Five Reasons 1970s Billy Joel Is Best

Even if it was still rock and roll to him, there’s a noticeable distinction between Joel’s rock and pop songs. This isn’t intended as a slur against the later songs at all; I love every one of them. But let’s face it: the pop songs were penned in the 1980s. The rock songs, by and large, belonged to the ‘70s. If you’re from Houston and of a certain age, there’s a simple litmus test for this. Listen to songs like “Captain Jack,” “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” Were you more likely to hear those being spun by Dayna Steele on Rock 101 KLOL or the Zoo Crew down the dial at KRBE? Which station was going to work “Tell Her About It,” “Modern Woman” and “You May Be Right” into its playlist? That’s right — the one that had Mr. Leonard on every morning. Again, no slight to Joel’s excellent ‘80s output. I wrote about those songs affectionately a couple of days ago. The 1970s stuff simply rocked harder.

For someone so closely identified with New York, Billy Joel was a bit of a nomad in the 1970s, at least in terms of the songs that he wrote for the early work. Piano Man opens with a "Travelin' Prayer" and then he's off to places like the City of Angels ("Los Angelenos"), south of the border ("The Mexican Connection"), Cuba ("Rosalinda's Eyes) and Africa ("Zanzibar" — okay...this one's actually about a bar, but just play along, okay?) Point is, like any artist, Joel invited his audience to suspend the limitations of vacation days and budgets and journey along to these distant locales via song. Even though he'd occasionally get in a "New York State of Mind," he reminded listeners that "wherever we're together, that's my home" reminding us all of some solid roots.

In the late 1970s, nihilism ruled. The popular music was disco. Its calls to freak out and not stop ‘til you got enough were the battle cries of a society insatiable for pleasure at all costs. Even former street-fighting men like the Rolling Stones were making records for play at Studio 54. In such intoxicating times, someone had to remind large masses of people not to lose their own identities. Billy Joel was one of the artists who did so, with songs like “Vienna” that urged a slower, more deliberate pace in life. “Souvenir” reminded listeners not to waste the fleeting and countable days ahead. “Summer, Highland Falls” is essentially a treatise on dualism and advocates for “meditation in cathedrals of our own.” Not ironically, the song that follows it on Turnstiles is “All You Wanna Do Is Dance.” If you don’t think Billy Joel was waxing philosophical in the ‘70s, then why did he recall Albert Camus with an album titled The Stranger?

Joel was no Innocent Man in the 1970s. He was the “Angry Young Man.” Although that Turnstiles song derided idealistic blowhards as “boring as hell,” it didn’t mean Joel had no fight in him at all. Like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Joel dabbled in angry nerd-rock. His particular brand of fongool was jacketed and tied rather than safety-pinned and Mohawked like Sex Pistols or The Clash. If you were 16 and had beef with someone in 1978, there weren’t any popular rap songs that captured your angst. But there was “Big Shot.” And you could tell your enemies “this is my life…go ahead with your own life and leave me alone.”

Sometimes in horror or sci-fi flicks, humanity stands together. Our respective differences fall away in those movies, they crumble under the threat of extinction by some nefarious intergalactic army or maybe a sweeping zombie virus. In real life, these communal moments, where our dissimilarities are shelved in exchange for a focused mass attention on a single goal, are extraordinarily rare. But that’s what it feels like to be among 20,000 or 30,000 people who all know and sing the lyrics to “Piano Man” at a Billy Joel concert. People murmur the lyrics softly in deference to Joel and out of respect for their fellow concertgoers, but invariably those whispers intensify into a spine-tingling roar of voices, particularly during the chorus. I’m not saying it’s the sort of thing that could beat back an alien attack, but it’s certainly a unifier. At the very least, it’s a melody that’s got us feeling all right.

Billy Joel performs tonight at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk. Gates open at 7 p.m.

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