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.

July 29 – Billy ‘Bridge’d Gaps Between Sounds

On this day in 1986, one of the most popular artists of the previous decade put out his last really great album… to date. Billy Joel put out his tenth studio album, The Bridge, 35 years ago.

Joel had been on a great roll at that point. It seemed like the last of many singles off his 1983’s An Innocent Man were starting to fade from radio when he put out a wildly successful (as in 23X platinum) Greatest Hits package which included another new hit (“You’re Only Human”) the year before. The Bridge kept the momentum, more or less.

Billy was at that time newly married to Christie Brinkley and had just become a father, and the maturity in his life showed through on the album which was undeniably eclectic. Rolling Stone considered it the final part of a trilogy “with 1982’s outwards-looking Nylon Curtain and 1983’s backwards-looking An Innocent Man” this one presenting “a modest yet moving portrait of a mature man.” Ergo, two of the most endearing tracks on it deal with coming to terms with who one is (“Big Man on Mulberry Street”) and with the modern world (“Modern Woman” noting that “rock and roll used to be for kicks nowadays it’s politics” and wondering at how the lady of the house may now be the breadwinner , a shock for “an old fashioned guy” etc.)

The album veered musically from pop sub-genre to sub-genre, from the slow lounge music of his piano duet with Ray Charles, “Baby Grand”, to neo-big band jazz with his “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and the big, bold ballads he’d always excelled at (“This is the Time”) to more new wave-influenced sounds than we were used to from Billy, such as “Running on Ice” (apparently musically-inspired by The Police whom Joel was a big fan of at that point.)

Fans approved…by and large. Although it peaked at just #7 at home and #10 in Canada (doing best in Australia, where it was a #2 hit), it’s long run on the charts let it sell double platinum in both North American countries and be in the four million sales worldwide level. Not quite the mass appeal of An Innocent Man or his big ’70s releases but still a pretty significant success. Interestingly, it was one of the last albums Columbia put out on 8-track. We surmise this had little to do with its million-seller status!

The singles “Modern Woman” and “A Matter of Trust” both were top 10s in the U.S., and “This is the Time” gave him his 20th top 20 hit.

At the time, Rolling Stone considered it “much more appealing” than his brasher, youthful work. Even Robert Christagau gave him a nod, noting Billy was every bit “Ray Charles co-equal on ‘Baby Grand.’”

Although Joel would put out two more pop/rock studio albums and score a bigger hit single three years later with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, The Bridge was the last time he worked with his usual producer Phil Ramone and generally be seen as the last truly significant album. However, he has of course stayed busy, dabbling in classical music and having a sort of residency at Madison Square Gardens (where he sold out shows monthly for more than five years until the pandemic intervened, though he has a new run scheduled for there beginning again this December) … and recently he hinted he might just get back to the studio once again. Perhaps in time, we’ll see the ’86 album as “the bridge” between halves of his career.

February 15 – Billy Was ‘Stranger’ To Awards No More

February means a few significant things for different fans. For baseball fans, like myself, it’s the start to a new season if only by way of players showing up to work out in spring training sites. And for entertainment fans of all stripes, it’s the kickoff to “awards season.” Today we look at a solid year at the Grammy Awards, this night in 1979.

The 21st Grammy Awards took place in L.A. , honoring the music of 1978. Typical of all awards shows it would seem, it was hosted by a well-known figure from the field who was perhaps…just a bit beyond their prime. In this case, John Denver. Looking back, it stands out to rock/pop fans as being the one which first honored Billy Joel and Steely Dan with awards.

Joel had jumped to prominence in ’78 with his album of the previous year, The Stranger. He was awarded with both Song of the Year and Record of the Year for his first platinum single, (one which we bet was played a fair bit yesterday), “Just the Way You Are.” Phil Ramone got a Grammy along with Billy for the Record of the Year as he was the producer. After that, Joel went on to quickly line up 19 more American top 20 singles and win three more regular Grammys before taking home a Lifetime Achievement Award from them. to that he said “I’ve said some disparaging things about these kinds of awards, but to get that ‘Living Legend’ award along with Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin felt special.”

Steely Dan made pop records influenced by jazz in the ears and scientific perfectionism in the studio. They’d been nominated before for their song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the Aja album, but finally connected this time with the song “FM (No Static At All)”. Or, sorta did. Actually it wasn’t Becker and Fagen of the band but Al Schmitt and Roger Nichols who got to put trophies on the mantelpiece for their studio work, it won “best engineered record.” Strangely, Steely Dan would break up about three years later but then cash in on four of the awards in 2000 for their comeback album Two Against Nature.

