Posts Tagged ‘Billy Joel’

Sleeve Notes: Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs

28 January 2011

Joni Mitchell called it starmaker machinery and Billy Joel claimed it was just a fantasy, and not the real thing, and both got it right. So much of the music industry is about selling an image, and always has been. From murder ballads about Stagolee (or Stack-o-Lee, or…) to the supernatural blues of Robert Johnson, to the souped up R&B of Ike Turner and Chuck Berry, to the outlaw fables of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, to the shimmer and fire of Elvis and Jerry Lee, to the fab-ness of the Beatles, to the drugs and free love of Woodstock, to the satanic debauchery of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Kiss, to the dancefloor freedom of Disco, to the androgynous sexuality of Boy George, Annie Lennox, Madonna and Prince, to the leggy models in ZZ Top videos and the g-string clad butt-shakers in hip-hop videos, there’s always some kind of fantasy lurking beneath the music. It might be death, sex, money, fame, freedom, or less mundane spoils, but it’s usually there. If you’re looking for a connective thread that ties together every kind of music over the last hundred years or so, you could do a lot worse than that…

Masterpiece: Songs For The Deaf

23 July 2010

[Today: Into the desert…]

I never listen to the radio unless I rent a car.” ~ David Byrne

Radio is so fragmented, it’s unbelievable.” ~ Bob Seger

Have you listened to the radio lately? Have you heard the canned, frozen and processed product being dished up to the world as American popular music today?” ~ Billy Joel

Once upon a time, radio was a kingmaker – the single biggest factor in breaking new bands to the masses. DJs like Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack, John Peel and Casey Kasem were gatekeepers of rock and roll, and people looked to them for musical guidance. But the collective experience of hearing a hit song on the radio is now a thing of the past, undone by MTV, MP3s, corporate shenanigans, and a hundred other extenuating circumstances. Except, of course, in Los Angeles, where driving isn’t optional, and hundreds of miles of freeways lay pointing in every direction. It’s no accident that L.A. boasts some of the best radio stations in the country – the layout of the city practically demands it.

Queens Of The Stone Age’s third LP, 2002’s Songs For The Deaf, tracks the 120-mile journey from Hollywood to the desert in Joshua Tree, and the album’s 14 songs are stitched together by fake radio station IDs and made-up DJ banter from places like Banning and Chino Hills. It’s a drive that QOTSA frontman and lead guitarist Josh Homme has made many times. “When I’d do it I didn’t have a stereo, all I had was a radio,” he recalled in a 2002 interview. “And it goes into weird religious stations and really bad, bad music on that trip through the middle of nowhere. So I used to really enjoy the silence and then every once in a while the station you were at would all of a sudden let out a screech and become a new station. I just wanted to bring that to a record somehow.”

He brought it to record in typical QOTSA fashion – with a rotating cast of musicians that included Dean Ween of Ween and Chris Goss of Masters Of Reality. Dave Grohl put Foo Fighters on hiatus for most of 2002 so that he could play drums on this album and the subsequent tour, and Mark Lanegan makes an excellent guest vocal appearance on ‘Hanging Tree’. QOTSA had released two well-received albums before this, but Songs For The Deaf was their breakthrough, going Top 10 on three different continents. Songs like ‘No One Knows’ and ‘Another Love Song’ are the kind of catchy hard rock that hasn’t been heard on the radio in decades. “I need a saga, what’s the saga? It’s Songs For The Deaf – you can’t even hear it,” whines a DJ to open the album. With this saga, Queens Of The Stone Age mock what AM/FM has become, while creating an alternate universe where I still can’t live without my radio…

Listen: Another Love Song

Listen: Hanging Tree

Listen: No One Knows

Masterpiece: Is This It

20 November 2009

[Today: Take it or leave it…]

The Strokes broke so big with their 2001 full-length debut Is This It that they had critics accusing them of ripping off a laundry list of musicians that includes Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Television, New York Dolls, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Knack, and every New York musician this side of Billy Joel – a veritable who’s who of punk and new wave bands. Now, I’m no fancy pants criminal defense attorney, but if I were I’d have to wonder how many artists one group can be accused of ripping off before it becomes apparent that they haven’t stolen anything. By marrying a number of different influences into a snotty, sharp, post-punk New York City sound, The Strokes made music that reflected a lot of touchstone bands, while plundering none of them. If this band was guilty of anything in 2001, it was spending too much time on magazine covers and not enough preparing their follow up album.

