10 Worst Billy Joel Lyrics

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 limousine
With your fine Park Avenue clothes
You had the Dom Perignon in your hand
And the spoon up your nose

Big Shot

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.

#10

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?
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

‘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”.


#9

Your sister’s gone out, she’s on a date
You just sit at home and masturbate

Captain Jack

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.


#8

We laid on the beach
Watching the tide
She didn’t tell me there were, ROCKS
Under the waves
Right off the shore

All For Leyna

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.


#7

They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive

Goodnight Saigon

‘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.


#6

Out in the yard
Where my Daddy worked so hard
He never lets the crabgrass grow too high

The Great Suburban Showdown

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.


#5

A man my age is very young
So I’m told
Why do I feel so old?

Why, Judy, Why?

Don’t you know my only real moments
Are the ones I spend with you
How I long to drink some wine again with you

You Can Make Me Free

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.


#4

Then he started doing a dance
He said it was imported from France
The girls all started to crash
To see the California Flash removing his pants!

California Flash

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.


#3

Well you wish you were back in the good old days,
When tomatoes were cheaper.

All You Want To Do Is Dance

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.


#2

Rock and roller cola wars
I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

We Didn’t Start The Fire

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.


#1

You’re my castle
You’re my cabin
And my instant pleasure dome

You’re My Home

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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58 Comments

    • You missed some good ones

      “But maybe someday when my ship comes in, then I’ll win”- Uptown Girl

      You had to open up your big mouth – Big Shot

      Should I try to be a straight A student, if you are then you think to much – still RR to me

      But he has a huge catalogue of unforgettable songs and amazingly creative lyrics. “only the good die young”, movin’ out, you may be right (I may be crazy), Allentown. And so many more.

      I’m a tough critic (like you) but I give credit when it’s due.

      Love piano man – esp the gin and tonic and navy parts. It’s great.

  1. The only one I find issue with is #10 Piano Man lyrics. Even though it’s awkward it works. The rest are spot on. I got a kick out of your comments. The tomatoes of #3 and the rocks of #8 especially. I also like the insight of #2. Fun read, Graham 🙂

  2. Who are you talking about when you say two bad lyricists share a name with Bernard Sumner? I can’t think of anyone with those names. Billy Joel’s lyrics are usually kind of overwrought, just like his music. But I like a bunch of his stuff anyway. As usual, the worst ones would have to be the political ones. I hate, hate, hate We Didn’t Start the Fire. If you ever need a big list of cliches for subjects to write a song about, that song is the place to go. Some of his lyrics though are both bad and great at the same time. For instance, Big Shot. It’s like really bad but it’s really great too. Also Piano Man and Captain Jack and some others are like that too. I think his best lyrics are the ones where he’s not trying to say anything important. Especially Don’t Ask Me Why. Other ones that I really like are My Life and River of Dreams.

    • We didn’t start the fire is a song that was made strictly to accompany a video when that “art form” was at its peak. But nobody gave MJ a hard time for “Man in the Mirror” which is basically like “the fire” in that it’s about everything, and so also about nothing.

      Can’t stand “big Shot” but love “moving out” and “you may be right”, “only the good die young”. All NYC (Queens) unforgettable. Watch “ last night at Shea”.. about him and baseball and how we came to have suburbs ( from Roman times) and the Beatles going there. amazing.

  3. Yes, he seems challenged by rhyme. Counting rotors? Is that possible without digging into the engine? And if you’re still waiting for an arrival, how can you even count them?

  4. Heh! Good one. Some comments: I don’t have a problem with the tonic and gin reverse engineering. Hey, songwriters and poets have to twist themselves into pretzels to make things rhyme. Also, I think “When I wore a younger man’s clothes” is a great line. Much more poetic than “When I was a younger dude.” Not that it matters. I’m so thoroughly sick of the song I turn it off as soon as I hear it. As to “Captain Jack,” well, that came from a time when rockers would say anything. Jagger won’t even sing “Brown Sugar” any more and Elvis Costello has asked radio radio to stop playing “Oliver’s Army.” I know, different situation but still, there was more shock value back in those days to throw in words like masturbate. Maybe more

    I never noticed ‘counted the rotors” before but well, again, creative license. I’ve never heard “California Flash” before but yes, that one is best left forgotten. As to “tomatoes are cheaper,” that is another one that only works if you know the context. That only works if you know this ancient depression-era tune. If I know it, Joel knows it. I tend to sing it (not kidding) whenever we have tomatoes and/or potatoes. It’s stupidly corny but for all I know was the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of its day,

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iE1VmevUgpM

    Joel is also capable of some great lyrics as you know. One of my favorites is:

    “Remember how I found you there
    Alone in your electric chair
    I told you dirty jokes until you smiled
    You were lonely for a man
    I said “Take me as I am”
    ‘Cause you might enjoy some madness for awhile”

    • I didn’t get the tomato refence – I guess that line makes sense now. Does it mean that he’s yearning for the Great Depression?

