September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

August 17 – How We Listened Changed 40 Years Ago Today

The way we listened to music changed in a big way on this day in 1982. Philips began making commercial music Compact Discs ( CDs) for the first time, at a factory in Germany.

As we know, the public loved the allegedly indestructible and small discs. Although the sparse variety of titles and expensive price tags on the equipment meant it didn’t rocket to prominence instantly – the RIAA reported in ’83 about 800 000 CDs were sold in the States, less than 1% of the total recorded music – it didn’t take long. By 1985, Dire Straits had a CD sell a million copies, by 1988 there were 50 commercial CD plants worldwide which was good since the next year, 1989, they began to outsell vinyl LPs. They’ve never lost that crown either. For all the talk of the “vinyl resurgence” they still outsell vinyl records in the U.S…although both formats have dropped off dramatically in the digital, streaming, I-tunes era. After peaking with American sales of 943 million in 1999 (according to RIAA again) they’ve plummeted to just 47 million last year. However, surprisingly that was an increase from 2020, and represented 14% of all music sales. With Spotify and other streaming services, total music sales, digital or analog, hit the lowest level since they began being tracked five decades back.  From 1993 through 2007, CD sales were above half a billion per year.

The first CD by the way, was a classical work of Chopin by Claude Arrau who was invited to start the machinery at the plant; later that day some Abba The Visitors CDs were rolling off the assembly line. Here, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street was the very first CD made available for sale.

July 30 – The Turntable Talk, Round 5 : 18 Out Of 19 Ain’t Bad

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)

Today, we have Keith from Nostalgic Italian, a site where he looks back at his years in radio as well as other things worth remembering from the glorious time that was the late-20th Century. Speaking of his radio days, we’re pleased that Keith has agreed to talk about the radio business and changes he’s seen in it. Look for that sometime next week. In the meantime, he likes some cover songs: 

This blog is part of the next installment of Dave from A Sound Day’s Turntable Talk. This time around, the subject is “cover songs.”

So what cover songs work great for you?

Cover Songs

If you do a Google search on “cover songs,” there are plenty of links to articles containing lists of “the best” ones. There are also links to video’s that feature countdowns and lists of “best and worst” cover songs. Those lists, no doubt, will include: “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles, “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam, “Mony Mony” by Billy Idol, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, and many many more!

Many people are unaware that some of their favorite songs are actually cover songs. A lot of the early Rolling Stones and Beatles songs were actually covers of songs they loved by other artists. In a way, a cover song is the ultimate “hat tip” to a band’s early influence.

Personally, I tend to love cover songs. If you were to grab my iPod, that becomes very clear! I recall a time when I was married to my ex-wife and her iPod was dead. She wanted to go walk and asked if she could take mine instead. Upon returning home, she said to me, “How many different versions of a song do you need?!”

Cover Song Example

Dave asked “what makes a good” cover song? He also asked, “Do you like ones really faithful to the original, or ones that spin it in an altogether direction?

It is difficult for me to say what exactly makes a good cover song because I think it can be one that is faithful to the original, spun in a different direction, or a mixture of both of those elements. Take for example, the Rodgers and Hart song – “Blue Moon”.

The song was written in 1934. There were recordings made as early as 1935. One of the best known versions is the Doo Wop hit from 1961 by the Marcels. Dean Martin did a stripped down version with piano and drums that was performed as a slow ballad. Frank Sinatra’s version was more “swingy”. Sam Cooke’s “bounced” and in 1997 a swing band called the Jive Aces covered it as a bouncy boogie woogie sounding cover. Every single version I mentioned, I like for different reasons.

Some of My Favorite Covers

If I were to make a list of all the cover songs I have on my iPod and feature one a day on my blog, I would have enough songs to write about for about six months! Instead, I grabbed a piece of paper and off the top of my head started jotting down the cover songs that came to mind. I gave myself five minutes to do this and came up with about 18 songs. The reality is that I know that I will complete this blog and after it posts say, “Oh, man! I forgot (insert cover song here)!” That’s ok.

While it may be hard for me to tell you exactly what I love about cover songs, maybe by giving some examples of some of my favorites, the music will answer the question for both of us.

