S1: Welcome to Hit Parade, a podcast of pop chart history from Slate magazine about the hits from coast to coast. I’m Chris M.A., chart analyst, pop critic and writer of Slate’s Why is This Song number one series?
S2: On today’s show 40 years ago, in April 1980, a well established pop star was making his comeback into the top 10 on the Billboard charts in popular parlance. This guy was nicknamed The Piano Man.
S3: Only Piano wasn’t the most prominent instrument on his latest hit. It was basically a guitar rock’s. That it’s become a sure way back in the mix on you may be right. You could hear it’s singer and songwriter Billy Joel pounding away on the piano, as usual. But not much about this song was usual for Joel. It was snotty, snide, snarky. Not the first time he tried on that attitude. But the first time he made it the first single from a new album. In fact, every single that Billy Joel hit machine released in 1980 downplayed the piano entirely. But while this was the most rock forward that Joel had been in his career to date, it was hardly the first time he’d tried on a new style and scored a hit with it. Bring it to you.
S4: The truth is, Billy Joel never really was the piano man. Not entirely, anyway. Some of his most famous piano standards weren’t actually Billboard chart hits in their day.
S5: In your state of.
S4: And even on the massive Grammy winning smashes, keyboards were just one tool in Joel’s bag of tricks. The song, not the tinkling of the Ivories, was what made Joel a hit with. Forget Piano Man, Joel was the pastiche man by the 80s when he was at the peak of his hit generating powers. He was trying on genres, styles and even voices like they were clothing.
S1: Sometimes he didn’t need any instruments besides the human voice does.
S4: And to a generation born after the 80s, he is now mostly known as the guy with that apocalyptic history lesson song. With too many words in it.
S1: Yes, we will talk about that strange, unkillable hot 100 number one hit and all of Joel’s billboard chart toppers.
S2: Was there ever a Billy Joel sound at all? And did it matter? Because, good God, all those hits.
S3: How did this guy do it? Today on Hit Parade, we are going to pinpoint the moment that Joel’s career attained exit velocity from his so-called piano man persona.
S2: The year he won the top Grammy, he released an album full of rock songs where the piano was an afterthought and he was rewarded for it, topping the charts more consistently than ever before.
S3: He even poked fun at his own stylistic insecurities right in the lyrics of a hit.
S6: It happened to me.
S3: And that’s where your hit parade marches today. The week ending July 19th, 1980, when it’s still rock and roll to me, became Billy Joel’s first number one song on the Hot 100. The same week his album Glass Houses was completing a six week run on top of the Billboard album chart. Joel had established himself as one of the new decade’s top pop stars and a man who would try anything. The next phase, new wave dance craze. Any ways to get on the way?
S2: In the critically acclaimed 1983 film comedy Zelig, written and directed by Woody Allen, by the way, although this is not an anecdote about him, the Jazz Age title character Leonard Zelig has an uncanny and scientifically unexplained capability. He takes on the appearance, style and speech of whomever he comes in contact with.
S7: With the doctors watching, Zelig becomes a perfect psychiatrist. When two Frenchmen are brought in, Zelig assumes their characters and speaks reasonable French.
S4: If you have ever heard a cultural critic call someone the Zelig of something.
S2: This is what they mean. Not just that the person is a chameleon, but that he sublimates his own identity to mimic, imitate or synthesize whatever other cultural figure is ready at hand. By that measure, I submit that Billy Joel was the Zelig figure of late 20th century pop.
S3: Not a copycat, but an adept cultural synthesis. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, Joel had an uncanny ability to take song troupes, production styles and even whole genres and run them through the Billy Joel machine strains.
S2: For the record, countless musical artists over the decades have tried this trick and scored hit songs with it, like Paul McCartney, who openly imitated the Beach Boys on the 1968 Beatles classic Back in the USSR.
S3: Or Bruno Mars, who seems to pick a different genre for each of his hits from imitating the police on Locked Out of Heaven two.
S4: Echoing Rick James and the Gap Band on Mars is Smash with Mark Ronson. Uptown Funk is myself, myself, like. Or how about a huge talent that the music world just lost to Corona virus?
S2: One month ago, Adam Schlesinger, the songwriter and multi instrumentalist from Fountains of Wayne Schlesinger, built his career out of an indefatigable talent for imitating everything from 60s British invasion to 70s New Wave to 90s New Jack Swing.
S3: In fact, recent memorials to Adam Schlesinger have pointed out that among the artists he grew up listening to was, you guessed it, Billy Joel.
S2: And this makes sense. Few artists scored as many billboard chart hits by imitating as many distinct songs subgenres as Joel.
S3: Billy Joe has many critics to name to Jimmy Gutterman and Awin O’Donnell, the co-authors of the 1991 book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, ranked joal as the worst rock and roller of all time. Critics like these called Jones dilatant songwriting approach Krass nakedly commercial and Shameless, which, by the way, is another song. Joel wrote in Another Style. I have encountered plenty of Billy Joel heaters in my life. Many call his music schlock. Truthfully, that may just be a statement of fact. On the other hand, as a New Yorker, I have grown up with Joel. Most of my blood relatives, especially on my Italian side, worship him.
S2: This podcast episode will not convince anyone on either side of the Billy Joel divide to change their minds or certainly their taste. Rather, I aim to point out that the haters and the worshippers are mostly focusing on the same thing. Billy Joel is a blatant peddler of a variety of instantly hummable styles. He picked up from across the rock era.
S1: Whether you have a problem with this is up to you.
S3: The fact is, William Martin Joel, born in the Bronx and famously raised in the Long Island town of Hicksville, New York, was virtually powerless in his desire to imitate his heroes.
