The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

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The Nylon Curtain by Billy JoelAfter much commercial success with his previous albums, Billy Joel really branched out to new musical territory on his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. On this album, the artist ventures out towards more electronic instrumentation, richer compositional arrangements as well as more complex lyrical content. Joel has called this album one of his most ambitious efforts and has often stated that he is most proud of this recording.

The great success of the chart-topping pop/rock albums The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses led to Joel being labeled a balladeer or even a soft rocker. For The Nylon Curtain, Joel tried his hand at topical songs and was decidedly more ambitious in his use of the recording studio.

Along with producer Phil Ramone, Joel set out to forge a sonic masterpiece during the Fall of 1981, spending much more time in the studio then on previous efforts and employing brand new digital recording techniques. Joel maintained many of his backing band members, including guitarists David Brown and Russell Javors along with his longtime rhythm section, bassist Doug Stegmeyer and drummer Liberty DeVitto. However, several session players were also employed to provide extra synthesizers, strings, horns and percussion during the rich production.

 


The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel
Released: September 23, 1982 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording and Media Sound Studios, New York City, Spring 1982
Side One Side Two
Allentown
Laura
Pressure
Goodnight Saigon
She’s Right on Time
A Room of Our Own
Surprises
Scandinavian Skies
Where’s the Orchestra?
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Guitar
David Brown – Lead Guitar
Russell Javors – Rhythm Guitar
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums & Percussion

 

The pleasant, choppy piano tune aura, complete with industrial sound effects, masks the frustrating stories embedded in the opening track “Allentown”. The song plays like a theatrical diddy, especially during the quasi-dramatic bridge section and its combo with the real themes of blue collar manufacturing towns (not just the Pennsylvania city it is named for) made it a universal theme. The brilliant track “Laura” follows with Joel delivering a John Lennon-like quality vocally during the verses and the guitarists presenting some George Harrison-like guitar motifs during the dramatic choruses. Lyrically, this song is superb in describing a totally dysfunctional relationship with all the biting energy of the day’s most vicious punk rock while utilizing incredible melody and sonic drama.

The hit song “Pressure” is a totally unique new wave rocker within Billy Joel’s collection. It is musically cutting edge with sharp synths throughout and a mechanical, biting drum beat. The lyrics speak of the dichotomy between philosophical outlook and actual real life grew out of an episode of writer’s block Joel was feeling one day in his New York apartment. The extended track “Goodnight Saigon” completes the original first side as a heart-wrenching, haunting, brilliantly descriptive ballad about the plight of those serving in Vietnam. This song is beautifully simple with a piano motif mixed between acoustic verses and it eventually builds to a chorus crescendo with marching drums. During this part live, Joel would frequently enlist local veterans to perform onstage.

“She’s Right on Time” is a pleasant pop tune that has a quasi-Christmas theme. Joel uses several melodic vocal sections and a depth of vocals to give everything a strong, live feel. “A Room of Our Own” is the most easy going track on the album, with a down-home rock and roll feel and strong drums and some creative bass by DeVitto and Stegmeyer respectively. “Surprises” feel like another quasi-tribute to Lennon, at least vocally. While the electric piano and synths are pure eighties in sound, this track has enough gentle and melancholy vibe to make it a forgotten classic.

Billy Joel, 1982

The climactic point of the second side comes with “Scandinavian Skies”, from its really pointed and dramatic intro, through the plethora of sonic treats and production throughout. Joel’s sweet melodic vocals are placed above a really cool drum shuffle with subtle piano and synths during this song’s ‘A’ sections, while the synths of guest Rob Mounsey are much more up front and dramatic during the ‘B’ sections. The lyrics speak of a journey and several opaque incidents in many Northern European locales. The closing ballad “Where’s the Orchestra?” is almost an afterthought after the climactic previous tune, but it does feature some nice little flourishes on sax and clarinet by Eddie Daniels to accompany Joel’s simple piano and vocals.

While not as commercially successful as Joel’s previous albums, The Nylon Curtain was still a smash by any measure, reaching the Top 10 on the albums charts and selling over two million copies in the U.S. alone. Joel went in the opposite direction for his next album, An Innocent Man in 1983, which had a much lighter tone as a tribute to R&B and doo wop music of the fifties and sixties.

