Monday, November 16, 2015

Billy Joel

Billy Joel circa 1977

I always feel bad calling Billy Joel one of my "guilty pleasures"...he's one of the most commercially and critically successful songwriters and musicians of the past fifty years and has written countless hit songs. Perhaps I shouldn't call him a "guilty pleasure" and instead say that he's one of my favorite musicians who most people who know me would be surprised I'm such a big fan of given when compared to everything else I listen to. But really, it should make perfect sense: he's a fantastic piano player, songwriter, singer, and can write hooks with the best of them (and as anyway who knows me know, I am and always have been a sucker for a well crafted song with an infectious hook). Over the course of his active career, Billy Joel released album after album full of great songs and became one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the 1970s and 1980s before retiring from popular music in the mid 1990s.






William Martin Joel was born in 1949 in Oyster Bay, Long Island to a German immigrant concert pianist and an English immigrant mother. He had a troubled childhood, with his parents divorcing in the mid 1950s and his father moving to Vienna, Austria. Reluctantly forced into classical piano lessons at a young age, Joel was captivated, as so many millions of others were, by the Beatles when he saw them on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 and decided to drop out of high school in order to pursue a career in music full time. After playing on several demos and sessions with a few small-time groups, he joined a local band called The Hassles who released two albums. Following that, in 1970 he formed a short-lived heavy metal duo called Atilla with former Hassles drummer Jon Small. The duo released one unsuccessful album and split up when Joel's affair with Small's wife Elizabeth was revealed. She broke it off with both of them and, distraught, Joel attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish (in his own words, "it looked tastier than bleach"). Surviving the attempt to take his own life, Elizabeth reconciled with Joel and they eventually married.





Signing a terribly lopsided contract with a label called Family Productions, he released his debut album Cold Spring Harbor in 1971. The album sold poorly, much of it due to the mastering being too fast and the songs and vocals being too high-pitched, something which wasn't corrected until many years later. Realizing he'd been ripped off, Joel managed to sign with Columbia Records, who bought out his contract with Family. His second album, Piano Man, was his commercial breakthrough, led by the title track as well as underground radio stations in the northeast (especially in Philadelphia) playing the album's closing track, "Captain Jack." Relocating to Los Angeles, his follow-up album, Streetlife Serenade, is an underrated and overlooked one in his discography. Without any immediate hit singles apart from "The Entertainer," it's a bit darker and more melancholy, with tracks such as the title song, "Los Angelenos," "The Great Suburban Showdown," "Roberta," and the instrumental piano workout "Root Beer Rag" as definite highlights. Homesick for New York City, Joel moved back for good and his next album, Turnstiles, reflected his happiness at being home. Songs like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "New York State of Mind," and "Miami 2017 (I've Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" reflect this, and are among the highlights of the album, as well as the classic "Prelude/Angry Young Man." By this point, Joel had a steady band behind him that would last for the next fifteen years and solidify his sound both in the studio and live on stage.




1977 saw the release of The Stranger, Joel's commercial and critical breakthrough album and the work that is still considered his magnum opus. The Stranger was packed with classic songs...almost the entire album has been in regular rotation on the radio since its release, with such songs as the title track, "Movin' Out," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Only the Good Die Young," "Just the Way You Are," "She's Always a Woman," and "Vienna" as classics. This album would also mark the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with producer Phil Ramone, who would produce all of Joel's albums up to and including 1986's The Bridge. The following albums 52nd Street ("My Life," "Big Shot," "Zanzibar"), Glass Houses ("You May Be Right," "Sometimes a Fantasy"), The Nylon Curtain ("Allentown," "Pressure," "Goodnight Saigon," "Laura") and his homage to 1950s and 1960s pop, An Innocent Man ("Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," "Tell Her About It") continued a ridiculously strong run of albums and songs. It wasn't just the singles that were great...numerous album cuts were as good, or in some cases better than, the radio hits. There was a bit of a drop-off from here: 1986's The Bridge was very good but not great, but still had some excellent songs ("A Matter of Trust," "This is the Time") as did Joel's final two albums. 1989's Storm Front contained the hits "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "I Go to Extremes" while his final album, 1993's River of Dreams, had the title track and "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)" as highlights. At this point, Joel decided to retire from writing and recording popular music, a surprising decision for someone of his talents. Since then, he's focused on writing classical piano pieces and has continued touring, both with his own band and in tandem with Elton John, playing his hits and entertaining millions of fans around the world. He's definitely on my bucket list of musicians I want to see, and seeing as how he's played Fenway Park in Boston the last two summers, I'm hoping that I have a really good chance of making it happen.

Billy Joel today, in 2015

As for my own fandom, I grew up listening to my parents' copies of The Stranger and 52nd Street on vinyl. My dad isn't a fan, but my mum is, so between those records and hearing all of his songs on the radio when I'd be listening with her, I became a fan at a very young age. Additionally, my best friend from elementary through high school was a huge fan. We sang many of Billy Joel's songs in the high school chorus and acapella groups I was in (including "The Longest Time," on which I performed the solo). From the beginning, I've been captivated by his fantastic songwriting...he writes melodies with the best of them and is also quite talented at writing songs that tell stories. His phenomenal piano playing has always been a highlight for me, as well as his singing voice. In fact, he's one of my favorite musicians to listen to and sing along with. The range of music he's produced goes from story songs like "Allentown," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Miami 2017 (I've seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," and "Captain Jack" to ballads like "Honesty," "She's Got a Way," and "And So it Goes." There are belting rockers like "You May Be Right," "Big Shot," "Movin' Out," and "Los Angelenos," pure pop singles like "Uptown Girl" and "My Life," and numerous great album cuts like "Laura" (the best Lennon/McCartney song of the 1980s that they never wrote), "Vienna," "Roberta," "Zanzibar," and countless others. For many years during my youth, I used to hide the fact that I was such a big fan because he wasn't considered too "cool" by my peers. He also doesn't fit the mold of most of the musicians I listen to and I'd find many of my friends and family members to be quite surprised when I mentioned how much I liked him. However, as I've gotten older, I don't feel the need to be so coy about my fandom. So many of Billy Joel's songs have meant a lot to me throughout the various stages of my life and continue to do so to this day. Whether it's been during tough times or happy times, reflective, depressing times or exciting times, I've always found that his songs have a way of speaking to me as a listener and conveying their message and emotion both through their music and their lyrics. He may not fit in easily alongside the majority of what I listen to, but I'm proud and glad to be a fan of Billy Joel's music...it's meant, and continues to mean, so much to me and brought me such enjoyment that I can't ever imagine not having it in my life.


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