Billy Joel Essay - Critical Essays

Joel, Billy


Billy Joel 1949–

(Born William Martin Joel) American songwriter.

Joel is best known for his songs about urban/suburban life. His first hit single, "Piano Man," is based on his experiences as a lounge singer in Los Angeles. The song is noted for its stirring characterizations of the "losers" who patronize such bars, searching to fulfill their unrealized dreams.

Joel's vision is often despairing, although an ironic sense of humor is sometimes evident in his lyrics. His socially acute vignettes are frequently laced with anger, especially when he urges his listeners to grow up and face the strangers within themselves and loved ones or to come together and support each other. Joel gained mass popularity with his 1977 album The Stranger. The songs deal mostly with leaving home, and critics praised Joel's honest commentary on everyday life. The tone of Joel's work sometimes seems hypocritical, but even his detractors agree that he is able to depict people as he sees them without condescension.

On The Nylon Curtain Joel went farther afield than the streets of suburbia for his subject matter. "Goodnight Saigon," about the Vietnam war, and "Allentown," about the demise of the once-prosperous Pennsylvania steel town, are considered the outstanding cuts on the album. Joel's songs about the working class succeed because he presents his stories without sentimentality or melodrama.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

Jack Breschard

[Billy Joel's] Piano Man reflects a new seriousness and musical flexibility….

Joel's best efforts speak to the point about people around him. His sense of detail fleshes out his B-movie characters. "Somewhere Along the Line" holds the album's most concise observations, waxing philosophical without wallowing in pretentious drivel….

Despite Joel's facility at portraying others, he seems unable to come to terms with himself. The title tune tries to reflect the piano man through his patrons, but Joel fails to illuminate his own character. At other times, like in "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," the singer's bristling ego mocks his supposedly objective point of view. (p. 62)

Billy Joel's enthusiasm and musical straightforwardness keep everything together and moving briskly along. (p. 63)

Jack Breschard, in his review of "Piano Man," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 156, March 14, 1974, pp. 62-3.

Peter Reilly

Composer-performer Billy Joel's new album ["Piano Man"] has several striking bands, among them the title number, a really brilliant piece of work. Piano Man is a highly dramatic song, beautifully constructed and performed, about the patrons of an O'Neill-type bar, each sunk in dreams of glory about his future: the piano man himself, who hopes to be a movie star; the insurance man convinced that he is a novelist; and many others caught in the web of self-delusion. It's very strong stuff…. Nothing else here comes up to that song or performance, but there are moments in Captain Jack and in Ain't No Crime that pulsate with the same intensity.

At the moment Joel has two problems: the similarity of approach in performance and orchestration from band to band, and an occasional inability to pare down the central thought of his lyrics. However, this is an album that certainly deserves attention, if only for the superb Piano Man track.

Peter Reilly, in his review of "Piano Man," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1974 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 32, No. 6, June, 1974, p. 94.

Stephen Holden

Billy Joel's pop schmaltz occupies a stylistic no man's land where musical and lyric truisms borrowed from disparate sources are forced together…. [Joel's lyrics seem Harry] Chapin-influenced in their appeal to Middle American sentimentality. "Piano Man" and "Captain Jack," the centerpieces of [Piano Man], compelled attention for their despairing portraits of urban fringe life, despite their underlying shallowness. By contrast, Streetlife Serenade is desiccated of ideas. The opening cut, "Streetlife Serenader," fails to develop a melody or lyrical theme. "Los Angelenos" presents a hackneyed picture postcard of L.A. as sexual wasteland. "The Great Suburban Showdown" seems even more dated than its apparent inspiration, The Graduate. In "The Entertainer," a spinoff from Chapin's "WOLD," Joel screams homilies about the callousness of the music business…. [He] has nothing to say as a writer at present.

Stephen Holden, in his review of "Streetlife Serenade," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 175, December 5, 1974, p. 77.


Billy Joel may be a new face and not exactly the most experienced performer around, but when he does something right, he does it very right. [The song] Piano Man … might well stand the test of time and vagaries of rockdom to become a true classic. The other cuts on the Piano Man album seem pale in comparison and may be the weakness of that album. Its strong lead is so strong it makes you expect too much of this one…. Billy Joel had a lot of middle-weight material vying with a blockbuster. The temptation to bypass much of his material may lead one past the quality that is there. (p. 74)

Streetlife Serenade sets out to overcome this difficulty; it succeeds. True, the blockbusters are there, but this time out they do not seem bigger than life. They are in proportion…. As the piano player has matured, so have his words and themes.