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1982 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1982 albums.

Storm Front by Billy Joel

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Storm Front by Billy JoelWith Storm Front, his eleventh overall studio album, Billy Joel made a concerted effort to radically change his approach on several levels. First, he discharged a few members of the support band which had been with him since the mid 1970s. Next, Joel decided not to work with producer Phil Ramone (who had produced every Billy Joel album since The Stranger in 1977, and instead enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones, who had brought his band to pop super-stardom earlier in the decade. The result of this pivotal effort at the sunset of the 1980s was a commercially successful album that received lukewarm critical feedback and, in many ways, began the decline of Joel’s incredible pop career.

Following the release of Joel’s previous album The Bridge three years earlier, he initiated an ambitious undertaking by becoming the first major American rock act to perform in the Soviet Union. The album КОНЦЕРТ (Russian for “Concert”) was released shortly after the August 1987 performances in Tlbisi, Moscow and Lennigrad, in part to recover the estimated $1 million of his own money that Joel spent the trip and concerts. However, more financial troubles were to come as an audit revealed major discrepancies in the accounting of Joel’s longtime manager in August 1989, subsequently costing the longtime pop star much of his fortune.

Guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer, each of whom had been with Joel since the recording of Turnstiles in 1976, were fired prior to the recording of Storm Front and replaced by Joey Hunting and Schuyler Deale respectively. Joel also hired vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero while retaining three members of his regular band. In 1988, Joel made a cameo on Mick Jones’ self-titled solo debut and was so impressed with his production abilities that he hired him to help forge the sonic tones and moods on Storm Front.


Storm Front by Billy Joel
Released: October 17, 1989 (Columbia)
Produced by: Mick Jones and Billy Joel
Recorded: The Hit Factory and Right Track Recording, New York, Spring-Summer 1989
Track Listing Primary Musicians
That’s Not Her Style
We Didn’t Start the Fire
The Downeaster ‘Alexa’
I Go to Extremes
Shameless
Storm Front
Leningrad
State of Grace
When in Rome
And So It Goes
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Clavinet, Accordion, Keyboards
David Brown – Guitars
Jeff Jacobs – Horns, Keyboards
Schuyler Deale – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums, PercussionStorm Front by Billy Joel

 

The opening track, “That’s Not Her Style” , has an underlying vibe of bluesy rock, especially during harmonica laden intro of Don Brooks, but is otherwise nothing more than topical sanitized pop. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” follows as a history lesson through rap, cut by the chorus hook that has richly disguised vocal harmonies. The main keyboard riff sounds like it could have composed on xylophone, especially along side the tribal percussive sounds and bouncy synth bass during verses. The lyrics are exclusively composed of words, terms and names of historical significance, starting in 1949, the year Joel was born. The song was Joel’s final #1 hit in the U.S.

The middle songs of this album are where you will find the top quality material. “The Downeaster Alexa” is the most indelible song on the album, led by Joel’s great vocal melodies, and an almost Gordon Lightfoot approach in its composition. It contains extraordinary sonic arrangements from the ever-present accordion of Dominic Cortese to the deadened guitar riffs to the slow methodical drum march to the strategic organ and synths. There is also a fine violin lead credited only to “World Famous Incognito Violinist”. Lyrically, “The Downeaster Alexa” tells of the plight of fisherman from Joel’s native Long Island with some poetic phrases like;

“tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis and I still have my hands on the wheel”

“I Go to Extremes” is the the purest pop/rock song on the album with a great melody and beat along with a couple of decent piano leads later in the song. This song with a bipolar theme reached #6 on the Billboard pop charts. “Shameless” is soulful and pleasantly melodic throughout, almost with the tenor of a seventies light pop/rock hit (although it would be most associated with Garth Brooks in the early nineties). This song also contains the best guitar work on the album by the team of David Brown and Joey Hunting. The title song “Storm Front” is pure Motown through and through with good rhythm, slow riffs, and a rich horn arrangement by Jeff Jacobs.

