Now the story can be told: “We DID start the fire,” admits Philadelphia Daily News music columnist Jonathan Takiff, recounting the city’s role in launching the career of Billy Joel.
Takiff’s admission follows in the wake of the super-deluxe reissue of Joel’s Piano Man, featuring a bonus legendary and oft-bootlegged 1972 WMMR live-in-studio broadcast. For many area listeners this historic broadcast gave first airing to songs from Piano Man about a year and a half prior to the album’s 1973 breakthrough release date. A former WMMR DJ, Takiff describes the rush of excitement that swept the Delaware Valley on the night of this broadcast and lasted long into the ’70s, when a Philadelphia teens like a young Mr. Moderator first heard a rebroadcast of Joel’s intimate performance. Takiff describes a “special song”:
That special song was “Captain Jack,” a pungent, pitiless appraisal of wasted suburban youth. As it had at the Point, the tune killed during the Sigma radio concert. “Captain Jack” dares to murmur the word “masturbate,” a sexy shocker I’d never heard uttered in a song before. And then there’s that rousing chorus, “Captain Jack will get you high tonight.”
By the early 1980s, hip Philadelphians would feel a growing sense of shame over their role in feuling the artist’s skyrocketing journey through MOR radio. “We clutched ever so tightly to our similar role in kick-starting the career of Springsteen,” says Joey Sweeney, local tastemaker and editor/founder of the popular, hip lifestyle blog Philebrity. “The Boss maintained a bit of cool cred, whether he was getting all serious with Nebraska, dancing in the dark, or even playing with that thick-thighed guitarist from Lone Justice.”
“I was down with Piano Man and even Streetlight Serenade,” says Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, “but I couldn’t relate to ‘New York State of Mind,’ from Turnstiles. I mean, what kind of ‘Thank you’ was that to the city that first took him to her bosom?”
The Mayor promised to offer a formal apology from the City of Philadelphia for its role in Joel’s continuing pop music presence once today’s Election Day activities have settled down. “Listen,” Mayor Nutter continued, “I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, but I’d rather think of Philadelphia in the early ’70s as the town that first embraced politically minded artists like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.”
Sorry, I just can’t sign on to this Billy Joel hate fest. Look, I’m not a fan of his. He’s a hopelessly self-important and go-for-the-jugular commercial schlub whose background is more Tin Pan Alley than rock and roll. He doesn’t seem to have a sincere bone in his body. There are a number of his songs that I never want to hear again, like “Piano Man”, “Big Shot”, and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”.
Having said all that, he’s a very good piano player and he knows how to throw together a tune. Barring a few songs like the ones I listed above, he doesn’t make me lunge for the mute button when he comes on the radio. I’d rather listen to Billy than some “sincere” artists like Broooce or Jackson Browne.
Tony! Toni! Toné! We were doing so well, what with the bonding over Moodies and Who By Numbers and whatnot. But defending Billy Joel is a bitter pill. It isn’t so much that Joel represents everything evil in music: he is that evil itself. And, I mean: who could be more “sincere” than “classic era” Billy Joel? In the words of Lowell Fulson, reconsider baby.
I don’t know, I can get behind a ‘defense’ that begins by calling him “a hopelessly self-important and go-for-the-jugular commercial schlub.”
tonyola, I can assure you that the Mayor of Philadelphia is not trying to engage anyone in a “hate fest.” Mayor Nutter is a very warm, kind man. There are large pockets of music fans who regret Joel’s success, and with the recent news from Mr. Takiff the Mayor feels it necessary to apologize on behalf of the city to rock fans the world over. The man gave it up for 2 of his records, and I don’t think he’ll be upset if I share that, off the record, he told me that he feels Cold Spring Harbor “has its moments.”
This whole thing feels like a set-up to me. Philadelphia helped keep early Bowie going, but I refuse to believe we deserve any blame for Joel.
Also, am I the only one baffled by Takiff’s descriptive use of “sexy shocker” for anything that involves Billy Joel-powered masturbation? Regardless of what you think about his music, ol’ BJ going into business for himself is a decidedly unsexy shocker, all things considered.
I wasn’t referring to the Mayor. I’ve read enough older posts on RTH to know that the mere mention of Billy Joel’s name causes some people to uncontrollably twitch, and I was stating that I wasn’t one of them.
