Billy Joel was a favourite of mine in my sheltered early teens when I listened to radio pop. Like the Eagles, another favourite from the time, he’s a tier two guy who made it to tier one in sales – he’s got some good tunes, and is a talented pianist, but he doesn’t have the artistic vision or innovation to be a major rock artist. His vocal style of dramatically shouting seemingly random lines is often unintentionally amusing; “rock and roller cola wars, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE.” But despite his limitations, his run of albums from 1976’s Turnstiles until 1983’s An Innocent Man is quite strong, despite at least one big clunker on each. Anything outside his golden period should be approached with caution.
While Billy Joel’s commercial breakthrough didn’t come until the following year’s The Stranger, Turnstiles was where he hit his straps. Billy Joel self-produced the album and allowing his touring band to play on the sessions.
The most important improvement, however, is the songwriting; Joel’s work has more of a flavour of his native New York here, even if the album feels influenced by Springsteen’s 1970’s efforts. The 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 classical background shines through in the beautiful baroque-like ‘Summer, Highland Falls’, while ‘Miami 2017’ is one of Joel’s best rockers.
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, so it’s worth hearing if you’re a fan.
Billy Joel in the 1970s:
Cold Spring Harbour (1972) – awkward singer-songwriter album, 3/10
Piano Man (1973) – much better, but it gets over-rated because of the ubiquitous and interminable title track, and the silly drama of ‘Captain Jack’. The best song is the country parody ‘The Ballad of Billy The Kid’. 6/10.
Streetlife Serenade (1974) – includes some instrumentals as Joel was short of material, and has an unfitting west coast vibe, 4.5/10
The Stranger (1977) – this is the Joel album I’ve heard the least, and I don’t remember the second side well. Contains a ton of hits, as well as the fan favourites ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Vienna’. I imagine it’s his strongest 1970’s album overall, at least an 8/10.
52nd Street (1978) – this utilises the same early Springsteen vibe of the two previous albums and takes it in a more jazzy direction. ‘My Life’ is one of his best singles, and ‘Stiletto’ is a great album cut, but some of it also feels slight, 7/10.