Billy Joel is able to write sensitively about almost ordinary things without becoming maudlin. He writes about love without resorting to Paul Williams style of omnipresent tragedy as he did on Piano Man. Joel writes about an entertainer (himself?) honestly and with a touch of bitterness. He, too, is feeling the crush of staying alive and healthy in today's music world, and his life is pretty much where most of this album comes from.

It may be unfair to compare him to Elton John, but much of what he does is what Elton would do if he stopped to reflect on himself during those few hours between record albums. Billy Joel pulls off this … album with far more maturity than I expected when I first saw it. Weekend Song is the only cut that I would exchange for another. The Entertainer is the star of the album, but Souvenir, Roberta, The Mexican Connection, and Streetlife Serenade all are strong contenders for top billing. The textures of this record change and flow from song to song, and serve to make it complete. A good album—well done and interesting. (pp. 74-5)

Fred DeVan, in his review of "Streetlife Serenade," in Audio (© 1975, CBS Publications, The Consumer Publishing Division of CBS Inc.), Vol. 59, February, 1975, pp. 74-5.

Peter Reilly

It was obvious from last year's "Piano Man" that Billy Joel was very good, but … "Streetlife Serenade" runs well beyond the high expectations set up by the first, achieving what I shall have to call a dark brilliance. In it he casts an eye as cold as that of novelist Nathanael West (try Miss Lonelyhearts) on the contemporary scene in a series of wry, occasionally savage, and often funny songs that nevertheless betray a certain compassion and even fondness for their targets.

It has been apparent for some time that what we need right now is a gifted eccentric to set us straight, someone who can cancel out with a fine, ripe raspberry the dull thud of yet another commercial sausage dropping off the end of the pop assembly line and the shrieks of robotic exhibitionists who are as uniform in their outrageousness as anything Karel Čapek ever dreamed up.

Joel has all the sound, basic credentials that an eccentric (perhaps more than anyone else) needs if he expects to get a hearing…. But first of all, most of all, there are the songs, each of them ringing with real, if slightly lopsided, truth.

Further description would be as pointless as trying to describe W. C. Fields' walk, Barbra Streisand's giggle, or Paul Lynde's simper. You'll simply have to listen to Billy Joel's new album to hear what I mean. Once you do, your head ought to be changed around quite a bit. (pp. 84-5)

Peter Reilly, "'Streetlife Serenade': The Cold Eye and Warm Heart of Bill Joel," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 34, No. 2, February, 1975, pp. 84-5.

Colin Irwin

Ooh, the agony … the heartache … the self-sacrifice is killing. Yep, here we have another young man pouring his soul out while his heart bleeds. Singer-songwriters as a breed seem exceptionally prone to over-acting and self-pity, placing their own heads on the guillotine. Having made a fair impact with "Piano Man," Joel offers his head to the block, withdrawing it with some creditable moments during the course of ["Street-life Serenade"], but basically creating the impression of a verbose uncle boring everyone with stories of his own problems and experiences…. His singing lifts a record that too often drifts into a dirge-like moroseness. Seems he's struggled for many years and wants to get revenge on us all by...

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Robert Cowan

Last year Billy Joel was some kind of American Elton John, this year he's a piano-playing Bruce Springsteen, returning from the West Coast to New York, presumably—judging from two of the better tracks [on "Turnstiles,"] "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" and "New York State Of Mind"—to re-mine his roots…. [The switch] certainly puts a mite more muscle behind his music. The songs have more bite, yet they invite instant comparison with Springsteen, and, alongside the works of the Asbury Park Kid, Joel's seem sadly dull, the vibrant urgency of the former becoming mere freneticism. The basic fault is in the lyrics: both the writing and the singing of them. Joel's constructions are often needlessly clumsy; good ideas are...

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Pam Brown

More like a preacher than an entertainer, [Joel] continues to sing real-life soap opera ballads that rarely show any signs of imagination…. I'm tired of hearing stories about the pains of the lonely and the strife endured by angry young men, and about how rough it is to be a musician and have to play the piano in bars where horny divorcees come to diddle with their gin and tonics….

He does have a natural talent for writing good, poetic lyrics but he never puts enough guts into them, mostly because he's so pessimistic and spends a lot of time feeling sorry and apologizing for himself….

"I've Loved These Days" is the most boringly regretful cut on [Turnstiles]….


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Peter Reilly

"Turnstiles" is an intelligent, perceptive airing of young middle-class values and attitudes in 1976, though there's not nearly as much sentiment or drama here as in Billy Joel's earlier work. The pervading mood is one of exhausted malaise. All You Wanna Do Is Dance is a deftly aimed shot at the Beatles generation, baffled and resentful at the party's end; James is the male equivalent of the girls Janis Ian was talking about in At Seventeen (play by Their Rules and you still end up loser); I've Loved These Days is a sour paean to Life at the Top; and Miami 2017 is a description of a future time when New York has long since been dismantled completely, we are all living in Florida, and...

