“Finding yourself” was the motto of the early 1970s. Billy Joel found himself out of his band Attilla, a duo with drummer Jon Small that played overdriven hard rock. Their one album for Epic Records crashed hard and so did Joel, into a severe depressive state. It was one of many ups and downs in the span of his pop music career, a career that seems to be over barring the occasional concert tour. Inside of that frame of time, he would be both adored and reviled by critics, find romance and heartbreak, make many bad decisions in business and in judgment, but come out the other side alive and often with a wealth of life experience from which to draw upon.
The thing that generally typified the music of Billy Joel, when set against others in the singer/songwriter movement of the early 1970s and on, was that he seldom buried his Long Island roots, the signature regional diphthongs of his voice (which, incidentally, he’s gone on record often in saying he dislikes intensely) and a degree of blue-collar toughness that is submerged in the song-stories he tells. This was quite different from his contemporaries who were labeled with the term “sensitive” in the strictest pejorative sense. Oh, he could be sensitive enough – “Just The Way You Are”, “She’s Got A Way”, even one of his last big hits “River Of Dreams” show a degree of tenderness. At the same time, “Movin’ Out”, “Big Shot”, “My Life” and even his signature “Piano Man”, drunken singalong that it has become over the years, drive on the roads of outcasts, misfits, regular joes and angry young men. Critics see his “happy” period as his weakest, finding fame, success, love with a supermodel and a modicum of acceptance from his detractors robbing a level of fire from his compositions. And yet, even on these latter recordings, Billy Joel had a way about him, sneaking in a couple tunes that reminded you why you couldn’t forget him or write him off completely.
Not that you would ever want to. For this month’s edition of Popdose’s Greatest Bits, we go deeper into his output to look at tracks you may have missed. You might be surprised, you may be shocked, but you certainly will come away with an altered perspective of the musical artistry of William Martin Joel.
“Somewhere Along The Line” from Piano Man (1973) – On a recent episode of the Popdose Podcast, Jeff Giles talked about how Billy Joel’s penchant for melodrama appealed to his own teenage angst, and “Somewhere Along The Line” is a perfect example of that. The lyrics, which deal with a young man foolishly living for the present even though he’s aware of the future consequences, would prove to be as much of a self-fulfilling prophecy as when he sang “I don’t want clever conversation” eight years before marrying Christie Brinkley. Joel was a little unsure of his vocals on the original, so for the definitive take, track down any of the bootlegs from the Turnstiles era, where Joel injects the song with a venomous self-loathing as his forever under-appreciated band matches him note-for-note. —David Lifton
“I’ve Loved These Days” from Turnstiles (1976) – A soulful benediction for a soulless experience, “I’ve Loved These Days” stands as a less-than-fond “Farewell and fuck you” to California after Joel moved back to New York in the early Seventies. There are few Hollywood affectations or indulgences he doesn’t skewer, from expensive clothes to expensive jewelry to expensive cars, wine, food, décor—you get the point very quickly. Of course, he sings it all like it was a prom anthem; only few prom anthems feature a verse as cynically deflating as this one: We drown our doubts in dry champagne /And soothe our souls with fine cocaine / I don’t know why I even care / We’ll get so high and get nowhere / We’ll have to change our jaded ways
At least, my prom anthem wasn’t like that. My prom anthem was “Changes,” by Bowie (17 years after its release). Go figure.