“Lenningrad” is historical ballad which feels like it would have fit in well on the 1982 album The Nylon Curtain. Influenced by Joel’s trip to the U.S.S.R. and has a great arrangement towards the end with the piano being almost classical to fit the mood. Joel compares his protagonist’s life with his own, much like he did in a previous song, “Ballad of Billy Kid”. The last really good track on Storm Front is “State of Grace”, a real forgotten gem driven by Joel’s high melodies and fantastic guitar work throughout by Jones, making it his best musical contribution on the album. “When In Rome” contains some Motown elements, especially in lead and backing vocals along a pretty good sax solo. “And So It Goes” closes the otherwise upbeat album with a sad ballad, almost tortured in its approach with vocals closely mimicking piano.

Storm Front reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic as the 1990s began. Billy Joel would release one more pop/rock album, The River of Dreams in 1993, before effectively retiring from this aspect of the music industry.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

1989 Images

 

52nd Street by Billy Joel

52nd Street

52nd Street by Billy JoelThe third of consecutive masterpieces by Billy Joel in the late 1970s, 52nd Street, amazingly encapsulates musical elements from Joel’s past, present and future in a rather short album. It was put together by Joel and producer Phil Ramone in near secrecy in a small studio around the corner from the street which bears its name. In fact, that famous street was where Joel’s label was located (about a block away from the studio) as well as being one of New York City’s traditional jazz centers in the twentieth century. This was also Ramone’s third consecutive album with Joel, starting with Turnstiles in 1976 and The Stranger in 1977.

Building on the styles of those previous albums, 52nd Street is a bit more sophisticated and jazzy, with looser, street-wise arrangements. Contrarily, this album makes some deliberate attempts at mimicking styles from several artists and genres, which makes the album very diverse. There is no doubt that Joel drew from influences of his youth as well as some late seventies contemporaries such as fellow New York jazz/rockers Steely Dan.

Once The Stranger became a chart phenom in early 1977, Joel and Ramone quickly re-entered the studio to record a follow-up, enlisting the same core band which played on the previous album and had toured with Joel since his return to New York in 1975. Within a span of about three months, the album was composed, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released. Joel did all of the composing and arranging while Ramone did a masterful job of making all the various styles and techniques flow together smoothly from start to finish.


52nd Street by Billy Joel
Released: October 13, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording, New York City, July–August 1978
Side One Side Two
Big Shot
Honesty
My Life
Zanzibar
Stiletto
Rosalinda’s Eyes
Half a Mile Away
Until the Night
52nd Street
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano
Richie Cannata – Saxophones, Clarinet, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars, Vocals
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums

 

The nine track 52nd Street can really be divided into three, three-song sections. The first of these sections contain the three big radio hits, all of which reached the Top 40. Allegedly an inside dig against Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca, “Big Shot” drops some New York society names and terms with its storytelling lyrics. Musically, Joel takes a back seat to the members of his rock band, especially guitarist Steve Khan, whose strong guitar riffs drive the song much more than the simple guide piano.

While “Big Shot” is a showcase for his band, the following track “Honesty” is where Joel firmly takes center stage. This is a song which demonstrates the upper limit of Joel’s writing and performing ability, a philosophical piano ballad with soaring yet delicate vocals. “Honesty” may be Joel’s best Elton John impression, a complex piece with a great bridge seeping with emotion. The song features David Spinozza on acoustic guitar and Robert Freedman providing horn and string orchestration.

“My Life” is a steady rocker, driven by Khan’s acoustic guitar and an excellent bass by Doug Stegmeyer. On top of it all, are the tasteful lead piano riffs and great melodies by Joel and, even when he is at his most pop-oriented, his lyrics maintain their philosophic edge. On this track, the music is laid back and reserved yet still has a feeling of fast-paced motion, a tribute to Ramone’s ingenious production techniques.

 
The second three-song section of the album is where the true genius of the 52nd Street lies. All three of these songs are gems which have kind of gotten lost in the retrospectives of Joel’s career, but all three belong in the top echelon. “Zanzibar” is one of Joel’s most complex and richly arranged compositions. This tour de force of 52nd Street is a truly unique song which vacillates from pure rock to jazz with Joel’s shouting vocals leading the way throughout. Even when the song seems to breakdown to a completely off-the-wall jazz section, it works great and flows well with guest Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn and trumpet. The song evokes the carnival-esque glare of Manhattan at night.