The first three I came up with are all from movie soundtracks. There is no shortage of cover songs in the movies. These covers will often give new life to old songs – examples include “Sweet Child of Mine” by Sheryl Crow from Big Daddy, “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright from Shrek, “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles from Less Than Zero, “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill in Pulp Fiction, and, of course, “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.

Johnny B. Goode – Marty McFly and the Starlighters

From Back to the Future, this is the song Marty McFly plays at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. In the movie, He goes off on a Eddie Van Halen type solo and the entire crowd looks at him stunned. On the soundtrack, however, there is a full version with an additional verse not in the movie. What I love about this version is the stripped down instrumentation, the saxophone and piano, and the whole feel of it. It really sounds like an “early” version of the song. It’s actually quite good.

All Shook Up – Billy Joel

From the soundtrack of Honeymoon in Vegas, which contains some very good Elvis covers. This one is my favorite. It has the feel of the Elvis version, with a little “boogie woogie” piano feel to it. Simple background vocals enhance the Billy Joel version. One addition I love is the bass drum hit after he sings, “I’m in love ….”

I’m Ready – Taj Mahal

I stumbled on this by accident. This cut was used in the movie Little Big League. I’ve always been a fan of Fats Domino, but this version is just so much better. It has “meat” to it. The driving bass line keeps it moving, the piano is still there, and those saxes in the background – LOVE them. Add the electric guitar and Taj Mahal’s vocal to the mix and it is just perfect! This is one that I find myself listening to at work when I need a “pick up”

Sea of Love – The Honey Drippers

Phil Phillips did the original of this, but how can you NOT love this version?! First and foremost, you have Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as well as Jeff Beck in the group! Add a beautiful string arrangement and background singers to compliment them and you have a top 5 record!

Tainted Love – Soft Cell

Not many people are aware that this is actually a cover song. It was originally done in 1964 by Gloria Jones. The song was written by Ed Cobb, who was in the Four Preps, and was actually the B-side of a song called “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home”. The original had a “Motown” feel to it, while Soft Cell certainly has more of an 80’s feel to it.

Hard to Handle – Black Crowes

This one was written and recorded by the legendary Otis Redding. Otis’ version is already great, but I love this one equally. It certainly has a great feel to it. It doesn’t sound dated at all. It’s funky and a great jam!

You’re Sixteen – Ringo Starr

The original was done by Johnny Burnette, who was known for rockabilly, in 1960. It’s not that I dislike the original, I just think Ringo’s version is … more fun. For years I thought Paul McCartney was playing Kazoo in this, however, one article says, “Michael Verity has quoted the song’s producer Richard Perry as revealing that it wasn’t actually a kazoo: “In fact, the solo on ‘You’re Sixteen,’ which sounds like a kazoo or something, was Paul singing very spontaneously as we played that track back, so he’s singing the solo on that.” Ringo’s version remains one of the few No. 1 singles to feature a ‘kazoo-sound’ solo. (It sure sounds like a kazoo to me!) I also love the driving piano bassline in his version.

I’m Down – Aerosmith

Originally done by the Beatles, this is almost a carbon copy of the Beatles version. I like it because I think Steven Tyler’s vocal perfectly fits the song.

Look at Little Sister – Stevie Ray Vaughn

I picked this song in the recent song draft and you can read about it here:

Steamroller Blues – Elvis Presley

Elvis did his share of covers, and this is one that comes from his Aloha From Hawaii concert special. I have always preferred this version to the James Taylor version. To me, it is more “bluesy.” I love everything about this cut!!

Baby, I Love You – Andy Kim

This one was originally done by the Ronettes in 1963 and featured Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Andy Kim recorded his version in 1969 and had a top 10 hit with it. It mimics the “wall of sound” but if you listen in headphones, there is a lot of little stuff going on in the background – jingle bells, glockenspiel, castanets, and more. I remember hearing it a lot as a kid.

