Inside a Piano Man’s most political album
Billy Joel is, as of this writing, the 22nd-bestselling recording artist of all time.
That huge distinction isn’t necessarily surprising. Joel’s music is diverse and ubiquitous: ask ten people to name three of his songs, and count how many different answers you get. But he’s still kind of an anomaly in his fellow bestsellers’ company. He isn’t an iconic, arena-igniting band like Queen or Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones. He isn’t a pop avatar so sensational he transcends his own humanity, like Michael Jackson or Elvis, Madonna or Beyoncé. He’s neither a genre phenomenon like Garth Brooks or Kanye West, nor a nature-defying vocalist like Whitney Houston or Céline Dion. He’s a regular guy – and no matter how snazzy a show he still puts on at Madison Square Garden, he looks and acts more like one every year.
His closest cousin in the top 25 of this list is his erstwhile pal Elton John, often linked with Joel by dint of the sixteen years they spent touring together. But they only really resemble each other in the picture they cut onstage: portly balls of energy, seated in front of grand pianos. The year Elton John ruled pop – 1974 – Joel’s “Piano Man” was making waves. Avowedly autobiographical, wearing its heart trendily on its sleeve, the song still had a sense of calculated craft closer to John’s singles than the dour ruminations of James Taylor, or the unprepossessing sunshine-folk of John Denver. Joel had a congenital sense of his obligations as “The Entertainer”, and for a second, it seemed like he could beat John at his own game.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “Allentown”
Like John, Joel had a rich vocabulary of styles drawn from a voraciously assembled record collection, and a keen ear for the kind of melodies that could make Paul McCartney look up from his carrot and turnip mash. Like John, Joel made up for not exactly being a looker (short and bug-eyed, with a mug roughened up from a long stint boxing) with an arresting, second-nature stage presence. But where John thrived on artifice – his gift for pastiche, his outlandish costumes, or the way his music barreled over the numerous deficiencies of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics – Joel could never keep his own awkward heart off his sleeve.
Unlike his singer-songwriter peers, Joel liked sarcasm, a bit of spice amid the sugar. But he had no gift for irony, and when he felt incisive – which usually meant unconscionably cocky – he’d let his voice slip into an unbecoming growl. And though this writer may be calling the kettle black, Joel sometimes had a tendency toward overcomplicated verbiage. Google the lyrics to “Summer, Highland Falls”, and marvel how effectively Joel fashioned it into such an emotionally communicative piece. Part of the joy of a great Billy Joel song is the tension between how he perceives he’s coming across and the impartial reality.
So though he was hardly unique, Joel came on like an odd man out. Maybe that helped keep him under the radar for those first few years. Joel’s first good album, 1976’s Turnstiles, which heralded his goodbye to Hollywood and a resurfacing New York state of mind, showed strengthening identity, but it flopped. He retained enough clout to both interview and turn down George Martin for the make-or-break follow-up’s production slot, though his rationale is one of many reasons to like him: he refused to cut his new songs without his touring band. Yet someone that savvy was needed to apply some slick pixie dust to the increasingly hot stuff Joel was writing. He settled on Phil Ramone, who’d just helped Paul Simon into a huge Grammy sweep. Ramone would produce Joel’s next seven albums – his very own George Martin.
Both Ramone’s sure hand, which fleshed out the details of Joel’s now-harder-edged sound, and his trusty band, which brought both that sound and its singer to life, consolidated a winning approach which had previously proven elusive. The Stranger dropped in 1977 (the year Elton’s long-held grip on the charts finally slipped), boasting a Thriller quotient of killer hooks. Ezra Koenig once offered a different pick for Joel’s kindred spirit, calling him “the East Coast Elvis Costello.” And while Joel’s own relationship with pop history, language, and himself is rather different than the Other Elvis’, the pair’s concurrent breakout albums share an unlikely-punk insolence – the sound of non-threatening types coming into their own by getting a little snotty. In The Stranger’s perfected context, Joel’s wit and assurance exploded into fruition. His attitude seduced you into believing he was born to be a star.
He was such an inexhaustible fount of ideas that when the sequel (52nd Street) arrived, it was no mere retread. But even the threat of a holding pattern was making Joel restless. He’d made his name with a consummately ‘70s album in the year of the Sex Pistols, and like Costello, he’d always fancied himself punk-adjacent. Retro as he was, he wasn’t going to get caught acting like a dinosaur. So in 1980, he went new wave – just like Linda Ronstadt – with Glass Houses. Its stylistic shifts were still pretty synthetic; opener “You May Be Right” was like the Clash as reimagined by Sha Na Na. But in an era when best-selling acts were bloating up for the arenas, Joel was paring his music down where he needed to – the spare guitar groove and dry double-tracked vocal of “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me” is universally juicy.
