He hasn’t made a rock album since 1993, but he sells out Madison Square Garden every month. As of this writing, 70-year-old Billy Joel has performed at MSG for 64 consecutive months, concerts that have grossed him over $130 million. He’s currently the third-highest selling solo artist in the U.S. Obviously, many fans still think of him as the quintessential American songwriter.
This native New Yorker started his solo career at 22, convincing producer Artie Ripp to put out his first record for Ripp’s indie label, Family Productions. As productions go, Cold Spring Harbor (1971) was an infamous disaster. Ripp recorded it at the wrong speed, so all the tracks are a quarter-tone sharp; he also failed to promote it effectively. Not surprisingly, it was Joel and Ripp’s last collaboration.
The contents of Cold Spring Harbor are another matter. The songs are cleverly structured, with sweeping melody lines and interesting harmonies. While the arrangements by studio and soundtrack legend Jimmie Haskell add richness and depth, it’s Joel’s piano playing (plus occasional stints on organ and harpsichord) that forms the foundation of his sound. The lyrics are smart yet emotional, at the edge of prog-rock for the intensity of their meaning. You’ll hear all these elements at work in “The Falling of the Rain”:
Joel wanted out of his contract with Ripp, and he lucked into the legal backing of Columbia Records when they heard his song “Captain Jack.” It was becoming sort of a cult hit in Philadelphia, and Columbia A&R recognized an up-and-coming star. While the legal battle over Joel’s second album, Piano Man (1973), was grim (Joel ended up splitting royalties with Ripp for every subsequent album until 1986), it enjoyed very good sales and garnered a solid hit with its title-track single.
One of the less-played cuts is “Stop in Nevada,” an early example of a Joel song that seems like it’s telling a story but is essentially more of a character study. He’s made this a specialty subgenre throughout his career. What makes this one unusual is the fact that it focuses empathetically on a woman’s experience and disappointment.
While Streetlife Serenade (1974) sold acceptably, it got some bad reviews and had no hit singles, at least not in the traditional sense. Compared to your standard rock star, Joel’s career has been oddly shaped, allowing his hits to develop over time. “The Entertainer,” “Souvenir,” and “Last of the Big Time Spenders” are more familiar now than they were when the album’s sales were at their height.
The cut “Streetlife Serenader” is a touching, thoughtful song whose power comes partly from the constant switch between major and minor modes. Joel’s piano playing is far more sensitive and sculpted than one usually finds among pop musicians, who instinctively bang the keyboard just to be heard.
Turnstiles (1976), the album that brought the world “New York State of Mind,” had a little gem on side 2, a tribute to an old friend called “James.” This loving and patient homage features intriguing harmonic twists, not to mention Joel getting comfortable with a simple synth sound. The critics who blasted this album for being “obnoxious,” distracted by the louder tracks, might have taken the time to listen more closely to “James.”
A new era of Joel’s recording career launched with The Stranger (1977), when he started a hugely successful 6-album collaboration with Phil Ramone as producer. It’s hardly controversial to say these six records are as strong artistically as they were commercially. Seven of The Stranger’s nine songs turned into smash singles, so we’ll proceed to the second Ramone-produced album, 52nd Street (1978), which has four non-single tracks for us to choose from.
Dave Grusin provided the spectacular horn arrangements for “Half a Mile Away,” a song that shows off Joel’s soul side. His usual drummer, Liberty DeVitto, contributes a bright and brittle backbone.
Next up was Glass Houses (1980). In the shadow of classics like “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” it’s easy to forget one of the most beautiful melodies Joel ever wrote. “Through the Long Night” seems almost painful in its simplicity at first. But the more you listen, the more complexity you’ll find under its surface, from the mid-verse modulations to the word play: “All your past sins are since passed…”
Joel has expressed particular pride in 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, an album important to music history in part for being one of the first ever produced digitally. If you notice less saxophone than usual for a Joel album, it’s because his regular player, Richie Cannata, had left the band, so Joel just used a session musician for a couple of numbers. All the A-side tracks turned into powerhouse singles, including “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon.”
The B-side gets less attention, but only because of the album’s embarrassment of riches. “A Room of Our Own” is an old-school boogie featuring Joel’s sardonic wit and (critics have reasonably guessed) a tribute to the recently assassinated John Lennon in the rhythmic and vocal style:
After An Innocent Man (1983), another success, Ramone took the helm one last time. The 1986 album The Bridge offered three big singles, not to mention a duet with Ray Charles. Like most artists with long careers, Joel absorbed the industry’s changing sounds into his music; The Bridge shows him bowing to some New Wave conventions. For one thing, Cyndi Lauper shows up to sing backing vocals on “Code of Silence.”
The opening number, “Running on Ice,” is an obvious tribute to The Police, with a pulsing syncopated reggae rhythm. Joel even seems to change his voice to mimic Sting’s breathy tenor.
The following album, Storm Front (1989), had so many hits that we’ll just stop long enough to tip our hats and shake our heads. This record marked the end of Joel’s real commercial power as a studio artist. Little did he know that he’d barely tapped into his commercial power as a performer!
River of Dreams (1993) is Joel’s final pop studio album (he released the classical record Fantasies and Delusions in 2001). While the song topics in River of Dreams are meaty and serious – the stuff of a man who’s lived a fair stretch of time – the music has little new to offer. So, we’ll end with a song of hope, one of those trademark Joel anthems that can swell the heart of even the most reluctant listener. This is “Two Thousand Years”:
See you at the Garden, Billy.