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Pissing off the Taste Police with Billy Joel

September 2nd, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Billy Joel is the big kahuna in the Pissing off the Taste Police stakes. I’ve copped hideous abuse for confessing my love for some of the music of Billy Joel, without embarrassment (because apologising for enjoying certain music is for losers). Oh, I can see why people might hate Billy Joel’s music, or even the man. “River Of Dreams” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire” are appalling and should never be heard again. When I say I like Billy Joel, I’m talking about his golden years, stretching from Turnstiles (1976) to Songs In The Attic (1981), with the patchy Piano Man (1973) and 1982’s The Nylon Curtain (and perhaps some of An Innocent Man from 1983) bookending that phase (and ignoring 1974’s Streetlife Serenade, except for its fine title track). And even then, there are some tracks that leave our man open to abuse: the overplayed “Just The Way You Are”, for example, or almost all of 1980’s rubbish Glass Houses. And yet, there is so much that Joel’s haters tend to overlook, even those who might grudgingly allow that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is not a bad song.

Billy Joel – She’s Always A Woman.mp3
On Side 2 of The Stranger, the tender melody belies the bitter hurt this manipulative, indecisive bitch has caused poor, needy Billy. “And she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden, and then she carelessly cuts you and laughs while you’re bleeding. But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be. Blame it all on yourself, ‘cause she’s always a woman to me”. This is a love song with a sharp edge, quite unlike the cheesily romantic sentiments of karaoke favourite “Just The Way You Are”.

Billy Joel – Summer, Highland Falls.mp3
Easily Billy Joel’s finest three minutes. From the lovely piano intro and the powerful yet subtle drumming to the poetically resigned lyrics that hint at bipolarism (“it’s either sadness or euphoria”), this deceptively simple song has a depth that is often overlooked. Listen to it closely, this is the best thing Billy Joel has ever done. This is the live version from the magnificent Songs In The Attic album; a set of lesser-known Joel songs re-recorded live because our man wasn’t happy with the original productions. The original appears on Turnstiles.

Billy Joel – New York State Of Mind.mp3
From Turnstiles, this is Billy Joel’s stab at creating an American standard. And he succeeds admirably. Had it be written by Hoagy Carmichael, it would rightly be placed alongside the great American standards. The fact that it has not attained such a reputation can be attributed to the low level of critical esteem Billy Joel enjoys. But what a mighty song it is, complemented by a restrained arrangement and a terrific vocal performance. I like to hear this song being performed Tom Waits, slowed down a bit with a lounge arrangement. That would be stupendous.

Billy Joel – Captain Jack.mp3
The original on Piano Man was musically quite unremarkable. Given the big rock treatment on Songs In The Attic, this is a powerful song. Another track about alienation, this one about “you”, a bored waster from a wealthy family looking forward to a fix of heroin, to emotionally wrecked to give much of a fuck about the death of his father. As Joel addresses “you”, we get to know the character, and fully agree with Joel’s vicious delivery and wish drummer Liberty DeVitto’s brutality would be directed not at the inanimate drumkit, but at “you”. Sample lyric: “And if you can’t understand why your world is so dead, why you’ve got to keep in style and feed your head; well you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed. And that’s too long” (and at this point DeVitto goes really medieval on the drumkits’ ass). How sweet that in 1980 concert crowds would still cheer for the use of the word “masturbate”.

Billy Joel – Rosalinda’s Eyes.mp3
Forget the Latin stereotypes of the lyrics, and listen to the melody, held together by the jazzy, rhythmic acoustic guitar. The flute interlude is quite enchanting. And hear the line “Oh Havana, I’ve been searching for you everywhere”: Billy Joel knew how to phrase a line. From 52nd Street, this song apparently references his mother, Rosalind, through the eyes of his father (or something).

Billy Joel – Allentown.mp3
Billy Joel getting as close to fellow New Jersey preacher Bruce Springsteen as he ever did, if not musically then lyrically. “Allentown”is a scathing lament about the disillusionment of the American Dream in the industrial age, the broken promises to Everyman: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found, for the promises our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all…” The lyrics are as incisive as Joel ever got, and the melody is a pretty good, too. Imagine “Allentown” slowed down and played acoustically, it could be a Woody Guthrie song. The rest of The Nylon Curtain (1982) was rather a hit-and-miss affair.

Thanks to Anonymous’ comment, I’ve become aware of the connection between the family of Billy Joel and that of retail giants Neckermann, whose grandfather basically stole the business from Joel’s grandfather. Story here.

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  1. Freg
    September 2nd, 2007 at 21:57 | #1

    Ho ho ho,i guess i’m not a member of the taste police, then? I love Captain Jack and Allentown and a whole heap of other Billy Joel songs — mind you, there are a few i’m not that keen on, but that doesn’t mean i dismiss him as an artist.Hey, even John Lennon wrote some dogs

  2. Anonymous
    September 3rd, 2007 at 11:39 | #2

    Hi Dude,being German (like me) did you know that Billy Joels family owned a very big departmend store in Nürnberg before 1933. During the nazi-years the company was “arisiert” and a former employee called Josef Neckermann (every German knows this name!) took over. I saw a documentary on german television a few years ago about the first meeting between the grandchildren of Neckermann and Billy Joel and his sister. The Joel Family were lucky to have escaped to New York, but the company was never given back to them after the war. Billy Joel was the first of the family ever to meet someone from the Neckermann clan. It was a very tense athmosphere there and very interesting film.

  3. Any major dude with half a heart
    September 3rd, 2007 at 15:06 | #3

    That is fascinating. Thanks, anonymous. I’ll link to something in this post.

  4. Beth
    September 5th, 2007 at 14:41 | #4

    I like ‘Captain Jack’, but I used to blush when the masturbating came up….I think I just blushed then when I typed it…’James’ is good too, and I think I’d still enjoy ‘Streetlife Serenader’and ‘Angry Young Man’ but it’s been a while since I’ve heard them.

  5. Grumpies
    September 5th, 2007 at 16:03 | #5

    How can anyone not like Billy Joel?! Just look at all the songs this man has written. You turn on any oldies or classic rock station, listen to it for 20 minutes, and you’ll hear a Billy Joel, and you’ll be singing along, and you’ll know all the words, too.

  6. rip
    September 6th, 2007 at 08:58 | #6

    “Vienna” has really held up well IMHO. The dissonent cabaret intro, mature lyrics, a great chorus and an accordian break that fits perfectly.

  7. Beth
    September 6th, 2007 at 19:09 | #7

    Oh, yes! I’d forgotten about Vienna! ‘Slow down you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenille…’ I love that!!

  8. jeffen
    September 8th, 2007 at 14:31 | #8

    When I compile my list of Greatest List Songs “We Didn’t Start the Fire is going to be number two. So if we’re going to give Billy a wee bit of respect we can admit that he had bright moments in the dreaded 80’s as well.http://musicruinedmylife.blogspot.com/

  9. Anonymous
    September 14th, 2007 at 18:13 | #9

    Ah ha! Glad there’s support for ‘Vienna’ – one of the best songs off his greatest album, notwithstanding its commercial success which the Taste Police generally find annoying.

  10. MR. HALL
    September 23rd, 2007 at 06:58 | #10

    there’s just no way to completely dislike Billy Joel. Allentown makes me forgive just about anything he’s done, even We Didn’t Start The Fire.

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