So. When last we left Billy Joel, he was riding high on the back-to-back, world-beating successes of The Stranger and 52nd Street. You’d think that would mellow a guy out a little — make him complacent. That it would adversely affect his songwriting. What ended up happening, however, was just the opposite: Like any major artist, Joel took his share of lumps from the critical community. But rather than recognizing rock criticism for what it is — mostly useless — Joel took the slings and arrows personally. The critics dismissed him as a soft rock hack, so for the follow-up to 52nd Street, Billy Joel decided to show the world just how tough he really was.
Which wasn’t all that tough, really. But away we go…
Glass Houses (1980)
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For all the “Billy Joel’s rock album” descriptions surrounding Glass Houses (including mine above), it really isn’t — at least in terms of “rock” content — too far removed from The Stranger or, especially, 52nd Street. Yes, there’s “You May Be Right,” which my buddy Tim describes as the closest Joel ever came to punk. (I disagree, by the way — “Big Shot” or this album’s “Close to the Borderline” [download] beat “Right” hands down.) But Houses also contains the mannered pop of “Don’t Ask Me Why,” the lazy boogie of “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me,” and even some gentle balladry. In essence, it’s the same old eclectic, Brill Building-loving Billy Joel that had hit platinum with his last two albums.
At least to a point. Where Houses really is quantifiably more “rock” or “punk” or whatever than previous albums is in its underlying attitude. Joel’s artistic outlook had never been (and never would be) particularly sunny, but it’s here that palpable strains of alienation and paranoia start to dominate his work. As a statement regarding Joel’s tough-guy cred, it fails almost totally; as an example of terrific, sweaty, claustrophobic Reagan-era pop, however, it’s damn near perfect.
I said in Part One that Joel was never a generational spokesman as much as he was just a brilliant songwriter, and perhaps that was unfair. Because really, from The Stranger through at least The Nylon Curtain, he captured — if not always lyrically, then absolutely thematically and musically — the nervous drift of his age group. The problems of grown-up Cold War kids may not have been particularly profound in the grand scheme of things, but Joel made them seem that way. A song like “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” (download) functions as sort of a confused, tender eulogy for the sexual revolution, and as such, it should be vulgar, or at least absurd — and it isn’t. Joel tenderly, believably captures the jaded bewilderment of his generation at the dawn of the Me Decade.
But at a price. Producer Phil Ramone steered The Stranger and 52nd Street with a singularly original hand; those records sound like guys playing in a room (a room that magically overdubs stuff for you, but still). Glass Houses, on the other hand, feels a little like a group of dudes in their 30s trying to cop a New Wave feel. The synths, guitars, and drums have a sharp edge, and the vocals are either drenched in reverb or trying too hard be tough. Early on, one of the things that helped ground Joel’s overbearing rage was his recordings’ organic feel. Glass Houses marks the point where that starts to fade.
Songs in the Attic (1981)
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As a rule, my Guides don’t address live albums, but with Joel I think I’m going to make an exception, because his various live albums do such a terrific job of capturing where he was in his career when they were released. Songs in the Attic is a perfect example — and one of my favorite live albums of all time.
This is partly because of its concept. Joel was in an interesting position in ‘81; though certainly one of the best-selling artists in the world at that point, most people were unaware of, or had never heard, most of his albums. And those albums, though all fundamentally flawed, contained a lot of great songs — so Joel decided to rescue them and introduce them to his new audience. It would be a great excuse for a live album even if the performances weren’t uniformly stellar (which they are).
Once upon a time, Billy Joel was one of the best mainstream live acts on the market. While not a group of virtuosos by any stretch, his band was unquestionably the band for this music — a group of guys who could root an overbearingly wordy song like “Summer, Highland Falls” (download) while also lending a song like “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (download) its requisite size and muscle.
What it comes down to is that every single argument a person could make for Billy Joel’s talent is backed up soundly by Songs in the Attic — and he sounds like he’s having fun, too. If he’d been content to be this guy, there’s really no telling where his career might have gone.
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
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Strong as it might be, Billy Joel’s catalog mostly consists of songs and albums that cool kids are embarrassed to admit they like. He’s a guilty pleasure for the cognoscenti. And among all his releases, The Nylon Curtain is probably the only one it’s okay to say, without a trace of irony, that you actually believe is worth listening to.
Really, with Glass Houses and Nylon Curtain, Joel delivered an impressive one-two punch. As hard as Houses strains to be good old rock & roll, Nylon tries equally hard to actually make a statement. While not a concept album per se, it’s definitely a record with a theme.
And it’s an important theme, really — in nine songs, heavily grounded in Lennon/McCartney pop, Joel sums up the Baby Boomers. It’s all here: Vietnam, the erosion of the American manufacturing base, emotional and sexual dysfunction, and a relentless, overweening need to somehow make sense of it all. While not without its flaws, Nylon Curtain might actually be Billy Joel’s crowning artistic achievement. It certainly marks the last time he’d attempt to make an entire album’s worth of music this thoughtful or original.