He still wasn’t an original, but he was sticking to his own terms, and by 1982, his vision was expanding. Rich at 33, Joel had won time to brood, and he had things to say. Never very political, he’d still spotted insidious wrinkles in the Reagan era’s smiling face. Meanwhile, pop music was in a strange transitional phase. Punk had long dissolved into arty post-punk or arty “new pop”, or scampered out to California, caterwauling out of garages. Disco’s machine love had infiltrated R&B, and its beat was making waves in a heating-up little category called hip-hop. In the middle were awful arena-rock bands (Foreigner, Styx, REO Speedwagon), and seminal, category-defiant outfits like the Police or the Go-Gos. At the end of the year, Thriller would drop, and usher in the sound of ‘80s radio. Billy Joel fit into none of these spaces. In ’82, he wanted to make his Darkness on the Edge of Town – and he wanted it to sound like Sgt. Pepper.
Hence, The Nylon Curtain, Joel’s attempt at a Big Statement. That part of the concept remains faint – Storm Front has just as many “issues songs” – but it’s also his most Beatlesque album, and therein lies its strength. Beatles fans often play a game where they assign themselves a Beatle, like self-administering a Buzzfeed quiz. Joel is a born Paul – technically surefooted, lyrically shallow, blessed with more brilliant melodies than he seems to deserve. Yet one suspects he thinks of himself as a John, in his apparent preference for the sardonic over the sweet. The best thing about Curtain is the way Joel leans into John, narrowing his voice into an evocation, and filtering it with a slight slapback just like Lennon’s solo LPs. Many of the songs recall John at his most rococo, with the surreal smears of strings over “Scandinavian Skies” the least ambiguous homage. Lennon had barely been dead two years by the album’s release.
That said, Curtain’s putative “socially conscious” approach yields some wins. “Allentown”, a blue-collar plaint painted with winningly soft brushstrokes, is one of Joel’s finest. It establishes the album’s sound after a steam whistle crows – the piano foregrounded, the vocal reverb-free and depersonalized. Joel often spoke in interviews for the album about his concern over the fading American dream, this new sense that one could no longer get “at least as far as their old man got”. “Allentown” is where he most plainly concentrates this subject. For an artist with little gift for subtlety, the song has it in spades. Its melody is one of Joel’s most seductive, one of his least assertive hooks. It’s strategic. He finds a winding path along a magic stream of notes, particularly at the extended vowels with which he ends lines.
His lyrical details work better than they have in older songs – “our mothers in the USO/asked them to dance, danced with them slow”, or the union people crawling away-ay-ay-ay. Somehow, the whole thing averts the high-minded tone of so much “protest rock”, even Springsteen’s. Joel’s steel-worker narrator is nothing if not bemused, and his climactic admission of fatigue is brilliant – “it’s hard to keep a good man down/but I won’t be getting up today-ay-ay-ay…”. The bridge is – aptly? – a little workmanlike; dig Joel’s clumsily inverted syllables on “UH-mer-ICK-can”. But the way it explicates the song’s point is so rousing. Joel is often sassy, but it’s striking to hear him get sassy about how lousy America can be.
Then the ballyhooed concept “Allentown” introduces quickly vanishes: Song no. 2 is about an Exasperating Woman, a tried-and-true male pop subject. What exactly is going on with “Laura” is never adequately clarified – she calls a lot, and the narrator doesn’t like it – but the great prize (other than the sensuous melody, which takes a “Sexy Sadie” tribute to stunning levels) is Joel cursing for the only time on record. The way he wraps his mouth around the word “fucking” in “I feel like a FUCKing fool”, as if he’s never said it before in his life, is almost as delightful as the cascades of background harmonies (“IF I DON’T CARE AHHHH-ahhh…”). Similar treasures are to be found in the stark, aggressive hit “Pressure”, from its wildly ornate synthesizer ostinatos to the near-non sequiturs with which Joel unpacks the very topical subject of feeling frustrated: “all your life is Channel 13/Sesame Street/WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”
VIDEO: Billy Joel “Pressure”
And then everything quiets, and choppers descend over the seven stately minutes of The Nylon Curtain’s most pointed song: “Goodnight Saigon”, a Vietnam epic which decisively predates the late-eighties American prestige movies that first critically revisited the conflict (and were decried as “too soon” even then). Joel’s heavy hand lands light here, surveying a calm-between-storms jungle scene, gradually filling in the details with instrumental colors. The narrator finds a voice between reverence and resignation, and because the tone of the album is so edgy and indirect, the picture we get is genuinely, but never explicitly, unsettling. You can’t show violence on the radio, but while the echoed “NIGHT-NIGHT-NIGHT” bits or the male choir gimmick on the chorus don’t instantly sound like non-bad ideas, they heighten the tension. It’s a soft, sweet record full of bayonets and ghosts, and it honors the war’s victims without ever honoring its rationale. As strange hit pop singles go, it feels like a victory within the system.