Since I Met You Baby – Dean Martin

This remake I stumbled on by watching MTV!! The original was done by Ivory Joe Hunter in 1956. I remember seeing the Title and Artist show up on the bottom left side of the screen when the video started and couldn’t believe that Dean Martin was on MTV. He recorded it for his The Nashville Sessions album and I love that it stays true to the original, yet is purely Dean.

Think – Joan Osborne

It better be good if you are covering the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and this one is! Aretha did the original in 1968 and then covered herself for a version in the Blues Brothers. I don’t remember how I stumbled on Joan Osborne’s version, but it is different enough that I love it. It has such a cocky attitude to it. Dig it –

Mustang Sally – Buddy Guy

Originally done by Wilson Pickett, this is one of greatest soul songs of all time! I heard this on the Blues channel on Sirius XM and fell in love with it. I’ve always dug Buddy Guy and while this stays pretty true to the original, it has a sound of its own!

Blue Suede Shoes – Elvis Presley

Carl Perkins seemed to have all of his songs covered and many times, his songs became associated with the other artist rather than him. That’s the case with “Blue Suede Shoes” – it is Elvis. Elvis’ version is so much better than Carl’s in my opinion.

Your Cheating Heart – Crystal Shawanda

Originally done in 1952 by the late Hank Williams Sr. this takes a whiney and twangy song and cranks it up about 10 notches. We had Crystal in for a show when I worked at the country station and she was fantastic. This was on her debut album. I’m not sure she isn’t a huge star. Her voice is amazing and she is very talented.

Dirty Laundry – Lisa Marie Presley

Written by and a hit for Don Henley, I have always loved this song. The content of the song is about mass media and how they exploit just about everything. Henley had a top 5 hit with it. I didn’t even know that Lisa Marie Presley had done this song until I heard it on some Pandora playlist. Her vocal is sultry and sells the content lyrically. A great cut!

As a bonus – here is a live and unplugged version:

Please, Please, Please – Delbert McClinton

A cover of James Brown’s classic! James has a hit with this in 1956 and it went top 10 on the R&B charts. I think Delbert McClinton is someone who just doesn’t get enough praise for all he does. He’s a singer songwriter who can play many instruments and has released many albums. This version comes from his Honky Tonk and Blues album, which is a personal favorite.

Call Me Irresponsible – Michael Buble’

Jimmy Van Heusen composed this song in 1962 with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. According to Mel Torme’, the song was written for Judy Garland to sing on her TV show. It was written as a parody to her well-known problems. Many people have done versions on the song – Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Eddie Fisher, Julie London, and more. Michael Buble’ used this as the title track for his 2007 album. It get’s me right from the opening “walking” bass lick. Buble’ has made a career out of covering so many songs from the Great American Songbook, as well as many originals. He has a great band backing him and he sings this effortlessly.

Ok – Just One That I HATE

Lean on Me – Club Nouveau

I love Bill Withers. he wrote and recorded this for his 1972 Still Bill album. It was a smash and was a number 1 song. I never cared for the cover version. Yes, it stayed very close to the original, but I just never cared for the arrangement at all. It’s almost annoying to me. It is actually playing in my headphones as I am typing this. To me, the whole 80’s synth sounds just sound out of place. Not to mention the whole “We be jammin” part – URGH!! One good thing about this was that it won a Grammy for Bill Withers as the writer for Best R&B song.

I reluctantly post the link to the video here ….

Final Thoughts

So what can we say about cover songs? Are they done as a tribute to the original artist? Are they done because it’s a favorite to perform? Are they done to “improve” on the original? Are they done because an artist feels it should be presented in a different way? Who knows, really!? One could easily ask the same questions about all the crappy movie remakes that have come about.

Some of my favorite concert memories are hearing the singer do a song that is totally unexpected. My favorite memory of the Billy Joel concert I attended wasn’t “Piano Man”. It was when he talked about loving the Motor City and breaking into his own version of “I Heard it Through The Grapevine!” Magical!! Aaron Tippin played a county fair for us and at one point he threw on a fedora and sang “Fly Me To the Moon”, which blew my mind! Very cool songs – never released – but covers, nonetheless.

In the end, a good song is a good song. I love listening to a great song done by many other singers. It says something about the song melodically and lyrically. I don’t always love the cover, but that’s ok. It’s fun to hear the artist’s take on it.

