Steve Taylor-Bryant is an old man making love to his tonic and gin as he discusses the piano man himself, Billy Joel...
I'm not sure why I'm laughed at so much for being a Billy Joel fan? You know he's one of the biggest selling musical stars of all time, right? You know that, despite not releasing an album of original material for two decades, he still sells out stadium shows, right? You know he is breaking attendance records for Madison Square Garden, right? Oh. You didn't know that? Yes folks, Mr. Joel is quite the legend. It seems in some quarters that he is only remembered for Uptown Girl and Tell Her About It, whilst some of you have also heard of Piano Man, but Billy Joel's back catalogue is much more impressive than that. So forgive me whilst I look at every album, tell you the best songs on each, all whilst reciting every lyric in We Didn't Start The Fire, in order! Yes I'm that kind of fan.
November 1st 1971 saw Billy's album debut with Cold Spring Harbor, which remarkably charted higher in the UK than in his homeland. Whilst CSH doesn't contain as many stand out tracks as future albums would, it's still essential listening and one of my favourite love songs She's Got A Way is track one. Almost two years to the day later and now on the more recognisable Columbia label came possibly Billy Joel’s most important album. This was the break that started it all. This was Piano Man. The title track was Billy telling stories of what it was like being a piano player in bars and clubs whilst he was waiting for his big break and it’s this personal, observational style that I think most fans love him for. Obviously Piano Man is a great track but the album also contains Captain Jack which is superb, the beautiful You're My Home, The Ballad of Billy the Kid and Travellin' Prayer, made famous twenty years later when Dolly Parton's cover won a Grammy. Joel was beginning to find his feet, just starting to get through, with his piano based almost musical theatre pop. Don't forget this was the height of glam rock and the start of punk so he was as far removed from the popular genres as you could get at the time but was still chipping away at fame.
What arrived a year later was strange. Streetlife Serenade is really not my favourite album. It has maybe two tracks on it I'll listen to, Last of the Big Time Spenders and The Entertainer, and was the first Joel project to be roundly criticised by fans and journalists alike. The lyrics of The Entertainer didn't help his relationship with the record companies either due to his criticism within it at how they treat his songs.
"It was a beautiful song but it ran too long.
If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit.
So they cut it down to 3:05"
That and comments about the lack of commercial success leading to bargain bins showed a side of Joel that wasn't for everyone but the album was possibly his most important as it meant that, to carry on, to be that success, things had to change. After Streetlife Serenade Billy Joel left California and returned to the familiar surroundings of his native New York and the famous group of musicians that would become the back bone of the Billy Joel band was put together for the next album - Turnstiles.
Turnstiles didn't contain one weak song. Whilst it only spawned two singles, any one of the tracks could have been released and, in my opinion, charted well. Some of my favourite live tracks come from Turnstiles and my love affair with the drumming of Liberty Devitto also began here, although this would also be the album that years later led to Devitto suing Joel for uncredited royalties. Say Goodbye to Hollywood, Summer Highland Falls and New York State of Mind all come from Turnstiles as does the epic Prelude/Angry Young Man, one of my favourite listens and a song I return to time and time again as well as possibly my favourite to play live.
Then came 1977 and the first album that I think all fans and critics agree is probably his most consistent and, despite my obvious love for Turnstiles, I have to agree the level of writing and production on The Stranger was far superior to any other Joel release up to that time. The album would go on to be possibly the most important record in the Billy Joel discography as it became the backbone of the Movin' Out musical about life in America for a group of friends growing up in Long Island. Anthony, one of the main characters, is from the first track Anthony's Song (Movin' Out) and my all time favourite track, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, introduced Brenda and Eddy. Other notable tracks are the title song, Just The Way You Are, and the incredible She's Always a Woman which is a very clever twist on a love song. A year later came actual commercial success with Billy Joel's first Billboard Number 1 album and double Grammy winning 52nd Street (the first album made commercially available on compact disc by parent company Sony in the 1980's) and a slight change in style. 52nd Street contained much more jazzy hooks and trumpet than previously heard on Joel records and, with decent releases like Big Shot, Joel's rock n roll influences were more prominent.
The rock n roll feel carried over into Joel's seventh release in early 1980, Glass Houses, and saw his first Number 1 single on the Billboard Chart with It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me. I remember reading an article in the late 90's that said Joel had changed to a harder edge in his vocals in response to the punk movement but if, you've ever seen Joel live, you'll know his rasping New York drawl was always there but with Glass Houses it just wasn't toned down in production. The number 1 single was a good entry to the decade for Joel but I still prefer You May Be Right and Don't Ask Me Why. 1982 saw The Nylon Curtain released and some of the darker life stories in Joel's repertoire were contained within. The death of manufacturing, and its effects on a community in Allentown, and the story of life as young men going off to war in Vietnam in the beautifully haunting Goodnight Saigon were just incredible. Fantastic use of lyrics and beautiful arrangements from a band that proved they could do the epic as well as the pop tune.
