Updated: Jun 6, 2020
There are few artists who are prepared to be quite as open as Billy Joel about their influences and for him, it's all about the Beatles. He's performed over 25 of their songs in concert from "Back In The USSR" to "In My Life" and "A Hard Day's Night" - he seems to include a different one in every new tour's setlist.
It's very easy to write him off as singing like Lennon and writing like McCartney but he is undoubtedly far more of a student of their sound and construction than many of their countless other admirers. Joel understands their textures, their layering and their delivery better than most.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to his 1982 album "The Nylon Curtain".
Now this might well be the one you don't have in your collection because it only sold 2 million in the US and was not a big global seller elsewhere except Japan. It comes in the middle of a string of massive albums - "The Stranger", "52nd Street", Glass Houses" and then "An Innocent Man" - but somehow sold only about a third of the others. Interestingly, Billy Joel has only made twelve mainstream albums - the last of which was in 1993, despite still touring regularly. When asked why (by contrast his one-time touring partner, Elton John has made over 35 in a similar career length), he simply replied that he had said all he had to say.
Which brings me back to "The Nylon Curtain" which is undoubtedly the album where he felt he had so much to say.
I think there are several contributing factors for this.
In a case of life imitating art, Joel had a motorbike accident early on in the recording (cf. "You May Be Right") and as all near-death experiences do, this doubtless led to more introspection.
With the assassination of John Lennon at the end of 1980, this, as it was to the rest of the world's music-loving community, a seismic blow. As I said earlier, no band had a more profound effect on Billy Joel than the Beatles did and the following year will have been spent reabsorbing so much of their work again. The album is littered with Beatles nods in terms of layering and melody particularly "Laura" and "Scandinavian Skies" and many of his vocal deliveries really do mimic the slain Beatle.
Finally, I suspect The Blues Brothers had a role to play.
That's right - Jake and Elwood.
From the mid-70s onwards, Joel had been incredibly prolific and seemed to have created memorable hit after memorable hit from "Piano Man" onwards but obviously felt a little pigeon-holed. Musically he was certainly extremely accomplished and his slices of Long Island life and genuinely moving love songs had sold by the bucketload. The crowning achievement being the Record Of The Year at the Grammys with "Just The Way You Are".
It's easy to under-estimate the effect of this song because it is now so familiar and even at its first unveiling sounded like a standard. By 1979 (only a couple of years later) when, in a scene in "The Blues Brothers", Murph and the Murphtones wind up their lounge act with the call to the audience of "Don't you go changing.." at the interval in their set. The song already feels demeaned and open for parody. A fact that can only have rankled with someone as accomplished as Billy Joel.
He's a good sport evidently and will have gone along with the joke but I feel certain that when Booker T and the MGs (the Blues Brothers band after all) are mocking your finest achievement you feel the need to respond somehow.
1980's "Glass Houses" is a spikier album than its predecessors and it is determined to portray the rockier side of Joel's persona but this didn't satisfy and so when combined with the other factors, he was led to a desire to record something more ambitious and more serious than his usually more homespun themes.
This meant that together with his producer, Phil Ramone, he set out to explore a much more developed sonic landscape for the record with more detailed instrumentation both orchestral and the then in-vogue synthesiser ("Pressure"). It was also one of the first albums recorded entirely digitally so try and get a quality pressing - I have a Japanese Master Sound version and it superbly rich.
Basically, everything from the lengthy recording process to the new beard the artist sported on the rear cover indicated that Billy Joel wanted to be taken very seriously.
There are two main anchors on the first side of the record which to the Greatest Hits owners may be a little more familiar in "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon". Both are towering achievements and had they been Springsteen's songs may be lauded as more insightful and enduring than they have been historically. After all they are of similar background and vintage.
"Allentown" is a searing indictment on the decline of the steel industry in Pennsylvania that has a post-war nostalgia that he would revisit again eight years later in "We Didn't Start The Fire". Under the Reagan administration, much of the landscape upon which America's industry had been built, was changed irrevocably and the negative effect on communities was something that Joel felt he needed to express, having grown up in the middle of this blue collar world. Social commentary isn't normally this catchy - the refrain is used to close the album beautifully as a reprise at the very end of "Where's The Orchestra".