I want to thank Dave for allowing me to ramble on and on about this month’s topic. I’ve wanted to feature cover songs on my site, but just couldn’t figure out how to present it. I guess I better stop typing because the more I think about it … the more songs are coming to my head!

Thanks for reading!

July 18 – Billy Passed Piano To Paul For Last Play At Shea

It was the end of an era in the Big Apple 14 years back. One which appropriately enough looked back at the start of the very same era. For this night in 2008 New York City hosted the “Last Play At Shea”. It was the final concert held at the city’s Shea Stadium, and who could be more appropriate to play a major show there than Billy Joel? Except, just possibly The Beatles. The night was a huge Billy Joel show, but Beatles fans weren’t to be disappointed either!

Shea Stadium was a sports venue in Queens. It dated back to the early-’60s, a time when giant, concrete multi-use stadiums were popping up in all kinds of North American cities. Shea came about out of the city’s embarrassment. New York had been home to three Major League Baseball teams about a decade earlier, but two – the Giants and Dodgers – left for California in the ’50s. This dented the local civic pride. Baseball agreed to give the city a new team…if a new stadium was built for them. The city agreed, and got the Mets, and Shea Stadium as a result.

Ground was broken on the site in early 1961, and the stadium was supposed to open in time for the ’63 Mets to play. The then mayor said a year before that “only a series of blizzards or some other unforeseen problems” could possibly derail the plans. The winter of ’62-63 saw a string of blizzards, and two major stadium contractors going broke. It opened in ’64 instead.

The stadium was big. It had a capacity of about 55 000 for baseball, and could be stretched to over 60 000 for football. While designed for the Mets baseball, designers were savvy enough to make it be able to accommodate football, and indeed the Jets NFL club did call it home for nearly 20 years. Although it had its fans, many considered it a little impersonal and cold, the outfield seats were too high and the few private boxes offered only so-so views.

Obviously, at some point entertainment promoters would come to realize that a 55 000 seat facility in the middle of a huge city could be of use for things besides baseball. Shea Stadium famously found that out in summer of 1965, when the Beatles played the first concert there in front of tens of thousands of screaming young fans. The sound was legendarily bad due to the stadium acoustics and sound system not designed for rock concerts, but it was still a landmark event, as was their return a year later on their final tour.

After that, the stadium saw a number of big concerts. In August 1970 it hosted the “Concert for Peace” with artists including Janis Joplin, CCR, hometown boy Paul Simon and Miles Davis. A year later Grand Funk, at the height of their drawing power set a remarkable record by selling out the stadium even faster than the Beatles had. The Police played in front of over 50 000 in ’83, with Sting comparing it to playing “on top of Everest” and quipping “we’d like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium!”. The Rolling Stones played an impressive six nights there on their ’89 Steel Wheels Tour, and Bruce Springsteen ended his lengthy 2003 tour there, bringing along Bob Dylan as a special guest. And in an entirely different type of “concert”, Pope John Paul II held a huge mass and service there in ’79.

But all good things are said to come to an end, and in the case of Shea, it was becoming increasingly unpopular in the 2000s. The Mets saw a number of other teams in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland building newer, slightly smaller but more comfortable stadiums with great facilities…and higher ticket prices. They wanted somewhere new, and the city was ready to see Shea go away. So plans were made for Citi Field, more or less right across the road from Shea, and a demolition firm was brokered.

But before the wrecking ball started swinging, it needed a big send off. Enter Billy Joel.

He booked July 16th and 18th for the last two concerts at Shea.

