Thursday, 30 August 2018

Billy Joel

"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

I became aware of Billy Joel in 1973, with his Piano Man single. It seemed, during that period, that a number of UK artists had an American "equivalent" - David Bowie had Lou Reed, The Stones/Mott The Hoople had The New York Dolls and Elton John had Billy Joel. He was very much perceived as the USA's Elton John, serving up piano-backed, thoughtful ballads with a touch of rock here and there.

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.

Cold Spring Harbor (1971)

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.

Piano Man (1973)

Like Elton John, to whom he was often compared, Billy Joel released a low-key first album and then on his second, laid down a bit of a marker. This, Joel’s sophomore effort, from 1973, has flown under the radar for a lot of people, including myself, which is to do it something of a disservice. There are four absolute Joel classics to be found in here, as well as a few underrated gems. 

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.

Next up is the absolutely gorgeous and beautifully romantic You’re My Home. It has a breezy country-ish acoustic finger-picking backing and an endearing vocal, together with a sumptuous bass line. It is one of my favourite Joel songs of all time. Another fine song is next in the grandiose Western pastiche of The Ballad Of Billy The Kid, which starts by detailing the story of the legendary outlaw before bringing it full circle with Joel describing himself. Musically it is full of mock classical, sweeping Western movie-style strings and some great piano. It really is good stuff. Worse Comes To Worst is a great little gem of a song, with a lilting, reggae-style beat and another Paul Simon vibe to it. It is a rarely mentioned song, but I love it. Stop In Nevada is an orchestrated very typically Joel number, featuring lots of melodic ups and downs, lots of strings and, country guitar and, of course, more infectious piano work. Tracks like these really are most underrated. If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You) is an unremarkable piano ballad that brings to mind the ‘filler’ tracks on The Stranger (Everybody Has A Dream) and also Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer (More Than You Deserve and Everything Is Permitted). A similar vibe can be heard on Somewhere Along The Line, although this one has more of a melodic appeal.

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.

Streetlife Serenade (1974)
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 quirky Weekend Song sounds Elton John-Leon Russell-ish and Souvenir is a short, but evocative final vocal ending to what is an often overlooked album. A couple of instrumentals are on here too, leading one to wonder whether he was running a bit low on new songs, or maybe he just wanted to showcase his ivory tinkling skills and prove he was indeed a piano man. In reading up about the album, it was in fact true - he hadn’t had time to write any new material but the record company were pressurising him to get the album completed. Root Beer Rag is certainly a fun workout though. The Mexican Connection is less frantic, more melodic. Although there is no sign that this has been remastered like many of the subsequent albums, I have no problem with the sound. It sounds full and defined. Good enough for me.

Turnstiles (1976)

Arguably Billy Joel’s first great album, often unfairly overshadowed by the multi-million selling The Stranger. It felt on here that he had finally married all the disparate facets, both musically and lyrically, that appeared in patches on previous albums. This one hit the nail on the head. Joel was now beginning to forge an identity as an artist with a Springsteen-esque finger on the pulse of the streets of New York City which was partnered with an innate instinct for a melody and a killer lyric. He could give you moving, sensitive ballads yet he could also rock when necessary. He had returned to his native New York and wrote this album as a kind of celebration of his homecoming. You can really feel this and the result is a far more cohesive, expressive piece of work than its predecessor.

Billy had wanted to write a song for Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. What a song it was too, he out-Spectored Phil Spector on the marvellous, uplifting, saxophone-heaven that is Say Goodbye To Hollywood. Despite Ronnie’s iconic voice, Joel’s version is even better. Joel had always loved The Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby and this song is composed along the same lines, along with those of The Ronettes' Be My Baby. Joel liked to pay a bit of musical homage and he certainly did so here. There are two other great rock songs on here too, the closing, anthemic Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) with its great New York-inspired lyrics and the mighty, piano-introduced Prelude/Angry Young Man, often used since as a worthy concert opener. Both of these show that what a great rock outfit Joel and his excellent band could be, at times.

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.