The second anchor, "Goodnight Saigon" manages the extraordinary feat of being supremely epic and yet deeply moving. This album put great store on the weaving of sound effects into the musical texture (the "Back In The USSR" nod of roaring plane engines effect in "Scandinavian Skies" is a great example) but from the moment you hear the chirrup of the crickets morph into the whirr of the Huey 's rotor blades blended with the metronomic shake of a simple maraca, you know you are on the verge of hearing something quite extraordinary. Musically, it is fascinating as instead of being driven by piano - as so much of Joel's work naturally is - the acoustic guitar drives the rhythm giving the campfire feel with the piano punctuating with a riff in the way a guitar normally would. Then the instruments gradually enter and swell until the field snare snaps into action over the middle. It is exercised with military precision and that deliberately adds to the tension of the recording.
Every decade has produced lasting anti-war songs and yet I find this perhaps the most provocative of them all - and this is its paradox because the lyrics don't try to rail against the injustice of the Vietnam War or take sides in the debate. Instead, it draws entirely on the experience with which the young soldiers so dramatically collided. It leaves you awash with a sense of futility and poignancy. Joel hadn't served in the military but many of his peers had and he wrote the song at the prompting of some of his veteran friends who had lived through the combat. This explains the scale of human detail that imbues the whole recording and so carries its own sense of duty - a testament to the men who "left their childhood on every acre"..
By managing to haul up all the major themes of a soldier's existence, it manages to exude scale and claustrophobia the same time and so it is simply a towering achievement.
"Room Of Our Own" and "Laura" very clearly show off the Beatles influences with a vocal delivery straight from the Lennon playbpok - sometimes snarling, sometimes profane, sometimes using his trademark hard consonants. I would suggest that as a lyricist Billy Joel is tighter than both of his latter period idols and perhaps is closer to George Harrison's more meticulous style in the late Beatles.
However, "She's Right On Time" is exactly the kind of song Paul might have written for Linda. It is full of homely details and has that kind of "Maybe I'm Amazed" aura around it - Joel would open the multi-artist tribute "The Art Of McCartney" with his own version of that song, which I imagine was quite a thrill for him . They both seem to have found kindred spirits in one another, as the last ever concert at Shea Stadium was Joel's and McCartney flew over and somehow with a police escort got through the New York traffic to be his guest at the closing.
"She's Right On Time" is also one of the songs of which the writer is most proud and he's right to be, as although it is a love song of the ilk that Joel is so proficient at, it has all the sincerity of "Just The Way You Are" without its (wrongly attributed) naffness. It was never actually intended to be a Christmas song but the lyrics just included references to "Christmas lights".
What is unforgivable is the promo film which manages somehow to devastate all the subtlety and romance of the song with a slapstick "Home Alone" mugging for the camera performance and script. I have flinched from sharing it with you. As somebody once said "Leave A Tender Moment Alone".
The most dated track on the album is "Pressure" mainly because of its applied synth sounds but it is undoubtedly an intense piece of writing and accordingly still remains a staple of the live set where it really manages to kick on. Certainly as a microcosm of his frame of mind at the time of writing it presents a strong marker. His desire to want to deliver something astonishing is etched in every groove.
"Scandinavian Skies" is the story of a European Tour undertaken in trying conditions and some fans think it is a song about nothing and consequently lightweight but this is not so. This is a tale of weariness, the monotony and struggle of life on the road - it shows how far he has come from being the "Piano Man" in a "Scene From an Italian Restaurant" - no more the eager to please "Entertainer".
Here are a host of Magical Mystery Tour flourishes - sawing strings, sound effects and even mellotron imitations. It is as close as you might find to a psychedelic trip on one of his records except it doesn't drop into lazy writing or lysergic nonsense but maintains it's narrative throughout. so instead it produces another cinematic experience.
Billy In The Sky With Diamonds.
And then at the end. A piano based number called "Where's The Orchestra?" - a seeming return to typical balladry but agin it has elements of McCartney playing on "Let It Be" album (without Phil Spector's embellishments) when he created a lot of songs at the keyboard rather than the guitar. It also has a typical kind of "everyman" theme of a simple man being forced to endure an intellectual evening at the theatre. All Billy wants is a night out with some music - you can imagine ordinary old man of the people Macca empathising.
Live it's even better just played at the keyboard - firstly because on the recording you realise how rarely you hear saxophones these days and so they tend to startle you slightly and distract from the enjoyment.
And then you hear that final "Allentown" refrain.bringing the album full circle.
It won't shock you that I surprised myself with this album and now think it is his overlooked masterpiece. Of course, if you've never liked him it won't convert you but if you have but tend to file him away under AOR or even Easy Listening, I really think you'll thank me.
His writing is always on point and never wastes a story telling opportunity. However the sheer scale of his musical ideas and his desire to say something important whilst very clearly acknowledging both the inspirational invention of the Beatles and the social spirit of Springsteen.
You should take a peek behind this particular Curtain.