Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I Survived, I'm Still Alive But I'm Getting Close to the Borderline
Ah, Billy Joel. Undercover insight. Seriously, the guy is one of the better song writers of the last thirty or so years. I realize that I am often sarcastic on this blog and sometimes that's hard to read. Let me spell it out for you. I'm not kidding. Uptown Girl* aside, Billy Joel has written an impressive amount of damn fine songs.
I'm coming out of the closet. I am a Billy Joel fan and I don't care who knows it.
I was talking with my brother the other night about the Safety Dance. (This will all eventually relate.) That's right. The Safety Dance. Man, back in 1985 that was the greatest song my seven year old ears had ever heard. Not the shortened version you hear on the video with the medieval midget and the 80's, blond chick whose dancing appears to indicate early symptoms of Parkinson's. No, I mean the real version. The one that starts out with the "S S S S, A A A A, F F F F, E E E E . . ." eh you get the idea. My brother and I used to have a copy of it on a mix tape our cousin Paul made us. And by "us" I mean my brother. I just stole it from him. I still remember it was the second song on side one, right after "Everybody Wants To Rule The World". Somehow that tape, cherished as it was, disappeared. I was never able to prove it but I always suspected my mom confiscated (one of her very favorite words) the treasured mix tape after hearing some sexually suggestive lyrics on one of the songs. Probably Billy Idol or something.
So without my own copy of the song, I was compelled to camp out next to the radio set to KISN 97 with my finger on the record button of my tape player, waiting through endless stretches of Lionel Ritchie and Hall and Oates songs. How many damn songs did Hall and Oates have on the radio back then? Fifty? But it was worth it to get that song. In fact, I remember one time driving in Richhh Howl's giant brown van with his mom. She was talking to him about something when The Safety Dance came on the radio. Rich, who was a bit of an asshole even at the tender age of seven yelled, "Shut up, Mom! It's the Safety Dance!". She meekly obeyed until the song ended. A part of me kind of felt bad for her. But a bigger part of me was happy to hear the song without any distractions.
Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance, well they ain't no friends of mine.
The reason I bring this up is that aside from all of its nostalgic value and kitchy charm, The Safety Dance is a really crappy song. Now, don't get all butt hurt, all you fans of the 80's. I still like it. But I like it in the same way that I like the movie Red Dawn (those Soviet bastards). It isn't by any objective standard a good movie. In fact it's terrible. But no one knows the difference between a terrible movie and great movie when they're seven. It is purely an association of my happy childhood. So when it gets rerun on Spike, I'll sit down and watch the damn thing and smile.
Like Red Dawn, The Safety Dance has become somewhat of an affectionate punchline for people who enjoyed their childhood during the John Hughes era. But only a really committed Synth Pop fan would try to convince you that it is actually a good song. And even they would happily concede it doesn't hold a candle to Depeche Mode or Echo and the Bunnymen. (Or a better synth band. I really don't know shit about that stuff.)
But here's my point. As kids we have yet to develop any reliable barometer of quality. But a lot of times we get lucky and end up loving something that just so happens to be brilliant. I mentioned my love of Red Dawn, which is crap. Awesome, wolverine rockin', commie killing crap. But crap nonetheless. Well, during those golden years of the mid 80's I also happened to love Raiders of the Lost Ark which is undeniably fantastic on any level. But if you had asked me then which movie I liked more, I would have had to really think about it. The two films have no common ground when it comes to cinematic quality, but what the hell did I know? Hell, back then I thought the word "vagina" started with a "B". (By the way, I still think the "B" version sounds better. Less vulgar.) See, I wasn't the sophisticated connoisseur of high culture that you see today. But I lucked out when it came to Indiana Jones. It was released right when I was the right age to absolutely love it. And it happened to an all time classic. It wasn't until a solid decade later that I really appreciated the full value of Raiders and campy nonsense of Red Dawn.
