As he helpfully informs us in his song ‘Leningrad’, Billy Joel was born in ‘49, a Cold War kid from Long Island, New York. As a teenager, he enjoyed the music of The Beatles and Traffic and began playing in local bands. After stints in psychedelic bands and the power duo Attila, Joel released his first solo album in 1971.
It took him a few years to hit the big time – he was first cast as a singer-songwriter, then moved to California with CBS. It wasn’t until he moved back to New York, used his wife as his manager, and started using his touring band on his records that his albums became stronger, starting with 1976’s Turnstiles.
Phil Ramone produced Joel’s commercial breakthrough, 1977’s The Stranger and the song ‘Just The Way You Are’. The same core team of Joel, his band, and Ramone kept cranking out successful records through the late 1970s and early 1980s, and to his credit, each of Joel’s subsequent albums in that period has its own identity – 52nd Street is jazzy, Glass Houses is new wave pop, The Nylon Curtain is Beatles-inspired adult pop, and 1983’s An Innocent Man is based on pop music from Joel’s youth in the 1950s and 1960s. Joel hasn’t released a pop album since 1993’s River of Dreams, although he’s remained a popular live drawcard.
Joel has never enjoyed much critical acclaim. There’s always been a hint of Tin Pan Alley about his work. Even his best albums have a song that feels out of place – for example, Glass Houses has the awkward French ballad ‘C’etait Toi’ and The Nylon Curtain has the tuneless rocker ‘A Room Of Our Own’. His vocal style of dramatically shouting seemingly random lines is often unintentionally amusing; “rock and roller cola wars, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE.” As an album artist, he’s a tier two guy who made it to tier one in sales – you can sympathise with critics who wanted to point people to artistically deeper contemporaries like Elvis Costello or Bruce Springsteen, but at the same time Joel has his own merits, especially as an excellent pianist and melodicist.
Billy Joel Album Reviews
Attila | Cold Spring Harbor | Piano Man | Streetlife Serenade | Turnstiles | The Stranger | 52nd Street | Glass Houses | The Nylon Curtain | An Innocent Man | The Bridge | Storm Front | River of Dreams | Fantasies & Delusions
1970, not rated
After stints with The Echoes and The Hassles in the 1960s, Joel cut an album as a heavy metal power duo, playing organ and vocals, with Jon Small on drums. It’s sometimes included on worst album of all time lists and is also infamous for the bizarre cover.
Cold Spring Harbor
In a seismic career shift, Joel transformed himself from heavy metal psychedelic organist to plaintive singer-songwriter. On this first album, Joel was controlled by pop svengali Artie Ripp. Joel claimed Ripp forced him to spend a whole year recording, while Ripp claimed he spent US $450,000 on Joel. After all that effort, there was an error in the album mastering, causing Joel’s voice to sound unnaturally high. The album was re-released by Ripp with the speed corrected and some other alterations after Joel later attained fame.
Cold Spring Harbor features fluid piano and some pretty tunes. But it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Joel’s jumping on the soft-rock bandwagon of the early 1970s rather than embracing his own identity. Joel initially intended Cold Spring Harbor as a set of demos, showcasing his songs so others could record them.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the best songs is ‘Everybody Loves You Now’ a cynical put-down that’s much more in line with Joel’s more successful later work. The most notable song is ‘She’s Got A Way’, a pretty piano ballad that’s very Paul McCartney-like – essentially the entire album is Joel playing McCartney-inspired songs, sounding like part of the singer-songwriter trend of the early 1970s. It’s difficult to take lyrics like these seriously:
Ah, you look so good to me
With my eyes open wide, I can see
Ah, you feel so good to me
And it’s so good when you’re here ’cause I’m free
Cold Spring Harbor essentially sounds like a talented guy desperate to break into the music business, jumping onto the nearest bandwagon.
After a live recording of ‘Captain Jack’ gained popularity on Philadelphia radio, Billy Joel signed to CBS and moved to Los Angeles. Los Angeles seems uncomfortable for Joel – his sardonic style is much more suited to an urban New York setting, while a lot of these songs have country touches, an awkward fit on Joel.
The two best-known songs on Piano Man are those that don’t have a country influence. The title track has become Joel’s signature song, even though it’s lengthy and drags. The album as a whole is probably overrated in Joel’s canon because of its presence. ‘Captain Jack’ mines adolescent drama effectively, with lines like “your sister’s out, she’s on a date/You just sit at home and masturbate”, and its soaring chorus is effective.
My favourite song is the country storytelling ‘The Ballad of Billy The Kid’, which works because it’s tongue in cheek, while ‘Stop In Nevada’ works musically with its big chorus. But there’s a lot of filler; rote songs like ‘If I Only Had The Words To Tell You’ and ‘You’re My Home’ are a pretty good basis for criticism of Joel as “music for music teachers”.
