Songs in the Attic. Billy Joel.
1981, Family/Columbia. Producer: Phil Ramone
Purchased ca. 1988.
IN A NUTSHELL – Eleven songs recorded live by Billy and his band. Joel sings his heart out and pounds the keys, but the star of the record is Billy’s band, who sound tight and electric and powerful. These songs weren’t well known when the record came out, but have become some of Joel’s biggest favorites. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it wasn’t so piano-focused. I’m more of a guitar guy.
I am the youngest of three siblings, the only boy. But I swear I wasn’t spoiled!
Okay, I probably was, but not too badly. My sisters are 5 and 3 years older than I am, and I always tried to see myself as their equal – not as the younger, dumber brother. But try as I may, I was always the younger, dumber brother.
Because they were older, I turned to them to know what was cool in life. Here is a photo that shows I learned my cool lesson well. A huge part of my coolness lessons included music. Almost any music “the girls” liked, I was bound to like as well. And music played a big role in our lives.
I’ve written before about my early musical life but I’ll reiterate a bit here, in case you haven’t quite memorized everything I’ve written just yet.
Music was always a part of my family life. My dad’s father had been the leader of a German Oompah-type band called “Die Lauterbach German Band,” which had quite a following in the middle of the 20th century around the Pennsylvania Dutch region in which I grew up. Here’s a poster for the band, with a close up of the bass drum showing my grandpa’s name.
My dad played trombone as a youth, even performing with his Lebanon High School marching band at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC around 1954. My mom was a music appreciator, with a strong love for Johnny Mathis and Ricky Nelson as a girl and a bent in her later years for Broadway musicals, especially Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel. When I was a kid, my mom and dad both played albums (lots of brass bands and Broadway) and listened to music on the radio throughout the day.
We had an old upright piano in the back room of our house (which was therefore called “The Piano Room”) and my sisters and I each took lessons for varying lengths of time. My eldest sister also learned the saxophone, and I took up the trombone.
We talked a lot about the songs we heard on the radio, and discussed the pros and cons of them. To this day I associate most 70s songs with spending time with my sisters. Many of these songs are what the three of us now refer to as “pool songs,” songs that immediately bring to mind our daily summertime trips to the local pool – songs like Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” Firefall’s “You are the Woman,” and Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right.” (By the way, I don’t expect you to watch every video I post, but if you get a chance please open that Starbuck link and go to the 1:52 mark to see a man in a funky 70s open-chested unitard play a crazy xylophone solo – it says everything you need to know about the 70s).
Both of the girls were wild about music. As a child I listened to music nearly constantly, just by walking around the house. Liz, the middle child, was a huge Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 fanatic, and lover of Elton John. Anne, the eldest, became a 70s rock chick, owning classic albums and 8-tracks by Foreigner, Steely Dan, and The Beatles. And both of them were HUGE disco fans. It didn’t seem incongruous back then for someone to like both rock and disco. Of course there was the whole “Disco Sucks” movement in America but at our house music was music, and if it sounded good to my sisters, it sounded good to me.
And of course, both of them were way into Billy Joel. Liz had all the albums, and followed him religiously into the 90s. She remains an expert on all things William Joel. Anne had a couple of his 8-tracks, and made plans to see him live at the Hershey Arena during his 1979 tour … plans that were thwarted by a little incident at a nuclear reactor near my home, Three Mile Island. See, when the accident happened, in March of ’79, people had to be evacuated. And those people had to go somewhere. And there just weren’t a whole lot of large buildings suitable for holding thousands of radioactive refugees in the area at that time, so The Hershey Arena had to be put to use, even if it meant canceling a few Hershey Bears games and a Billy Joel concert … So Anne didn’t get to go to her first concert, and she didn’t get to buy either of these really cool shirts … (the second of which sort of gives the impression John Belushi will be performing.)