The irony here, of course, is that Joel would, within a couple years, find and indulge in all the things he complains about in this song. Turnstiles set the stage for The Stranger the following year, and a decade-plus-long run that would see Joel become one of the biggest recording artists and concert draws in the world. And you gotta think he loved those days just fine. —Rob Smith
“52nd Street” from 52nd Street (1978) – Though Bobby Zimmerman inspired so many in the world of rock n’ roll to really let loose with their lyrics and spin tales that would go on and on and on – just like in the old folk traditions that Zimmy holds so dear – it only made short and sweet little bursts of musical joy like “52nd Street” stand out all the more. Billy Joel had been guilty plenty of times of bending our ears for far longer than 3:05 with epics like “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” “Captain Jack,” “The Entertainer,” and even “Until The Night.” But on 52nd Street, his most jazz-influenced pop record, he concludes the album with its succinct title track – one verse, one chorus, some ad libs and clarinet blowing, and that’s it. And it’s perfect, all the more so because you can feel Billy reaching for that Ray Charles place in his voice, something that only adds to the boisterous quality of the tune itself. He could be singing about keeping a band together, a marriage, a spirit or a scene. But it doesn’t really matter one way or another. In the end, he captured that New York City jazz magic best on “52nd Street” by recalling the energy of the song’s namesake epicenter in the context of both Billy Joel the pop star and Billy Joel the fan. Plus nobody would have to exert any effort trying to edit it down when it got slapped on the B-side of the “My Life” 45. Sweet! —Michael Fortes
“Zanzibar” from 52nd Street (1978) – By the time I arrived at Shea Stadium in New York, on that night in 2008 I thought I had a relatively complete understanding of Billy Joel. There wasn’t going to be much that could turn my head around, and I doubted he would play anything I hadn’t already heard. It was the first night of the two-night stand titled The Last Play At Shea, a salute to the stadium that was a home for the New York Mets baseball team. It has since been demolished and replaced by Citi Field (and don’t get me started about the spurious benefits of corporate naming rights.)
I always liked the hits that came off of 52nd Street, but never bought the album. It was always something I could put off until later, not like the Sony Legacy Edition of The Stranger that had come out only a few months prior. There wasn’t going to be anything so necessary hidden on there that couldn’t wait. About halfway into the show, however, Joel pulled another fast one on me. He had already delivered guest appearances from Don Henley, John Mayer and Tony friggin’ Bennett on “A New York State Of Mind” and now he was playing “Zanzibar.” The impact was immediate with that rhythm, the jazzy breakdown as the centerpiece, the sense you were hearing one of the classic-period tracks for the very first time – I left Shea Stadium that night not owning 52nd Street, a situation I rectified two days later. —Dw. Dunphy
“All For Leyna” from Glass Houses (1980) – Billy Joel may not exactly have the heart a rocker, but the thing is, he’s always WANTED to be able to rock. Unfortunately, the constant and unfair comparisons to Springsteen (as well as at times Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and other singer-songwriters who emerged in the “rock” world at a similar point) have often left Joel in a situation where critics have eagerly dismantled his work not based on the quality of it itself, but what it lacks compared to a more “organic” assimilator of rock stylings like “the Boss”. Joel, on the other hand, most always gets written off as someone trying too hard, and thus ending up short on credit received when he succeeds, and torn apart the critical lion’s den when he falls short.
To wit, the same year (1980) that Springsteen scored his first #1 album with the mega-opus The River, Joel came out with Glass Houses, a “nice” little LP in which Joel tried really hard to be some kind of rocker, at least on the first two US singles: “You May Be Right” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”. While the second song was a #1 Billboard hit (or maybe in part because it was) it has also been trashed as being, at best, a naive statement coming from a guy who is not a rocker, doesn’t really know how to rock, and who has written a song about rock which doesn’t really rock–or at least rock enough to have “rock” in it’s title. Whatever. Unfortunately, it does help the detractor’s arguments when the follow up single (and following song on Glass Houses) “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a folky song with Italian rhythms, having more in common with Tin Pan Alley than Heavy Metal Thunder.
Yet, those that make the criticism must have stopped listening to Glass Houses after those first three singles, because how does that dismissal of Joel explain the song that closes Side One: “All For Leyna”? Released as a single in the UK (where it barely cracked the Top 40) and Japan, “Leyna” is a manic tale of young adult obsession after a one-night stand. It begins with a manic one-chord repetition, part New Wave, part “Psycho”, which then leads into the song’s dominant seven note riff–one almost Wagnerian in its drama. Then it’s off into the song proper, which is yet another tale of bitter disconnection in an album pretty much about bitter disconnection (even the album title is a warning shot to those quick to judge but not able to understand). Joel’s vocals punctuate his lyrics with emotion, especially the way he focuses on words symbolizing some kind of self-power in the middle of each verses’ first stanza (“shock”, “rocks”, “drop”), only to be met by an opposite power in the middle of each verses’ second stanza: something or someone, telling or making him want to “stop”. To stop ruining his life over an obsession.