“Stiletto” is a great piano blues/rocker led by a saxophone riff by Richie Cannata. This song has some interesting sonic passages starting with a simple but powerful beat by Liberty DeVitto that drives this song which would be entertaining whether performed solo in a nightclub or in a stadium filled with 50,000 people. The bridge section is a fun piano run that harkens back slightly to “Root Beer Rag”, while the lyrics are nearly sadomasochist. On the lighter and cleaner side, “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a moderately soft love ballad with Spanish-influenced rhythms, like a more mature version of “Just the Way You Are”. The song contains many sonic treasures by guest players, including vibes and marimba by Mike Mainieri, nylon string guitar by Hugh McCracken and a unique and excellent percussion by Ralph MacDonald, which Ramone creatively had play out for 20 or 30 seconds after the rest of the song fades.

Perhaps the only flaw on 52nd Street lies within the final three songs, which each seem to try too hard to point in one direction or another. I have long contended that the demise of rock and roll began once it became self-aware, sometime in the 1970s, and these last three songs each exhibit that theory to an extent. “Half a Mile Away” may sound like Joel’s earliest 70s pop attempts or later 80s numbers, but either way it sounds hollow compared to the finer tracks. The bright horn arrangements are the only real highlights from this song. “Until the Night” is a very retro, Phil Spector inspired track that forecasts some tracks on the future album An Innocent Man. This is a good tune where Joel really shows his vocal range, but is a little too self-indulgent and over-produced to really jive on this album. The best part of the song is the dramtic bridge section which precedes and equally dramatic sax solo by Cannata. The title song “52nd Street” finishes the album as almost an afterthought (probably by design). After the dramatic climax of “Until the Night” and a pregnant pause, the closer kicks in as a very brief, one verse Ray Charles tribute with a clarinet lead during the outro section.

Although it did not sell as well as its predecessor, 52nd Street was Billy Joel’s first #1 album that was extremely well-received by critics, and earned the 1979 Grammy for Album of the Year. 52nd Street is also distinct as the first album to be commercially released on compact disc, by Sony Music in Japan in 1982. Joel continued his commercial success with fine albums throughout the eighties, but none were quite as good as his works from the late seventies.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1978 albums.

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Piano Man by Billy Joel

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Piano Man by Billy JoelWhile in the midst of a bitter legal with his first label Family Records, Billy Joel sought exile in Los Angeles, biding his time as a lounge singer under the assumed name “Bill Martin”. Joel had toured long to support his 1971 debut Cold Spring harbor, an album which was essentially dead commercially due to faulty production (something that would be fixed years later with a re-release). Under these odd circumstances, the performer was still able to land a new contract with Columbia Records as well as compose and record Piano Man, which would give him his most famous song and his pop identity, along with some other significant highlights.

I had no leverage and had to drop off the face of the Earth…”

Joel’s career detour to the west coast was the latest in a long musical journey. He had been performing since age four and joined his first group after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He started as a pure rocker in the band The Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers and became a popular in New York. In 1967, Joel joined the band The Hassles, a band that had signed with United Artists records and released two albums and four singles in the late 1960s, but nothing caught on commercially. Joel and Hassles’ drummer Jon Small formed the odd duet Attila with Joel on distorted and highly processed Hammond organ. Attila released their one eponymous debut album in July 1970 before disbanding when Joel had an affair with Small’s wife, Elizabeth, whom Joel eventually married.

While the album as whole definitely draws influence from contemporaries like Elton John, James Taylor, and John Denver, the major signature songs on the album are very personal and original. The songs, all written by Joel, contain well developed characters and story narratives with some impressive music that straddles the line between rock and folk.

 


Piano Man by Billy Joel
Released: November 9, 1973 (Columbia)
Produced by: Michael Stewart
Recorded: Record Plant and Devonshire Sound, Los Angeles, September 1973
Side One Side Two
Traveling Prayer
Piano Man
Ain’t No Crime
You’re My Home
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
Worse Comes to Worst
Stop In Nevada
If I Only Had the Words (to Tell You)
Somewhere Along the Line
Captain Jack
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Harmonica
Larry Carlton – Guitars
Richard Bennett – Guitars
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
Ron Tutt – Drums

 

An interesting drum shuffle by Ron Tutt along with a driving bass line moves the opener “Traveling Prayer” into an upbeat, Western sounding honky-tonk. The song comes complete with banjo and fiddle yet surprisingly sparse piano to open an album called Piano Man. Another Western-themed song completes the first side with Joel’s fictionalized “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. This is a brilliant song both lyrically and musically with its great piano interludes and rock riffs inspired by composer Aaron Copland. Although Joel himself admits it is historically inaccurate calling it “an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric”, it draws a great comparison between the famous outlaw and himself. “Ain’t No Crime” is the first real song where Joel executes his piano talent, with mock Ray Charles vocals he would utilize in later pop hits. “You’re My Home” is an acoustic ballad written about his wife Elizabeth, with some nice layered topical instruments including a pedal steel guitar.