As I said, I tried to do all the things my sisters did, and picked up on most all of their tastes, (though I never got into CHiPS the way Liz did) learning to love rock and disco and pop and pretty much anything my sisters played.
So, I had heard a lot of Billy Joel in my youth, and I owned a few tapes that I made from my sister’s albums. I liked Glass Houses and Turnstiles and liked a lot of his radio hits. But I was never a huge fan – I never felt compelled to rush out and buy Billy Joel albums.
I got a new perspective on all things musical when I met Dr. Dave, who I’ve written about frequently, in college in Philadelphia. I have a memory of driving in a car with him – either his huge fire-engine red station wagon, or his little white LeCar – and the live version of the song “Miami, 2017,” from Songs in the Attic, playing on the radio and him just gushing about how great it was. I really liked it too, and soon I went out to the local record store and bought the album.
“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights go Out on Broadway)” is the first song on the album, and it is immediately recognizable by the blaring sirens that open the song, and which are set against a beautiful, rolling, quick-paced piano phrase that is most memorable. This opening is perfect, as the song itself is a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, devastation and hope. The lyrics describe a future (the year 2017 seemed so far away in 1976, when the song was written – I’m sure people thought we’d be wearing uniforms and flying around in jet packs by 2017) in which New York City is being destroyed because … well, it seemed like the natural progression for New York City in 1976.
But despite the horrible events that are described – Bronx blowing up, Manhattan being sunk, maybe worst of all the Yankees being rescued by the navy – the song plays like an ode to the strength and resilience of New Yorkers, and became a sort of anthem. This was most evident in Joel’s performance of the song in the Concert for 9/11, just weeks after the twin towers collapsed in 2001.
At first the song seemed to me to be an odd choice to play on such a night, but despite the eerie similarity between the lyrics of the song and the recent events in Manhattan, it is clear from watching the performance, and the crowd’s reaction to it, and Joel’s words to the crowd after the song, that it’s a song about fortitude and community, and that maybe the lyrics aren’t exactly what they appear to be about at first.
Many people dislike Billy Joel. Some actively hate him. A few years ago, a respected (apparently) journalist, Ron Rosenbaum, penned an item for Slate.com calling Joel “the worst pop singer ever.” The article basically confirmed everything I already knew about critics in general: they are failed artists struggling to use academic arguments in an attempt to rationalize their obvious jealousy of others’ artistic successes. This guy Rosenbaum never made it in a purely creative outlet – and he did (unsuccessfully) give it a try – and so takes out his anger on someone whose material he dislikes.
I have no problem with Rosendouche stating that he hates Billy Joel and then outlining why. I think that would be a great read! Instead, he tries to make an objective case that Billy Joel is the worst at something that is not quantifiable. And he uses phrases like “We hate you,” as if the 150 million albums Joel has sold were all bought by Billy’s parents, and the rest of the world knows the secret.
Again, I don’t care if he likes Billy Joel. Some of my best friends HATE Billy Joel. I myself am not even what one would call a huge fan of his, even though I like some of his songs. But I just CAN’T STAND the position phony baloney critics take, as if they know things that the rest of us don’t know. Ron – GROW UP! Just say “I hate Billy Joel.” You don’t have to be RIGHT or WRONG about it – it’s a fucking OPINION, YOU MORON! Sorry. I get carried away. But the man doesn’t even write persuasive arguments. Frankly, they’re amateurish.
