"I told them, 'To hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records, and you don't need a high school diploma over there'" - Billy Joel
Personally, I properly got into him with the "52nd Street" album in 1978, which inspired me to buy "The Stranger" too. Despite being preoccupied with punk and new wave at the time, this sharp, cool New Yorker appealed to me in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. He was more than just a balladeer - he had a knack for an atmospheric lyric and he merged it with a tough, streetwise persona too. He had a knowledge of music history as well, reflected in many of his recordings. There was always a down to earth honesty about Joel, together with a bit of wit that made him and his music an attractive prospect. The best material comes from the 1974-1978 period, a time where he just personifies that whole New York Italian restaurant vibe.
This was Billy Joel's debut album, a long-forgotten offering from 1971, a bit like Elton John's Empty Sky. It is worthy of attention more for its hints of potential as opposed to anything incredibly memorable. It's a nice little album, though, without digging up any trees.
What a beautiful song to start a recording career with, however - She's Got A Way is simply lovely. One of Joel's great romantic ballads. Yes, the production is a bit rudimentary, as is the slightly un-honed vocal delivery but there is no keeping this song down.
The gently pleasant AOR sound of You Can Make Me Free is similarly a bit of a diamond in the raw. Once again Joel's voice is a bit dodgy, sounding weakly McCartney-esque and at a much higher pitch than it would be a few years later. There is potential there, though, mainly in the lyrics and melody. Joel manages to sound like both McCartney and Lennon right at the end of the song.
The album's second embryonic Joel classic is the upbeat liveliness of Everybody Loves You Now, which went on to be often played live. "Between you and me and the Staten Island ferry" was one of Joel's first big New York lines and the song also has a lovely, rubbery bass line along with its rollicking, rolling piano cadences. Why Judy Why is a slow acoustic and bass ballad with more echoes of McCartney. It sounds as if it should be on The White Album. Billy makes his piano keys tinkle and roll on the very early seventies-ish Falling Of The Rain. It sounds as if Joel is taking country, folky rock and giving it his own piano man touch. The piano is superb on this, I have to say. Turn Around is an Elton John-influenced piano ballad, once again full of typical Joel ear for a melody. You could really hear his potential here if not quite his execution. You Look So Good To Me is a jaunty little number and again there is a McCartney-esque carefree feeling to the song.
Tomorrow Is Today is a lovely, sensitive piano ballad while Nocturne, a piano instrumental, shows Joel's classical training off well. The album closes with the quite ballad Got To Begin Again. The second half of the album was rather low key and Joel had yet to create the dramatic atmospheres and characterisation that would make many of his later songs so popular, but this was a gentle and warm beginning.
Travellin’ Prayer is a deliciously shuffling number, featuring some catchy piano, lively drumming and rubbery bass parts and a sort of country meets Paul Simon feel about it. There is also some fine fiddle and barroom piano too. It is actually a very un-Billy Joel number. It even goes funky right at the end before some more hoedown fiddle finishes off one of Joel’s most unique songs. We are on more familiar ground with the now iconic Piano Man, a track that drips with Joel-esque lyrical snd melodic atmosphere. It is part German bierkeller singalong, part Elton John piano ballad, part Parisian accordion-backed sad song and I never tire of it. The chunky mid-pace piano-driven rock of Ain’t No Crime is very Elton John-influenced, with Joel sounding very like him on both the vocals and the clunky piano chops. Nice saxophone at the end too.
If these last two tracks were a little underwhelming, the sane certainly cannot be said for the mighty take of suburban drug abuse that is Captain Jack. It is a big, multi-verse power ballad, full of hard-hitting pathos (if that is not too oxymoronic). You really feel the stultifying despair of the young man featured in the song and I have loved the song for its bristling atmosphere and characterisation for many years now.
Joel does a stonking live version of the song on his Songs From The Attic album too. It is one of the great seventies drug songs and it brought Joel to many people’s attention as a songwriter who could come up with something very special. "Your sister's gone out, she's on a date, you just sit at home and masturbate". We've all been there, Billy. Weird cover though.
Billy Joel was not quite the finished product here in 1974, but with each consecutive album release, the quality got better and better. This is another step along the way. Joel was in that “grandiose rock ballad” groove at this time, and the first two tracks, Streetlife Serenader with its strong piano, ballady vocals, pounding drums and the slightly funky Los Angelenos with its great drum sound are fine examples of that and lyrically strong too. Incidentally, both appear in good live versions on the live Songs In The Attic album. The Great Suburban Showdown is a typical Joel song in both lyrics and delivery, backed by a country-style steel guitar and delivered against a fetching melody. Nice organ break too. Roberta is a touching, rather unique song about a prostitute.