But enough of that – if you’re a hater you’ve probably moved on by now. For the rest of us, Is This It was a blast of fresh air from the Big Apple. Julian Casablancas sings with a cool boredom that ought to grate – instead it squares perfectly with Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr’s jagged, sleepless guitars. Not since Paul’s Boutique had an album so effectively captured the rhythm and attitude of NYC. “New York City cops/They ain’t too smart” is part of what got the song ‘NYC Cops’ yanked from the album at the last minute, in the wake of 9/11. Less clear is why the original cover art, featuring a woman’s gloved hand resting against her naked hip, was exchanged in the US for a piece of pseudo-Zodiac artwork. Bad move. The original cover (pictured above) was a much better match for the sass and strut of the music, but either way, this album breathed life into the stone dead corpse of post-punk, and gave us something to get excited about. And sometimes that’s all you need your music to do…

Listen: Is This It

Listen: Last Night

Listen: Take It Or Leave It

On The Fence: The Stranger

28 April 2008

Few public figures have fallen farther and faster than Billy Joel. A platinum-selling, super model-marrying superstar in the 70’s and 80’s, he’s become an easy punch line and the poster boy for drunk driving in the 90’s and 00’s. But bad jokes and DUI’s aside, how does Billy Joel’s music hold up?

To find the answer, let’s take a look at The Stranger – a multi-multi-multi-multi-multi-multi-multi platinum success and perhaps the best album of his up and down career…

The Stranger - album

THUMBS UP: I don’t mean this sarcastically – the best thing about Billy Joel’s songs might be that nobody ever plays them any more. Really, when was the last time you heard any of his stuff? Because it’s been hermetically sealed, and hasn’t been appropriated for commercials, movies, etc, his music retains the power to take you back in time. And believe it or not, much of The Stranger actually sounds great. Crappy ballads aside, it’s much more tough and world-wise than what I remember. ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ is one of the very best songs of its era, and an epic slice of musical storytelling. The Stranger isn’t perfect, but it’s easily good enough to offset the understandable embarrassment that comes with dropping the needle on a Billy Joel album.

THUMBS DOWN: The Stranger contains two of the most atrocious songs of all-time – ‘She’s Always A Woman’ and ‘Just The Way You Are’. Lines like “I said I love you and that’s forever/And this I promise from the heart/I could not love you any better/I love you just the way you are” are bad enough to induce uncontrollable cringing, but were good enough to win the Grammy for song of the year in 1978 – go figure. Throw in the lesser-known but equally horrible and sappy ‘Everybody Has A Dream’ and you’ve got a trifecta of tripe that would pull even the greatest album into the sewer. Like a microcosm of Joel’s entire career, this LP has a few very memorable moments, followed by some really embarrassing stuff that leaves a lingering bad taste. But hey, the whistling is pretty cool…

[The real question is, will anybody stick up for Billy Joel? Can a piano man get some love in the 21st century?]

Album info:

Release date
September 1977

Phil Ramone


Side One
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
The Stranger
Just The Way You Are
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

Side Two
Only The Good Die Young
She’s Always A Woman
Get It Right The First Time
Everybody Has A Dream

12 Events That Changed The Face Of Modern Music

12 May 2007

There are thousands of individual moments that stand out in the history of music. Many of them groundbreaking, some are tragic, a few are uplifting. Here are a dozen that I think drastically changed the way music comes to our ears:

78 - image
November 1918 – The patent for manufacturing records expires, opening the levees for an endless supply of albums that persists to this day. This isn’t a moment that’s often given much play in the history of music, but if anything resembling today’s pro-business government were in power at the time, such an important patent might not have been allowed to expire, perhaps changing the way a huge number of people have gotten their music fix over the years. Though many would say this fact was rendered fairly moot by…

Wall St.
October 29th, 1929 – The stock market in the United States crashes, precipitating the onset of the Great Depression. Of course, people without anything to eat aren’t buying a lot records (unless they’re in college), so this event spelled the effective end of many entertainers’ careers. The production of albums went into a steep and unabated decline that didn’t reverse until after WWII. It’s hard to say how many great voices were lost forever on the day the stocks all turned from money into ticker tape.