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Ray Coleman

This man is a venomous poet….

[With "The Stranger," Billy Joel] is now turning out albums showing an originality, bite, determination and poetic strength rarely matched by his contemporaries….

We have no smiling romantic here, instead a razor-sharp commentator on many aspects of society. In "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," the separation of husband and wife, and the inevitability of divorce, is observed with a fine eye for detail. On "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" Joel tells of the desperation that afflicts every teenager who thinks there's no future in working hard to achieve the suburban material values of his elders.

"Everybody Has A Dream" is a...

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Susan Elliott

It's time to find a new tag for Billy Joel. His first and biggest hit of three years ago, Piano Man, has left him with a reputation as the small, power-packed, yet sensitive rocker behind the great big concert grand. Lyrically, the album of the same name and its two successors contained a few potent references to life in the suburbs (e.g. Captain Jack). That seemed pretty unusual for a commercial recording artist these days. Thus was born tag No. 2, "suburban."

It should all change with "The Stranger." While the album is by no means a radical departure, Joel's continued stylistic expansion comes to a new peak here…. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant—the whatever-happened-to...

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Peter Reilly

The title of Billy Joel's newest release, "The Stranger," may echo the Albert Camus novel, but once into it you soon discover that it is much more like a Remembrance of Things Pasta, an Italian-American nostalgia trip. True, it has a directness that Proust would probably have found appalling, but it gives the listener a unique opportunity to get into the head and feelings of a now grown-up ex-greaser through a group of songs that are at once a love letter and a farewell to youth, by turns touching, mordant, funny, gross (new sense), melodramatic, and naïve….

"The Stranger" works because Joel knows his territory firsthand. Beginning with Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), you know that the...

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Don Shewey

Joel has always been an easy target for his arrogance, pretentiousness, hypocrisy, and on 52nd Street he's still showing them off. He talks tough to get the Warren Zevon fans ("Big Shot") and acts out his laughable misogyny ("Stiletto"), but he also wants to sweet-talk the teen-screamers ("Honesty"). And here he pretends to be this street-hip cat in with all the jazz players—"I've got a tab at Zanzibar," he boasts—but the all-important love interest intrudes—seems he's interested in the waitress…. No, you can't dig in too deeply. Whatever illusion there is of truth, beauty or significance, underneath it's only product.

But good, sometimes great product. There's nothing on 52nd...

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Susan Elliott

[How] does "52nd Street" sound? In a word, seasoned. There are a number of factors at play on this album, all of which seem to stem from Joel's own sense of artistic confidence. With that has come a new freedom of musical exploration, which, combined with the unshakable craft of producer Phil Ramone, has yielded a creative richness of the most thoroughly realized kind….

The material on "52nd Street" is a typical Joel potpourri, with this singer/songwriter emerging once again as one of the few whose output can be covered by any number of stylistically diverse artists. There are three ballads—Honesty, Until the Night, and Rosalinda's Eyes—and each seems to come from a different...

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Peter Reilly

Blue-collar, lower-middle-class sociology found its seminal literary expression in Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn almost two decades ago. The book's influence on a whole generation of creative talent is probably most clearly demonstrated in the work of three current superstars of the entertainment media: Martin Scorsese in films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York), Richard Price in fiction (The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers), and Billy Joel in pop music ("The Stranger" and his latest … album, "52nd Street").

Selby's book is a brutal, jarring, nightmarish cityscape littered with the contemporary equivalents of figures from an Hieronymous Bosch...

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Peter Gambaccini

Cold Spring Harbor is of value chiefly because it presents the performing and composing genius of Billy Joel in its fledgling stages…. [There] are intermittent flashes of brilliance, musical foreshadowings of things to come, and hints of the influences that were to shape the man's grander accomplishments. (p. 17)

"She's Got A Way" is very unexceptional. It's a typical romantic tune, with rhymes that are extremely obvious from beginning to end….

The fast-paced "Everybody Loves You Now" is quite a bit better and might even be worth resurrecting in the current Joel repertoire. It is far less of a paean than the first two tunes [on the album]; it is the first example we'd yet...

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Colin Irwin

The aggression [on "Glass Houses"] is just too deliberately calculating; and aren't the scenarios—so vividly portrayed—just a little self-consciously conceived? When in doubt, Joel does seem overly intent on sending his verses into grubby bars and desperate crises of loneliness with interesting accessories like "brandy eyes" and "sweating bullets"….

