A Long Island boy sequestered Upstate remembers Billy Joel’s Storm Front at 30
There was only one Billy Joel album to come out within my four years in high school up there in the deepest red region of Ulster County, NY.
Originally released on October 25, 1989, Storm Front was the Piano Man’s ninth and penultimate pop LP. And for this native child of the Hicksville-East Meadow-Levittown netherworld of Nassau County–Ground Zero for many of the songs in Joel’s catalog–to these ears it was an album that played like a letter home as I entered the throes of my sophomore year.
Nobody listened to Billy Joel like I did up in Wallkill during those halcyon days of ’89, amidst the thick of the rising Daisy Age of hip-hop and the increased rumblings of an alternative rock market on the verge of explosion with hair metal on the downstroke. But there was something about Storm Front and the way by which Joel–who had turned 40 that year–offers us prose on his Island origins with a detailed sense of reflection not heard since The Stranger, albeit from the perspective of a new dad on the cusp of middle age. For you Youngbloods reading, this was his Father of the Bride so to speak.
Storm Front might be most known for its two biggest hits–“We Didn’t Start The Fire”, a hyper infectious Boomer-centric send up of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”, and “Shameless,” a country soul burner so good Garth Brooks couldn’t even fuck it up.
However, deeper into these 10 tracks you will discover some of the most arresting and underrated compositions in his frustratingly stunted catalog (I know you got another classic in you, man!). Listening to songs like Style and Rome, both for the first time in a damn long time, one can clearly hear the more pronounced influence of Steely Dan and Randy Newman on his output at the time, exhibiting a sophisticated muscularity that made so many of these old AOR guys’ “return to form” efforts of the era, from New York to Flowers in the Dirt to Oh Mercy to Steel Wheels. But then you get to the title cut and Billy just blows all of his aforementioned contemporaries clean out the water. Storm Front’s other big single “I Go to Extremes” is full-on Angry Young MaxexZvezdan Billy Joel soaring with a force I can’t quite attribute to anything in his csnon. I need to ask the Internet how much he breaks out this song during his Garden residency but it’s not enough.
Yet the two songs that truly, deeply signify Billy Joel the Long Islander are “The Downeaster Alexa” and “Leningrad.”
Coming off like he heard an early version of Sting’s The Soul Cages, “The Downeaster Alexa”–famously named after his now-33-year-old daughter, singer Alexa Ray Joel–is the closest thing Billy ever came to a proper sea chanty. However, the song itself forewarns of the commercial sprawl and corporate domineering that continue to affect the lives of lifelong local fisherman out on the end of the Island. But the one line–“There ain’t no Island left for Islanders like me”–still cuts so deep 30 years later, especially for someone from Joel’s area of Nassau County. Just this year, they knocked down the old Zorn’s building, the Empress Diner went out of business and the beloved Harvest Diner in Westbury suffered a devastating fire. Listening to that lyric in 2019 takes on a whole new weight.
“Leningrad” was penned by Joel in the similar way he wrote “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” in the way by which he sings of a friend he made in Russia when he famously played St. Petersburg in 1987–a man who was forced to join the Red Army in the Lenin years but got the last laugh by becoming a circus clown. Joel parallels the man Viktor’s tale with his own upbringing as a child of the Red Scare here in the States.
Again, there’s one couplet in this song listening to it all these years later that stopped me in my tracks.
“The children lived in Levittown
Hid in the shelters underground”
My grandfather built one of those shelters back behind the main house. I remember it was disguised as a little house my uncle and mom had used as a playroom when they were kids, and of course when I came around it was like my little castle. I had all my toys in there and hung out on the little porch my grandpa made coming off the doorstep. It also had a trapdoor on the floor with stairs going down, and one of the only times my grandpa ever put the true fear of God in me was when he forbid me to never go down there. To this day I have no clue what my family’s bomb shelter looked like.
Storm Front doesn’t get much mention when music critics in other publications decide to write about the career of Billy Joel. Regardless, it deserves to be hailed as arguably his best album of the 80s after Glass Houses.
Again, I’m very grateful I got to be a high school student when this record came out.
Yea, I certainly ditched Billy Joel shortly thereafter upon discovering The Cure, Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction, Public Enemy and Fugazi as my music tastes evolved beyond AOR as my sophomore year stepped into 1990. And it had been a long time since I sat through the entriety of Storm Front before I broke it out again for this story. But listening to this album again at 46, it felt like hearing from a dear old friend after all these years.
If you are a true school Billy Joel fan (haters please STFU), do yourself a favor and return to Storm Front and remember why this cat needs to make one more record.
Or, at the very least Bill, make a live album from the Storm Front tour available.
AUDIO: Billy Joel Storm Front (full album)