The standout track is, of course, The Entertainer, where Joel muses on how his latest album will end up in the discount bin “like another can of beans” and moans about his big hit Piano Man being cut down to 3.05 at the behest of the record company in search of a chart hit. Often a world-weary cynical side to many of Joel’s lyrics. Last Of The Big Time Spenders would not have sounded out of place on 1977’s The Stranger.
The sensitive balladeer is found on the simply beautiful, short but sweet Summer, Highland Falls, one of my favourite Joel songs ever - “they say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known”. It is chock full of gentle atmosphere. James is also a lovely, thoughtful, tender song to an old schoolfriend and I've Loved These Days is a slightly tongue-in-cheek mock celebratory but strangely yearning piece of nostalgia for the decadence of an era that has barely ended. The slightly Latin-influenced All I Wanna Do Is Dance echoes the same sentiments, with its question "why don't The Beatles get back together". Then, of course, there is the iconic New York State Of Mind. Forget Sinatra’s New York New York, this has to be the greatest of all NYC songs. Full to the brim with images of the Big Apple against its melodic piano backing and Joel’s soulful voice. One of his finest moments. Do not underestimate this album in comparison with others. It is up there among Joel’s best.
Those New York-greater New York references abound in much of this album - either directly as in Long Island's Sullivan Street neighbourhood or in it’s characters - Antony, Mama Leone, Mr. Cacciatore, Brenda & Eddie, Virginia. Even Joel’s whistling at the beginning and end of the title track and the end of the album (a repeated coda to the album) is like the whistling of a waiter clearing the tables after lunch. Somehow I see this as a “New York in daytime album” as opposed to an evening one. Maybe that’s just how I visualise it. Lunch time in Little Italy, or maybe in a quiet Long Island local trattoria. Thinking about, it, maybe the latter. while Turnstiles had been a New York album, this can be seen very much as a suburban one from the Island.
The standard chart-friendly romance of Just The Way You Are (covered successfully by Barry White) is not out of place (although Joel always thought it was - he never really liked the song, apparently), neither is the beautiful, yearning She's Always A Woman. However, Get It Right The First Time seems a little superfluous, slightly lacking the sheer chutzpah of all that preceded it. This slight dip in quality at the album's end is continued on the final track, which is a strange inclusion, an old track from 1971 called Everybody Has A Dream. There was no real need for this one in my opinion. It sits a bit oddly with the others, although it is redeemed by the piano and whistling reprise of The Stranger at the end. It is quite strange with this album, though, in that because I am so familiar with it, and it is so good, that I find I can't write so much about it. I have written almost as much about The Nylon Curtain, for example, yet that is a vastly inferior album, for me. The live material on CD 2 of the deluxe edition is excellent, both in sound and musical quality. The album is remastered perfectly too. Highly recommended. Amazingly, Columbia Records would have dropped Joel had this album not sold. They needn't have worried. It sold by the bucketful.
Stiletto is a suitably pointed little number, both lyrically and musically, with Joel having a pop at a prickly girlfriend backed by some loose jazzy piano breaks, while Honesty is just a typical Joel heartfelt but periodically dramatic ballad of the sort he always had in him and Big Shot sees Joel in New York Italian mode, putting down someone who has got above his-herself - “you got the Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose”. Joel’s songs, while often thought to be just romantic, often betray a hard, street-wise edge. He often puts down the wealthy drug-addled indulgent culture. The jazzy, piano-driven 52nd Street is a short, almost half-song to finish off this assured album and leaves you wanting more, not that one's appetite hasn't been sated, however. This was the last of three truly excellent Joel albums, maybe his best three. They certainly nailed his reputation for years to come. His arena-filling popularity started here.
A fair few artists channelled their inner punk-new wave traits around this time - The Rolling Stones, Queen, Elton John, Ian Hunter to name a few and Joel seemed to be wanting to prove that he too could do edgy, short, sharp rock and new wavey nostalgic pastiches. He left behind the Springsteen-esque street scenes and characters of the earlier albums too. The approach here was more minimalist, both musically and lyrically. Oddly, though, in the same period, previously punk groups like The Ramones, The Jam and The Clash were desperately trying to diversify and show just how “un-punk” they could be.
The old McCartney-esque balladeer instincts haven’t left him completely, however, and they are used here to the max on the breezy, tuneful Don’t Ask Me Why. The big hit from the album was the infectious, singalong It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me. Again, many new wave acts were releasing retrospective material like this and being hailed for it. Look, Joel was a songsmith and a melodian. He didn’t need to prove anything and he duly got a big hit with this. His concept of punk-new wave was still so beautifully hook-laden, though, that however more ostensibly aggressive the album was, the very skills and talents that had got him this far were still apparent. You can’t keep a good songwriter down.
