Billy Joel Timothy White - Essay

Timothy White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 he skillfully sketches his all-American rage…. [He] grew up to simultaneously mock and admire the fierce follies of the middle-class dream, turning out car-radio singles that forged a neat link between Barry Manilow and Paul McCartney. This is especially true of his sweet but sturdy ballads, yet you have to be in the mood for the uptempo stuff, because it's sometimes spiced with a venom that smells like piss and tastes like vinegar.

While I'm not a fan of everything that Joel cranks out, I love his ballsiness…. "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" … is one chauvinistic New Yorker's reaction to the famous Daily News default-era headline, FORD TO NEW YORK—DROP DEAD, and the composer's elaborate fantasy-farce about the apocalyptic destruction of the city is as take-it-or-leave-it defiant as the front page that inspired it. (p. 67)

Songs in the Attic is a reprise of miniatures and night moves made by Joel on the way to tempering the best of the music he hears in his head. As such, these revised versions of his seminal works may not be especially significant (though the bitchy dynamism of the frenetic "Everybody Loves You Now" flirts with real inspiration), yet they're frequently a lot of fun. And, hell, it's commendable that this talented eccentric still has the nerve to be his own surly self. (p. 69)

Timothy White, "Billy Joel Retraces His Halting Early Steps" (reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, as agents for the author), in Rolling Stone, Issue 356, November 12, 1981, pp. 67, 69.