One can only guess that a similar obsession has torn Joel up over the years. He acts out over poor reviews, as if his success shows that they don’t matter. Yet the fact that he acts out at all seems to prove that he does think they matter. In reality, he’s like that kid in “All For Leyna”, knowing that he’s not going to get the critics or the girl, and knowing he’s better of if he doesn’t get it, but still….wanting it so bad. The positive and perhaps ironic result of these proceedings-of both the narrator and the singer obviously being torn in two-feeling the “shock” but unable to “stop”, is that in Joel’s bitter, symbolic attempt to block out the people telling him he couldn’t rock, he probably rocked as good, and as naturally, as he ever had (and ever has) in his career. —Matthew Bolin
“Surprises” from The Nylon Curtain (1982 ) – In the late ’80s and early ’90s, music know-it-alls liked to joke that if John Lennon were still alive, he would totally have been into hip-hop, and that makes sense; you can see the power-to-the-people ethic of Public Enemy appealing to a working class hero like Lennon. Somewhere out there, though, is a world where Lennon took one listen to Billy Joel’s “Surprises” and muttered softly to himself, “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.” The next day, Lennon grants Jann Wenner an exclusive interview, where he takes the time to thank Joel for setting him straight, but not before calling him a motherfucker at least 27 times for writing a song that puts Lennon’s entire solo catalog to complete and utter shame (“Jealous Guy” excepted). Eighteen months later, Lennon would emerge with a work of dark Beatle-y genius the likes of which not even XTC dared to dream. He’d then go on record saying that he thinks An Innocent Man is shit.
Like some twisted cousin of Revolver‘s “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Surprises” is as Lennon-esque as it gets. Strange but melodic, biting but truthful, it’s the darkest moment on an already pitch-black record. “Don’t look now, but you have changed / Your best friends wouldn’t tell you,” Joel notes in the bridge, his vocals drenched in reverb in a manner similar to what Lennon preferred towards the end of the Beatles’ run. Then there is that descending chord sequence in the verse, which takes George Martin’s ‘think symphonic’ advice and turns it on its ear. Of all the songs written in their’ name, “Surprises” is one of the few that beats the Beatles at their own game. —David Medsker
“Laura” from The Nylon Curtain (1982) – Extending the metaphor of “the nylon curtain”, Billy Joel’s album from 1982 was probably a head-turner for his fans prior to the release. From “Allentown” and its tale of a company town without the company, to “Goodnight Saigon” and an entirely different company facing the unknown in the Vietnam jungles, and almost every other track (excepting the good, yet out of place “She’s Right On Time”) these songs had little light to call it’s own, shaded by that curtain that cast shadows over virtually the entire recording.
It doesn’t seem as if “Laura” could be the darkest of them all, but it acts as a post-script to Joel’s hit “She’s Always A Woman.” On that previous hit, the singer waxed rhapsodic about the two sides of this woman he’s with, the side that kisses and the side that kills. He’s come to peace with her duality. “Laura” on the other hand is the point where the singer is fed up. Laura needs, and is ready to fulfill his needs in order to get her way. He’s filled with self-loathing because he lets it happen again and again. Laura is broken in many ways, but she’s just as willing to do the breaking. For all those who pegged Joel as a softie, the lyric, “Here I am feeling like a fucking fool...” has the bracing effect of hearing your elementary school teacher blurt out a four-letter-bomb in an unguarded moment. It’s the right word for the moment and certainly snaps you to attention.