The 16th seemingly was a good concert, but as one might expect, the “fireworks” were kept for the final show. In front of a sell-out of 55 000, Billy played a great set which would have been well received just of the normal Joel fare…opening with “Angry Young Man” and rolling through 18 or 20 of his greats from the past three decades including “My Life”, “Everybody Loves You Now”, “Allentown,” “Keeping the Faith”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Only the Good Die Young.” But a landmark date needs some landmark special events, and many artists had fond memories of Shea. So Billy brought in friends. The great and seemingly timeless Tony Bennett joined him on stage to sing Joel’s “New York State of Mind”. Garth Brooks happened by and did “Shameless”. John Mayer picked up the guitar to accompany the “Piano Man” on “This is the Time.” Steven Tyler of Aerosmith came by to do “Walk this Way”, a song resurrected in the ’80s when redone with New Yorkers Run-DMC. Small town John Mellencamp visited the huge city to do “Pink Houses”, and Roger Daltrey of The Who did “My Generation.” Whew. That would have been quite a show. But that wasn’t all.

Pat Tyson is a writer who happened to see The Beatles play Shea when she was a youth in the ’60s. She was in the “nosebleeds” for the Last Play At Shea.

She wrote that Billy seemingly had finished and left the stage, but came back. Encore perhaps? “Billy walks back,” she told Daytripper, “and he says ‘Ladies and Gentlemen … Sir Paul McCartney!’ and everyone went wild! He and Billy played ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and brought the house down. McCartney got a rousing ovation, then left the stage.” But that wasn’t all. He’d later return and Paul “spoke to the crowd and said Shea Stadium had special meaning to him and he was glad to be there.’ With that he launched into ‘Let It Be’ and of course the crowd sang along.” Probably as close as one could get to having the first act to rock the stadium also be the final one.

Much of the concert was released on CD and DVD, appropriately enough debuted at Citi Field in 2010.

As for who might have the best stories to tell of Shea Stadium’s musical past, one might think it could be Pete Flynn. Pete worked for decades for the stadium as a groundskeeper. In 1965 he drove The Beatles from the stage to an exit in the outfield wall. In 2008, he drove Paul from the outfield wall to the stage. Guess Paul told him he could “Drive My Car.”

July 9 – Billy Tried To Bridge Gaps Between Rock, Pop & Jazz

Billy Joel‘s always been able to straddle different music genres pretty seamlessly, which to some is his strength (including us at A Sound Day) but to others is his annoying weakness. Is he a pop crooner? A soft rock one-man soundtrack for the yacht? An oldtime singer/songwriter? A hard rocker somehow restrained by his label or bandmates? The answer could be “all of the above”…and it showed perhaps more clearly than ever on The Bridge, his tenth studio album which came out this day in 1986.

Three years between albums might seem a long time, and that’s the gap between An Innocent Man and this one, but a lot had happened in Billy’s life and he felt three years wasn’t enough.”I was pressured by management to put it out too fast,” he’d later say of this one. In the time since An Innocent Man, he’d broken up with supermodel Elle McPherson (the original inspiration for “Uptown Girl”) , gotten together with supermodel Christie Brinkley (featured in the video for “Uptown Girl”) and married her. When he was working on The Bridge, “Christie and I had just had Alexa, and I’d have rather been at home with the baby.” Nevertheless, he called back many of his regular collaborators including producer Phil Ramone, drummer Liberty DeVitto and bassist Doug Stegmeyer and began to make the record, which might be his most eclectic. He also gave a call to a number of other stars and session players, including his boyhood idol Steve Winwood (who played organ on “Getting Closer”) and the incomparable Ray Charles, whom he dueted with on “Baby Grand.” All the while, his stated love of middle-of-the-road new wave sounds of the Cars and The Police also factored in. The resultant nine song album (which, by the way was one of the last Columbia offered as an 8-track tape) veered over the musical map from jazz to soft rock to near hard rock to retro big band sounds. Allmusic called it “scattershot” and wondered what he was doing “fronting a big band (‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’) …and picking up the guitar (‘A Matter of Trust’) just for the hell of it.” And yes, he did get out from behind his piano to play the six-string on that song.

Anyone looking for a constant musical thread through the album was going to be disappointed (especially in contrast to the consistently retro-sounding An Innocent Man) but those who just listened to the songs tended to think it was one of Billy’s better works…even if he didn’t. “I remember reading bad reviews and agreeing,” he grudgingly admitted some years later.