S2: Joel didn’t even sound like himself. If there was such a thing from the moment he started recording, when.
S3: That’s the hassles Billy Joel’s first recording act, but not his first band as a teenager in Hicksville, Joel’s main interests were playing the piano. Lessons had been foisted on him as early as for boxing. He won 22 bouts as an amateur golden glove before finally stopping after a broken nose and soon enough, rock and roll. Like so many future music stars, Joe was impassioned by the Beatles, playing Ed Sullivan in 1964, just before his 15th birthday. By 1965. Still a teenager, Joel was playing as a session pianist and performing in the echoes of British invasion cover band popular on Long Island. After two band name changes, Joel eventually found himself playing with the hassles. Another Long Island band that signed a recording contract and his sound had shifted from British invasion rock to a kind of psychedelic aren’t being. This search by a young artist for a sound of his own is not exceptional in previous hit parade episodes.
S2: I’ve talked about how everyone from the Bee Gees to Donna Summer to Tom Petty made their bones with a sound different from the one that would later make them famous.
S3: But Joel proved himself even more of a genre dabbler than most. When the 60s were barely even over. This Proteau metal band, Atila, consisted of just two performers, Billy Joel on keyboards and his former hassles bandmates, John Small on drums.
S2: The album cover of their one LP 1970s Atila featured the duo posed in a meat locker wearing medieval armor, their hair the length of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Attila’s album was not a success. The band broke up in a year and might have. Anyway, after Joel had had an affair with his bandmates, wife, Elizabeth Weber would later become Joel’s first wife and the inspiration for a number of his early songs, including this one.
S8: She’s gone away. Please. I don’t know what it is, but that doesn’t have to be.
S4: She’s got a way was the lead off track to Cold Spring Harbor. Billy Joel’s 1971 solo debut LP from The Jump. This sounds like the Joel who would later become a superstar. But Joel was no overnight sensation issued on the Family Productions label via a rapacious contract that Joel would come to regret.
S2: Signing the Cold Spring Harbor LP was initially mastered at the wrong speed, making Joel’s voice on some tracks more nasal and high pitched. Still, though, the LP was a flop. Billboard reported it bubbling under the album chart at number 202.
S4: This was Joel finding himself the best known version of himself. Piano balladeer, writer of alluring rolling melodies.
S9: The way thanks.
S3: Back on what? That’s an important detail, by the way, Joe wrote all of his own material, making him to use the popular post Beatles early 70s term, a singer songwriter in this way, at least, his timing was good.
S2: In 1971, the top selling artist of the year was another piano playing heart on sleeve singer songwriter Carole King. I believe.
S4: But if singer songwriters were one dominant early 70s trend, so was album oriented Rock or Ayoade. And what finally got Billy Joel on the radio was when he reoriented his piano playing toward an H o r power and.
S3: One Saturday in April 1972, while on tour to promote Cold Spring Harbor, Joel and his band did a live radio performance at the famed Philadelphia studio Sigma Sound. They did it for Philly’s leading progressive rock station. W m m r.
S4: Joal debuted several songs that night that had yet to be recorded, one of which was an apparent stoner anthem called Captain Jack.
S10: You’d like to find the little hole in the ground for.
S4: Joel would later attest that the song was anti-drug. Its protagonist was, to him, quote, a pathetic loser. But of course, the lines Captain Jack will get you high tonight. Just a little push and you’ll be smilin worked either way on Alar radio.
S3: W m m Rs deejays and listeners loved the track, which at seven minutes had the length and heft of other Ayoade anthems of the period. W m m r put the Sigma Sound Live version of Captain Jack into their rotation for the next year, spinning it repeatedly while Joal went in search of a better recording contract.
S2: He eventually attracted the attention of major label Columbia Records, which signed Joal in 1973 on the strength of Captain Jack. A studio version of the song would later appear on Joel’s Columbia debut alongside other songs he had launched at W.M. M r. These songs showed off his eclecticism. Travellin Prayer, for example, was essentially a country song dominated not by Joel’s piano but by a banjo played by dueling banjos performer Eric Weisberg.
S3: For the record, Travellin Prayer was so authentic sounding, it was recorded by actual country artists. Banjo player Earl Scruggs issued his version less than a year after Joel’s version. King. And flashing ahead a quarter century. It was later covered by no less than Miss Dolly Parton.
S4: You can picture a parallel history where this skill is Billy Joel’s main claim to fame. A magpie songwriter with a gift for melody who writes songs that others make famous. But, of course, that’s not how things worked out. Thanks to his aforementioned 1973 major label debut album, did I mention the album’s title? So a word or two about the song that gave Billy his nickname and his persona. Yes. Piano Man is a piano based song about a piano player at a pub chronicling the sad lives of the barflies who request songs and, quote, put bread in my jar. But its primary instrumental hook is played not on piano, but on a harmonica.
S1: Joe would often perform the song handling both the piano and the harmonica himself, attaching the harp to his neck on a stand, Bob Dylan’s style.
S3: Joel would later cite Dylan as an influence on his harmonica playing and indeed Piano Man reads as a kind of pop folk song, a Tin Pan Alley meets Desolation Row hybrid. Maybe like me. Even if you are a Billy Joel fan. You don’t need to hear. Piano Man again.
S4: But it’s popular for a reason. A saloon ballad with a sturdy melody that’s simple enough for a child or a drunk adults to sing along with. And it finally got Billy Joel onto the charts. Piano Man debuted on the Hot 100 in February 1974 and peaked at number 25 by April.
S2: While the Piano Man album also reached the top 40 that spring, peaking at number 27 on the album chart, it sold only modestly. At the time, the LP would not even go gold for more than two years.
