Billy Joel: 10 of the best

Pop’s original young fogey has mastered many styles, but at his heart there has always been sentiment and tartness. Here are 10 of his classics

1 Captain Jack

Billy Joel’s earlier grabs for fame hadn’t played out well. First he hooked up with the Echoes, who became the Emeralds and then the Lost Souls, exiting to join the Hassles, a Long Island R&B group who already had a recording deal. After two dismally selling albums, Joel bailed the Hassles in 1970 to become one half of Attila, a heavy-rock drums’n’keyboards duo who sounded like In Rock-era Deep Purple if they’d locked Ritchie Blackmore out of the studio. Attila were similarly ill-fated, though it wasn’t just “musical differences” that spelt their doom – Joel had pinched his bandmate’s wife, later marrying her. Overcome by the emotional turmoil, Joel attempted suicide by guzzling furniture polish; this too failed. Done with bands, Joel then recast himself as a solo performer and singer/songwriter; but if you think this is where his luck changes, think again. His debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, released in 1971, was mastered at the wrong speed, and upon hearing weird chipmunk tones where his vocals should have been, Joel ran into the street and hurled the vinyl into the air with anger. Cold Spring Harbor was not a hit.
Billy Joel had lived plenty before he tasted success, which perhaps explains the jaundiced and downbeat tenor of many of his greatest lyrics. Sometimes – often – he sounds like a young fogey, as on Captain Jack, an acid, hilarious and despairing take on the drug scene. Inspired by a dealer who operated in the housing project across from Joel’s Long Island apartment, Captain Jack takes aim at suburban teens suckered in by the “glamour” of the Village scene, staring “at the junkies and the closet queens/It’s like some pornographic magazine”, a withering portrait of losers sitting at home, getting high and masturbating, concluding “Well, you’re 21 and your mother still makes your bed” (Joel was himself only 22 when he wrote the song). With the failure of Cold Spring Harbor and all that preceded it still ringing in his ears, in April 1972 Joel cut a rousing, spiteful version of the still-unrecorded Captain Jack during a live session for Philadelphia radio station WMMR, which subsequently became their most requested track, and led directly to a new deal with Columbia Records. “Philadelphia has always been really good to me, something I can’t say about many other cities,” a typically cranky Joel told journalist John Kalodner of this turn of fate.

2 Piano Man

Newly signed to Columbia, Joel traded life in the Big Apple for a six-month stint playing standards and taking requests in a Los Angeles drinking den, transforming himself into a barfly pianist/philosopher with a neat line in lachrymose ragtime. Piano Man was the result of this sojourn. Joel’s signature tune, Piano Man comes on like a dark twist on the theme to Cheers, with Joel as the long-suffering pianist who doesn’t just know every patron’s name, but also their hang-ups, their frustrations, their broken dreams – everything that keeps them a regular. Still only 24 when the track surfaced, Joel already seems a master of midlife ennui and regret, summing up each drunk’s problem in a line or two: the barman who reckons he could’ve been a movie star, the workaholic crippled by loneliness, the navy man who’ll never know another life. It’s as sentimental as it’s sharp, with a maudlin chorus that posits Joel as the magician who leaves them “feeling alright” (though there’s enough nuance there to question how straight he means that line). But as the Dylanesque wheeze of the harmonica wails in, and the soused melody reaches a stomp, and Joel sings that “the piano sounds like a carnival/And the microphone smells like a beer”, Piano Man expertly conjures a very real mood and a place, one from which, to his relief, Joel would soon escape.

3 Prelude/Angry Young Man

With his fourth album, Turnstiles, Joel invited his touring group the Billy Joel Band – an adept group of sessioneers from his Long Island home, whose flexibility enabled every stylistic whim Joel would indulge through his platinum era – into the studio with him for the first time. With Joel hammering piano keys as hard and fast as Eddie Van Halen ever tapped his frets, the polished, turn-on-a-die mood-swings of Prelude put the group through their paces early on, a virtuoso overture that can’t decide if it wants to be Vince Guaraldi’s droll score for the Peanuts cartoons or a barrelhouse version of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Fanfare for the Common Man, and is fine with that. Prelude then segues into Angry Young Man, as stinging and cynical a song as Joel ever wrote, his puckeringly sour lyrics making fun of the titular activist, admitting a little grudging admiration with the line “His honour is pure and his courage, as well/ And he’s fair and he’s true …”, but answering it with “… and he’s boring as hell!” Even if your nature typically finds you siding with life’s angry young men, there’s an acerbic glee to Joel’s spiel that’s as infectious as the tune’s busy shuffle, though the supremely curmudgeonly middle-eight displays a smug self-satisfaction on Joel’s part – particularly the lines “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage/ I found that just surviving was a noble fight” – that’s a little hard to stomach.