He calls Billy Joel a misogynist, yet speaks wistfully of an earlier version of Bruce Springsteen – you know, the one who wrote that paean to date rape, “Fire.” He is outraged – outraged! – at Joel’s deriding, with a wash of superiority, a would-be hipster in the song “Captain Jack”, yet loves Bob Dylan, writer of “Like a Rolling Stone” – a song that derides (with superiority in abundance) a former girlfriend (but not in a misogynistic way, I guess). The funniest part of the piece (for its transparency is pretty funny – I can see Rosenturd in his footy-PJ’s stomping around the room while he thinks up his arguments) is when he condemns Joel for calling out Hollywood phonies and big shots in fancy cars in his songs. This is ironic because for Rosenfailure’s lone artistic endeavor, the celebrated (just kidding!) mystery novel Murder at Elaine’s, he chose to satire … phony celebrities!! (Then again, maybe it wasn’t an artistic failure – maybe he didn’t want anyone to read it and was happy it never even made it to paperback. Even though, well … EVERY mystery ever written gets published in paperback!) He likely pretends to wear it as a point of pride that his masterwork was widely unread, as – obviously – commercial success is evidence of a lack of artistic merit, and says things to his friend [I doubt he has more than one] like, “I’m SOOOOO GLAD that M.A.E. [his pet name for his magnum opus] wasn’t more popular,” then goes home and puts his head in the oven. (But only because he’s a drama queen – he’s too chicken to turn on the gas.)
Sorry – critics like this asshole always get me riled up. It’s part of the reason I started this entire project. I wish critics would just say, “I like this, but I don’t like that,” instead of trying to pretend that their opinions are facts.
Anyway, my point here is that as many people as there are who adore Billy Joel – and the man was recently a Kennedy Center Honors recipient so it’s a pretty sizable number – there are people who dislike him. And if you do, this might be the one Billy Joel album you could stomach. One of the things I like about this album is that it doesn’t sound so much like a Billy Joel solo album as it does an album by a rock band that just happens to have Billy singing.
The album’s liner notes give a great summary of the band’s history, and Joel’s desire to capture the band’s live energy on record. There is no between-song chit chat on Songs in the Attic, or drum solos or other aspects of some live albums that are supposed to make you feel like you’re at a concert. It’s simply the songs, recorded live. The following video of the track “Everybody Loves You Now” shows the band as a band, and offers a good example of what you’ll hear on Songs in the Attic:
This song sounds like one of Billy’s “eff you” songs. Billy has a few song types that he frequently writes: love songs, character studies, big picture songs and “eff you” songs. This one begins not with furious piano pounding but with furious guitar strumming – for this album is a band effort as much as a solo album. The drums kick in, Billy starts thumping the piano, and starts to sing. Now, one of the things I like about Joel’s singing is that he puts his all into it. He’s not restrained or subtle in any way, and this might be a reason that some people don’t like him. But I like that he puts his heart into it – whether it’s a love song, or an “eff you” song, he sings like the words are the most important words ever sung.
I always thought this song was a kiss off to a former flame. But when you read the lyrics a different story emerges. They seem to taunt a performer who has finally made it big after a long struggle, reminding the performer that he will now be surrounded by phonies and if he doesn’t watch himself he’ll be sucked into their world and become one of them. The song may be an eff you to a former flame, maybe he was dating another singer on the verge of stardom, but it very well could be a warning to his young self to be careful in the big bad world of entertainment. As with “Miami 2017,” Joel’s words aren’t always what they seem at first listen.
Another song on the album that is an “eff you” song is “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”
The song opens with drummer Liberty DeVitto pounding out a 60s girl-group beat, and it has a Supremes/Chiffons type of feel throughout – from the beat to Joel’s vibrato. (As a teenager, Billy actually played piano on the demo track of the classic Shangri-Las song “Leader of the Pack,” so it’s familiar territory for him.) The lyrics sing of Bobby and Johnny, the former in a hot new rent-a-car and the latter with a style so right for troubadours.
Bobby is trying to fit into the scene in a car he doesn’t even own and Johnny is a singer being tricked into sitting with his back to the door, a reference to mobsters and wise guys (knowing Joel’s history of dealing with shady characters in the recording biz, I’m quite certain they’re record executives). The narrator has seen enough and is moving on. The singing, the girl-group beat, the sing-along melody together make this one of my favorites in the Joel catalog. And I prefer this live version to the original.
