the most diverse and accomplished recording artists of my lifetime. It’s Jackson, Elvis Costello and Andy Partridge of XTC, and while each of them are brilliant pop songsmiths, they’ve all explored different musical colors. Costello is infamous for his moves into jazz and orchestral music, while Partridge has guided XTC through “orchoustic” chamber-pop.

Jackson, however, has probably stepped the farthest off the beaten path. His fourth album was called Jumpin’ Jive, and was a collection of big-band Cab Calloway covers, and his fifth, the aforementioned Night and Day, dispensed with guitars entirely and incorporated world music influences. From there, all bets were off as he dabbled in orchestral music (Will Power), small-ensemble instrumental pieces (Night Music), rock operas (Heaven and Hell), and even a bizarre symphony (Symphony No. 1) for acoustic and electric instruments.

But he never left his pop music roots behind. In between the above experiments, he made superb pop records like Big World and Laughter and Lust, glittering collections that show off just how good Jackson is with a melody and a quip. And recently, after the mediocre Night and Day II in 2001 (sequels are never a good idea), he’s been self-consciously reviving that side of his musical personality.

Three years ago, he reunited the Joe Jackson Band, the quartet that made those first three revered albums, and produced Volume 4. It was very good – the most energetic and spunky Joe Jackson album in a decade or more, although it fell short of being a full-blown revelation. But it turns out, that was just the start of the revival.

Jackson’s 16th album, out this week, is called Rain. And this one’s the revelation.

It’s another stylistic left turn – Jackson has ditched the guitars again, but retained his long-time rhythm section, drummer Dave Houghton and incredible bassist Graham Maby. The result shows why Ben Folds is such a Joe Jackson disciple – this is a piano trio album of near-perfect (and sometimes absolutely perfect) pop songs. Ten of them, in and out in 47 minutes, no dead spots, no holes. Rain is an old-time pop album that takes its melodic responsibility seriously, and delivers in spades.

I do have some problems with it. For one, Jackson isn’t Ben Folds – he was obviously classically trained, and his piano playing is sometimes more sedate than it ought to be. I wanted to hear him let loose with a ripping solo, but then I remembered Jackson has never really played like that. He’s got precision, but he doesn’t have an improviser’s soul. Also, Jackson unveils his falsetto more than once here, and while it works sometimes, it’s shaky in others.

But that’s it. From the first notes of “The Invisible Man,” Jackson is in top form. While the repeated four-chord verses are a little simple, check out the Partridge-esque vocal melody. Then hang on as Jackson dives into an intricate piano bridge and a superb harmony-laden chorus. The song is a wry, autobiographical look at a diminishing pop star – “Hey, can you hear me now as I fade away and lose my ground,” Jackson sings at the beginning, before embracing the freedom his anonymity offers: “You can’t stop the invisible man…”

Rain is an even mix of rockers and ballads, as we used to say in the ‘80s. The slower ones include “Too Tough,” a simple crawl with a singable chorus, and “Wasted Time,” a soulful Todd Rundgren-esque weeper with some of the strongest falsetto work here. But the up-tempo ones carry the day, including the blistering “Citizen Sane” and the bass-driven “King Pleasure Time.” Graham Maby really shines on the latter track, making it plain why Jackson has retained his services for 30 years.

The first half is good, but peters out a little with “The Uptown Train,” a too-tasteful jazz-pop tune with a Steely Dan lilt. But the second half is flawless. The aptly titled “Solo (So Low)” is just Jackson and his piano, and it sounds like a classical aria, a lament fit for a royal audience. And then the man swings and hits three home runs in a row to bring things home.

“Rush Across the Road” may very well be the sweetest song in this grouchy cynic’s entire repertoire. The melody is lovely, and the lyrics even lovelier – the entire song takes place in the second before the singer decides to pursue the girl of his dreams on the street. Everything about this song works, from the key change in the chorus, to the bit where Maby’s bass takes the melody, to the wonderful instrumental coda. It’s simply great.

“Good Bad Boy” is the most rock-and-roll song here, and the one on which Jackson comes closest to wild abandon. It’s also an intricate composition in its own right, and it rocks without needing guitars. And “A Place in the Rain” is perfect, a fine waltz about leaving all the accepted things behind. “It’s amazing what crazy can do when every good citizen’s sane,” Jackson sings. “When Heaven’s a desert, we’ll go to our place in the rain…” The record ends with about a minute of rain sounds, lulling you to sleep.

As you might imagine from a guy with a 30-year recording career, Joe Jackson’s discography has its ups and downs. But Rain is a highlight, a top-of-his-game piano pop album from a genuine master. When an artist gets to Jackson’s advanced age – he’s 53 – it gets tempting to offer back-handed compliments, comparing his latest work only to his recent ones. (Cassandra’s Dream, for example, is good late-period Woody Allen.) But Rain would stand out even if he’d recorded it 25 years ago. These are great songs, and their author sounds reborn through them.

With Elvis Costello off writing operas and Andy Partridge practically missing in action, someone needs to keep the art and craft of literate pop alive. Joe Jackson does that and more with Rain, his best in ages, and the first truly great record of the year.

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There is no more divisive figure in Doctor Who fandom than the late John Nathan-Turner.

Troll the Who message boards for any length of time, and you’ll see JN-T (as he’s known) blamed for everything that went wrong from 1980, when he took over as producer, to 1989, when the show was canceled. Nathan-Turner is on the hook for the scripts, the acting, the sets, the lighting, the music, the costumes, everything. Some people even blame him for global warming and the economic recession.