Rolling Stone made sense of it however, suggesting he was “gracefully” moving into middle age and suggesting it “essentially forms a trilogy with 1982’s outward-looking Nylon Curtain and 1983’s backward-looking An Innocent Man… amodest, yet moving portrait of a mature man battling the urban strains of the Eighties.” Robert Christgau didn’t like it much (was there anything he did like?) but did say Billy was “Ray Charles equal on ‘Baby Grand.’” And even allmusic admitted “Joel still has enough panache…that The Bridge remains an entertaining listen.”

Some agreed, others didn’t. “A Matter of Trust” and “Modern Woman” both hit the U.S. top 10 (giving him ten to that point) and “This is the Time” got to #18 and was his sixth chart-topper of the decade on the Adult Contemporary charts. The album sold well, but not as well as some of his previous ones. It peaked at #7 at home, #10 in Canada and a solid #2 in Australia, going double-platinum in both the States and Canada.

Whether Columbia liked it or not, Billy took another three years to put together his next new album, Storm Front, which brought in a new producer and several new backing musicians for Joel to find “simpatico” with.

July 4 – USA Rocked Russia 35 Years Ago

Rock and pop music are one of the USA’s best exports to the world and we really got an example of that this day. 35 years ago today, some two years before the Berlin Wall fell, something pretty special happened in Russia. The 1987 Concert for Peace took place in Moscow, an unprecedented (for the era) show mixing American and Soviet musicians on the same stage.

It was a great example of change coming to the other side of the Iron Curtain under the “glastnost”-bringing Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian rockers Autograph and folk band Ruvichi played for their fans along with a list of American acts including Doobie Brothers, Santana and Bonnie Raitt. About 18 000 showed up at an open-air sports stadium to see the event. While many were confused and very quiet (in Russian culture, applauding or yelling during a performance would be considered rude) and there was criticism that the event was for people selected by the government- journalists, members of the Young Communists Party, foreign peace-protesters – it was still a huge step forward in bringing the West to the Soviet empire – and making American culture even more of a worldwide standard.

It opened the gates too; only three weeks later Billy Joel went over and played six concerts in Moscow and Leningrad which resulted in his live Kontsert album. He termed it a “nice, safe first attempt at bringing in an American pop star” and “probably the biggest highlight for me as a performer. I met these people and they weren’t the enemy.” Russia agreed, being enthusiastic towards Joel and broadcasting one of his shows live on radio there, a first for a Western act.

One might venture to guess a similar concert now might be good for the world…but it seems less likely Vladimir Putin would be as receptive to the idea as Mr. Gorbachev was, sadly enough.

March 10 – You May Be Right… Joel Rocked A Little In 1980

Pink Floyd released one of rock’s biggest-ever albums to the American public this day in 1973. Another March 10th album release was this biggie, albeit not Dark Side.. big. And not as well-liked by Rolling Stone! Billy Joel released his seventh studio album, Glass Houses on this day in 1980.

It was his second-straight #1 in North America and ended up being 7X platinum in the U.S. largely on the strength of the four hit singles including “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (his first #1 single) and “You May Be Right”  With songs like “Sometimes A Fantasy” the album was a bit more rock than his previous works, and inspired a little by the “new wave” acts like Blondie and the Cars which he said “I like it but it’s not particularly new.”

The (slightly ) different sound was an obvious attempt by Joel to keep up with the times. He said when he was recording the record, at the tail-end of the ’70s, “everything was being recategorized, because they needed to define it against something.” He said the punk acts of the Big Apple and post-punk acts starting to appear reminded him of ’60s garage rock and he didn’t care much for the term “punk.” “In my neighborhood, you didn’t call yourself a punk,” he recalls, “other people called you a punk.” Still, he saw the change in sounds as a good thing. “the music business needed an enema, and punk rock was that enema,” he says. While hardly “punk” or “new wave”, the album did sound a bit more contemporary than some of his ’70s work and allmusic give it a strong 4.5 star rating noting it is the “closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album” and the Grammys concurred awarding Billy the “Best Rock Vocal- Male”. Rolling Stone however panned it, comparing Joel to an “obnoxious frat boy whose hoisted one too many” and calling “Close to the Borderline” on it a “godawful Eagles-go-punk state of the union message.”