Speaking of Liberty DeVitto, he is one of my favorite drummers in rock. He isn’t the fastest or fanciest drummer, but he plays with an energy that I like, and adds enough cool touches to make me like him. For example, the song “Los Angelinos”
opens with an electric piano riff, and DeVitto answers it with one snare hit, then two, then three, then four. I don’t know why I find this cool – maybe because I’m the least coolest person on Earth – but I do. “Los Angelinos” is a Joel “character study” song, and these may be my favorite type of song by him. Songs in the Attic features a few of his best early ones.
Like “Captain Jack.”
“Captain Jack” is a song that, when I was a young teen, I wondered how it ever got played on the radio. For one thing, it is very long – over 7 minutes. Big Top 40 hits, like The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” or The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” were sometimes that long, but very few non-hits were played that were over the 7 minute mark. (A couple are Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and Lynyrd Sknyrd’s “Free Bird.”) For another thing, it is extremely dark, lyrically. It’s a slice-of-life about a young man trying to be cool but failing, and listening now in middle age I recognize its unmistakable description of a man battling depression. It mentions drug use, pornographic magazines, masturbation, apparent suicide … lots of stuff that I, as a 14 year old, didn’t realize could be included in song lyrics. Musically, it follows the soft-piano-verse/big-rock-band-sing-along-chorus format that makes it a perfect live song. On the recording you can feel the audience’s frenzied response. I was a young man trying unsuccessfully to be cool (not the dude described in “Captain Jack,” but That Dude I’ve described previously) and the lyrics definitely resonated with me. As I got older, the line “you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed/and that’s too long” particularly angered/prodded me.
Other “Character Study” songs on the album include “Streetlife Serenader” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the lyrics of which, equating the young piano-slinger Billy Joel to the young gunslinger Billy the Kid, my friend Dan once submitted in 11th grade English when he was assigned to write his own ballad for a unit on poetry! (I don’t remember what grade he got.)
Some of Joel’s best-loved works are his love songs, and Songs in the Attic includes two: “She’s Got a Way” and “You’re My Home.”
“She’s Got a Way” has become one of Joel’s most popular songs over the years, but in 1981 it was still not widely known. It is one of two songs on the album that feature simply Billy and a piano. If you’re one of the Joel haters, you should skip this song. I think this song has a nice melody and words, but it’s not the style of love song I enjoy. The lyrics are too direct for me, almost as if Joel himself had been assigned homework to write a poem about his girlfriend. I prefer love songs like “You’re My Home,” with its heavy use of metaphor, to describe his feelings.
“Summer, Highland Falls” has an intricate piano line played very quickly, and Joel – who has a fondness for words and always packs them densely within a song – crams as many multi-syllabic words as possible into 3 minutes. Dr. Dave used to say he needed a thesaurus to figure this one out, but I heard an interview with Joel recently and he stated the song is about depression and bi-polar disorder.
Whatever the intention, I’ve always liked the words and melody together and associated them with the struggle we all have with any relationships – parent-child, spouses, friends, romantic. Random note about this one: I may have gotten tipsy and listened to this song a million times as a younger man. MAY have.
“I’ve Loved These Days” is a great album closer, a mid-tempo anthem with dynamic changes that makes good use of the entire band. The lyrics describe people having a good time, but maybe not behaving at their very best – self-indulgent, short-sighted, selfish. But despite the fact that our actions may not always represent the pinnacle of what humanity has to offer, Joel sings, it’s still all part of being alive, and all one can do is appreciate this fact. We can focus on the negative in our lives, but in doing so we dismiss a lot of the positive.
This is the spirit of this 100 Favorite Albums blog. These 100 albums may not be The Best, they may be flawed, and they may even represent to some people – particularly frustrated would-be novelists – the worst of what popular music has to offer. But I find a lot of good in them. They’ve meant something to me. I’ve Loved These Albums.
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Summer, Highland Falls
She’s Got a Way
Everybody Loves You Now
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
You’re My Home
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
I’ve Loved These Days