S3: And during that time, Joel issued two more albums, neither of which matched Piano Man’s Peak 1974 as Streetlife Serenade scraped the Top 40 on the coattails of its predecessor. But it spent less than half as long on the charts. John.
S4: Even now, Joel was still trying to hone his sound. The album’s title track. Street Life, Sarah Nader bore more than a passing resemblance to the chart dominant piano man of the era. Billy’s future friend, Elton John.
S2: A year and a half later, Joel’s album Turnstyles fared even worse on the charts, peaking at number 122. The well reviewed album found Joel casting an even wider net for musical inspiration. Its lead single, Say Goodbye to Hollywood was unknowing.
S3: Oh, Marge to one very specific 60s song. Joel was doing his best. Ronnie Specter imitation, recreating both the singing style and even the drumbeat of the immortal Phil Spector produced 1963 Ronettes hit Being My Baby. Elsewhere on Turnstyles, Joel channeled crooner Legends on an album cut that has since become a standard both for Joel and for the city. It commemorates.
S5: Now taking a break on the Hudson River line. I’m in a New York state on my.
S4: New York state of mind was never issued as a 45 r.p.m. single, hence as per billboard chart rules at the time it was ineligible for the hot 100, but it eventually became one of Joel’s most played radio tracks. After spending three years living and recording on the West Coast, Joel found himself homesick for his home state and poured those feelings into New York state of mind, essentially invoking the field, if not the exact sound of classic Tony Bennett.
S11: I left my.
S12: In San Francisco.
S4: In later interviews, Joel also said that the soulful approach of New York state of mind was meant to emulate the playing style of Ray Charles, a legend. Joel idolized Justin.
S13: He’s Chaja on.
S3: Still, New York state of mines slow emergence as an Empire State anthem didn’t help turnstyles, despite containing many of the songs that would become fan favorites, including Angry Young Man and Summer Highland Falls.
S14: You’re not the best of times. They’re the only times.
S3: Turnstyles was off the album chart in just 12 weeks. It would be the last new Billy Joel album to do so poorly on the charts. Of course, Joel didn’t know in 1976 that he had such a bright future. Reportedly, Columbia Records was already having second thoughts, just three albums into his contract.
S2: And Joel’s next album would be make or break for his career. Joel had gone about as far as he could as a straight up piano balladeer. Fortunately, he picked the right moment to step up his game.
S3: The stranger was Billy Joel’s commercial and creative breakthrough. Though it was bound together by Joel’s piano playing and lyrics that frequently evoked themes of his outer burrow New York City background, sonically, the LP was wide ranging. Joel had found a sympathetic partner in producer and fellow New Yorker Phil Ramone, who had just won a Grammy for producing Paul Simon’s 1976 album of the year winner.
S2: Still crazy after all these years. Ramone gave Joel confidence in his material, for example. He convinced Joel to leave in his own whistling at the start of the stranger’s title track. Ramone also supported Joel’s preference to use his touring band instead of studio musicians, and they, too, influenced the material.
S4: The Catholicism’s satire and pro lust anthem Only the Good Die Young was a slower paced reggae song until drummer Liberty DeVito persuaded Joel to give it a boogie woogie shuffle beat instead of. You got much, too. Joe was also still coming up with clever ways to nick an idea here and there. The closing piano on the album’s first single, Move It Out, Antony’s song.
S3: Was reportedly, by Joel’s own admission, an interpolation of the closing piano from the Eric Clapton classic Layla by Derek and the Dominos. And the epic scenes from an Italian restaurant which changes tempos multiple times over the course of its seven minute running time.
S15: OK, with me these days. Good job, good on this. I got on the wire.
S3: Was Joe’s attempt to cross the eclecticism of the second side of the Beatles, Abbey Road with the drama of mid 70s Bruce Springsteen epics like Jungle Land. Even the ballots, such as the drum lists, she’s always a woman, were kicked up a notch with stately arrangements more polished than on any prior Joal album.
S4: One ballot, however, out charted them all. Joel attempted to lead off the stranger with Movin Out as the first single, but moving out was at first ignored as radio programmers honed in on the album’s Melodist sweetest track. The jazzy sax inflected Just The Way You Are.
S13: Saw no less. Don’t change the.
S4: Joel and his bandmates found the song overly sappy, and he almost left it off the album. It took fellow singers Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, who visited Joel in the studio to convince him the sentimental song was worth keeping. Released in November 1977. Just The Way You Are became Billy Joel’s first top 10 hit in February of 1978, peaking at number three. The Stranger album reached number two. That same month right behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. And by the end of 1978, the stranger had spun off a stunning four top 40 hits Just The Way You Are. Which went on to win record of the year at the Grammys.
S2: Movin Out. Which did better the second time it was issued as a single reaching number 17. Only the Good Die Young, which reached number 24 despite libidinous lyrics that made certain radio stations uncomfortable. And she’s always a woman. Another number 17 hit finally experiencing the biggest break of his life. Billy Joel wasted no time recording a follow up LP one year to the month after The Stranger debuted.
S4: And while its final single, She’s Always a Woman, was still in the top 40. Joel issued Fifty Second Street.
S13: Things slowed down.
S4: Named after Manhattan’s famed center of jazz performance from the mid 20th century, 50 Second Street benefited from the coat tails of the stranger. And it shot to number one in only its fourth week on the album chart. Given the new album’s jazzy title and the fact that Joel had finally broken through with the smooth stylings of just the way you are, you might have expected. Joel’s grab at the brass ring to be filled with more cocktail lounge balladry. And there was song.
S6: Do win it.