      • Just a cultural reference I suppose. You either get it or you don’t. It’s like the “Who’s On First” thing we talked about before. Things would be way better for you from that point of view if you were American. Catchy song though, eh?

    • I’m surprised you’ve been able to avoid him – he’s always seemed pretty ubiquitous. A lot of these songs are deep cuts from early in his career though.

  5. Now that I think about it, it’s really not about if I thought his lyrics are good or bad, but rather if I like the music on the song or not. All the ones that I said were good are the ones where I like the music. And the ones I thought were bad are the ones where I didn’t much like the music. I like the music on Piano Man and Captain Jack, so it really doesn’t matter what the lyrics are. If you really like the music on a song , then it seems like you just go along with the lyrics no matter what they are.

  6. Great topic, Graham, though I hope you won’t need to block certain comments!

    I’m not so sure it’s uncommon for music artists to write the music first before coming up with the lyrics. I think you’re 100% correct this explains some of Joel’s lyrics you called out – no doubt the tonic and gin is a good example in this context. BTW, I recall reading somewhere he hates “Piano Man” but keeps playing the song since many of his fans still love it.

    When it comes to lyrics, I think I’m largely with kingclover. To me a great song is about the music first and foremost. While I can appreciate well crafted lyrics, I generally find the words are secondary.

    I think my stance can largely be explained by the fact that I started listening to English music as an eight-year-old or so – long before I understood one word of English.

    Besides, if I would care much about lyrics, frankly, I’d have a hard time digging many of the early tunes by my all-time favorite band The Beatles. “P.S. I Love You”, “Please Please Me”, “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” come to mind. Yet, I enjoy all of these songs, even though the words aren’t exactly Shakespeare!

    • I don’t get too many comments I need to block, although someone once called me a moron for not including Rush on a list! I hope in this case I’ve made it clear that I generally enjoy Joel’s music.

      I think early Beatles are totally fine – often the worst lyrics are when someone goes for something deep and meaningful and overreaches.

      • Glad to hear that. Nowadays, I feel some folks get upset for anything, even if it’s just music – something that at the end of the day is highly subjective and as such a topic you shouldn’t argue about in the first place!

      • The Rush person was probably from Canada and because you left Geddy Lee or Neil Pert off a list of best bassists or drummers – IDK.

        I think the lyrics have to be half of the music – think about your favourite songs ever. The words are huge.

        Nobody really listens to “please please me” or “ I wanna hold your hand” anymore, but if it weren’t for those early pop successes we wouldn’t have Sgt Peopers, white album, etc.

        So, we take the good with the bad lyrics of the Beatles and Joel and most other people.

    • Personally, I think he’s great. In fact, he might be my favorite. Who could ever beat Penny Lane or Paperback Writer and a million other Beatles songs, or even post-Beatles stuff like Uncle Albert? I don’t think anybody ever wrote with so much imagination. But on the other hand, I could definitely make a list of his bad lyrics that would be pretty long.

        • but I don’t think he wrote any truly bad ones until a few years into his solo stuff. He made it all the way to the end of The Beatles without writing any bad ones, but I think John started to slip even before the end of The Beatles.

          • I think the bad lyrics started as soon as he went solo. The John competition in The Beatles kept him respectable there.

    • Yeah, I’m probably wrong about that.

      Although Joel says: “And it’s the backwards way of writing because traditional songwriting is you take words or a poem and you set it to music. I actually write music and I set words to that. Melody and chords are first.”

  7. I’m glad you are doing this…
    “Your sister’s gone out, she’s on a date
    You just sit at home and masturbate”… What the hell? I know Captain Jack and it never sunk in before.

  8. The gin and tonic reversal is actually genius, and not just to make it rhyme. “And the waitress is practicing politics”. You feel like you are there.

  9. I don’t know what the song is called, but Paul McCartney had an album out years ago. I heard 1 of the songs or singles from it on streaming. The album was called MAF. The song was so bad I skipped it after a minute. It was giddy and cringe inducing. I don’t know the name of it, but it was from his MAF album. Just really, really bad, lol. 😃

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