Piano Man is easily the best of Joel’s first three albums, but it’s carried by its handful of good songs and filled out by a bunch of tuneful, directionless fodder.
With ‘Piano Man’ becoming a minor hit, CBS hustled Joel into the studio to record a follow-up. Instrumentals like ‘Root Beer Rag’ are a sign that Joel didn’t have enough material – Joel has said “I was pushed to put that one out, and I shouldn’t have because it wasn’t ready.” Streetlife Serenade still sounds like Joel hasn’t found his identity, and he’s writing pointless pastiches – ‘The Great Suburban Showdown’ works musically with a pretty tune, in the style of a Jackson Browne Californian storytelling song, but the lyrics are so dopey (“Out in the yard/Where my Daddy worked so hard/He never lets the crabgrass grow too high”) that it’s irrelevant. ‘Weekend Song’ sounds like a lame take on an Elton John rocker like ‘Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)’.
The dramatic title track works on the back of a great vocal performance from Joel, while ‘Los Angelenos’ also convinces as a scathing put-down to the city that Joel was about to leave. The most convincing song is the sardonic ‘The Entertainer’, with its references about having ‘Piano Man’ cut so it could be a hit. ‘The Entertainer’ and several other tracks feature prominent use of the Minimoog synth.
Streetlife Serenade is effectively an inferior sequel to Piano Man – a few strong tracks surrounded by a bunch of uncomfortable-sounding filler. Joel moved back to New York for his next album and immediately sounded more comfortable.
While Billy Joel’s commercial breakthrough didn’t come until the following year’s The Stranger, Turnstiles was where he hit his stride artistically. Billy Joel self-produced the album and for the first time, his touring band played on the sessions. Musicians like drummer Liberty DeVitto and bass player Doug Stegmeyer were part of Joel’s team for more than a decade, adding personality to his work. The most important improvement, however, is the songwriting; Joel’s work has more of a flavour of his native New York here, and it feels much more natural, even if some songs have a debt to Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s efforts. The characters on the cover supposedly represent each of the album’s songs.
Joel’s lyrics often deal with his relationship with New York; he’s pleased to be back on ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’, ‘Summer, Highland Falls’, and ‘New York State of Mind’, but he’s aware that the city is in crisis on ‘I’ve Loved These Days’ and ‘Miami 2017(Seen The Lights Go Out on Broadway)’. All of the above songs are strong entries in his catalogue; Joel’s baroque piano shines through in the beautiful baroque-like ‘Summer, Highland Falls’, while ‘Miami 2017’ is one of Joel’s best rockers. ‘Angry Young Man’ features a dramatic instrumental prelude, before launching into the hyper-paced song. There’s enough strong material for a respectable album here, but Turnstiles is marred by two clunkers; ‘James’ is a lacklustre McCartney ripoff, while ‘All You Wanna Do Is Dance’ is a turgid piece of cod reggae.
There are a few strong Billy Joel songs on Turnstiles that don’t generally show up on compilations, and it’s Joel’s first worthwhile album.
Turnstiles was an artistic breakthrough for Joel, slipping into his natural New York environment, urban and sardonic. But it didn’t produce any hits, so it made sense to link Joel up with a successful producer to maximise his commercial potential. George Martin was contacted, but he rejected Joel’s band, and Joel instead worked with Phil Ramone, who’d previously produced Paul Simon – Ramone would also work on the next five Joel albums. As much as anything, Ramone instilled confidence in Joel, and The Stranger was a commercial triumph, sitting at number two on the album charts for six weeks behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
A lot of Joel’s best-loved material is here – the album spawned five successful singles, the soft rock of ‘Just The Way You Are’, the Catholic baiting ‘Only the Good Die Young’, the pretty ‘She’s Always A Woman’, the “ack-ack-acks” of ‘Movin’ Out’, and the title track with its cinematic, whistling introduction. Additionally, It also boasts two of his most loved deep cuts – ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ is a multi-part tale of a young couple, its segues inspired by the second side of Abbey Road, while many fans and Joel himself nominate the low key, cryptic ‘Vienna’ as a favourite.
Regrettably, The Stranger ends limply with two weak songs, but it still stands as Joel’s best album, featuring a generous handful of his best-loved songs.
For his follow-up to The Stranger, Joel went in a more jazz-oriented direction. While there’s a cluster of well-known songs on the first three spots of 52nd Street, the remainder is given over to jazz-oriented tracks that sometimes feel insubstantial and insignificant.