The Grammys got a number of things right that year, it would seem. 1978 was the high-water mark for disco and appropriately, the genre’s best album, Saturday Night Fever won the Album of the Year, and the Bee Gees took one home for their work producing it. Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson took home country awards, which remarkably would likely be as tough to argue against in 2020 as it was back then. George Benson’s “On Broadway” took home an R&B trophy.

But as always, the awards’ crystal ball wasn’t entirely shiny enough to predict everything. The winner of the Best New Artist award for 1978 was A Taste of Honey. The disco band (which had been around for six years by then but struggled in obscurity until ’78) had a #1 hit song in North America, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” , a platinum single in both the U.S. and Canada. however, after that… they didn’t become household names, although they did have one more top 40 hit in the ’80s with “Sukiyaki.” As “great” as A Taste of Honey were, some four decades later, few would likely agree that in the long run they were better than other nominees – Chris Rea, The Cars, Elvis Costello and Toto.

November 1 – Bonus Bit : Billy Joel

Once again we present a piece written for Hanspostcard’s Slice the Life site and the “album draft” of “desert island” records. This time around, the subject is compilation albums.

So, “compilation” albums…but no box sets. The best ofs and greatest hits, the quick summations of a career on one (or two) easy records or CDs. A concept I’ve always liked. Which I realize puts me quite at odds with some of the other writers here, which is fine. To me, there are some types of greatest hits compilations which make eminent sense.

For example, ones by acts which were always singles-oriented. Let’s face it, pre-Pet Sounds and Revolver, a lot of artists concentrated on just that jukebox-ready single and rushed to put eight or nine other tracks onto the LP, which was an afterthought. I’m thinking of you, early Motown, though the Supremes or Four Tops were a long way from unique in that category.

Then there are the one-hit wonders, or two-hit wonders. In some cases, they deserved better fates, but in some cases, well… no offence intended Jack Hues, but does anyone really need seven Wang Chung albums at this point? Probably one Best Of will dish up all that most of us will really feel like listening to more than once or twice a decade. In a similar vein, there are artists who were prolific and put out some great albums but maybe just don’t appeal to me as much as they do to some others. I don’t dislike Styx, for example, but might not go out and buy The Grand Illusion or Kilroy Was Here. But if I’m walking through Walmart and see a greatest hits of their in a $4 bin, it could be a sale.

Then there are even the ones that might be worthwhile if they’re redundant in one’s collection (my pick today is close to that category but not exactly). The opposite of the last area, some bands or singers you like so much you want all their work. But sometimes it’s good to the real core hits on one disc for times when you can’t be shuffling around records or CDs that much… a Beatles compilation is handy for a half hour drive around the city, for example.

For me, I have a bigger percentage of these sorts of albums in my collection for another reason. Largely budgetary. I once had a pretty large collection of CDs with a fair number of LPs and singles still from the ’70s and first half of the ’80s; alas, I lost almost all of them a bit over a decade back. C’est le vie. So, I’ve been dealing with trying to rebuild my collection since and I don’t usually have the spare cash to just go wild in a record store and haul home a cartload at a time. (Then again,where would I find a record shop these days anyway?). So sometimes a Best Of is not my dream album for an artist but is better than nothing.

All that said, it made it really difficult for me to narrow it down to one pick. I ended up with about five strong contenders, artists whom I’d really like to have a selection of along with me. Run-sew-Read narrowed it down by one by picking Gordon Lightfoot, which left me with a trio of greatest hits’ I listen to start-to-finish routinely. Shout outs to Atlanta Rhythm Section, Squeeze and Howard Jones. But to me, I really would want some Piano Man with me on that island so my pick is-

The Essential Billy Joel. A 2001 double-CD best of that covered more or less Joel’s entire career. Three dozen tracks starting with “Piano Man” and running through to a couple of interesting classical instrumentals from his 2001 concerto Fantasies and Delusions. In between, pretty much all of his hit singles (“Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, “You May Be Right”, “Allentown”, “Uptown Girl”, “The Longest Time”, “A Matter of Trust”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and so many more) plus some of his better album tracks or lesser-known singles like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, “ Baby Grand” – a duet with Ray Charles – and “New York State of Mind.” Now a diehard fan could definitely split hairs and find a worthy song or two not included – “You’re Only Human” comes to mind – or an album track that you especially like that’s omitted, but it’s a pretty solid collection that captures most of the high points of his great career.