Godawful or not – and we’d vote “not” – Glass Houses has sold past nine million copies and remains one of the most popular in Joel’s catalog. It was one of several of his recently remastered in a new vinyl edition marketed exclusively by Walmart.

December 29 – Downeaster Alexa Walks In Her Parents Big Footprints

A singer and the inspiration for song. Happy birthday to a woman whose parents were a sort of double-edged sword for her, career-wise at least – Alexa Ray Joel turns 36 today. Alexa is the daughter of one Billy Joel and his then-wife, supermodel Christie Brinkley. Not surprisingly perhaps, she’s tried to have her own careers in both music and modeling; not surprisingly also, while she’s had some success, she seems doomed to fail by way of comparisons to her parents. She could probably have some great conversations with Julian Lennon and Jakob Dylan about that! To be fair though, Alexa seems to have managed to forge her own path without a huge chip on her shoulder.

Billy said, a few years after her birth “becoming a dad…my perception of time was completely blown to smithereens. There’s this sudden warp in view of your own mortality. Instead of thinking only in terms of your own lifetime, you start thinking of your child’s…(also) you just sort of clean up your act.” Brinkley said the Piano Man always adored the little girl, and helped her learn piano quite young, something which can be heard in her playing as an adult. “I write music in the same way he does,” she confirms, “melody first, lyrics second.” Meanwhile her dad wrote the song “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” for her and named a boat of his the Alexa, which he then used as the subject for the fictionalized “Downeaster Alexa”, a top 30 hit in Canada and Japan, but something of a flop in their homeland.

Alexa began playing shows around 2005, sometimes with a backing band, sometimes by herself. The New York Observer around that time observed that one of her shows started with the band, a new-wavey kind of band, who played “several top 40-sounding songs that oscillated between bubblegum and forced emotional urgency, stitched together with catchy choruses.” Then she played some more lounge-y tunes alone at her piano. They suggested she had some talent and a huge presence which could make her a star on Broadway, something she might have appreciated. She said when she was a kid, her parents would dress her up like one of the Von Trapp kids from The Sound of Music, and she’d sing the songs as Billy played the tunes on the piano. In 2006, she put out her first record, a six-song EP called Sketches, in which she wrote five of the songs (the other being a cover version of a Neil Young song), a self-financed project in which she even did all the cover art and liner notes.

Although it garnered decent reviews, the indie release didn’t attract a lot of attention, unlike her father, her career didn’t suddenly take off. Or at least it hasn’t yet. She has however, put out a few more singles, including her jazzy take on her dad’s classic “Just the Way You Are”, which was originally used in a Gap commercial. Early this year she put out a new one, “Seven Years.” Along the way she’s performed with her father several times, at various fundraising concerts (for pediatric hospitals and rain forest defense among other things) and got to do the duet “Baby Grand” with her father for Barack Obama at a dinner once. The “Ray” in her name was in honor of Charles, a pianist Billy Joel reveres. She says “I’m always happiest when I’m singing. When I sing with dad, it’s the easiest thing in the world”

She also has followed in her mom’s (heeled) footsteps too, doing a number of fashion shows and even appearing in Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition once… a gig that helped make her mother famous. Reactions have been similar to those from music types – she’s good, she’s pretty, but she’s not as good as her parent was. Little wonder she had a publicized battle with depression in her mid-20s.

Lately Alexa seems to be shunning the limelight and is engaged to a New York chef. Hopefully then, she’s going to have a fantastic cake today.

 

November 12 – Piano Man’s Charm Shone Uptown

Ugly men take heart. Or so said Billy Joel whose biggest international hit, “Uptown Girl”, hit its peak at home at #3 on Billboard this day in 1983.

Although by chart positions not his highest-reaching single in the U.S., it was his only #1 hit in the UK, Australia and New Zealand and is arguably the most played of his many singles on radio to this day. (For another example of that, while The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was recently recognized as the most played song on radio ever over here, in the UK, “Uptown Girl” has been played more than it or any other song released that year.) It helped his 1983 An Innocent Man album go 7X platinum at home and multi-platinum in Britain where he’d been little noticed before. The song itself went platinum there, one of only two he’s had achieve that compared to seven at home.