I'm not sure I can believe Joel on "Glass Houses".

The album spends much of its time meditating on insecurity, and Joel is most effective when he freely parades his own frailties in this direction, via self-mockery. There's one glorious track, "I Don't Want To Be Alone", in which he sketches a reprobate character repeatedly...

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Don Shewey

[The] model for Glass Houses is the Beatles (circa 1965, with stylistic updates), and it is probably the best Beatles album since Abbey Road and certainly the best Billy Joel album ever…. The songs on Glass Houses are so distinct and catchy individually, and they fall together so cohesively, that you just want to play the record over and over to learn the songs and then play it over and over to sing along.

Now, I don't feel that way about too many albums, especially Billy Joel albums. Joel is some people's pet peeve; they consider him a pushy poseur. That's never bothered me—if anything, it puts him in the company of most rock giants (Jagger and Dylan, to name two). My beef...

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Paul Nelson

[Unless] you consider [Glass Houses] one bland and endless bad joke—as I do—there aren't any real howlers. Just fake this and fake that. (p. 51)

What's most annoying about Joel is his holier-than-thou sneakiness, his insistence to have it both ways. In "You May Be Right," the singer strikes one of the silliest tough-guy poses ever …, in general behaves like a perfect asshole, blames his girl for his actions when she points out that he's nuts, and then sums up everything with the logic of an egomaniac….

I guess what Joel's trying to do here is picture himself as a lovable loony, a teddy bear with a zip gun, but this brand of madness is snug enough—and smug...

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Peter Reilly

"Glass Houses" lives up to absolutely no preconceptions, expectations, generalities, or genres other than those Billy Joel himself has chosen to establish. There isn't one instance in which he's coasting, or repeating himself, or taking a second (easy) shot at a favorite subject or theme. This album is a continuation of the kind of work he began to show he was capable of with "The Stranger" and after that with … "52nd Street."… The ten songs here are uniquely Joel: sharp, immediate, often harshly funny vignettes about the way things are now with his characters, about their genuine emotional impulses, not their coy philosophizing or maudlin poeticizing about them….

Interestingly, a new,...

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Timothy White

Joel's Songs in the Attic is a very careful edit of his scuffling days. These cuts are gimcracks from a catalog that didn't catch fire until the release of The Stranger in 1977, and Joel, very much aware that they show his development from intent greenhorn to creator of standards, plays them with self-absorbed vigor.

It's precisely this vigor, along with Joel's canny pugnaciousness, that lifts Songs in the Attic above the level of a pop-rock rummage sale. At his best, Billy Joel is an angry, defensive wiseacre of a songwriter, so angry about his own suburban angst that he storms with exquisite impatience from typewriter to piano, scarcely noticing the shift in keyboards as...

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Stephen Holden

"Goodnight Saigon," the turning point of Billy Joel's ambitious new album [The Nylon Curtain], may well be remembered as the ultimate pop-music epitaph to the Vietnam War. (p. 71)

While "Goodnight Saigon" is The Nylon Curtain's stunner, there are other songs in which Joel's blue-collar smarts, Broadway theatricality and rock attitude blend perfectly. "Allentown," his portrait of a crumbling Pennsylvania mining city in which the American dream has died hard, could be a scene from The Deer Hunter put to music. Like "Goodnight Saigon," its tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct. And that directness is presumably what the album title refers to. For in one way or another,...

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John Milward

"The Nylon Curtain" is Billy Joel's "Magical Mystery Tour." (p. 85)

Allentown is the album at its high point, with Joel's chunky piano rhythm complemented by assembly-line sound effects that conjure a cartoon factory where a whistle sticks fingers in its own mouth to call the troops to work. The scene, however, isn't comic, for this is a plant that is wilting, and a town that's dying while its young people ask, "What happened?" There's empathy in this tune—Joel might not have lost a factory gig, but he knows about chances washed away in America. The same can't be said for Goodnight Saigon. Though delicately beautiful,… it's an ambitious but misguided attempt to capture an alien...

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Steven Simels

Billy Joel's late-Seventies records have revealed a songwriter with a fair amount of wit, a tough, unsentimental view of generational and class concerns…. [It] should be obvious that, compared with his commercial competition—the Styxs, REO Speedwagons, and Journeys that glut our airwaves and pretty much define mainstream above-ground rock—the guy comes off as a genius. Or at least an honest, respectable craftsman.

That said, Joel's new … album, "The Nylon Curtain," feels like something of a throwback to his earlier, dismissable work. (The songs that made his initial reputation—Piano Man and the like—seem overheated and faintly embarrassing now.) The admirable Long Island bar-band...

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