4 New York State of Mind

Turnstiles also saw this native New Yorker ditch the sunshine of California for his beloved Big Apple, celebrating the move with this sleepy-eyed, jazzy paean to a city that was, at that exact moment, either crumbling into dust from neglect or burning to the ground in a spate of landlord-approved arson attacks. It makes total sense that grumbly Joel would prefer sleazy, dirty mid-70s New York to the opulent paradise of the west coast, and on New York State of Mind he croaks like an only-slightly-less-somnambulant Leon Redbone in praise of … Well, that’s the odd thing about New York State of Mind: Joel doesn’t actually spell out New York’s attraction for him any clearer than “It comes down to reality”. Otherwise, the song is a litany of reasons why other, more pleasant locations couldn’t hold his interest: He’s been “high in the Rockies”, he’s “seen all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines”; still, he’d rather ride the Greyhound bus – a mode of transport exclusively patronised by the insane and the homicidal – back to “Chinatown or on Riverside”, to “the rhythm and blues”. That’s Billy Joel all over – a downhome putz who’d willingly ditch the glitz of Beverly Hills for somewhere he could get the New York Daily News on day of publication. The muggy, slow saunter of the music, meanwhile – and its sophisticated-with-a-capital-S saxophone solo in particular – suggest a uniquely adult flavour of pop that’s redolent of the era.

5 Scenes From an Italian Restaurant

“A bottle of white, a bottle of red/ Perhaps a bottle of rosé instead,” run the opening lines to this amiably bonkers highlight from 1977’s smash hit album The Stranger, which went platinum 10 times over. One of the few tracks off the album not to be released as a single, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant was an ambitious multi-part epic, inspired by the B-side of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, stitching together several song fragments and vignettes, with enough charisma to make this Frankenstein’s monster succeed. It opens with two old friends reminiscing at the neighbourhood Italian hostelry (specifically, either Christiano’s in Long Island, or Fontana di Trevi across from Carnegie Hall, depending on which Joel interview you believe), before a grand instrumental section scored by a richly romantic clarinet solo announces a trip into the past, and we’re transported to a yesteryear of wild teenage nights, blue jeans and greasers, and the ill-starred love affair between Brenda and Eddie, a prom king and queen who never quite negotiate the transition to successful adulthood. It’s a delicious exercise in storytelling, and as the innocence of youth evaporates with Brenda and Eddie’s inevitable divorce, and Joel observes, “you can never go back there again”, it is even quite touching. Then the song returns to the friends reminiscing, to the seductive clarinet motif, to that bottle of red or bottle of white, and you think, well, we’ll always have that Italian restaurant, even if the cold beer, hot lights and romantic teenage nights are long gone.

6 The Stranger

From its understatedly in-the-pocket groove, to the needling, double-tracked guitar hook, to Joel’s sardonic lip-curl on the verses, to the soulful, high-register harmonies on the chorus, the title track to The Stranger recalls nothing more than Royal Scam-era Steely Dan. Dan leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were fellow New Yorkers, though their milieu was typically more highbrow, less blue-collar than Joel’s. Still, The Stranger shares that duo’s sometimes cynical and paranoid approach to relationships, Joel singing about the sides of ourselves we hide from the world – the “stranger” – and how, if we can hide our darkest parts from those we love, they could also be hiding a stranger from us, inside themselves. The song delivers this message with considerably more panache than the album sleeve – a black-and-white shot of Joel curled up on his bed, gazing down at a mask – but the general public had no problem with the album’s art direction, buying more than 10m copies and rendering The Stranger a commercial peak Joel would never best.

7 Don’t Ask Me Why

As he moved on from the piano balladry that had characterised much of his earlier material, Joel happened upon a breezy, amiable pop voice that delivered a slew of singles whose peppy, glib style suggested perfect theme tunes for American sitcoms. Indeed, his 1978 smash My Life was used by early 80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, which starred a pre-fame Tom Hanks, though the melody’s smarmy lilt is soured by Joel’s most unpleasantly crotchety lyric to date (“Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone,” he croons, like a grouchy neighbour barking at youngsters on his lawn). Better was Don’t Ask Me Why, from 1980’s Glass Houses. A Balearic shuffle imagining the most middle-of-the-road flavour of Cuban groove possible, the Latin flourish that butts in for the bridge is just one dippy twist of this most likeable confection. You sense that Billy Joel was firing off gems like this in his sleep at this point in his career, though the charm of Don’t Ask My Why never feels like an artist on autopilot.