S3: The take away, but Joel wanted to arrange wider than that, and he’d actually been paying attention to music outside his wheelhouse. From 1976 to 78. Wow, Billy Joel was recording, releasing and promoting the stranger punk happened to be sure. The idea that Billy Joel could ever be a punk is laughable on its face. But Joel was ready to start trying some harder rock than he’d attempted before. He also wanted to keep up with his peer. Elton John, who a couple of years before punk had proved he could rock credibly on hits like The Bitch is Back. So 50 Second Street didn’t open with a piano ballad or a wistful Tin Pan Alley Diddy track one was this seen as the dog parent known as. Big shot was yet another Billy Joel song about New York, but a different take on New York. It was a Snoddy downtown guys evisceration of Uptown Studio 54 era Proteau Yuppie Culture with references to fashion designer Halston and the Upper East Side Scene Store restaurant Illanes. Does it seem implausible to connect this song to punk? Decades later, the Beastie Boys didn’t think so. They covered Big Shot numerous times, live at a speed closer to the way Joe intended. Of course, Big Shot was still an outlier on the album. Nothing else on the Fifty Second Street LP rocked quite that hard. However, Joel was also cleverly invoking other all current pop stylings. My Life, the album’s first single, was about as Metta as a hit gets a California style pop song. At the peak of California pop that talks about California in the lyrics, the. Jill was no longer a Californian himself, having returned to his East Coast ancestral home, but on my life he showed he could do on trend Caleigh pop alongside the likes of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Rickie Lee Jones.
S4: My life even caught the moment when another piano troubadour, acclaimed West Coast satirist Randy Newman, was scoring hits of his own.
S3: As for Joel’s single, My Life immediately became one of his biggest pop hits. Matching just the way you are by peaking at number three on the hot 100 in January 1970. It was so popular that a little over a year later, it would be repurposed as the theme song to the Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari cross-dressing sitcom Bosom Buddies in every possible way.
S2: Fifty Second Street cleaned up by the end of 1979. The LP and Joel were nominated for multiple Grammys. Its third single. A more traditionally Joel like piano ballad called Honesty, was a nominee for Song of the Year. If you search the tent.
S16: It is in the.
S4: When Grammy night arrived in February 1980, fifty Second Street pulled off an upset winning album of the year over Grammy favorites like the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers and Donna Summer. Even though Joal didn’t bother to attend the ceremony at the time, he claimed to feel uncomfortable.
S2: At awards shows, the Grammy win affirmed that his genre hopping had worked, broadening his appeal to a new generation of pop fans. And it kicked off a busy year and ridiculously successful decade, one that would make Joel’s previous dabbling in anthemic rock, pseudo punk and West Coast pop seem like child’s play. As disco began to fade in 1980, several hit acts from the 70s turned toward retro rock sounds to score hits.
S3: For example, at the end of 1979, British rock band Queen issued the rockabilly single Crazy Little Thing called Love.
S4: By February 1980, Queen had their first American number one hit with it.
S2: Later that same year, John Lennon would come back with a retro hit to his future number one. Just like starting over, these rock acts were reacting not just to the commercial death of disco, but the rise of New Wave, which itself invoked elements of early rock and roll. But nobody did trends quite like Billy Joel, the man who had just scored a smash with my life. A West Coast song talking about the West Coast would now try his hand at a New Wave song that talked about New Wave and like Queens hit. It would thrum with a rockabilly pulse on it.
S6: Everybody’s top happened to me.
S4: Has there ever been a more self-referential chart topping hit then? It’s still rock and roll to me again, said a white guy.
S3: Now you’re gonna lose a man while a schizo, Billy Joel is having a conversation with himself. Old man rockabilly Joel expresses befuddlement at the kids with their new trends and skinny ties. New Wave Joal signified in the song by a different vocal effect, and the singer’s sneering tone is withering in his contempt for old man jode quote. Welcome back to The Age of Jive. Scoffs New wave jolt. It is both a lament about aging by a man who had only just turned 30 and a sly commentary on trend hopping. Joel had his new wave cake and eat it, too. And it’s being hit again. And damaging figures released as the second single from the 1980 album, Glass Houses. It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me, became Billy Joel’s first hot 100 number one in July 1980.
S2: As I noted at the top of the show, the single and album were both on top of their respective charts that summer. Actually, the album was already number one after its first single.
S3: You may be right, reached the top 10. Glasshouses was a self-conscious attempt down to its title and the cover shot of Joal, holding a rock in front of a plate glass window to shatter his prior piano man persona. Joel’s critics often point to this album as laughable evidence of him embarrassing himself. Author Jimmy Gutterman, in the worst rock and roll records of all time, calls glasshouses, quote, a package of bluster.
S2: Here’s the thing. Call Joel insecure, self-conscious, inauthentic.
S3: This career reboot worked. Glasshouses made Billy Joel a quintessential 1980s rock star, all purpose, multi genre, naturally tuneful, but meticulously produced.
S2: And not all of the album’s singles rocked part.
S17: Way grads, Brad.
S3: Don’t ask me what was yet another genre hopper for Joel with gentle Latin percussion and a melody that fused the sound of two Paul’s, McCartney and Simon. Indeed, it alluded to the Latin esq balladry of Paul McCartney’s early Beatles work.
S13: Why is that so crossed with Paul Simon’s light ethnic derived?
S17: Is it clear to see me in Holyoak that are released as the third and least rock driven single from glasshouses?
S3: Don’t ask me why. Reached number 19 in September 19.
S4: Having invoked McCartney, longtime Beatles fan Billy Joel’s next studio album would be largely an Omar’s to John Lennon in tribute to the former Beatle after his assassination in December.
S13: Nineteen eighty people seem crazy.
S3: The Lennon sound, marked by double tracked vocals and evocative lyrics, was all over Billy Joel’s 1982 studio album. The Nylon Curtain.