And Nathan-Turner isn’t even around to defend himself against these charges – he died of liver failure in May of 2002. Again and again in DVD commentaries and documentaries, folks like former Script Editor Eric Saward light into Nathan-Turner, with no voice of dissent. He’s the easy scapegoat.

That’s not to say he’s not responsible for a lot of things that went wrong with late-period Who. Nathan-Turner’s a guy who worked his way up through the ranks of the show, starting as a member of the ground crew in 1969. He became a production unit manager, and then finally a producer for Tom Baker’s final season as the Doctor. And unlike most producers, he didn’t just run with the ball, he changed the game completely right out of the gate.

Nathan-Turner was always a visible producer, known for his trademark Hawaiian shirts and his love of public discourse. When I was watching the show on PBS as a kid, I think I knew three or four names from the creative and production crew, and John Nathan-Turner was one of them. I’d never heard of Phillip Hinchcliffe or Robert Holmes or any of the other leading lights of the stories I loved, but I knew who JN-T was, and I vividly remember him enumerating the changes he made to the program in a documentary that PBS showed one pledge drive week.

It was these changes that pulled the rug out from under fans, and he made them all for his first story, 1980’s The Leisure Hive. First off, he changed the title music and graphics – gone were the classic Delia Derbyshire theme and the swirling tunnel effect of Baker’s golden years, and here were an exploding starfield and a souped-up electronic version of the theme by Peter Howell. The opening titles had evolved through the years, but this was the first time they completely changed, without warning.

Second, Nathan-Turner fired Dudley Simpson, the man who had provided the show with its incidental music for more than a decade. Simpson had scored 61 Who stories, counting the incomplete Shada, and he liked to work with a small ensemble of acoustic musicians. But Nathan-Turner envisioned a more “modern” feel for the music, so he enlisted the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to synthesizer it up.

Third, JN-T changed Tom Baker’s whole appearance. He convinced his sometimes insufferable leading man to wear makeup for the first time, and the painted-on look is jarring. Also, he updated the Doctor’s costume – and from here on out, the Doc doesn’t wear clothes, he wears a costume – by giving him a maroon coat and a shirt with question marks on the lapels. The question marks would stay until the end of the classic series, and would be most irritating during the Sylvester McCoy years, when the Doc wore a pullover with the offending punctuation all over it, and carried an umbrella in the shape of – you guessed it – a question mark.

Oh, and fourth, he decided to kill K-9, the robotic dog that had accompanied the Doctor for four years. I stated in an earlier column that Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith was the longest-serving companion, but not so. Not if you count the several models of K-9, who appeared in 22 stories from 1977 to 1981. Nathan-Turner’s attempt to do away with the robot dog in The Leisure Hive was unsuccessful, but four stories later, the dog was written out of the classic series for good.

So anyway, this is what viewers of Doctor Who got when they tuned in on August 30, 1980 to watch The Leisure Hive, the start of the show’s 18th season.

First came the exploding starfield with the pulsing new theme music. It’s actually pretty cool, with the stars slowly forming Tom Baker’s face before dissipating, but it must have been a genuine shock. Then came That Tracking Shot – director Lovett Bickford chose to open his tale with a two-minute pan across Brighton Beach, with fluttery synth music playing in the background. Seriously, this goes on forever.

Then we see Tom Baker’s new costume, and we get the assassination of K-9 – the robot dog stupidly chases a beach ball into the ocean and shorts out. Seriously. And this is played for full drama, with slo-mo running after the dog, and a funereal shot at the end. All the while, the new music makes its presence felt, plastic and goopy and seemingly random. You get used to it, but it’s a shock at first.

New theme. New music. New costume. Strange direction. The apparent death of K-9. And The Leisure Hive was just getting warmed up.

Actually, that’s not true. The story is awful, and isn’t helped at all by the plastic production. It’s about a tourist attraction on an otherwise unlivable planet, and a hostile business takeover, and a machine that can rip people apart, and a whole bunch of terrible computer graphics. The cheesy effects (quite fine for the time, I’m sure) seem to be the raison d’etre for this story. There certainly isn’t a lot of story here – the episodes are a paltry 18 to 20 minutes long each. (Standard Who runs about 25 minutes.)

The one triumph of production is the Doctor’s makeup. Tom Baker has to age about 50 years (human time) in this story, and the long beard and wrinkles look pretty good. They’re offset by the ridiculous monster, which looks like something your mom might have sewn for you to wear on Halloween.

Yeah, The Leisure Hive is terrible. It’s actually pretty close to unwatchable, and while the season (and JN-T’s reign) gets better, it was a disastrous start for the longest-serving producer in the show’s history. Nathan-Turner’s tenure spanned four Doctors, and gave us some of the silliest-looking monsters and effects the show had ever seen. But, to be fair, it also gave us some real gems, stories like Kinda and Revelation of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric that would never have happened in earlier, safer eras. Nathan-Turner went out on a limb a lot, and sometimes the limb broke, but sometimes the risks yielded surprising rewards.

Just not in The Leisure Hive. Hack. Ptoo. We shall speak of it no more.

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Yeah, I kept it short… Next week, the new Nada Surf album, Lucky, which you can hear right now in its entirety here. And also, a look at the last Tom Baker Doctor Who stories, and the first Peter Davison.

See you in line Tuesday morning.