8 Goodnight Saigon

By 1982, Joel was a huge star, but serious critical respect eluded him, and that continued slight rankled him. The Nylon Curtain, his album of that year, was his most serious and ambitious to date. It was (and remains) his best, an impressive and complex suite; any of its nine songs could belong on this list – and I’m pained to exclude Allentown (an affecting reading of hardship in the Reagan era) and the psychedelic chill of Scandinavian Skies in particular. But the album’s best moment came with Goodnight Saigon’s account of life and death during the Vietnam war. Joel, a conscientious objector during the war, had considered escaping to Canada to evade the bloodshed, but a high draft number meant he was never called to battle. Some of his friends weren’t so lucky, and those who came home again urged Joel to write a song based upon their experiences of the war. This perhaps explains the veracity of Goodnight Saigon, penned from the perspective of young draftees and following their path from basic training to the battlefield. The details illuminate an experience that had yet to be explored by movies such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket and the rest, of young boys smoking hash and listening to the Doors and watching Bob Hope cavort with Playboy bunnies in the countdown to their probable annihilation. Joel’s poetic lyrics – the best he’d ever write – unspool a haunting narrative: “We came in spastic, like tameless horses/ We left in plastic, as numbered corpses” And if the rousing chorus – “We said we’d all go down together”, sung by a choir of gruff voices – feels a little hokey in isolation, in context of the bleak tragedy of the verses (especially the closing lines of the final verse: “They heard the hum of our motors/ They counted the rotors/And waited for us to arrive”), it is truly affecting.

9 Laura

In his influential essay in praise of Billy Joel, Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink (the title a line from Don’t Ask Me Why), the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman identified a Beatlesque ambition to The Nylon Curtain, arguing that “Laura and Where’s the Orchestra really are as good as most of what’s on The White Album.” There’s more than a degree of Lennonesque rancour and spite to Laura, Joel at the manipulative whim of the neurotic titular femme. Over thranging Taxman guitar chords and reverb-sharpened piano, Joel rails at the woman who calls him at all hours, “slamming her doors in my face” while he’s “fighting her wars”, spitting at one moment, with a peal of startled self-recognition, “Here I am/ Feel like a fucking fool”. When he’s not sounding off at her, he’s beating himself up for letting her get to him - “Every time I think I’m off the hook/ She makes me lose my cool”, “I should be immunised to all of her tricks” – but by the end he’s rationalising their dysfunctional give-and-take, asking “How do you hang up on someone who needs you that bad?” It sounds like the worst romantic relationship of all time; although Joel equivocated over the inspiration for Laura, he later intimated to Klosterman that it might possibly have been his mother, and in this context the line “How can she hold an umbilical cord for so long?” seems a proper Freudian slip.

10 An Innocent Man

The Nylon Curtain sold 2m copies in the US - a disappointment for a sales powerhouse like Joel. His next album was unabashedly commercial, albeit also decidedly from the heart, a set of homages to the music of his teenage years. The songs on An Innocent Man doff their caps toward Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (Uptown Girl), street corner doo-wop (The Longest Time), Smokey Robinson’s gleaming balladry (Leave a Tender Moment) and the breathless, upbeat stomp of classic Motown (Tell Her About It), but Joel’s skill as a songwriter ensures these tracks transcend pastiche, delivering great pop instead. The album’s title track took its inspiration from Ben E King and the Drifters, and the opening bass-line helps establish a solemn, hushed vibe akin to Stand By Me, though Joel’s keening, aching vocal also suggests the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody. There’s something sweetly heroic about how Joel begs not to be held to account for the crimes of his girl’s previous lovers – “I know you’re only protecting yourself/ I know you’re thinking of somebody else” – and on An Innocent Man he sings with an earnestness and honesty light-years away from the sharp cynicism of his early material, an ebullience perhaps explained by his hooking up with supermodel Christie Brinkley, the Uptown Girl herself, shortly before penning the love songs that would compose the album. Joel later confessed that as he sang the chorus’s gymnastic melody, he realised he would soon lose the ability to hit such high notes. Certainly, An Innocent Man was a last burst of pop brilliance from an artist whose subsequent output never again grazed such heights.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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