I have retained a certain appreciation for a great deal of the music I heard growing up. My parents introduced me to some cultural landmarks – albums I return to now and find a freshness as well as that hue of nostalgia. I think instantly of trio of Paul Simon records, One Trick Pony, Hearts & Bones and Graceland. And artists that never quite made it to a great trio of albums – or if they did, by the time they did nobody cared: introducing the hard line (of criticism) pertaining to Terence Trent D’arby.
I first heard Robert Cray’s Bad Influence when I was about nine years old because my mum bought the LP seemingly on a whim. It’s stayed with me to this day. My introduction to Lou Reed came at the same age, when Mistrial was a new release. It’s still a favourite – even though most critical discographies will suggest that album as a dud.
Elton John was never really my bag growing up – even though dad thrashed Too Low For Zero and Breaking Hearts as new releases. In fact they, somewhat unfairly, put me off Sir Elton. Later I’d discover for myself the albums I really like: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau…and, to a lesser degree, anything from that phenomenal first decade…
I’m thankful for the grounding in The Beatles, in most things actually; Joe Cocker and Santana, Buddy Rich and Glenn Miller…I’ve thanked my parents for most of the introductions; carried most of them with me to this day. And I’ve probably introduced them to a few albums and artists from recent times…at the least I fill their iPod with everything they need and a load of stuff they’ll never get to.
But I’ve never thanked them for the introduction to Billy Joel. And I never will. At the time listening to An Innocent Man and 52nd Street wasn’t so bad. That double-volume greatest hits even had me, before I knew better, humming along…
I’m not sure I can blame my parents. Maybe I can blame my high school English teacher. She played the class We Didn’t Start The Fire and made us break down the cultural references in the verses. We had a bit of fun with that – mostly because we were allowed to then bring in a song that we liked and discuss the lyrics of it. I chose Outside by Lou Reed. The song mentions abortions and drug-users. I was 13. The teacher asked to speak to my mum; wanted to know where I heard such music. My mum took great pleasure in pointing out that I heard it from a record, played on the stereo in the lounge at our house. My mum had bought the LP – one the whole family listened to.
I guess that teacher helped promote a love of language – but somehow, through overplaying Storm Front she also helped promote a severe dislike of Billy Joel’s music. And my music teacher helped there. He thought The Downeaster Alexa (from the same album) was something of a gem. It is not.
I’ve never really been able to work out what it is I don’t like about Billy Joel’s music. And then I forced a listen to the twin volumes of hits – volume one covers 1973-1978, the Piano Man/faux balladeer years. Volume two is 1978-1985, the Uptown Girl/faux doo-wop years.
Everything I hated about Billy Joel revealed itself. And I now actively hate it all again. I’ll throw him one early bone: that guy knows how to write a middle eight! It’s just a shame most of them seem to have come from the pen of Paul McCartney first.
So I like Elvis Costello and Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Cockburn. And – well, to pluck another name, Joe Jackson. They are all – or were – contemporaries of Joel and I am not saying I love every single piece of work they’ve ever done but I’d rather listen to their worst material than what apparently passes as Joel’s best.
I’ve always thought it was an irrational hatred.
But then it dawned on me. I realised some of the key reasons why I dislike Billy Joel’s music – why I feel just fine writing off his entire career. Not that he’s had much of a career post-1985. Even Elton John has managed the odd almost-decent tune since then. But Billy Joel somehow managed to get worse – if Storm Front wasn’t annoying enough there was 1993’s River Of Dreams. That same music teacher loved that album…
And here’s what I realised, listening to the song The Stranger while waiting for a bus: Billy Joel is like a music teacher if a music teacher ever managed to sign a record deal. There are all these ideas masquerading as perfect pop in a Billy Joel song. It’s all correct; it’s all written to order, he measures the cloth, cuts it to suit. But where is the emotion? Where is the, well, realness, in any of Joel’s songs?
It is music-teacher music.
You can just picture music teachers when they go walking in their sleep conducting choirs singing this junk. And loving it.
I then started to think that maybe Billy Joel had been unlucky – guilty by association, somewhat. His song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant infiltrated my ears and I thought of a dozen late-night/dinner-jazz/soul-for-people-with-no-soul compilations featuring turgid Piano By Candlelight/Moonlight Sax versions of that song. And other Billy Joel songs too (Just The Way You Are, She’s Always A Woman, New York State Of Mind).
You might be thinking it’s impossible to blame Billy Joel for the bad cover versions of his material – but I disagree. I can’t think of a single Billy Joel cover that is better than the original – and I hate the originals. That suggests poor source material. C’mon! The world is full of novelty covers, one-hit remakes, ironic/bizarre choices, acoustic tone-downs and (even) R’n’B rewrites that have improved on dodgy source material; that have played to strengths and shown a way forward for what once seemed an average song. There are loads of crap tunes that have, somehow, been reborn; improved. The ultimate compliment that is paid – it’s actually a backhander when you think about it – is for someone to say that they never realised the song was so good until they heard the cover version. It’s a polite way of saying that you dislike the original singer/song.
Well, where are the remakes that improve Billy Joel’s fair-to-middling material? Where are the improvements? No – there are none. The fact is Billy Joel inspires covers by bands like Westlife. And might I add deservedly.
Joel never really did anything of value after 1985 – and there wasn’t much before it. He’s an example of the worst excesses of the “industry” aspect of the industry when it was at peak flow.
It’s no shame that he hasn’t quite had the big comeback (well, he has I guess, if you count his run of live shows, but that’s still resting on laurels, playing the hits) – because if you want some decent post-80s Billy Joel you can just listen to anything by Ben Folds. That might actually be Billy’s best gift to the world – and of course Folds comes to us more from Joe Jackson at any rate…
People point to Billy Joel indulging himself with classical music (isn’t that just him trotting along behind Paul McCartney again?) People point to his rock’n’roll rewrites, his appropriation and appreciation of 50s rock’n’roll and doo-wop – it’s called lazy pastiche. People point to him selling over 100 million records. So has Celine Dion.
I hate Billy Joel. It’s grown from severe dislike to hatred. Pure, simple.
His songs are irritating – he has, perhaps ironically, used his frustration as a struggling bar-room hack to create the ultimate annoyance: a song that will forever be sung by bar-room hacks. And he’s been a has-been for longer than he was ever a big star; a terrible career curve. One without acumen, one without ethos – without drive or innovation. It is, in short, every music teacher’s dream. And will continue to be.
But going on like this could give me a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. I think that guy from Garageland had it spot on…