I’ve always liked Billy’s music right back to when I first heard the piano and harmonica-laden story of “Piano Man” on radio as a kid; I got The Stranger and 52nd Street on LP I think with my first package from Columbia House when I was a tween or young teen around the beginning of the ’80s and filled in the collection right through his under-rated The Bridge in the late-’80s. There was a time when he was in vogue and I liked him, then there was a time when he was very “uncool” but I’d still listen to Glass Houses or An Innocent Man right in between say Depeche Mode and Bauhaus. Once (or if) this pandemic ever goes away, seeing him in one of his monthly Madison Square Gardens shows is somewhere on my bucket list. His song structure, voice, and story-telling always have appealed to me and there aren’t many artists around whom I would enjoy hearing 30-odd tracks in a row from. Most of the ones who do fall into that category already have been picked by me for at least one album, so now’s Billy’s turn.

By the way, some might wonder why I chose this and not the more ubiquitous 1985 Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I mean, this album is triple platinum in the U.S. but his Greatest Hits is an astounding 23X platinum. Well, two reasons. First, we get more good tracks on this compilation. While the ’80s one did have “You’re only Human” lacking here, this one contains songs from albums after ’83 like The Bridge and River of Dreams. Secondly, I have found the quality of Greatest Hits to be iffy. I once had a copy which was fine but the last copy I bought a few years back was frankly lacking. It was poorly mastered, rather quiet in comparison to most discs and very muddy sounding. Little dynamic range. In contrast, I find the sound quality on The Essential to be top notch. Much like the music.

October 13 – Piano Man Was No Longer A Stranger

Going from a struggling piano bar singer and relatively unknown recording artist to a household name can be traumatic, if one really thinks about it. While it certainly has its perks, the fame also carries with it some pressure and stresses. It would seem “Mr. Madison Square Garden”, Billy Joel found that to be the case after he broke through with 1977’s the Stranger. He followed that up with his sixth studio album, 52nd Street , on this day in 1978.

Joel didn’t sound altogether uplifting on it – Blender noted years later he was “sounding paranoid and defensive… he sang about betrayal, hangovers, name-dropping cokeheads and affairs with waitresses” but the sound was still entirely likeable thanks to what allmusic called “dazzling with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances”. They, by the way, would go on to rate it 4-star, less than the preceding The Stranger or the follow-up, Glass Houses but pretty decent anyhow. They surprisingly compared him to Steely Dan… something I can’t really hear but both were popular on the growing FM radio market in the late-’70s. Surprisingly perhaps, while he was big on FM AOR radio his inspirations for 52nd Street were from earlier decades. He got the idea for the title from the Beatles Abbey Road, an album he loved and a recording style he tried to emulate in the studio. As for the street name itself, he says “52nd Street was ‘Swing Street’, where the old jazz clubs used to reside…we were kind of channeling that jazz stuff, even though we weren’t jazz musicians at all.”

Thanks to the singles “My Life”, “Honesty” and “Big Shot”, (all top 30s in the U.S.; “My Life” hit #3 in both the States and Canada while by getting to #12 in Britain it was his biggest hit until he brought out the retro-sounding An Innocent Man) the album established Billy as a major artist to be reckoned with. The album was his first #1 at home and in Canada as well as Australia, and won him the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1979. It clearly showed no one-hit wonder was Joel.

Although it sold fewer copies than The Stranger, at 7X platinum in his homeland and with more than 10 million copies sold worldwide, I doubt he nor anyone at Columbia Records was complaining. To whit, it was the first “rock” album released on CD in 1982 and ironically, the first vinyl album Sony put out when they got back into that end of the business in 2017.

July 19 – It Was Still Rock & Roll 40 Years Back

“I like it, it’s just not particularly new!” That’s how Billy Joel described new wave of the late-’70s in general and The Cars specifically and the basis of his first #1 single “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me” which topped the charts on this day in 1980.

The second single off Glass Houses (which was his second #1 album in the U.S.) would go on to sell over two million copies, earning him his second platinum single, and would also go on to #1 in Canada. The bouncy song has a straight-forward message about the trendiness of the music biz and throws in a jab or two at the music press which wasn’t kind of Joel at the time. And as for the “nothing new under the sun” sort of message- well, Billy himself admits the chord structure and progression of the song has a lot in common with Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” Joel would go on to have two more chart-topping singles in the ’80s, “Tell Her About it” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Although the pandemic has temporarily stopped his streak of monthly concerts at Madison Square Gardens, he apparently still plays when he can!

March 10 – New Wave? Still Rock & Roll To Billy

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,” his ninth to make it to the top 30 at that point.

The album was a bit more rock than his previous works (witness the fourth single, “Sometimes A Fantasy”) , 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.”