Of course the highlight of the first side is the famous title song, which became a modest hit at the time (peaking at #25) but endured as a classic through time. That original single version was heavily edited, something Joel himself referred to on his second album Street Life Serenade on the song “The Entertainer”;

“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…”

The lyrical limerick contains real characters from the piano lounges Joel played while in L.A. while lawyers at Columbia Records tried to get him out of his first record deal. Musically, the song is a perfect ballroom ballad with exquisite sound including liberal use of harmonica and accordion above Joel’s bouncy piano, a testament to the production techniques of Michael Stewart.

 
The album loses steam a bit on the second side, with some quality but less-than-interesting filler. “Worse Comes to Worst” is like a slow reggae with definite pop overtones and accordion by Michael Omartian. “Stop in Nevada” is a general story-telling pop song, while “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)” is an attempt at a crooning pop standard, but with some decent piano riffs between the verses. “Somewhere Along the Line” picks up the bit with a pop/folk flavor.

The closer “Captain Jack” is the album’s tour-de-force. It was pivotal in Joel gaining the Columbia contract, due to a performance of the song in an April 1972 live radio concert at WMMR in Philadelphia, and the subsequent airplay (and flood of requests) this recording received on the station. The song was inspired by suburban teenagers in Long Island who obtained heroin from a dealer known as “Captain Jack”, who lived across the street from Joel’s apartment. Musically the song alternates between the piano ballad verses and the soaring, riff-driven chorus with heavy use of organ. Joel played the song on his first television appearance, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1974.

Billy Joel claimed he that he netted only about $7000 total from the Piano Man album. This was the first of two Los Angeles based albums for Joel which brought him neither him fame nor fortune, but set the stage for his phenomenal success later in the decade, starting with his triumphant return to New York with Turnstiles in 1976.

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1973 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 albums.

 

The Stranger by Billy Joel

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1977 Album Of the Year

The Stranger by Billy Joel There is a bit of irony in The Stranger being our selection as Album of the Year for 1977. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great album by Billy Joel. But it follows Turnstiles and precedes 52nd Street, which are even greater albums even though they may not be Album of the Year for their respective years. The truth is, 1977 was indeed a year of pop music (just check out all our reviews from the year) and this is one of the best pop albums of all time. Joel’s fifth studio album, The Stranger far surpassed the moderate chart successes of his previous four in the early to mid seventies. It reached #2 in the U.S. album charts, is Joel’s best-selling non-compilation album, and surpassed Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to become Columbia Records best-selling album to that date.

All the material from the album was written exclusively by Joel and produced by Phil Ramone with most of songs composed in the studio. Joel credits Ramone for much of the album’s success due to his innovative production methods which complemented Joel’s songs. This team first worked together on 1976’s Turnstiles and built on the successful fusion of rock/pop and different genres introduced on that album. Joel favored big, sweeping melodies, but Ramone convinced him to streamline his arrangements and make the production more accessible.

The infectious, radio-ready material was complemented by a few vignettes that covered the middle-class ground that Bruce Springsteen was so successfully exploiting in the mid 1970s. But unlike Springsteen, Billy Joel also clearly constructed some artistic centerpieces that give The Stranger a feel of flow and depth. Although it lacks a true masterpiece like “Piano Man”, “Angry Young Man”, or “Zanzibar” from other albums, The Stranger is probably the most consistent throughout with very few moments of weakness.
  

