Looking back on a most underrated album from the Long Island Piano Man
By the time he released his ninth album, An Innocent Man, on August 8, 1983, Billy Joel was, by every measure, a certified star.
“Piano Man,” the single and the album from which is was spawned had rocketed him to the top of the charts, giving him total freedom to pursue any avenue of his own choosing. It also came at a crucial juncture in his personal life, the recent divorce from his first wife and the renewed opportunity to sow his oats with a succession of supermodels. He made headlines when he began courting Christie Brinkley, marking the beginning of a long romantic relationship that found him pursued by the press and the paparazzi. So, too, his was riding a wave of popularity, courtesy of an unbroken string of super successful albums initiated by the aforementioned Piano Man some ten years before, namely 1976’s Turnstiles, 1977’s The Stranger and 1980’s Glass Houses.
Nonetheless, Joel never forgot his roots. While his earliest efforts — including tenures in the ill-fated hard rock bands The Hassles and Attila, and his initial solo outing, an indie release titled Cold Spring Harbor — had no connection to the seminal influencers that inspired him early on, An Innocent Man provided him with a return to his true roots. Feeling newly liberated, both personally and professionally, he found renewed joy in the musical imprint of his youth, specifically the sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as typified by early R&B, Motown and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “The Longest Time”
As a result, An Innocent Man took its title to heart, courtesy of a concept album that echoed those earlier influences, specifically as they applied to doo-wop, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll. America may have been in a nostalgic mood of its own, given the fact that the album spawned three hit singles and remained a chart staple for nearly two years. It was nominated for both Album of the Year and Best Vocal Performance, but it was up against some tough competition in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to which it ceded both Grammy Awards despite a close call.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “Tell Her About It”
Nevertheless, that didn’t impede the success garnered by its individual songs.. In all, the album was responsible for a remarkable seven singles, with “Tell Her About It” reaching Number One, “Uptown Girl” coming in at Number Three and the title rack grazing the Top Ten. All three held true to the retro sound that originally inspired the album, and yet also managed to keep a connection to a contemporary sound. Considering the fact they were so instantly infectious, it would be hard to imagine how they wouldn’t win the acclaim they were accorded. “The Longest Time,” a song that breached the Top 15, furthered that timeless bond, courtesy of a nostalgic nod to Frankie Lymon and a timelessly soulful sound.
In fact, Joel made it clear that each of the album’s offerings was written with a particular predecessor in mind, be it Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, Ben E King, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, or any number of others. So too, while each track made an emphatic impression, it was that obvious affection that still adds to the overall enjoyment.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “Uptown Girl”
Joel himself said that he was so inspired that the songs came quickly. And while there is more than a hint of real life circumstance infused in the album, especially given the fact that “Uptown Girl” was widely assumed to be about about Christie Brinkley, he also insisted that the subjects of the songs were entirely fictional.
That makes sense. Given his notoriety at the time, Joel was no longer the “Innocent Man” he might have once claimed to be. After all, has there ever been a superstar who wasn’t swayed by attention and adulation?