I’d rather hear fraudulent competence than sincere dreck. Billy, for all his faults, showed himself capable of making listenable radio fodder. While he’s no saint, he’s less evil than James Taylor, John Denver, Neil Diamond, or Harry Chapin.
See, here’s where I feel Mayor Nutter speaks for me. Before my digital recorder was turned on we touched on issues of sincerity. He asked something to the extent of, “Is the music of Billy Joel ‘fraudulent,’ or is it, despite its clear melodic competence, sincerely obnoxious? I mean, does any Philadelphian who now regrets supporting Joel’s breakthrough efforts feel the ‘heart attack-ack-ack-ack’ line in ‘Movin’ Out’ is anything but a sincere expression of the man’s ‘soul,’ if you will? That’s a frightening thought to consider, but one I had to take seriously on behalf of our city’s hip music lovers.”
Powerful stuff. I’m hoping we can get the Mayor to sit down in the Halls of Rock for a full-blown music chat.
He used to be a dj. Maybe that’s the angle to take.
I would like to see this as a poll or it’s own thread but I like the first three a lot more than Billy Joel. I might dislike Harry Chapin more than BJ but even that is a close call.
You haven’t heard Diamond’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Jazz Singer soundtracks, have you? And what the hell is a “Cracklin’ Rosie”? Diamond makes Billy Joel look like a quiet and modest craftsman. Plus Joel rarely strayed into the sensitive acoustic weenie-dom that was the spiritual home of Taylor and Denver.
I’m basically with cdm: Diamond wrote and performed a few no-apologies-necessary, highly entertaining pop songs that lacked any of the annoying, deal-breaking tics of Joel’s few decent song. James Taylor is way too sincere for even my tastes, but “Fire and Rain” alone is worth more than anything Joel ever did, including schtupping that Brinkley woman. Plus, the guy is a tasteful guitarist.
I have trouble defending John Denver re: Joel’s handful of somewhat enjoyable songs, but didn’t he write “Leaving on a Jet Plane”? That song used to make me really sad (in a good way) when I was a kid, and I bet I’d still feel sad now. Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” song is slightly touching, too, but I can’t go to bat for him based on what little I know.
At their worst, they are all equally reprehensible, a special circle of singer-songwriter hell. But Diamond at least has a solid lp’s worth of good early material. James Taylor I have no use for at all: and having lived my whole life in New England, where unquestioned adoration of JT is practically a byword, I find him all the more hard to take. Yet, basically, he is unoffensive. John Denver was schmaltzy and lightweight, basically a minor character at best. Chapin, based on the few songs I know, is absolutely unbearable, but easy enough to ignore since he only had like one hit. But Joel not only was an absolutely inescapable force for ill for most of the 70s and 80s. His crimes dwarf those of the others in this list.
I’m with cdm on this. In descending order, I’d rate ’em:
– Neil Diamond: unintentionally hilarious and did fine work when Mickey Dolenz was his muse.
– John Denver: He did heroically step forward and bail out Zappa and Dee Snyder in front of the Senate to save rock ‘n roll. Also, hung out with the Muppets, which is cooler than Billy Joel hanging out with Gwenyth Paltrow and Coldplay.
– James Taylor: Great cameo on a classic episode of The Simpsons.
– Billy Joel
– Harry Chapin: Huh, may actually be worse than Billy Joel. Cat’s In The Cradle is a total dud. “And I said “Hey dad/what are you doin’?”/And my dad was all/”Not talkin’ to you, son”/My dad was all “Not talkin’ to you” Snooze.
I’m coming at it the opposite way. I’m just focusing on the peaks instead of the whole mountain range. Rather than concerning myself with an artist’s entire catalog before I decide whether they’re horrible or not, I’m ignoring a career’s worth of crap and just focusing on a 2 minute song if I like the song. So Neil gets by easily based on Solitary Man and Cherry Baby, which might be the only two songs from the Big Five’s collective catalog that I would leave on if they turned up on the radio. I am okay with Fire and Rain and Country Road by James and I actually like Country Road by John Denver (I don’t mind the soft rock hippie yodel-fest that is Calypso either). It’s a dogfight for last place and since I detest the only two Harry Chapin songs that I know, he might nudge out BJ for last place.
And I should point out that I have about 75 gigs of music on my iPod and not a single song by any of the Big Five.
But we should also consider the valleys as well as the peaks. There’s no doubt that Joel has made his share of absolute stinkers. But think of these:
Neal Diamond – Hot August Night as well as the soundtracks I mentioned earlier.