The Stranger (1977)

Taking much of the New York-themed atmosphere from the previous Turnstiles, this was a wonderful collection of New York Italian and also very clear Long Island-inspired piano-led rock songs, with organ, saxophone and drums to the fore. You feel you are at a table with a red check tablecloth and waiting for your pasta arrabiata. This image, of course, is helped no end by the album’s centrepiece, the magnificent story-telling narrative song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant with its Long Island characters Brenda & Eddie and many musical mood swings. From piano balladry to rocking saxophone and back again. Marvellous. Joel’s A Day In The Life. It also has that extended, street poetry cinematic drama of Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland

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.                           

Highlights are the vibrant. evocative opener Movin' Out (Antony's Song), based around Antony's Long Island neighbourhood and his dreams of getting away for a more exciting life, The Stranger, the afore-mentioned Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, the thoroughly beautiful Vienna, written after a visit to Austria, and the celebratory rock 'n' roll of Only The Good Die Young. Joel had an ability throughout his career of changing the atmosphere from song to song yet still retaining an over-riding feel to an album. The Catholic guilt and ebullient lust of Only The Good Die Young is followed by the tender sensitivity of She's Always A Woman.

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.

52nd Street (1978)

Released in 1978, at the height of punk, following on from the phenomenal worldwide success of the previous year’s The Stranger, this was also a top seller. Joel’s mix of New York street tales against a piano and jazzy brass backing tapped in to the tastes of those for whom punk never happened. I was a punk in 1978, but I still liked this. It seemed to garner all-round respect in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. It certainly did for me and others, if not necessarily from the music media. Yes, Joel was known by some as a balladeer, but he could also rock, and he knew how to summon up the atmosphere of the city streets. New York is the ultimate city for such street romance and on this album Joel moves back from the Long Island vignettes of The Stranger firmly into the big city. The album is absolutely dripping with Big Apple ambience. Furthermore, while I felt in some ways The Stranger was a daytime album, this is very much one for after the cars have turned their headlights on (to paraphrase Joel in Until The Night). 
It was the lead-off single, the catchy, radio-friendly My Life that helped to popularise the album, but it was by no means the standout track. That honour, for me, lay with the Phil Spector meets Bruce Springsteen and The Righteous Brothers on the mighty Until The Night. It has a great atmosphere and a killer chorus, with a superb build up from the verses to those dramatic chorus parts. The bit where Joel sings "as the cars turn their headlights on.." always gives me a bit of a tingle. It is a bit of an overlooked Joel classic, rarely played in concert or on the radio. Also impressive is the Latin-flavoured groove of Rosalinda's Eyes (written by Joel for his mother) and the upbeat, soulful tones of Half A Mile Away and the atmospheric New York bar-room piano jazz of Zanzibar. The latter is just so evocative of New York after dark - street lights, car lights, bars, people. It also owes a pretty big legacy to Steely Dan circa Katy Lied and The Royal Scam. Joel's lyrics are not impenetrable and oblique, however, they concern waitresses, Muhammad Ali and his old man's car. It may sound Steely Dan-esque but it is proper working class everyday ambience enhanced by Joel's knack for a dramatic delivery. Check out that jazzy trumpet solo too.

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.

Glass Houses (1980)
By 1980, Billy Joel had, by putting out three excellent albums, gained record sales and was now getting good concert attendances. Convincing critical kudos, however, was still eluding him and he was now considered a somewhat safe, mainstream artist suitable for playing at low volume on wine bars or hairdressers’ salons. He had garnered a certain amount of respect, but he found that the punks and the new wavers were considered far more credible than him, something that apparently infuriated him and his one-time amateur boxer’s fighting spikiness came to the fore on this, his most edgy and “rock” album.

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.

A glass smashing sound introduces the jangly Beatles-Byrds-style riff of the infectious rock of You May Be Right. “I walked through Bedford Stuy alone” proclaims a pugnacious Joel, referring to Brooklyn’s dodgy (now gentrified, apparently) Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. This track has always been a favourite of mine. Its pounding drums and blues harmonica ending makes it one of Joel’s rockingest numbers to date. This sound is continued on the new wave thump of Sometimes A Fantasy. If a group like The Police or The Knack had done this, it would have been hailed as a great single. Like many new wave bands, Joel had an ear for a melody developed from way back and this stood him in good stead as he launched his own brand of power pop.