S1: This was a more experimental, thematically unified album for Joel.
S4: The nylon curtains lyrics were impressionistic, ambitious, often downbeat. Joel’s mood may have been affected not only by John Lennon’s death, but by a motorcycle accident that Joel suffered in April 1982, which delayed the album by a couple of months. In addition, during the LP, his creation, Joel’s marriage was falling apart. He and Elizabeth would divorce a few months before the album’s release.
S2: In any case, the nylon curtains lyrics reached beyond relationships and personal observations to chronicle the American experience on a large scale.
S1: Most notably traumatized Vietnam veterans on the deliberately bleak elegiac Good Night, Saigon. Yet Billy Joel had hardly turned minimalist overnight. This album was not a John Lennon Primal Scream LP, Joel Ever The Melodist, a McCartney fan, as much as a Lennon fan remembered to bring the pop hooks.
S4: Even when they were in an experimental package.
S3: Pressure. A kind of synthesizer symphony found Joel. Going deeper into trendy new ways. In the time between Joel’s studio albums, MTV has launched kicking off the music video era in America. Although Joel had shot music videos before dating back to the late 70s, they were relatively low concept affairs. Pressure was, in essence, Joel’s overt bid for MTV success. With its synth hooks pounding beat and paranoid lyrics about a modern society gone mad. The song sounded like a music video. Even on the radio. As for MTV, Joel provided a high concept clip. Directed by future Duran Duran video maker Russell Mulcahy with slow motion special effects and relentless edits to match the songs Jittery Mood Pressure. The Nylon Curtains Lead off single reached number 20 in November 1982. But the album’s combination of catchiness and social commentary was best realized on its second single and biggest hit. Allentown. Originally titled Levittown Town, about a Long Island suburb near where Joel grew up, Allentown turned into an ode to blue collar workers. After Joel switched the title to the Pennsylvania town, a former stronghold of the iron and steel industry. Diffused all of the influences Billy Joel was exploring on the nylon curtain, a jaundiced eye. Our. Bruce Springsteen double tracked vocals along John Lennon. And a music video which styled Billy as a modern day Woody Guthrie. Allentown reached number 17 in February 1983, across 12 years and seven albums. Billy Joel had tried to be his own version of Elton John, the Ronettes, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen. He’d paid Oh Marge to both Lennon and McCartney and echoed the Ramones queen. Randy Newman.
S2: Even Gary Numan entering 1983. Joel had a new idea. What if he packed a range of musical personae into a single album? What if on every track he was in essence a different artist from the past? This concept led to Billy Joel’s most hit packed LP ever, an album that improbably made the 34 year old one of the top stars of the early MTV era. He called the album An Innocent Man.
S1: In virtually every way, 1983 is an innocent man was an antidote to the nylon curtain ebullience where its predecessor had been, Dallen blatantly accessible, where its predecessor had been thorny and experimental. Simply put, Billy Joel was in a great mood. For starters, he was in a new romance dating his future second wife, supermodel Christie Brinkley. For another thing, once he settled on the album’s retro theme, the songs Joel said in later interviews poured out of him. And why not? He was openly rewriting musical tropes of his youth. But again, Joel’s reboots were not pure rip offs. He had a talent for evoking a specific song mood while writing an original melody. Take the first single, for example. Tell her about. Joel has openly admitted this song was an Omar’s to Motown. More specifically, the recordings of classic Motown girl group, the Supremes. She said it’s a game of. But tell her about it. Sounds like no one Supremes song. Never mind that a man is singing it.
S4: The song exudes Motown flavor down to its lyrics in which an experienced elder advises a younger man in the ways of romance.
S18: Good infamous.
S1: But the melody and the lyric are new, original, bespoke. Joel is a one man, Holland, Dozier, Holland, the legendary Motown songwriting team and OK, tell her about it isn’t as great as those immortal Supremes songs. But Joel did write himself a number one hit show. You tell her about it debuted on the Hot 100 in July 1983. And it was on top by September for the second time in three years. Billy Joel was leading America’s hit parade with a song that didn’t sound like typical Billy Joel. No prominent piano, no Troubadour ish lyric like it’s still rock and roll to me before it.
S4: Billy’s new hit was a knowing throwback and total kitsch. So kitschy, in fact, that in the song’s smash music video, Joel plays a singer performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Tell her about it was the only hot 100 No. One from an innocent man, but arguably it wasn’t. The album’s biggest, most enduring single. As many of my fellow chart nerds know, songs that pique lower can wind up with stronger legacies. And that was definitely true of the follow up.
S1: Uptown Girl reached number three on the Hot 100 in November 1983. But it held there for five weeks and spent a month longer on the chart overall. To this day, Uptown Girl is Billy Joel’s most played radio hit, and it was Joel’s only number one in England. It’s music video in which Billy plays a garage mechanic with not the best dancing skills, became an even bigger MTV sensation. Then tell her about it. Thanks to a cameo by Joe’s then girlfriend, Christie Brinkley. Of course, this was a retro billy in yet another 60s movie.
S4: Joel openly admitted Uptown Girl was in Oman to the leading falsetto singing doo wop group of his youth. The Four Seasons.
S1: This was the pattern for the next year and a half. Joel kept spinning off singles from the album.
S4: Six in total. All of them top 30 hits. And each was a kind of spot. The influences game. The title track from an innocent man. A number 10 hit in February 1984. I know someone was an interpolation of the moody, impassioned R and B of artists like The Drifters and Ben E King. The fourth single, The Longest Time was pure acappella doowop. Remarkably, despite its lack of instrumentation, save for a chorus of human voices. The song reached number 14 on the Hot 100 in May 1984 at the height of synth pop.