Equally shocking is the moment the singer decides to cut her away, at the very end of the tune: “She always says I’m the best friend that she’s ever had/ How do you hang up on someone who needs you that bad?” The Nylon Curtain may have only had a couple singles off of it, not the Billboard bonanza Glass Houses was, but because of the raw willingness to go to those dark places, it stands out as the more potent set. “Laura” stands out as a symbol for all of it. —Dw. Dunphy
“This Night” from An Innocent Man (1983) – It’s your friend Tina’s sweet sixteen party and Mindy is there—Mindy, for whom you’ve pined since second grade, who has been the prettiest girl in every grade since kindergarten, whose strawberry blonde hair falls to her shoulders, where it melds with her yellow sweater, a sweater whose softness makes it look like its glowing. Mindy, who overt he years has eaten lunch with you, let you push her on the swings, who has gone bowling with you, roller-skated with you, been your friend since you can remember.
Mindy, who just four days before this party (and one day before you were finally going to ask her out on a date), told you she’s going steady with another boy.
He’s not here at the party. Guy’s got a job.
As your classmates mill about, Mindy’s talking with Tina’s mother about gardening; Mindy loves her flowers, always has. Soon, though, Tina’s mother heads upstairs, leaving the basement to the partygoers. Someone dims the lights; someone else puts on a record. It’s a slow one; boys and girls pair off, hold onto one another, and sway in the middle of the room. Mindy’s back by the punch, surveying the scene, maybe thinking of her guy.
You walk up to her, say something that makes her giggle. You both look out at the slow movements of your friends in the half-light. The song is about to end when you make an exaggerated gesture of offering Mindy your arm, so you can laugh it off as a joke if she demurs. Instead, she takes it, and someone lifts off the first record and drops the needle on a second.
A bass voice and snap of a snare drum start off another down-tempo tune. Mindy puts her arms around your neck; you slip yours around her waist. She rests her head on your shoulder; you drop your head to cradle hers. You both sway in place as the singer does his best croon: Didn’t I say I wasn’t ready for romance?/Didn’t we promise we would only be friends?/And so we danced, though it was only a slow dance/I started breaking my promises right there and then
“Only a slow dance?” At your age, slow dances are everything. The feel of her body resting against yours, the soft smoothness of her hair, the smell of her perfume—everything clicks with the music, everything melds together in this perfect moment. You get chills as the chorus kicks in: This night is mine/It’s only you and I/Tomorrow is a long time away/This night can last forever
The melody is Beethoven—you recognize it from your aunt’s record collection. The words, though, are all yours. Yours and Mindy’s. There’s no tomorrow; tomorrow the boyfriend steps back in. There’s only this moment; you want it to go on and on and on. It’s over in four minutes.
Then someone says, “Again.” And someone else picks up the needle and places it back at the beginning.
Mindy lifts her head a little, but never lets you go. She smiles a smile you can see, even in the dark. —Rob Smith
“Blonde Over Blue” from River of Dreams (1993) – When we were discussing having Billy Joel as a candidate for the Greatest Bits column, I mentioned I had an irrational affinity for the song “Blonde Over Blue”. It’s really quite unlikely as I find the album to include some of Joel’s most radio-friendly and homogeneous songs, and by that I mean the stuff is kind of bland. It’s also mostly one more paean to the great love of his life at the time, Christie Brinkley. She painted the album cover, she is in spirit the subject of nearly every song, and a year later they would be divorced, rendering a lot of this album feeling misguided and strange. In hindsight, it’s hard to listen to him sing so earnestly knowing how it all wound up.
Even this track, “Blonde Over Blue” is a Christie song, the blonde hair framing blue eyes is the metaphor at play. When I took note of the song, fellow staffer Matthew Bolin chimed in that he, too, had a soft spot for it. He also mentioned something he read Joel saying about it, specifically the incongruity of the Psycho-like verse melody and the Slim Whitman country slide and slight yodel of the choruses. In a way, it was as if Joel was making either a sly comment or a huge musical Freudian slip, those dissonant, slashing key textures sounding an awful lot like Bernard Herrmann’s shower scene theme. Who knows? It could be. It could also be that I’m reading too much into it, trying to add some spice to the song, awash in the album’s sea of vanilla. —Dw. Dunphy