The same disparity applies to music as well. When you're a kid, odds are good you loved whatever music happened to be playing. Whether it was what your older siblings liked at the time, what was popular on the radio. Whatever. This explains Hannah Montana. There's no need to bemoan the cultural wasteland of today's youth. The only reason they like that shit is because it happens to be what's on. They'll wise up soon enough. Just like my affection for Men Without Hats. But here's the thing; it wasn't just goofy, British new wave shit that was popular back then. There was a lot of legitimately good music mixed in with the leg warmers and the swatches. Even for a Classic Rock snob like myself.
Obviously The Cure is astounding. Air Supply? Not so much. George Michael's Faith? It's actually pretty damn good, even 20 something years later. (Wow, that sentence made me feel old.) Huey Lewis and the News? Um, no. Tears For Fears? They're hit and miss but when they're on, they're solid. Billy Joel? See, most people would bag on Billy, here.
Well, I won't do it.
In fact it is my humble opinion that Billy Joel was the single best recording artist from the years 1975 - 1982. (I realize that is a little earlier than the time frame I've been focusing on, but he was still very big in the mid eighties.) Think about it. Who else was there? All of the great bands from the 70's did all of their good stuff in the first half of the decade. Zeppelin, Queen, T Rex, Bowie? Their best stuff was all pre 75. By the late seventies, they were tapped out. (I am not a fan of 80's Bowie.) You had all the Punk stuff, which I certainly appreciate. But that was music that was more cool than it was good. (See the Chuck Klosterman clip below.) I guess Floyd had three epic albums in that time frame. But Billy Joel had six. Piano Man, Turnstiles, Streetlight Serenade, 52nd Street, The Stranger, Glass Houses are all excellent albums**. Are these as good as The Wall? Well, no. But those are two very different kinds of music that are never associate with each other. But are those Billy Joel albums better than anything James Taylor put out? Hell yes. Better than Elton John? Disagree if you feel the need but I would say so. Bruce Springsteen? Here's a little secret; Bruce is a hack. An entertaining hack, but he's not the poet he pretends to be. Elvis Costello? I really like him. That's a close one. But given Joel's volume of quality, I still give him the nod. (I'm probably missing someone really obvious. Feel free to bash me in the comments.)
The thing is, I listened to Billy Joel every single night when I was a kid. It was a complete accident. His Greatest Hits Volume One and Two happened to be one of three non-copied tapes I actually owned. The others were The Ghostbusters Soundtrack and Debbie Gibson's Out of the Blue. One year I got his album Glass Houses for Christmas. It had a few familiar songs. Don't Ask Me Why and It's Still Rock and Roll, primarily. But I hadn't heard the rest of the songs on that record. But it was another tape to listen to and listen I did. Now I probably listened to my Debbie Gibson tape as much as Glass Houses (I would like to remind you all that I was maybe nine years old at the time) but like with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I lucked out. Glass Houses is a truly great record. It's up there with The Joshua Tree on the list of great albums of the 80's. Again, I'm not kidding.
Don't believe me? Here are a few lesser known songs. Enjoy.
- Closer To The Borderline
If Bruce Springsteen had written this song, it would be a universal anthem of urban decay. But instead Billy wrote is and it's unknown.
- I Don't Want to Be Alone Anymore
This actually sounds a bit like Elvis Costello. Considering that Billy Joel kind of ripped of Costello's sound and Costello never ripped off Joel, I guess that gives the edge to Costello. But either way, it's close.
- Sleeping With The Television On
"Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me.
But I won't say a word 'cause it just might be somebody else's same old line."
Chuck Klosterman's take on Billy Joel
Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay espousing the unique fact that although Billy Joel is a legitimately great song writer, he is also completely uncool. This is a trimmed down version of his book on tape. His voice sounds a bit like a bad Quentin Tarantino impression, but it's totally worth listening to for ten minutes. He explains the depth of Joel better than I could. Well I guess I could try but I would just end up ripping him off (more than I already have). And it just wouldn't make sense to rip a guy off and then post a link to the plagiarized source material.
* And The Night is Still Young and When In Rome and Running On Ice and Shameless and probably a few dozen others. But I will defend We Didn't Start The Fire. The video sucks, but the song is solid.
** Notice how I left out Innocent Man which features Uptown Girl, Longest Time and Tell Her About It. Those are nice songs but they have more in common with Red Dawn than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Joel's great stuff ended with The Nylon Curtain.