It’s ironic that Glass Houses is supposed to stand as a rebuttal to those who accuse Joel of being a soft rocker, because The Nylon Curtain is miles away from anything that could honestly be considered soft rock. Where before Joel had couched his anger and alienation in classically warm arrangements, Curtain offers no such comfort; it’s a tense, dark album. Even seemingly stereotypical rock tunes like “She’s Right On Time” (download) and “A Room of Our Own” (download) have a nervous, jittery feel to them.
This didn’t help Nylon’s sales. Though it did spin off a few hits (among them “Pressure,” one of the most perfect ’80s singles there ever was), it didn’t dominate Top 40 the way his last three albums had.
An Innocent Man (1983)
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Understandably creatively spent after The Nylon Curtain — not to mention the endless touring, not to mention his recent divorce — Joel, it’s probably fair to say, didn’t expect to release an album of new material in 1983. Yet not only did he release an album, it went on to become one of his all-time best sellers, spawning an incredible five hit singles (not to mention a handful of iconic videos).
So. What changed? Simply put, he fell in love.
You know the story. This marks the beginning of the public whirlwind that was the romance, and eventual marriage, of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. Though she wasn’t the singular inspiration, or probably even the impetus, behind An Innocent Man, their relationship definitely looms large over its ten songs. “The Longest Time”? “Christie Lee”? “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” (download)? The sounds of a guy in full swoon.
Musically, it’s pure pastiche — a bald-faced tip of the hat to the music of Joel’s youth. As a result, it’s both his least original album and one of his most engaging. Now, I say this as no fan of An Innocent Man. I was there during its chart run, heard these songs as many times as the rest of you, and have long since tired of “Tell Her About It” and “Keepin’ the Faith” and pretty much everything else from this record. However, if you can pretend this album doesn’t contain some of the most painfully overplayed music of the decade, it stands as an honestly charming, albeit seriously lightweight, interlude in the Joel catalog. He had never shown this much exuberance and optimism, and he never would again.
Something else he’d never do again is hit these high notes. Listen to “This Night” (download) and shed a silent tear for the impending, age-and-tobacco-and-alcohol-induced erosion of one of the most elastic, underrated singing voices of a generation.
The Bridge (1986)
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The three years between An Innocent Man and The Bridge saw a Billy Joel wedding, a double-volume Billy Joel greatest hits collection, and the growth of Billy Joel’s celebrity above and beyond anything Billy Joel could have imagined. It created a bit of a dilemma for Joel, actually; here’s the guy who came up poor, has always played to his working-class Long Island roots, has never stopped playing the part of the regular guy — and he’s getting married to a supermodel on a yacht, hobnobbing with the world’s best-known musicians in We Are The World, and never going out in public without his goddamn shades.
At this point, with a new marriage and baby at home, and (so he thought) plenty of cash in the bank, Joel could have been forgiven complacency. The long layoff between albums certainly seemed to suggest he was running out of steam, and The Bridge proved it irrefutably.
Even for a guy known for his eclecticism, The Bridge is a wild mess of a record. It’s got an embarrassing, undercooked ballad (”This is the Time”), a bloated, contrived — and, yes, catchy — rocker (”A Matter of Trust”), embarrassingly dated synth-pop (”Running on Ice” and “Modern Woman”)…and oh so little in the way of enduring songs.
Part of the problem, shockingly, is Phil Ramone’s production, which bears so little resemblance to the outstanding work he’d done in the past that you almost have to wonder if he was really behind the boards for this one. The entire thing sounds thin and watery, starting with the least passionate vocals of Joel’s career and continuing on down to the sadly castrated drums of the normally dependable Liberty DeVitto. As part of a time capsule for 1986, it has value. Otherwise, there isn’t much here. Joel perks up a bit for the last two songs, “Code of Silence” (download) and “Getting Closer” (download), but they can’t save the record.
To his credit, Joel knew things were going sour. He’d made wealthy men of his bandmates, and was unhappy with the way that had changed their performance dynamic. This ramshackle Bridge set in motion the wholesale changes Joel would make for his next studio album.
But first, the tour…
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This, my friends, is the American Dream. Billy Joel, high school dropout, had not only managed to become rich, famous, and married to one of the most beautiful women in the world, but in 1987, he became a cultural ambassador.
Joel’s Soviet tour was big news in the summer of ‘87, not only because he was taking live American music behind the Iron Curtain, but also because of the ridiculous tantrum (and keyboard) he threw during one of his performances. It enhanced his rocker cred in certain circles, I guess, but in the long run, it was just sort of pointless — and unfortunately, it ended up being the most interesting thing about his visit. As beautifully as Songs in the Attic captures Joel and his band at the peak of their live power, so does KOHUEPT provide a glimpse of the band in listless, ragged decline.
There are moments, of course, where some semblance of the old spark manages to flash out — the KOHUEPT versions of “Stiletto” (download) and “Big Man on Mulberry Street” (download) overshadow the originals — but by and large, these performances run the gamut between rote and sodden. Joel’s voice wasn’t in great shape, the band was on the verge of collapse, and the whole thing was a money pit.
The trip clearly left Joel with profound, life-altering experiences — it’s just too bad it couldn’t produce a better live document.
And so concludes Part Two of our look at Billy Joel. What happens next? Meet me here this time next week to find out…