Billy Joel

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Billy Joel Pencil Portrait
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Billy Joel remains devoutly uninspired when it comes to recording new music. “Just because I can put out albums and the record company would release them and people would buy them, that don’t mean I should,” he informed the UK press in 2013. “I got bored writing popular music. I just got tired of writing in the same format — it can’t be too long, it’s got to be played on the radio. It’s a box, and after a while that box becomes a coffin.”

Since his last rock album in 1993, Joel has issued only one classical work, ‘Fantasies & Delusions’ in 2001, a collection of instrumental compositions performed by his long-term friend Richard Joo. In between, there have been bouts of depression and failed marriages – heaven only knows therefore, where the piano man would be today without the creature comforts of life to ease his tortured thoughts.

Recommended listening

The Stranger (1977)

“So who the fuck is Billy Joel man?” A common question I faced in my late teens amongst fellow business studies students. “If he’s that good, why doesn’t he have hits?”

I shouldn’t have expected any less of a reaction, but the ever escalating americanism amongst students was always amusing, forcing me to periodically check that I was living in Nottingham, England and not Harlem, New York! The bug eyed former boxer had been on the verge of mainstream success throughout the mid-Seventies – Barbra Streisand had covered ‘New York State of Mind’ – but it would take his fifth album to establish a solid recipe for success: a bottle of red, a bottle of white and a sharp eye for the local colour of New York street life. The piano man hones his storytelling gifts with a Scorsese-style sense of humor and compassion, whether he’s singing about a down-and-out Little Italian hustler in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” the femme fatale in “She’s Always a Woman to Me” or the doomed Long Island greaser couple Brenda and Eddie in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

A “Whistle Test” live special on the BBC and the Grammy-award winning “Just the Way You Are” would light the litmus paper to global success. From that point onwards, I was walking amongst my peers like a smug bastard. I am sure of that fact because they would tell me so!!!

52nd Street (1978)

Issued within a year of his best selling “Stranger” album, Joel displays productivity and creativity in equal measure to craft another million seller.

Working again with famed producer Phil Ramone, Billy breaks fresh ground with the jazz tinged “Zanzibar”, a song that evokes images of Ali’s ‘rumble in the jungle’ with George Foreman. The instrumental break features jazz great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and a scintillating walking bassline from the tragic “Doug” Stegmeyer, who would die at the tender age of 43 from self inflicted gun wounds.

Veering away from 70’s Steely Dan influences, Joel is back on more familiar ground with the Broadway overtones of its predecessor, not only on the centrepiece “Stiletto,” but when he’s rocking out on the guitar tinged opener “Big Shot.”

Melodic skills abound – McCartney would be pleased – and Joel’s natural exuberance make for a listening experience to savour. Back to back, these two releases are his “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” – magestic career highlights if unrecognised at the time.

If, song for song, “52nd Street” is not widely considered as strong as “The Stranger,” then I don’t hear it. “Honesty,” “My Life,” “Until the Night,” (a great Righteous Bros homage) and the three aforementioned numbers are amongst his very best, and they all flow seamlessly together, due in no small part to Ramone’s production skills and Joel’s melodic craftsmanship. It’s remarkable to think that in a matter of two records (and arguably three if we include 1976’s “Turnstiles”), Joel had hit upon a workable, marketable formula, one that not only made him one of the biggest-selling artists of his era, but one of the most enjoyable mainstream hitmakers. “52nd Street” is a testament to that achievement.

Recommended reading

Making Records - The scenes behind the music (Phil Ramone) 2007

Ramone, with 14 Grammys to his name, was the consummate Establishment producer. His clean professionalism brought a touch of class to a wealth of baby boomer landmarks, from Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ to Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’ and Ray Charles’s ‘Genius Loves Company.’

His memoirs, whilst interesting to say the least, would appear somewhat repetitive to those readers less versed in the recording process. For others, like myself – and I was fortunate to locate a copy on american import for the affordable price of £4.99 – it’s a holy grail of insider information on musicians differing working methods.

Recollections abound, including many surrounding his production work on Billy Joel’s most popular albums. He recounts how certain iconic sound effects were achieved, like the shattering glass that opens “You May Be Right” and the reverberating helicopter propellers that bookend “Goodnight Saigon.” Joel’s approach to singing and the compositional devices he deployed to deflect attention from his own perceived deficiencies, makes for insightful reading.

A founding member of the Music Engineering and Technology Alliance, Ramone was always keen on technological innovation. Joel’s ‘52nd Street’ is considered the first major release on compact disc, and for the Sinatra duets albums, the producer pioneered a technique of recording contributors remotely via fibre-optic telephone lines.

Underscoring all this innovative work nevertheless, was a vital grounding in the old style ‘live recording’ environment of the early 60’s.

“Great records are all about feel, and if it comes down to making a choice, I’ll go for the take that makes me dance over a bland one with better sound any day.”

Ramone passed away in March 2013.