S19: It was the most stark sounding song on the radio as. Well.
S4: And of course, here again, Joel was paying his respects in this case to do Wop Hall of Famers, Frankie Lyman and the teenagers. The fifth single Leave a Tender Moment Alone was a yearning, mid tempo ballad with prominent harmonica. It reached number 27 in August 1984. Fans and Joel himself cited many influences for the track, including the Rascals and Smokey Robinson. But in a later interview, Joel revealed that he had deliberately based the melody for Leave a Tender Moment Alone on the Burt Bacharach How David Composition, sung by both Jackie Dushan and Deong War with What the World Needs Now. Finally, for the album’s improbable sixth top 40 hit. Joel went with the wistful album Closing Up-Tempo pop track Keeping the Faith. The album had so exceeded expectations that Joel and his label almost didn’t think it necessary to issue a sixth single at all. But after a gap of a few months, keeping the faith put a button on the innocent man era reaching number 18 in March of 1985, 19 months after the album’s release, it seems like lost.
S20: Remember, the Philharmonia ran a fun footnote.
S1: Keeping the Faith is perhaps the most difficult hit from an innocent man to spot the influence on.
S2: But Joel did get its lurching guitar groove from somewhere. Actually, it was an early 70s hit. Betty writes R and B jam clean up woman, a number six hit in January 1972.
S4: Okay, now here’s the fun part. If you think this similarity in the hook of both songs is just a coincidence. Go watch Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith video. He’s thrown in an Easter egg for eagle eyed fans around 45 seconds into the clip, which takes place in an imagined musical courtroom with Joel on trial to determine if he is an innocent man. Billy sits at the defense table spinning a vinyl single on his finger. And what, 45 is it a copy of Betty Wright’s clean up woman? By the start of 1985, an innocent man was quadruple platinum and more than half its songs were top 40 hits. The biggest hit ratio of any Billy Joel album. Most of the hits did not even feature the piano prominently, affirming that there was no one. Billy Joel sound at the peak of Michael Jackson. Duran Duran and Madonna. The dude from Hicksville was an MTV and radio megastar. People have been taking advantage of this peak moment, Joel picked 1985 to issue his first greatest hits album, a two record set that went on to become one of the best selling albums of all time. Joel included two new tracks on greatest hits, volume one and Volume two, one of which was a top 10 hit the rather dated synth pop meets doo wop track. You’re only human second.
S1: To Joel’s credit, the song’s theme, at least, was heartfelt a plea to teenagers contemplating suicide. From a songwriter who had battled depression and suicidal ideation himself, proceeds from your only human went to the National Committee for Youth Suicide Prevention during the first decade of his major label career.
S2: Joel had not allowed more than a year or two to go by without a new album, but now approaching 40. Joel was content to let up to three years lapse between LP. He’s the one thing that did remain consistent was that he would not settle on any one stuff.
S1: Joel’s 1986 album, The Bridge, if nothing else.
S4: We here at Hit Parade like that title was led off by another synth driven bouncy hit that even Joel himself later came to denigrate. Modern woman. A number 10 hit on the Hot 100 was taken from the equally forgettable Bette Midler, Danny DeVito film comedy Ruthless People. If anything was interesting about Modern Woman. It was its Broadway showtunes vibe. Joel had long flirted with music that sounded like it belonged on a stage. Indeed, a decade and a half later, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp would mount a jukebox musical, Movin Out, based entirely upon Joel’s music. This showtunes vibe pervaded much of the bridge from the chugging Urbain running on ice to the brassy Big Man on Mulberry Street, a song that inspired a musical episode of the hit Cybill Shepherd.
S1: Bruce Willis TV show Moonlighting.
S1: Now, I got. So start to finish. The bridge was a hodgepodge. Its biggest hit.
S4: A Matter of Trust was a rare song Joel wrote primarily for the guitar. In both the video and in concert, Joel abandons his piano to strap on an electric widely agreed to be the bridge’s best hit. A matter of trust reached number 10 in October 1986.
S1: And on the number 18 hit, this is the time, which is by and large a traditional wistful Billy Joel. Keyboard ballad relives. This is Joel overtly echoed these somber beach at winter vibe of Don Henley’s prior 1984 hit The Boys of Summer.
S4: Joel was now such a well established cultural figure by 1986 and 87 that he had the clout to do it with his hero, Ray Charles. And represent America in the then Soviet Union as part of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s cultural outreach effort known as glasnost. Billy Joel was invited to play a series of concerts, three in Moscow, three in Leningrad in the summer of 1987.
S1: He was the first Western rock star to play in the Soviet Union under communism. Joe recorded the Soviet concerts and released them later that year as a live album. His cover of The Beatles Back in the USSR, live in Leningrad, was the first single he’d ever issue written by someone other than himself. The triumph of the Russian tour could well have been a capper to Billy Joel’s career.
S4: A signal that he had evolved into a kind of pop eminence and would no longer be a hitmaker. Behind the scenes, Joel was in professional turmoil. He had tired of working with his established producer, Phil Ramone. And he uncovered fiscal malfeasance by his manager and former brother in law, Frank Weber, leading to a bitter lawsuit. The last thing anyone expected, Billy Joel included, was that he would score chart topping hits at the end of the 80s. Surely that would be a fluke.
S1: Yeah, about that.
S22: Luke got his day job.
S1: The story of how Billy Joel came to write his stream of consciousness history lesson. We didn’t start. The fire has been off told and maybe apocryphal in most versions.
S4: Joel claimed he wrote the song as a rejoinder to a Gen Xers who, in a conversation with Boomer Billy, claimed that nothing much had happened in the 50s. Joel was aghast. Quote, Wait a minute.