Classic Rock Review
The Stranger by Billy Joel
Released: September 1977 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: The Sound Factory, Los Angeles, July-September 1977
Side One Side Two
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
The Stranger
Just the Way You Are
Scenes Form An Italian Restaurant
Vienna
Only the Good Die Young
She’s Always a Woman
Get It Right the First Time
Everybody Has a Dream
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars
Richie Cannata – Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto– Drums

 

The album launches with the sharp, underlying rock riff of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, a song exquisite in its pure oddness. Joel’s the piano takes a back seat for most of this entertaining song, lending space to the various other elements of sonic candy; guitar, saxophone, sound effects, and vocal harmonies. The coda features a slight variation of the main theme, solidifying the overall theatrical feel of the song. Aside from the protagonist, the song has many named, blue-collar characters, which paint a vivid picture of city life in a working class neighborhood. Bass player Doug Stegmeyer lent his Corvette to record the sound-effect in the song’s coda. “Movin’ Out” was also the title of a later Broadway musical based on Billy Joel’s songs.

The title song, “The Stranger”, moves from the quiet cabaret during the opening and closing sections to the disco fused body of the song. The harmonized vocal performance during the choruses are particularly pleasing during this stretch of the song. The signature whistling melody was originally supposed to be played by a clarinet, but Phil Ramone convinced Joel to use the whistle instead after he heard him doing it in rehearsal. “Just the Way You Are” was the biggest hit single off the album, reaching #3 on the pop charts and covered by scores of artists including Frank Sinatra. Joel makes no secret of his disdain of this song, written about his then wife and business manager, and had originally decided against including the track on the album and his band called it “lounge lizard” music. But with the encouragement of fellow artist Linda Rondstadt, Joel and Ramone decided to make a more interesting mix with synthesizers, a vocal chorus, and an extended saxophone lead by Richie Cannata.

Billy Joel, 1977

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is a multi-part suite which morphs from scene to scene in each of four distinct parts that explore rock jazz, blues, and show tunes. The song starts with the atmosphere of a piano bar (or Italian restaurant) and next it moves to a teenage hangout with “a song about New Orleans” and an excellent tenor sax lead. Then there is the song within the song, an upbeat piano tune originally written as the stand-alone “Ballad of Brenda and Eddie”. The song dissolves back to the Italian restaurant to the main theme for the outro. The seven-and-a-half-minute epic is the longest of Joel’s studio cuts.

The album’s second side is the fantastic “Vienna”, inspired by Joel’s young half-brother Alexander Joel (now a classical conductor), who grew up in Vienna. Billy Joel explained how the city was a perfect metaphor for a crossroads situation in life;

During the Cold War, Vienna was between the Warsaw Pact nations and the NATO countries…it was between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages…it’s the place where cultures co-mingle”

Musically, the song is a calm piano song with great melodic vocals and a touch of accordion by Dominic Cortese, giving the song a legitimate European feel.

Only the Good Die Young singleI’ve always felt that “Only the Good Die Young” took on multiple meanings. There’s the topical and obvious narrative, which was quite controversial at that time as some felt it was anti-Catholic and the use of the name “Virginia” was a play on “virginity”. But there is also the philosophical undertone of examining one’s life and fate and there is the lamenting of the title itself, which is a profound statement. Still, as deep as this may be lyrically, it is completely light and fun musically. While it begins with a catchy piano part, the song is largely driven by the acoustic guitar of Steve Khan and has an “old time rock” feel.

“She’s Always a Woman” is a beautiful waltz played with a deep and melodic piano line, which pissed off a lot of women’s groups because of alleged stereotyping of the fairer sex. It has been described as a love song about a modern woman with quirks and flaws. “Get It Right the First Time” is an interesting and entertaining rock shuffle featuring a unique drum beat by Liberty DeVitto and a flute lead played by Cannata. The album concludes with the Ray Charles influenced “Everybody Has a Dream”, which includes an instrumental reprise of “The Stranger” to close out the album.

The skyrocketing success of The Stranger, was the first of a long string of Billy Joel albums which would achieve great commercial success over the next decade and a half until Joel “retired” from composing popular music around 1993. While this album fit 1977 perfectly, it does not sound dated in any way and that is why it is Classic Rock Review‘s album of the year.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

Turnstiles by Billy Joel

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Turnstiles by Billy JoelTurnstiles is , in a lot of ways, the “growing up” album for Billy Joel. Even though he was only in his mid twenties at the time of its production (which was also his debut as a producer), it is the most reflective and nostalgic album that he would ever make. Further, it came at a time when he had decided to return to his native New York from a three year exile to California where he cut his teeth in piano bars and wrote and recorded his initial two albums for Columbia Records. This additional element played a large part in constructing this collection of songs which focus on the past and present in a deep and philosophical way.