1983 saw the first album I ever purchased with my pocket money. I was nearly nine years old but so wrapped up in Billy Joel thanks to my parents that it was the obvious choice to begin my record collection with. The album sprung seven singles and beautiful song after beautiful song, as well as the two I consider his worst and yet the two everybody remembers with Uptown Girl and Tell Her About It. If you ignore those choices and explore An Innocent Man album you'll find superb songs everywhere. The title track that shows Joel's vocal range, This Night, Easy Money, the a capella The Longest Time, Keeping The Faith and the song about future wife Christie that is actually not an assault on my musical taste in Christie Lee. An Innocent Man was a homage to all that had come before and all that had inspired Billy Joel - Beethoven, Wilson Pickett, Doo-Wop bands and British Invasion rock n roll. The album was a brilliant listen, launched Joel into superstar status and spawned the tour that was to become my first live experience of Billy Joel, so it's in my DNA to love it despite Uptown Girl.
The Bridge came next and was a different experience for me. In fact it's only years later I actually began to appreciate the record. Gone was the hit after hit style of An Innocent Man and back was a mixture of styles and a bit of Joel's hatred of recording contracts. Listening back now though as an adult, I can't help but like the tracks and especially those with the guest stars Steve Winwood, the always incredible Ray Charles and the voice that defined the 1980's for me, Cyndi Lauper. The stylistic changes made the record feel a bit like the end of an era and, in researching the release, I begin to see it was. The last production from Phil Ramone. The last record with Billy Joel Band stalwarts Doug Stegmeyer and Russell Javors. The last release that had to carry the Family Production label as part of the cast iron contract Joel had signed with Artie Ripp before Columbia had come knocking and it’s Ripp that Joel aims his vitriol at. Big Man on Mulberry Street and Baby Grand aside, Joel sounds tired and fed up and it sounds like it could be the last album unless something happens in Joel's life to reinvigorate him.
That life experience came in the form of a trip to Russia as one of the first western musicians during the Cold War era to play behind the Iron Curtain. The tour in the Eastern Bloc was an eye opener for Joel and both his world view and personal view became prominent in what I consider his finest album. Storm Front was Joel reflecting. I Go To Extremes was Joel examining his own life and his mood swings, The Downeaster 'Alexa' was Joel's commentary of how hard life had become for the Long Island fishermen he knew during his youth, the wonderful, sad and yet beautiful Leningrad is about how his life compares to that of Viktor, a Russian entertainer his family had met on tour, And So It Goes was originally a poem Joel had written at the end of a failed relationship and then came We Didn't Start the Fire, a look back at the history of the Twentieth Century that Joel had lived up to that point starting in the year of his birth, 1949. It was a clever look at history, a lyrical reminder of the intense era of our modern history and a chance for the singer who originally wanted to be a history teacher to basically and poetically show off and cause many a drunken karaoke mistake. Not by me you understand, I can recite the song perfectly no matter what my state of mind. Storm Front was an epic release that covered much human behaviour in a palatable way and is by far my favourite album and one I return to time and again.
Then came the final release of new and original song material. Fantasies and Delusions, a classical release that showcases Joel's composition skills and various live albums and compilations would follow but the songwriting and recording ended with the almost experimental River of Dreams. Multiple producers, a shakeup of the band and inclusion of session musicians that upset some of the more loyal following and some quite angry writing made River of Dreams a Marmite album. You either got it and liked it or you didn't. It's not an album that’s easy to flick in and out of and not as comfortable to keep returning to as a Storm Front but I really do like it. Yes, I was a bit moody when my drumming hero Liberty Devitto was benched for a few tracks but put my own personal grievances aside and it's quite the songwriting project. The Bridge, a few years earlier, had sounded tired and that the journey may be coming to an end but River of Dreams sounds like the goodbye it is. Stitched up for millions by a family member turned manager, problems with friendships, massive trust issues and cracks beginning to appear in Joel's ability to love all made for some intense writing, darker and different to the moaning commentary on previous albums, this was more a 'see what you've all done to me? I'm off' release. An angry shot across the bows at those who had hurt him and some punishment for himself for allowing it and yet rewarding for the fans with some absolute gems in the songs. Personally I dislike the title track but the rest of the album is brilliant. No Man's Land, Shades of Grey, Famous Last Words and Blonde Over Blue are all brilliant but nothing on the album quite matches The Great Wall of China for pure musical enjoyment and, if my brother in law had embezzled millions from me, I can only hope I'd write about it rather than go to the prison for a violent act. Countering the intensity and the anger is a brilliant and gorgeous song Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel) written for his daughter and showing where his future priorities would lie.
Whichever your favourite release, whether you aren't as familiar as you should be with the back catalogue, I promise you there is something for everyone contained within in it. All together now...
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray,
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio,
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television,
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe...
Images - Amazon