S1: I told him. Didn’t you ever hear of Dien Bien Phu? The Hungarian freedom fighters. The Suez Canal crisis. He never heard of any of this stuff. Unquote. In some versions of Joel’s story, the dude he was debating was a 21 year old friend of John Lennon’s son, Sean Ono Lennon. Anyway, Joel also claims he wrote fires lyrics as a kind of mental exercise and as a way for this high school dropout to satisfy his long held secret dream of being a history professor.
S4: Musically, Joel has also claimed in certain interviews that the bars he’s dropping in the song were inspired by the rise of hip hop, which in 1988 and 89 was entering its golden period.
S20: I was afraid before I became a teen idol did microphages that a I feel music orientated. So when hip hop was a resonate, it faded. I think pulse a bit complicated.
S4: Even Jones most negative critics half agree with this comparison. Cynically calling we and start the fire a white man’s or baby boomers rap. What is likely closer to the truth, however, is that Joel, fans and critics agree, was inspired by Ari Emes own tongue twisting words. Soup hit from 1988, the similarly apocalyptic.
S1: It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I find. As I noted in our RDM episode of Hit Parade. End of the World is actually a much wordier song. Billy Joel’s hit is nearly a minute longer than Aria Ms. But contains about 100 fewer words. Whatever its inspiration, here’s the funniest and most ironic thing about we didn’t start the fire indisputably. He was written by a baby boomer ranting at a younger person. It is quite literally, to paraphrase The Simpsons, the old man yells at cloud of pop hits, and yet we didn’t start the fire. He is beloved by generations of young people. School kids memorize its history lesson lyrics, Hamilton style. And it remains the Joel hit that millennials and Gen Z are likeliest to know. Just ask my teenage stepson. This is the only Billy Joel song on his Spotify playlist. It was also loved by young people in 1989. In a year when Paula Abdool New Kids on the Block and Janet Jackson were topping the charts, we didn’t start the fire. Became Billy Joel’s third and last career number one, topping the hot 100 in December 1989. And that’s the final irony. This song completes a hat trick of Billy Joel chart toppers in which the piano is not the primary instrument. Fire in particular seems to possess everything but a baby grand. Squealing guitars, pinging synthesizers, pounding drums, even congas and timbales on the clattering rhythm track. To recap, it’s still rock and roll to me. Tell her about it and read it and start the fire. These are the so-called piano man’s three number one hits. Liberace. Good bye.
S4: We didn’t start the fire. Led off the release of Joel’s 1989 album Storm Fronts, his first LP in more than a dozen years. Not to be produced by Phil Ramone after shopping around for producers. At one point, Joel was reportedly even considering Eddie Van Halen. Billy settled on Mick Jones, the British guitarist and founder of the hit rock band formed. The album Jones produced for Joel, thanks in large part to We Didn’t Start the Fire became Billy’s first album chart number one since Glasshouses in 1980. Joel’s 83 album, An Innocent Man, despite spinning off all those hits, couldn’t get past number four on the album chart in the peak year of Michael Jackson’s thriller. Possibly also because of Mick Jones’s credibility on album rock radio, the singles from Stormfront got Joel back on.
S1: AOL are with higher charting hits than he’d enjoyed on that format in a year. I go to extremes. The second single from Stormfront was its second top 10 hit on the album Rock Chart and another top 10 hit on the Hot 100, peaking at number six. The album spun off a half dozen singles to various radio formats. And yet again, the sound of the singles was eclectic.
S4: Storm Fronts Third, Top 40 Pop hit the heartbreaking ballad. And so it goes. A song Joel wrote back in 1983 and based on an old English folk ballad, reached number 37 on the Hot 100. And number five at Adult Contemporary Radio is. But possibly the most uncharacteristic song on Stormfront was an album Cut. Buried in the middle of the LP, a bluesy twangy saloon ballad about abject infatuation called Shameless.
S1: Joe had no intention of releasing Shameless as a single. But in 1991, rising country megastar Garth Brooks heard Shameless for what it was a country song waiting to happen. Of course, Joel had written and recorded songs that edged toward country before the aforementioned Travellin Prayer was covered by country artists and another piano man Deep Cut, The Ballad of Billy the Kid played with Western cowboy troops. But at the turn of the 90s, country music was moving in Billy Joel’s direction.
S4: New artists like Brooks cited 70s rock acts like the Eagles, James Taylor and Yes, Joal as inspirations for their music as much as they cited Hank Williams. So Garth Brooks recorded a cover of Shameless Nashville style for his blockbuster album Ropen The.
S4: It comes and it became a country mega hit topping Billboard’s Hot Country songs chart for two weeks. In November 1991, even Joel’s original version of the song became a minor latter day hit on the adult contemporary chart, thanks to Brooks’s cover a few years later at Garth’s heavily hyped 1997 concert in Central Park. Famed New Yorker Billy Joel joined him on stage to perform the song that Joel had written. And Brooks had made things. Thomas’s that back in the early 90s, however, Garth Brooks wasn’t the only new thing happening in popular music. The evolution of the Billboard charts under the computerized sound scan system, as we talked about in prior episodes of Hit Parade, revealed that both country and hip hop were more popular than previously realized. And that baby boomer era rock stars were not quite the chart titans. They had been hyped as Gen X music, particularly grunge and gangsta rap began to take over. Thanks in part to the charts improved accuracy. You would think this finally would put an end to Billy Joel’s chart topping era? Not quite, unless the man has a say in 1993. Joel returned with one more studio album, River of Dreams, and once again it was preceded by a pop single that proved irresistible. The album’s title track, The River of Dreams Joel was not exactly on trend with this song. Most critics proclaimed that Joel was imitating, or at least alluding to the cross of African music and New York style rock and roll proffered by fellow New Yorker Paul Simon on his blockbuster 1986 album, Grace Gates. If you go back and. A package Joel’s new record was arriving seven years after Simon’s Grammy winning, but yet again, Joel managed to capture the flavor of Simon’s cross-cultural experiment without copying any one Graceland song. In addition, and very cleverly, the River of Dreams, with its doowop and R and B vocals, also invoked the classic style of the Tokens 1961 chart topping hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which was itself adapted from African music.