This geographic shift by Joel is evident on several levels, lyrically as well as stylistically on Turnstiles. Both Hollywood and New York are explicitly and implicitly referred to in several songs, with the rest comparing and contrasting the past and present through specific issues – music (“All You Want To Do Is Dance”), careers (“James”), and politics/ideology (“Angry Young Man”). The album’s cover shows Joel at a subway turnstile with eight others, each representing a central lyrical characters in each of the album’s eight songs.

Stylistically, Joel abandoned the softer “California” sound, for more raw, albeit diverse, rock using his new touring band in the studio. This also migrated his sound more towards that of fellow east-coaster Bruce Springsteen, who had just released his masterpiece, Born to Run. The decision came after Joel fired the original producer of the album, James William Guercio, after being dissatisfied with the initial recordings. He then and took over as producer himself and moved production to a studio in his native Long Island to make the album his way. The result was a very musically diverse and satisfying gem.

 


Turnstiles by Billy Joel
Released: May 19, 1976 (Columbia)
Produced by: Billy Joel
Recorded: Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, NY, January 1976
Side One Side Two
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Summer, Highland Falls
All You Want To Do Is Dance
New York State of Mind
James
Prelude / Angry Young Man
I’ve Loved These Days
Miami 2017
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano, Keyboards, Harmonica, Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars
Richie Cannata – Saxophone, Guitar
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty Devitto – Drums

 

“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” launches the album with Spector-esque percussion effects and a great overall sonic aura. Here, even the “stylish” strings are held to a minimum, so the song resists the urge of being forever “dated” in the mid-seventies. The vacillating between a slow and calm beat in the verse and a driving rocker during the chorus is a good testament to the songwriting genius of Billy Joel. The song was a celebration of his life back in New York, breaking from the culture of Hollywood.

“Summer, Highland Falls”, a true gem of a Billy Joel song, philosophically deep yet a pleasant and melodic listen. The piano definitely leads the music but does not dominate, as Billy Joel the producer allowed much room for his fine backing band. This is followed up by another reflective song, but of a sharply contrasting genre called “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”. With a consistent reggae beat and Caribbean overtones, this song fuses in some artistic nods to Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell as well as Bob Marley.

Billy Joel in 1976

Billy Joel describes “New York State of Mind” as rebellious against those ex-New Yorkers who seemed to celebrate the city’s demise during the mid seventies. It would go on to become a standard, especially after September 11th, being played at all kinds of ball games and events. The song showcases Joel’s technical proficiency on the piano as well as the fine sax playing of Richie Cannata. It is an early impersonation of Ray Charles, something he would revisit ten years later with “Baby Grand”.
 

 
The second side of Turnstiles starts with “James”, a song that is a bit corny and seems like a knock-off of Elton John’s “Daniel”, with the electric piano and all. Exploding from this calm serenity comes the “Prelude” to “Angry Young Man”, the most technically proficient, wildly entertaining, and lyrically deep song on the album. The long, multi-part “Prelude” is a jam that Joel and his band would use to start live shows for decades to come, and is a testament to the fine skills of guitarist Russell Javors, bassist Doug Stegmeyer, and drummer Liberty Devitto. The fantastic lyrics are a biting and self-effacing;

…and there’s always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand…”

It is also a prelude to later extended classics like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” from The Stranger and “Zanzibar” from 52nd Street.

The two moody and beautiful “I’ve Loved These Days” is again about growing up and feels almost too sentimental to be lamenting the end to days of indulgence and partying, presumably during Joel’s California days. This may have been a smash hit were a more traditional ballad about love or broken relationships. “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)” is a dystopian ballad, which borders on the absurd, probably as a satire on the doom and gloom attitude about New York. The song is narrated by a senior citizen in Florida during our present decade, who recalls a “celebration” concert held as sections of New York City were systematically destroyed. The music starts as a ballad, launches into a rocker and then ends the album in nice way, with fading piano riff.