Joel meant the dryly generic cover art for Curtain to resemble a supermarket hardcover novel. Perhaps the vaguer lyrics of the second side are his attempt at the sort of fiction so emotionally dramatic it gets you really thinking about the world. “She’s Right on Time”, sung in a throaty, pseudo-Ray Charles voice Joel often deployed for one song per album, is a gem – a she’s-coming-home song just haunting enough to fit in but ultimately the most positive thing on the album. “A Room of Our Own”, conversely, is the album’s lowlight. It suffers from an indifferent melody, something Joel occasionally fell victim to when he was deliberately trying to turn out a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll song, and abstruse words, something Joel frequently fell victim to when he was trying to wax philosophic about decaying relationships.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “Goodnight Saigon”
Then comes the beguiling “Surprises”, a very deep cut, on which Joel approximates those passages of Sgt. Pepper’s lyrics where the singers become involuted and paranoid. It’s a less acrobatic melody than “Allentown”, and a more sedate saunter through spectacular chords than “Laura”, but also a worthy companion to both, a captivating little mystery. The hazy sense of encroaching terror continues through “Scandinavian Skies”, a song about an airplane trip that sounds like a bad acid trip, and apparently was inspired by a bad acid trip on an airplane trip. It dissolves into a waking nightmare, like the orchestral ascension in “A Day in the Life” stretched out into its own song. By the reassuring, clarinet-adorned “Where’s the Orchestra”, we aren’t sure if we’re listening to a blue-collar guy who had to save up a long time for this disappointing evening out, or a pop star so depressed he can’t remember where he is.
This was an anticlimax, but Joel was never so genuinely disconsolate-sounding on an album before – so moody and introverted he occasionally forgot to try to communicate some straightforward image you could hang your hat on, like he typically did in songs. Some internal unrest seems to have spurred him to play with out-of-time sounds to get difficult-to-describe effects, more than on any other record he ever made. He later called The Nylon Curtain his favorite of all his albums, judging exclusively by the sonic achievement. And indeed, it’s the sort of experience that really draws you in between headphones. And there’s a discomfort stirringly palpable in the album’s vocals, his most restrained and honest-feeling performance to date. That discomfort, however authentic, was soon to be met halfway by reality.
Later that year, Joel was struck by an errant driver, and thrown from his motorcycle. A pianist’s hands are as much a part of their instrument as the piano itself, and there was some concern if even the top-line surgeons Billy could afford could rescue his. They did. This close call happened in the midst of an arduous separation from his wife and longtime manager Elizabeth Weber. By keying his new music to a theme of national discontent and ennui, Joel was able to exorcise some of these bad feelings on The Nylon Curtain. It wasn’t a smash, but it nestled in at a fair number seven on the charts – just under Joe Jackson’s Night and Day, on which Joe, as if returning a favor from Glass Houses, was trying to be Billy Joel.
Billy bounced back quickly with his sunniest, most careful album to date: An Innocent Man, on which he applied his usual verbal and emotional quirks to a template of flashy, uplifting old R&B (and Italo-rock, and doo-wop) simulations. Those styles weren’t experiencing any major kind of revival at that particular moment; the choice was a clear, personal labor of love. But songs like “The Longest Time” and “Tell Her About it” were irresistible, undeniable good-time music, and they led to a resurgence of interest – as well as investment, which meant access to the cutting-edge technology abused on many an ‘80s album. Joel got even more topical and cynical on his next (and last) three albums than he ever did on The Nylon Curtain, but all of them suffer from ugly production concessions, and are harder to hear as they age.
Given An Innocent Man, The Nylon Curtain wasn’t the last time Joel would go for a sound nowhere to be found in contemporary music to get his heart and soul across. But it’s the last time on an album where he went for a comprehensively challenging sonic profile. That he got a pair of alluring left-wing barbs on the radio in the process is beautiful, and the anxiety he sheds vocally and lyrically is spooky and well-turned.
It’s a reminder that however big this big shot got – however many records put him just above Justin Bieber in the artists-with-the-most-list – it wasn’t because he was always looking to sell out.
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