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 cafĂ© 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 NightSo, 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)
After two critically-acclaimed albums in The Stranger and 52nd Street, the somewhat patchy Glass Houses in 1980 began something of a fallow period for Billy Joel. This album, from 1982, was, in my opinion, his most inaccessible, introspective album. 

Over 35 years on, and I still can’t really get into it. That is also acknowledging that it contains two bona fide Joel classics in Allentown, about the declining US steel industry, and the monumental, evocative Goodnight Saigon, about the horrors of the Vietnam War. This track sits completely at variance with the rest of the album, however. I am really not sure what it is doing there. I find the other tracks very up and down, to be honest. Laura is a cynical, almost miserable John Lennon-esque tirade against a former lover; Pressure is a lot better, a synthesiser dominated (but in a good way) pounding, insistent number. She's Right On Time is a Beatles-ish (certainly the chorus) acceptable number, but it is nowhere near the standard of earlier material. Not at all. Nevertheless, I quite like it. A Room Of Our Own just seems a lazy rocker. Again, it sounds like filler from a mid 1970s Wings album, which people would forgive because it was Paul McCartney. The middle bit (about a tin of sardines) is such a Lennon plagiarism, both musically and lyrically it is untrue. 

Then there is the Run For Your Life similarity. In trying to sound like Lennon and McCartney, Billy just seems to have lost his mojo here. Some people seem quite happy with his channelling his “inner Beatles”, however, it must be said. Why, he even sported a McCartney Let It Be style beard too. Surprises just gets nowhere for me. Again, there are tinges of The Beatles in it. I can’t really explain why this album just can't reach me. I am at a loss really. I own every Billy Joel album and can listen to them all every now and again and enjoy them. Not this one. I will continue to plough through it for the sake of this review. Scandinavian Skies is Joel’s Revolution 9 (comparatively - considering his previous material). It is a pretentious, discordant mishmash of God knows what. Bizarre lyrics based loosely around a tour to Sweden. Lennon impersonations, Walrus orchestration, funny background noises, classical stylings. My oh my, it is truly awful. Unlistenable (at times). I realise, of course, that this is just my personal opinion. Some people love this and feel it is one of his most adventurous, ground-breaking compositions. Probably the best thing to do is download it and see what you think. Many would completely disagree with me. Funnily enough, I find sometimes it strangely compelling and find myself listening to it every now and again. Maybe that is its strength. Therein is the quandary within this album.

Even some pleasant saxophone cannot save the moribund Where's The Orchestra. Sorry, this album just doesn't do it for me. Some see it as Joel's Sgt Pepper. Joel himself says it is the best thing he ever did. Who am I to argue? Give it a chance, I guess. Every couple of years I do. I refuse to completely write it off. Maybe someday the penny will drop. Oh, and the remastered sound is truly fantastic. Big, full and punchy. Pressure sounds particularly impressive.

An Innocent Man (1983)

After 1982's somewhat controversial and questionably patchy release in The Nylon Curtain, where Billy Joel tried, with varying results, to channel his inner John Lennon, he was back, two years later, trying to evoke the vibe of the doo-wop era of the late 50s-early 60s, in particular Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.
It was a far more commercially successful and accessible album than its often introspective, angry and, at times, plain weird predecessor. Kicking off with the upbeat and harmonious Stax-y Easy Money, we then get a real Joel classic in the sad yearnings of An Innocent Man, with is beautiful vocal. The Longest Time is one of the most "doo-wop" of the tracks, great harmonies abound and a killer chorus, while This Night sees Joel stealing a riff from Beethoven, so to speak, for the chorus. Tell Her About It is a more down and dirty, slightly blues-influenced upbeat rocker.

Uptown Girl sees Joel in full rich girl-poor guy mode and doing his best Frankie Valli falsetto. Unsurprisingly, it was a huge number one hit. Below is a still from the accompanying garage-set video. Yes, I know, it has a certain ludicrous look to it. Look at those expressions! Careless Talk is a fifties-influenced slower rock 'n' roll number, while Christie Lee goes into full saxophone-driven rock 'n' roll. Leave A Tender Moment Alone is a romantic "slowie" with an appealing harmonica solo from guest blower Toots Thielemans.