Les Paul - image
1948 (date unknown) – Les Paul invents audio multitracking. And the way that modern music is made was born. Multi-tracking is to music what instant replay is to televised sports – it’s nearly impossible to imagine what happens without this development. You can forget about those Pink Floyd records, that’s for sure.

Elvis at Sun
July 5th, 1954 – Elvis records at Sun Studios. It’s entirely debatable whether Elvis and Sam Phillips invented Rock on this fateful day. For the sake of argument, let’s say they didn’t. This would still rank as one of the great moments because it was the birth of the first true music superstar. Elvis would jump to RCA before he would become a worldwide phenomenon, but there’s no doubt that the spark was lit in Memphis, one day after the country’s birthday party.

Beatles - JFK
February 7th, 1964 – The Beatles arrive in America. When their plane touches down at JFK airport, a crowd of 3,000 awaits, and The Beatles immediately begin their conquest of the country. The volume of records that the Fab Four would sell here sealed their artistic (if not financial) freedom and enabled them to spend precious time in the studio crafting albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s that expanded the parameters of modern music.

Dylan Newport
July 25th, 1965 – Bob Dylan plugs in. When Dylan turned on his electric guitar on this Sunday evening in Newport, Rhode Island, it signaled the arrival of rock music as a culturally significant art form. At this point, The Beatles were just starting to make music that could be called Art with a straight face. Some cases have been made that the violent booing at Newport was about poor sound qualilty – but what those people were really yelling about was the death of the old guard.

Monterey Pop
June 16th-18th, 1967 – The Monterey Pop Festival. This “wear flowers in your hair” festival set the template for every large scale music festival ever thrown in its wake. And oh by the way, it also hepped the world to Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Woodstock’s iconic mess and Altamont’s outright disaster took some steam out of the concept, but Lollapalooza reignited the idea full scale to the point where there are no shortage of brand name festivals in circulation today.

Kool Herc
Late August 1973 – Cindy and Clive Campbell throw a house party. Cindy Campbell wanted to raise some money for school clothes, and her brother Clive had a killer sound system. The party that they threw during the last week of August 1973 in the rented Rec Room of their apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, South Bronx is generally regarded as the Big Bang of Hip-Hop. Clive later became known as DJ Kool Herc, and later still as the father of Hip-Hop culture.

John Lennon
December 8, 1980 – John Lennon is murdered. Lennon was the musical conscience of his generation. His anti-war activities during the 70’s earned him a spot on Nixon’s enemies list and nearly got him deported. Then he was suddenly gunned down one evening by a deranged, pathetic excuse of a person. His death was tragic and unexpected, and foreshadowed the transformation of the music industry into a bunch of vapid, me-first hair-jockeys. Speaking of…

August 1, 1981 – MTV is launched. And the way that music was packaged, sold, received, and perceived was forever changed. MTV (oh by the way, co-founded by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith) became a nearly overnight sensation that made stars out of VeeJays (love you Martha Quinn!), Michael Jackson, and hair metal bands. Within 10 years it would become a 24/7 reality TV station with little or no music videos, but its influence has lingered.

52nd St
October 1st, 1982 – Billy Joel’s 52nd St is released… [wait for it…] on compact disc. This Japanese issue marks the first album to see production on compact disc, and introduces the world to a brand new format.

January 10th, 2001 – Apple introduces iTunes. Behind a podium at MacWorld in San Francisco, Steve Jobs ushers in the digital age of music. This supersleek music application literally changed the way people interact with music. And when the iTunes store opened two years later, the focus of music began a seismic shift away from compact discs and towards MP3s, and (as a consequence) from albums to singles. And although we’re still riding the wave of this development, it’s easy to see it’s a big one.

[A few runner-ups: Monopolization of airwaves effectively kills AM/FM radio in America, Release of Eric Clapton’s ‘Crossroads’ ignites box set fever, Release of live Rolling Stones bootleg ‘LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be’ ignites bootleg fever, Ramones release self-titled debut, starting US Punk movement, Berry Gordy Jr. founds Motown Records.]