One thing I enjoyed about watching both conventions were the tepid wedding bands reminding me of songs I actually like. Steely Dan, REO Speedwagon and Faces all got nods from either the DNC Band or the RNC Band. But I have to tip my hat to the DNC Band for reminding me of Billy Joel’s classic sleeper hit “I Go to Extremes.” In what was otherwise a parade of yawn-worthy speakers pandering to the party’s base, that was the most exciting moment.
That and Biden’s speech. What can I say? I’m a Catholic prole from the Northeast. We love that guy.
Anyway, back to my man Billy Joel. I think the consensus on him is that he’s “boring dad rock,” which might be true, because I love him and I love boring dad rock. Every few years I rekindle my love affair with the man’s music. Right now I’m going through a pretty heavy Billy Joel phase.
The guy is basically the Jewish Bruce Springsteen or the New York Bob Dylan, whichever you prefer. “Piano Man” is a lovely little piece of Bukowski by way of Dylan that still sounds good after 10,000 spins. But Joel didn’t really hit his stride until he released The Stranger in 1977.
The Stranger is where Joel finally mastered the marriage of Springsteen’s slice-of-life tales with the Italian-American pop music he clearly loves so much. Joel might best be described as Bob Dylan minus the irritating Woody Guthrie pretense, plus all the fun of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The record is a masterpiece to those who know what good music is without Pitchfork telling them.
There’s a reason the record is considered to be the man’s magnum opus. It’s got classic tunes like “(Movin’ Out) Anthony’s Song,” that’s not just a wonderful piece of pop — it also tells a tale of discontent with the 9-to-5 that anyone who’s ever lived that life and dreamed of more can relate to. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is a short-story collection in song form, one of the more underrated pieces of literary rock ever committed to wax.
Next came 52nd Street, which expanded upon what Joel did on The Stranger. As the title would imply, it’s a jazzier affair, but the standout track is “Big Shot,” which is not, as rumor would have it, about a bad date with Bianca Jagger. He did, however, write the song as if Mick were singing it to Bianca. Again, Joel can write a catchy pop tune, but he can tell a great story while he does it. Unlike with Springsteen (or Dylan, for that matter), not everyone has to be a lovable loser. Joel has much more range when it comes to conceptualizing characters.
Glass Houses features opening track “You May Be Right,” a song with a bit of a punk undertone. It was covered by Avail, The Vindictives and The Bruisers — though not, strangely, by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The Nylon Curtain contains one of my personal favorite Joel songs, “Allentown,” a song about the aspirations of the post–World War II northeastern working class and the disconnect between promise and reality. “Pressure” also makes an appearance, a rocking ode to paranoia. Listen to it a few times and you can feel the walls closing in.
An Innocent Man was Joel’s most naked worship of doo-wop, with two of his best-known tracks, “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl.” Storm Front came in 1989, with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” perhaps the world’s hardest karaoke jam and a fair piece of baby boomer navel-gazing. River of Dreams closed out his pop career and is, for the most part, forgettable.
The best news? You can pick up most of Joel’s work on vinyl in the discount bin. So head on down to Amoeba with a $20 bill in your pocket and spend the weekend with the Piano Man.