Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Billy Joel any good?

Growing up, driving around in a black, weather faded Renault, then a highly economical Passat, my parents subjected me and my brother to many a songsmith, from Bob Dylan to Clapton to, you’ve guessed it from the title, Billy Joel.

Years later and my love of Dylan is strong, Clapton, meh, and Billy Joel…well, I just don’t know. Some of his stuff is overblown tripe, I think, but other songs seem deceptively good, I think.

It doesn't help that songs like Uptown Girl have moulded his reputation in the general consciousness (mostly probably mis attributed as a Westlife song too I would bet) and he seems to have this vague air of “ha, Billy Joel? Don’t make me laugh…” A sentiment my brother and I both developed as we grew up but that now I think we would both admit has passed into grudging respect, even enjoyment.

A song like Piano Man is the very model of a genuinely good pop hit. Melancholic, rousing, reflective, engrossing, uplifting if you wish, downbeat if that’s your mood, it's up to you.

Goodnight Saigon is a damning reminder of the pointless waste of the Vietnam War, complete with dramatic helicopter sound effects and a huge military chorus of “We will all go down together”. It’s actually kind of heartbreaking.

We Didn’t Start the Fire is an incredible piece of showmanship, even if some of the rhymes are a bit forced. Yet again, it’s also sort of laughable when you hear it too many times. It’s certainly ripe for parody too.

Then we come to Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. A seven minute plus pop epic that starts with a slow, almost saccharine love song chorus then randomly shifts into a fast, three-line stanza-ed rock song complete with madly upbeat clarinet work, trumpet solos and jaunty piano fills and trills that all flit around a song about the “popular steadies Brenda and Eddie” realising their love isn’t that strong and falling apart. It’s bizarrely epic and inappropriately upbeat. 

Also, a lot of Joel's lyrics actually make sense. Someone like Elton John is a clear example of a similar type of musician (broadly speaking), yet some of his Bernie Taupin's lyrics are scandalous: "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kid, in fact it's cold as hell...and there's no one there to raise them, if you did". What the hell does that mean? Sheer nonsense.

Yet rarely, if ever, does Joel ever seem to feature in any Top 100 this, or Top 50 that lists. I feel this is an oversight.  Although they did make a stage musical of his songs. Which is something. Also, we share the same birthday. So that’s nice. 

Any response to all these musings? Good, bad, indifferent? Well?!


Piley said...

I did a post on Joel a while back with exactly the same problem.... My all time worst record is Uptown Girl, yet I've grown to be a fan of him (well his 70's output at least). If you've not tried it, check out his debut album 'Cold Spring Harbor', which is up there with his best ever work. Still an incredible album - but be careful which version you get. The original is sparse sounding, but to capitalise on his 80's sucess the record company overdubbed it with synths and all sorts of crap - even faded out one of the most beautiful tracks a couple of minutes early!!!

Good post


PS - for what it's worth, here's my ten pence worth:

Dan Worth said...

Thanks for your comment.

Read your post, really similar to mine! (Promise I hadn't read it already...) but yes, you touch on the same points about the lyrically cleverness that seems to be overlooked now.

Thanks for the album tip, I'll look in to that.