A personal favourite has always been the melodramatic, ABBA-esque All For Leyna (listen to that Ulvaeus-influenced piano intro). it is a punchy but tuneful piece of melodious but spiky rock. It was a minor hit and deservedly so. I Don’t Want To Be Alone is a deceptively appealing number with real hints of Joe Jackson’s 1979-80 material in it, for me. It has a vaguely white reggae groove to it with a sumptuous bass line too. It is possibly the most new wave number on the album. Sleeping With The Television On has some nice guitar riffs, big drums and yet again, some killer hooks. Once more, there is something Joe Jackson-ish here. All very thin tie and sharp suits. C’Etait Toi (You Were The One) changes the mood as Joel sings at times in French over a jaunty French café accordion-driven backing. Nothing angry or confrontational about this. The riffiness returns on the next one with the chunky rock of Close To The Borderline which has Joel sounded ever so slightly like Robert Plant in places. The album closes with the laid-back McCartney-style strains of Through The Long Night. So, yes, he may have been clad in a leather jacket on the front cover, smashing a glass window, and a new wave thin tie and blazer on the back but Joel didn’t really prove himself a punk. He was far too fond of a melody and a killer couplet for that. His efforts to prove a point resulted in a highly enjoyable album, nevertheless.
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The album ends with one of its most attractive songs in Keeping The Faith - an evocative throwback to the fifties Joel grew up in with all sorts of contemporary cultural references thrown in. Yes, The Nylon Curtain takes much longer to get into, but this album is far more instant, and, consequently a bit more disposable. A bit like Born In The USA, Brothers In Arms or Thriller. I have to admit I listen to other Billy Joel albums a lot more. Not to denigrate it, though, it is a good one.
Billy doesn't neglect his beloved jazzy blues either and his duet with Ray Charles on Baby Grand is bluesy, soulful and pretty magnificent, to be honest. Big Man On Mulberry Street (pictured here from the turn of the 20th century) has Billy revisiting his old New York haunts, something which guarantees and atmospheric song. It merges big band punch, jazzy vocals, brass riffs and a New York urban soundscape. An impressive cornerstone of the album. Modern Woman is an upbeat, slightly cynical, slightly witty take on strong contemporary women who give the singer the runaround, while the slightly staccato, shuffling Code Of Silence features Cyndi Lauper on vocals with Joel. Getting Closer is another of those slow songs with a killer hook on its refrain. Joel was just the master of those sort of instantly recognisable songs at the time. I prefer this album to An Innocent Man. Another good one.
In 1993 Billy Joel suddenly called a halt on his recording-songwriting career. He still occasionally tours, singing his material from 1972-1993, but since 1993 he has not released an album. He seemed to suddenly lose interest and also his muse. Fair enough, if he felt he hadn't got it in him, or hadn't got the desire then that was a fine, honest decision on his part.
This was an album that subsequently didn't get much of my attention, which is probably a bit of a shame, as it is not a bad album at all and a fair swansong. No Man's Land is a crashing rock number to open with, with a bit of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions keyboard-drum sound, particularly at the beginning. It is a lyrically cynical song about big business and high-level corruption. The Great Wall Of China is a shuffling, powerful number, pretty typical of Joel's later material, full of power and purpose and appealing vocal delivery. Once again, the lyrics are realist and questioning. There is some great guitar soloing half way through from veteran Danny Kortchmar and Joel's voice is commanding and melodic throughout. It is a bit of a hidden Joel classic.
Blonde Over Blue has an attractive drum rhythm and another world-weary lyric. Joel's vocal is good, as are the synthesiser backing passages. Its appeal is not as instant as much of his earlier material, but a few listens and it gets there. A Minor Variation is a muscular, slow-paced but strong bluesy thumper of a number. It features a vibrant horn section. Joel could always deliver a bluesy vocal and he does just that here. Shades Of Grey is an ebullient, infectious song with Joel sounding committed and enthusiastic, as he sings two men's parts as they address each other. All About Soul is one of the last Joel classics which features an absolutely killer, uplifting chorus that makes one remember just what a great artist Billy Joel was, what an ear for a tune he had and what a great voice too. I talk about him in the past tense because his career is now in the past, even though he is alive and well at 70 in 2019. Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) is a tender piano ballad to one of his three daughters. Sometimes songs like this can be quite mawkish (John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart are all guilty), but I have to say that this one is quite delightful.
The final Joel classic is to be found in the doo-wop glory of The River Of Dreams and its addictive harmonies behind Joel's falsetto vocal. He cuts loose on the piano too - like the true piano man he is. The clip below shows him, backed by a large gospel choir, delivering a great performance of the song at the Grammy awards. Two Thousand Years is a big, grandiose, anthemic ballad. There is something Elton John-ish about it. The final track is a sad but musically uplifting one in Famous Last Words. "These are the last words I have to say..." sings Billy over an attractive rhythm and piano melody. This is a really good song and a fine one for Billy Joel to bow out on. Hey Billy - thanks, man.