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.

The Bridge (1986)
Like its title suggests, this is something of a bridging album for Billy Joel, after the huge commercial success of An Innocent Man and its multiple hit singles from two years earlier and Storm Front from three years later. It has great memories of 1986 for me.

Joel produced a much less commercial album here and in many ways it is the better for it. It is a pretty credible effort, to be fair. There is no obvious hit single on here, although the riffy rocker that was A Matter Of Trust was a middling hit. There are two wonderful, sweeping romantic numbers on the album - the lovely, evocative This Is The Time with its instant build up chorus and Temptation, a number that sees Joel's deep, alluring and melodic voice on top form. He just has such a way of producing a real, catchy hook to a song that maybe slow in its build up but has that tuneful drama in its chorus. Both of these have that to the max. Running On Ice is a frantic, piano-driven rocker to kick things off with another glorious hook. All good stuff. This is actually one of my favourite Billy Joel albums.

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.

Storm Front (1989)
Three years after The Bridge, 1989’s Storm Front was probably Billy Joel’s last decent album. Indeed, the patchy River Of Dreams was the only subsequent release before his muse deserted him and he seemed to go into semi-retirement and undertake to occasional tour and no more.

This album featured quite a few rock tracks - the heavy-ish chugging opener, That's Not Her Style; the pop rock of I Go To Extremes; the horn-driven soulful rock of When In Rome; the rock ballad Shameless and the powerful, clunky Storm Front. All very upbeat, on the whole, and energetic. Then, of course, there is the unique and extremely appealing We Didn't Start The Fire, featuring name checks from the fifties onwards of politicians, singers, cultural figures and mentions of various notable incidents. All of this over a frantic rock beat. A classic hit single and a track Billy Joel will long be remembered for. I have friends who are not Joel fans in any way, yet they love that song.

The archetypal Joel melodic, attractive, meaningful ballads included here are the tremendously evocative Leningrad - about a US-Russian friendship during the bleak cold war years - and the haunting The Downeaster Alexa, a moving song about the fishing industry. There is also And So It Goes, a quiet, piano-driven ballad that closes the album and State Of Grace, a mid-paced musical and enjoyable number with an addictive hook, the sort of song that Billy Joel has done so well over the years. Overall, a highly competent album. The musicianship is high quality as indeed in the sound on this latest remastering.

River Of Dreams (1993)
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.


  1. I don't know. I'm a New York City Italian (or at least I was until age 22), but Billy Joel was from Long Island. And not the part that people consider part of New York City. Nevertheless me and a lot of people liked him because of all those New York songs. Most of my favorites by him are not those ones though. My favorites are My Life, Sometimes a fantasy, Don't Ask Me Why and actually some of the early ones like Captain Jack. One of my favorites is the instrumental Mexican Connection. I think it's the nicest music he ever came up with. I never really liked much of the later stuff except for River of Dreams and his cover of Carole King's Hey Girl, which is the best version ever I think.

  2. Yes, I know Billy (like Candy) was from 'out on the island' but, for me, and you too it seems, he is such a New York artist. The same applies to Springsteen's early work in places (his romantic 'street' songs), even though he is from Noo Joisey.

    I love Billy's New York characters - Mr. Cacciatore etc.

    I love 'Captain Jack' too - one of my all-time favourite underrated Billy Joel songs. Summer, Highland Falls is lovely too.

    I remember getting off the subway at Bedford-Stuyvesant once and walking around just to say that I had 'walked through Bedford Stuy alone' as in "You May Be Right'.

    1. You couldn't pay me enough to get off the train at Bed-Stuy. Not in a million years.

  3. I think his peak is 1976-1983 - Glass Houses and Nylon Curtain are two of his best for me. He did deviate from his core style ("New York Italian Restaurant vibe" is a good description) but there are lots of great songs. Sleeping With The Television on and Surprises are really good deep cuts.

  4. I've always had a weakness for All For Leyna from Glass Houses and I really love Allentown, but, as my review says, I could never get into the rest of The Nylon Curtain. It was an odd creation.

    52nd Street is probably my favourite of his albums.