John Denver – “Sunshine on my Shoulder” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”.
Harry Chapin – “Taxi” and that horrific zoophilia-fest “Dogtown”.
Was Joel at his worst really more evil than these?
If we pay too much attention to the valleys then some band like Stones may blow these turkeys out of the water. Do we want that? I agree that Joel has been consistently annoyingly mediocre longer than possibly any artist in rock history. Perhaps only Jon Bon Jovi can hope to catch him.
Neil’s geniality goes a long way, making something as bad as “Porcupine Pie” into comedy gold. It’s BJ’s sneering combo of artistic pretension and persecution complex (with a soupçon of blue-collar posturing) that helps render him so unlistenable to me.
Mr. Mod –
See? I said that everyone would start twitching at the mention of Billy Joel, didn’t I?
You have a point about valleys, but the valleys I chose were not minor items picked out of obscure album sides. They were mostly hit singles and albums. “Dogtown”, though not a hit single for obvious reasons, has attained great notoriety.
I’m not saying that Joel is good, mind you, but for me he’s not quite in the ninth circle of rock and roll hell. There are others more deserving of that place.
Something really weird happened while I was reading Mr Mod’s post, and I feel I must apologise to Mr Mod for being completely unable to take in any sense of the words therein.
I long ago made my peace with Billy Joel. I can’t remember which song it was, but about twenty years or so ago he released a single which I liked, after so many years of loathing him more than any other musician on the planet not only for the sins he had committed against all humanity in the name of his art, but also the expression he always had on his face while he was miming on Top of the Pops – enjoying the song came as such a shock that I resolved to get around it by simply ignoring his existence unless I was grooving on to that one really funky number.
I read the piece three times (and I just tried to read it three times more), but so ingrained has my passive aggressive hostile indifference to Mr Joel become (unless that track I’ve forgotten the name of is playing) that try as I might I’ve not been able to get any sense of what Mr Mod is conveying past the surface of my eyes through to register in my brain. It is as though I have been hypnotised, very odd.
Neil Diamond played Glastonbury a few years back, I was determined to be right down the front for Leonard Cohen, who was headlining, so started making my way after Van Morrison had played (there are limits to my devotion) and got there just before ND came on. I have to admit that I was completely taken by surprise, and totally blown away by his set, and now quite unashamedly listen to his records, the ones with the hits on are nothing to be ashamed of, and the first of the Rick Rubin ones is also particularly fine.
I used to work in a bookshop, and once found Jonathan Livingston Seagull shelved in the pets section, which amused me greatly at the time, far more than listening to Neil Diamond’s soundtrack did on the one occasion I heard it. Even to someone who listens to Terry Jacks for pleasure there are limits.
Neil Diamond is nothing if not a consummate pro, and though I’ve never seen him live, I’m sure he knows how to put on an entertaining show. It’s like the time I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Atlantic City. His show was enjoyable and lots of fun, because the man knew his craft. I even made it though his rendition of “Candyman” without excessive nausea. I wouldn’t buy his records, though.
I too remain a little perplexed at the amount of venom directed towards Billy Joel. For all his unquestioned sins, he’s a tuneful guy, and that saves him from the utter abyss in my book.
John Denver does deserve full credit for standing up against the PMRC. Richard Nixon signed off on the creation of the EPA and ending the draft, too.
Nixon also deleted large portions of his recorded output before the public heard them. If only Billy Joel would have followed suit.
Hey! C’mere. Which one of these three turds smells the worst?
I think you might want to have that checked out. That’s like when the doctor hits your knee with a hammer and nothing happens.
I’m surprised to say this, but I’m siding with tonyola on this one because of his point about BJ’s strong piano skills. To me, that dwarfs (ok allows a pass) all of his other VERY significant faults. Plus I have a little bit of remaining sentimentality for “Piano Man” which spoke to me when I was a young teen.
At least BJ admitted that he was moving up and moving out. JT in all his earnestness couldn’t get away with just those beautiful eyes. John Denver – blech. And Harry Chapin isn’t even in the running.
alex, you had to go mention The Muppets which now makes me review my previous comments.
Well, Barry Manilow was a consumate pro, too, and he would be a musician I think I’d put even lower than Harry Chapin (maybe).
Billy Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Nothing can atone for that.