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.)