Like all songs on An Innocent Man it was written in a style as an homage to a childhood music idol of his. In this case, taht was Frankie Valli (and the Four Seasons), with guitarist Danny Kortchmar adding cheekily it’s “the best Four Seasons song ever written.” The “Uptown Girl” was actually Aussie supermodel Elle McPherson, whom Billy was dating when he wrote it. By the time the record came out, he’d moved on to another model, Christie Brinkley, who appears in the video. Says Joel: “the fact that I can attract such a beautiful woman as Christie should give hope to every ugly guy!”.

It played into another romance a couple of decades on for Billy too. Famous TV chef Katie Lee and he had a relationship in the early 2000s, but when they met in New York City, she barely knew who he was. She said this one and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” were the only songs of his she’d ever heard…although she did buy his Greatest Hits after going out with him a time or two!

November 1 – Reception For Future Star’s Debut Was Chilly

Another example of “from humble beginnings”. Fifty years ago, one of the greats of American rock/pop made his debut in record stores … but as often is the case, very few noticed it. Billy Joel‘s Cold Spring Harbor came out this day in 1971…to a rather chilly reception.

By then, Billy was a young but developing talent with a decent following around the Big Apple, where he’d been playing piano and singing for a year or two. However, he was unable to get any of the major record companies interested, so he signed a long-term contract with a small California company called Family Productions. The terms of it weren’t terribly good for the artist. Family was run by a record producer called Artie Ripp. Joel would later recall that the corporate offices were in Ripp’s house, and “there was a chair that looked like an oversize hand. That should have been a dead giveaway – you were literally sitting in the palm of his hand.”

Nonetheless, studio time in Los Angeles was booked, and Ripp brought in some decent help to fill out Billy’s basic piano/harmonica and vocals song framework. Amongst the session players were future-Wings member Denny Seiwell on drums and bassist Joe Osborn, part of the famous Wrecking Crew. Joel’s songs showed promise, with hints of the great story-telling sing-alongs and touching love ballads he’s famous for showing up. But they weren’t his best, and Ripp, self-appointed producer, was seemingly a fan of Phil Spector and the “wall of sound.” He layered on many overdubs and brought in a string section for a number of the ten tracks. “I hated the strings! The whole thing is over-produced,” Joel says.

That in itself wouldn’t have been a terrible problem, if it was at least recorded right. But something went wrong in the studio and the master tapes were sped up somewhat. Billy thought he ended up sounding like The Chipmunks but “Artie had run out of money to fix it.” They shipped out copies of the album running in overdrive speed and Billy’s voice apparently rodent-like.

On the album, one could hear a glimpse of his talent in songs like “Falling of the Rain” and “Everybody Loves You Now,” but only one really became well-known to his fans …and that took a decade. “She’s Got A Way” was perhaps the best song on Cold Spring Harbor, and one he apparently would play routinely through much of the ’70s in concert, and a live version was released as a single in 1981, eventually making it to #23 on the charts. Cold Spring Harbor, a poorly mastered album on a small label, was more or less dead in the water when it floated to the public, failing to chart or make any significant impact on most.

The one exception was Clive Davis, boss of Columbia Records at the time. He knew Ripp, and heard some of Billy’s music, then at Ripp’s request went to see him play live. “That was enough for me,” Davis would say. “He was clearly a triple threat – a gifted singer/songwriter, a torrid piano player and a sensational live performer.” Davis was able to buy out his contract from Family Productions and sign Joel to Columbia. That turned out well for all, with his first album on that label, Piano Man, vaulting him into the public eye.

As for Cold Spring Harbor though, it still didn’t sail far. Columbia eventually re-mastered it, recording a few new bits, eliminating an overdub here and there and fixing the speed, but it still failed to do much. To date, it’s the only Joel album of new pop/rock material not to have gone gold or better in the States. It has its fans though. Allmusic rate it a so-so 3-stars, but note it boasts “a score of flawed but nicely crafted songs” and that he “never made an album as vulnerable or intimate again.” Probably because he never sat in the palm of a producer’s hand again.