The three opening songs are very strong – ‘My Life’ is a nice disco-inflected pop song, with a straight beat and octave bass line. ‘Big Shot’ is a snotty put-down driven by roaring guitars, while ‘Honesty’ is a gentle piano ballad. ‘Honesty’ appears to be a response to Paul Simon’s 1973 album track ‘Tenderness’; Joel reverses Simon’s “there’s no tenderness/beneath your honesty” to “If you search for tenderness it isn’t hard to find….Honesty is hardly ever heard.”
Of the remaining tracks ‘Stiletto’ is the standout, with a punchy arrangement around Joel’s staccato piano. ‘Zanzibar’ captures a smooth, complex jazzy sound, not unlike Steely Dan’, although Joel’s rote lyrics are distracting. Joel also tries for a Righteous Brothers-style torch song on ‘Until The Night’; it’s diverting, although it doesn’t quite justify its length. There’s nothing especially poor, but the rest of the album is overshadowed by the first three tracks.
52nd Street won a Grammy for best album in 1980, but I find it to be one of Joel’s weaker albums from his peak period.
From D. Geller and T. Hibbert, Billy Joel: An Illustrated Biography, London, 1985, p 88: “Billy’s intentions in making Glass Houses were clear. He was sick of people thinking he was MOR and wanted to “throw a rock at the image people have of me as a mellow balladeer.”…Billy said: “we’ve been playing rock and roll for years and years and years. This album is hard rock heavy. No balance between the ballads and the harder stuff.” Billy was excited about making rock, nothing but rock.” Glass Houses is not hard rock by any stretch of the imagination, but it does sound like Joel had been taking notice of new wave bands like The Cars, and he moves away from the expansive urban suites and jazz flavours of his late 1970s albums into delivering straightforward pop songs.
Joel often takes on the persona of a hormone-crazed adolescent here, such as on the dramatic ‘All For Leyna’, a forgotten single, while the ridiculous ‘Close to the Borderline’ entertains with the promise that “We’re gonna all go to hell/With the next big meltdown.” ‘Sometimes a Fantasy’ and the sublime ‘Sleeping With the Television On’ are fun hooky slices of pop, while the closer ‘Through the Long Night’ is a subtle charmer. There’s one corny French ballad, ‘C’etait Toi’, which undermines Joel’s efforts to position himself as hard rock, and the two best-known singles (‘You May Be Right’, ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’) are among his weaker radio hits from his prime years.
But there are lots of fun, hook-filled tunes on Glass Houses nonetheless, as it has a lighter touch than most of Joel’s work.
The Nylon Curtain
After the fun but lyrically light pop of Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain is an ambitious album, addressing the themes of Billy Joel’s generation, such as Vietnam, unemployment and divorce, using Beatles-inspired music. Joel stated that “It was during the Reagan years, and the diminishing horizons in America at the time [meant that] all of a sudden you weren’t going to be able to inherit [the kind of life] your old man had.”
The centrepiece ‘Goodnight Saigon’ addresses Vietnam, and while it has some forced and awkward rhymes (“they heard the sound of the motors/they counted the rotors/and waited for us to arrive”), it’s still effective. There’s also the psychedelic ‘Scandinavian Skies’, with an engrossing and creepy aura, and the social protest of ‘Allentown’ which earned Joel a key to the city for drawing attention to the predicament of American industry. ‘Allentown’ is my favourite Joel song, with its magical piano riff; he even gets away with making train noises.
The Nylon Curtain features plenty of solid album tracks; ‘She’s Right on Time’, ‘Laura’, about Joel’s difficult relationship with his mother, and ‘Surprises’ are all well-constructed slices of pop with just enough edge to make them interesting. Like every Billy Joel album, there’s a clanger with the tuneless and out-of-step ‘A Room Of Our Own’.
Joel intended The Nylon Curtain to be his major statement; he does at least succeed in creating a near-great pop album.
An Innocent Man
In 1982 Joel divorced his wife Elizabeth, who had been his manager and whom he had written ‘Just The Way You Are’ for. His move back to the dating scene, and involvement with super-models Elle McPherson and Christie Brinkley, inspired songs that recreated the light-hearted pop of the late 1950s and early 1960s. “How can you go through puberty without hearing ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ by Percy Sledge?” Joel asked. “I wanted to hear songs like that on the radio again. So I wrote my own.” These simple songs don’t hold up as well to repeat listening as his other prime work, but provide an adrenaline blast on tuneful tracks like ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘Uptown Girl’.
‘The Longest Time’ is one of Joel’s best-known tracks, despite being almost completely a capella. ‘This Night’ is arguably the album’s highlight, co-opting a soaring Beethoven melody for its chorus. ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘Uptown Girl’ swagger with confidence; Joel’s vocal delivery is assured, and his lyrics smoothly effortless (“She’s been living in her white bread world/As long as anyone with hot blood can/And now she’s looking for a downtown man/That’s what I am”). Along with the brooding title track, my favourite songs are all consecutive – outside of this winning sequence, Joel isn’t quite as convincing; the more abrasive ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Christie Lee aren’t convincing. While ‘Leave A Tender Moment Alone’ isn’t a favourite, Toots Thielemans’ harmonica solo is excellent.
An Innocent Man is lightweight, but it’s a fun series of genre exercises after the serious Nylon Curtain.
Billy Joel avoided the worst of 1980s production excesses with his previous albums – The Nylon Curtain and An Innocent Man were both retro genre exercises. But Joel embraced the 1980s on The Bridge, and it feels complacent. The songwriting is less sharp, and the guest appearances underline someone who’s embraced their new celebrity status – it feels as though new father Joel had other priorities in his life rather than music at this time. The album’s also unsure of its identity, trying a bunch of different things – Joel emulates The Police on ‘Running On Ice’, straps on a guitar for ‘A Matter of Trust’, and goes for a retro big band sound on ‘Big Man On Mulberry Street’.
The resulting album is very much a grab-bag, both in terms of style and quality. I enjoy ‘Big Man On Mulberry Street’, which features famous jazz musicians Ron Carter and Michael Brecker. Cyndi Lauper and Steve Winwood both help to elevate their respective songs, while ‘A Matter Of Trust’ is memorable, even though it could have been a little faster.
Joel cites The Bridge as one of his least favourite efforts; it’s certainly a big step down from his previous streak of solid pop-rock albums through the second half of the 1970s and first half of the 1980s.
The Bridge felt like the end of the era, and after a very stable team around him for more than a decade, Joel shook things up for Storm Front. He fired half of his band, including parting ways with long-serving bass player Doug Stegmeyer. Mick Jones, from Foreigner, was enlisted as producer alongside Joel. Jones and Joel give the album a guitar-heavy, AOR sheen that makes Storm Front more dated in retrospect than Joel’s prime work. Like Nylon Curtain, Storm Front is a serious, topical album that addresses issues like the Cold War in ‘Leningrad’ and the plight of local fishermen in ‘The Downeaster Alexa’.
Despite the adult contemporary sheen, half of these songs are strong – ‘The Downeaster Alexa’ is haunting, with Itzhak Perlman’s violin solo. ‘Leningrad’ is an effective story of Cold War reconciliation, centred around Joel’s piano, while ‘And So It Goes’ is a nice, low-key closer, left over from the sessions for An Innocent Man. It’s divisive, but I’ve always enjoyed the single ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ – if nothing else, I appreciate how Joel arranges each year’s events neatly into verses, and it’s a continuation of the Baby Boomer generational themes he explored in earlier work.
‘Shameless’ and ‘State of Grace’ are serviceable songs that are done no favours with the production and song lengths, but it’s generally the more rock-oriented songs that have dated the worst – ‘When In Rome’ is annoying filler, ‘That’s Not Her Style’ doesn’t have a tune, while the title track is unintentionally hilarious with Joel’s bellowing and the dramatic, dated midi guitar solo.
The production doesn’t help, but there are enough good songs here that Storm Front is my favourite of Joel’s albums outside his 1976-1983 prime.
River of Dreams
Like Storm Front, River of Dreams is another po-faced effort from Joel. Instead of focusing on topical issues, it often deals with personal frustration. ‘The Great Wall of China’ and ‘A Minor Variation’ express Joel’s frustration with Frank Weber, his former brother-in-law and manager, whom Joel sued for fraud in 1989. The sound is as slick and sterile as Storm Front, with former James Taylor sideman Danny Kortchmar producing most of the tracks, while Liberty DeVitto only drums on ‘Shades of Grey’.
The first two singles are easily the strongest songs here; the slick sound works well for the gospel-flavoured ‘The River of Dreams’, where Joel uses a pretty falsetto. ‘All About Soul’ has a big triumphant chorus, with its huge-sounding backing vocals. But it’s slim pickings elsewhere – ‘Shades of Grey’ benefits from DeVitto’s dynamism behind the drum kit, and ‘The Great Wall of China’ has a big, memorable chorus.
Despite River of Dreams‘ commercial success, Joel retired from recording pop albums. He’s remained popular as a live act, and has released a classical album, but has never released another album of songs.
Ten Favourite Billy Joel Songs
Summer, Highland Falls
She’s Always A Woman
Sleeping With The Television On
All For Leyna
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
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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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