S1: But as had been true throughout his career, the end result was just Billy Joel music. These influences were transmogrified into yet another improbable, undeniable. In the middle of night, in the year of grunge and Gangsta’s Joel’s latest single reached number three on the Hot 100 in October of 1993. And that wasn’t the most incredible shart feat by 1993, with SoundScan in effect on the charts. It was now normal for superstar artists to debut high with their new albums. And so when Joel released the River of Dreams C.D. in August, it debuted at number one on the album chart. At age 44, Billy Joel had his first ever LP open on top of the charts. No other song from River of Dreams did as well on the charts as its title track.
S2: Although yet again the singles were varied and the last single Joel issued from the album pointed the way toward his future.
S4: Lullabye parentheses. Good night, my angel was originally not a pop song. Joel wrote it as a standalone classical piece. He had infused songs with classical melodies before one track on an innocent man. The album cut this night, borrowed the second movement of Ludwig von Beethoven’s pathetic sonata. Joel credited Beethoven in the piece liner notes, but Lullaby became a literal lullaby for his daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, one night after he was trying to reassure the girl before bed. Joel took his stand alone instrumental piano piece and added the lyrics.
S24: Where you are, I never to be for you. Good night, my angel.
S4: Now, it’s though not a big hit. It made the top 20 on the adult contemporary chart and only number 77 on the Hot 100. Lullabye served as a quiet coda on Billy Joel’s pop career. He would never write or record another pop album again. Always at war with his critics and wary of trying to be a hit maker into middle age, Joel simply decided to take himself out of the game with one last chart topping album under his belt since. River of Dreams. Joel’s recording has been very sporadic. In 2001, he issued his first and to date only fully composed classical album The Self Deprecatingly, titled Fantasies and Delusions, performed by pianist Richard Heung Ki Ju. The album was filled with more of the A style piano pieces, not unlike the original lullaby that Joel had been toying with for years.
S25: I guess I got to a point in my life. I just thought that I had said all I wanted to say with lyrics. I may write songs again. I don’t know. But for the last eight years, all I’ve been writing is instrumental music and it speaks for me.
S4: As for pop music with lyrics, Joel scored only one more such chart hit in 1997. On the occasion of the release of yet another Greatest Hits album, Joel recorded a song written not by himself but by rock legend Bob Dylan.
S26: That was soon to become a standard to make you feel my love.
S27: When rain is blowing in your face. Don, you key.
S4: Joel was actually the first to record this oft covered track. It would later be released by Dylan himself, as well as Garth Brooks and Adele. Joel’s version was only a modest hit, peaking halfway up the hot 100 and making the top 10 on the adult contemporary chart.
S2: Live performance has been another story, although even there, Joel more than once has threatened to take himself off the road. One so-called farewell concert on New Year’s Eve 1999 led to a two year absence that ended with a pair of nine benefit performances. A series of successful tours with Elton John were blockbusters in the 90s and aughts. But a feud between the Piano Men over Elton’s impressions of Joel’s health and sobriety after his rehab stints brought those tours to an end. By 2010, Joel has told his band more than once privately he wanted to hang it up, only to be lured back for a concert appearance. For most of the last decade, however, Joel has been enjoying a renaissance in his public regard. He received the Kennedy Center Honors from President Obama in 2013 and a month later. Joel began a so-called residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden, a series of monthly concerts at the arena that he says will continue as long as there is demand for tickets. He has interspersed the garden shows with one off concerts at ballparks and arenas around the country. And in February 2020, just before the novel coronavirus shut down all touring nationwide, Joel played the record seventy third consecutive monthly show of his Madison Square Garden residency at the Garden shows. Joel has a charming sense of perspective about his deep musical catalog. The shows are packed with hits, but he will also take a moment to pull the audience on what song they would prefer to hear.
S13: First choice would be a song just the way.
S28: The other choices on Kofi Annan.
S26: At practically every concert, Joel’s fans choose Vienna over the mega hit Just the way you are. Both songs were on Jules Breakthrough 1977 album The Stranger. But Vienna was never issued as a single. It was not a hit on the charts or any radio format. Joel has long claimed he wrote Vienna for his German born father, Helmut Joel. The song has elements of Kurt Vile and German cabaret. And on record, it even includes an accordion solo. In other words, when given the choice between one of Billy Joel’s most iconic hits and a deep cut where he is imitating the music of VI Ma Republic era Germany, his fans pick the German pastiche every time. Sure, it is a piano song. Billy Joel will never fully kick the moniker Piano Man. But it’s also one more reminder. The Billy Joel sound effortlessly melodic, shamelessly sentimental, always crowd pleasing contains multitudes. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Hit Parade. Our show was written, edited and narrated by Chris M.A.. That’s me. My producer for this episode was Benjamin Fresh, and we also had help from Rosemary Bellson, my very special thanks to musician and Billy Joel consultant Julian Ballade. June Thomas is the senior managing producer and Gabriel Roth, the editorial director of Slate podcasts. Check out their roster of shows at Slate dot com slash podcasts. Thanks for listening. And I look forward to leading the hit parade back your way. Until then, keep on marching on the one. I’m Chris, Malenka.