Turnstiles would become the first of the three finest albums by Billy Joel, which were released in consecutive years starting in 1976. While it did not achieve the commercial success of its successors, 1977’s The Stranger or 1978’s 52nd Street, Turnstiles may well be the most cohesive album of the trio.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

The Bridge by Billy Joel

The Bridge by Billy JoelBilly Joel‘s 1986 studio album, The Bridge, represents a crossroads on many fronts. It is the seventh and final Billy Joel studio album to be produced by Phil Ramone. Ramone, starting with The Stranger in 1977, forged the sound during the most successful span of Joel’s career. It was also Joel’s first album during the 1980’s to not be focused on a single, overriding concept. 1980’s Glass Houses was punk/new wave, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain was social commentary, and 1983’s An Innocent Man was homage to musical styles and personalities of the past. The Bridge is very diverse, incorporating many styles as well as several guest musicians. On a final note, this album is first of Billy Joel’s “family-centric” releases that would wind down his career as a pop musician.

The Bridge features vividly picturesque songs, each of which cross over well to other media. “Modern Woman” was featured in a Hollywood movie, “Big Man On Mulberry Street” was used in a television show, “This Is the Time” was commonly the backdrop during tributes and retirements, and “A Matter of Trust” was featured in one of the iconic music videos of the day. Even the lesser known songs on the album, such as “Temptation” and “Running On Ice” – sound like they would work well in the visual medium.

After a bit of a hiatus from recording, Joel began work on the album in 1985.
 


The Bridge by Billy Joel
Released: July 9, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: The Power Station & Chelsea Sound, New York City, 1985-1986
Side One Side Two
Running On Ice
These Are the Times
A Matter of Trust
Modern Woman
Baby Grand
Big Man On Mulberry Street
Temptation
Code of Silence
Getting Closer
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano; Keyboards, Guitar, Lead Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars  |   Rob Mounsey – Synthesizers & Orchestration
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass  |  Liberty Devito – Drums & Percussion

 
The album’s first song “Running on Ice” shows that this is a long way from the “Piano Man” days. With a heavily “modern” (for 1986) sound which could be an updated version of the ska-influenced Police tracks and a frantic, sound-effect washed, tense verse that gives way to a flowing chorus section. The album then settles into a nice groove with “This Is the Time”. Featuring some excellently over laid guitars by Russell Javors, “This Is the Time” is a melancholy yet sweet ballad, which shows that Billy Joel was still in the upper pantheon of songwriting in 1986. It is a song of self-awareness, of a happy life and the grasping at the nostalgia which will surely follow these days –

“a warmth from the memory of days to come…” 

A Matter of Trust Single by Billy JoelIn the video for “A Matter of Trust”, Billy Joel is seen playing a Les Paul in this guitar-centric and entertaining hard rocker, which takes yet another departure from his traditional sound but was yet another hit. Joel is the absolute master of vocal melody making it all sound so natural and effortless, which plays a big part in being able to jump from genre to genre. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” goes in an almost completely opposite direction of the rock song. It is a Broadway-esque show tune with elements of big band and jazz. An extended version of the song was used on an episode bearing the same name on the hit television Moonlighting, starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis.

Rounding out the album’s second side, “Temptation” is another excellent song which hearkens back to 1970s-era Billy Joel in style. “Code of Silence” may be the only song in Joel’s catalog where he uses a co-writer, the flamboyant yet talented Cyndi Lauper. “Getting Closer” is a song of hope born out of the ashes of cynicism and features the legendary Steve Winwood on Hammond organ.
 

 
But the true legend on the album is Ray Charles. who performs a duet with Billy Joel on the song “Baby Grand”. The two originally got together when Charles found out that Joel had named his daughter Alexa Ray in honor of Ray Charles so Charles contacted him and suggested that they may want to work together, if they could find the “right song.” Joel considered Ray Charles one of his idols; “…as big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles….” Joel got right to work, trying to compose a song in the style of Charles’ classic “Georgia on My Mind”, and wrote “Baby Grand” over the course of one night. Joel originally sang the song in his thick New York accent, but decided to do a Charles impression instead once he got comfortable working with him. The finished product is as much a tribute to Charles himself as it is to the instrument they both love.

Although The Bridge was a bit weaker commercially than many of Joel’s previous albums, it is a solid album through and through and especially shines in comparison to the weak music scene in 1986.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.