I wasn’t planning to make more bad lyricist lists, but lots of people enjoyed the New Order list. Two obvious candidates for a bad lyricist list share a first name or a last name with Bernard Sumner, but this time it’s Long Island piano-pop artist Billy Joel.
It’s noticeable that most of these lines come from outside of Joel’s prime years – there’s nothing from his best-selling albums The Stranger, 52nd Street, and An Innocent Man. A lot of these lines come from early in his career, when he tried to follow trends with little success. First in the organ-based proto-metal band Attila, then his attempts at singer-songwriter success in the early 1970s.
For the record, I enjoy Billy Joel – he has a bunch of excellent songs like ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Allentown’. Once he found his groove as a cynical New Yorker, his lyrics became a lot stronger. His snotty 1979 single ‘Big Shot’ has a fantastic opening line:
Well, you went uptown riding in your limousineBig Shot
With your fine Park Avenue clothes
You had the Dom Perignon in your hand
And the spoon up your nose
Joel has admitted that he usually writes his lyrics last, an unusual approach to songwriting. This possibly explains the rest of the lyrics on this list – a forced rhyme here, an inappropriately emphasised line there.
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sittin’ next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin
He says, “Son can you play me a memory?Piano Man
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes”
‘Piano Man’ was Joel’s first single in North America, and it’s become his signature song. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook some awkward lines. Reversing gin and tonic to rhyme with shuffles in. “When I wore a younger man’s clothes” is a very convoluted way of singing “when I was younger”.
Your sister’s gone out, she’s on a dateCaptain Jack
You just sit at home and masturbate
Self-pleasure happens, sure. But as I pointed out to Bernard Sumner on our previous #9, there’s really no need to sing about it.
We laid on the beachAll For Leyna
Watching the tide
She didn’t tell me there were, ROCKS
Under the waves
Right off the shore
Joel’s occasional shortcomings as a lyricist are amplified by his tendency to bellow key lines. Next time I take Joel swimming, I need to take a map of underwater topographical hazards. Otherwise, he might shout at me as well.
They heard the hum of our motorsGoodnight Saigon
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive
‘Goodnight Saigon’ is one of my favourite Joel songs, but this is a heck of a forced rhyme. It just seems impractical to count the rotors rather than the actual helicopters.
Out in the yardThe Great Suburban Showdown
Where my Daddy worked so hard
He never lets the crabgrass grow too high
Joel still hadn’t found his identity by his third album, 1974’s Streetlife Serenade. ‘The Great Suburban Showdown’ is one of his most atypical tracks, a bizarre Jackson Browne parody.
A man my age is very youngWhy, Judy, Why?
So I’m told
Why do I feel so old?
Don’t you know my only real momentsYou Can Make Me Free
Are the ones I spend with you
How I long to drink some wine again with you
A pair of lyrics from Joel’s largely forgotten debut album, Cold Spring Harbour. It was intended as a demo for other artists to cover. But Joel’s not convincing as a sensitive singer-songwriter.
Then he started doing a danceCalifornia Flash
He said it was imported from France
The girls all started to crash
To see the California Flash removing his pants!
Before going solo, Billy Joel was in a metal duo with his friend Jonathan Small. Their sole album, the self-titled Attila, was released in 1970. The duo ended when Joel took off with Small’s wife – he later wrote ‘Just The Way You Are’ for her.
Well you wish you were back in the good old days,All You Want To Do Is Dance
When tomatoes were cheaper.
The first thing I think about the good old days is how I had a full head of hair and a flat stomach. Not about how tomatoes were cheaper.
Rock and roller cola warsWe Didn’t Start The Fire
I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!
From 1989’s Storm Front, ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ is a clever concept – starting in Joel’s birth year of 1949, it chronologically lists the major events impacting the US baby boomer generation. But the final line of the final verse is delivered in Joel’s heartiest bellow, and it cheapens Joel’s succinct summation of American history.
You’re my castleYou’re My Home
You’re my cabin
And my instant pleasure dome
The third selection from Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, ‘You’re My Home’ was a valentine’s present for Joel’s wife Elizabeth Weber. It’s no ‘Just The Way You Are’ – AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine diplomatically remarked that the line indicates that Joel “doesn’t have an ear for words.”
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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