Nyacht Quite: Billy Joel's '52nd Street'
by Timothy Malcolm
Editor's note: Weird that we happen to have two Billy Joel pieces in a row. I guess it's Billy Joel week here at the Captain's Blog. Forget moving up, 'cause I'm...BILLY JOEL. Anyway, Tim Malcolm had an idea for a series on albums that don't quite make the boat. Here's one!
The wrestling match between Billy Joel and rock critic Robert Christgau is one of the great battles of the AOR era of popular music. And it really kicked into gear in the mid 1970s, when Billy found his voice.
He had finally realized himself a New York musician with 1976’s Turnstiles, producing a capable album of straight-ahead piano pop for baby boomers complaining about the cost of unleaded. Then, for his follow-up, he doubled down on New York, producing an album leaning on Broadway harder than anything he had written before. The Stranger is Paul McCartney spending a month in Queens, taking in a couple matinees during his free time. It’s good. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is a fine McCartney song cycle. “Only the Good Die Young” is quintessential Billy, jerky and winking and fratty. And despite the soapy Nyachty ‘70s treacle of “Just the Way You Are,” the album tracks like “Get It Right the First Time” and the title track are hidden gems.
The Stranger was a massive success. “Just the Way You Are” was an obvious top-10 hit and Grammy winner, because Billy was all about the middle. “Movin’ Out” is a classic rock staple and the foundation of arguably Broadway’s best jukebox musical. Again, it’s good.
Christgau, who thought Billy was a smug punk whining about things he didn’t know, liked it a little. Just a little.
“Billy remembers pretensions, too. Having hidden his egotism in metaphor as a young songpoet, he achieved success only when he uncloseted the spoiled brat behind those bulging eyes. But here the brat appears only once, in the nominally metaphorical guise of ‘the stranger,’” Christgau wrote in the Village Voice. “The rest of Billy has more or less grown up. He’s now as likeable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business. And despite the Chapinesque turns his voice takes when he tries to get raucous, he now makes a better Elton John than Leo Sayer does.”
Billy hated that. A middle-class Levittown kid born to a musician father who for God’s sake boxed because he wanted to defend himself, Billy loathed what he felt was pretentiousness from too-cool self-proclaimed deans of whatever, man. Not to mention Billy battled with depression; clearly the guy was constantly doubting himself. Now he had this Village punk nipping at him?
And it wasn’t just Christgau who poked at Billy. Ira Mayer’s 1977 Rolling Stone review of “The Stranger” was largely positive, and yet it found numerous holes to stab:
“We don't expect subtlety or understatement from him and, indeed, his lyrics can be as smartassed as ever,” Mayer wrote. “But (producer Phil) Ramone's emphasis on sound definitely lessens the impact of the sarcasm, which in the long run may help boost Joel's career immeasurably.”
Getting career advice from a Rolling Stone critic? Probably went over well.
So, possibly seeking to prove himself worthy, and possibly to shove a few middle fingers in people’s faces, Billy opted to record an even slicker, more professional, more “sophisticated” album for his 1978 follow-up. He stayed with Phil Ramone and his band but decided to call Midtown Manhattan his home. He went with jazz.
Or should we say “jazz.”
“Rather than trying to reproduce the kind of songs that were on The Stranger, I went more toward the jazz influence,” Billy says in a video that accompanied a recent re-release of his albums.
(And by the way - and this is crucial to know about Billy - the guy loves to talk about his music. The SiriusXM Billy Joel Channel - which has now returned for maybe the fourth or fifth time since he’s just about the perfect SiriusXM nostalgia artist - is peppered with asides where Billy talks about “the craft” of such epics as “Souvenir” and “Easy Money.” Billy would probably pay someone to record him reading the Yellow Pages, which is appropriate since that’s also something that hasn’t done anything new since 1993.)
So Billy went with jazz for his follow-up, calling the album 52nd Street as a nod to all the jazz clubs that once populated that thoroughfare. He even took to the album cover lazily holding a trumpet while wearing a blazer and blue jeans against a dingy Manhattan restaurant.
Considering the jazz influence of the album, the two centerpieces are then the bookends in the middle: “Zanzibar” and “Stiletto.” The latter opens with a saxophone flourish by Billy’s regular player, Richie Cannata and rolls with plenty of New York pop jazz. The former is a major attempt at seizing some critical credentials. “Zanzibar” is Billy writing Steely Dan.
Of course, Billy’s songs are typically someone else’s songs. His Piano Man album was an attempt at writing like the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, leaning mostly to Elton John’s fetishizing of the American West, while Billy himself tried to beat back opinions that he was just a copycat of the British singer.
“New York State of Mind,” arguably Billy’s most iconic recording, is a Frank Sinatra attempt. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is one foot in Phil Spector’s fun house, the other in Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Turnpike gas station. Later, Billy would ape punk (“Close to the Borderline”), Elvis Costello (“I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore”) and Lindsey Buckingham (“Sometimes a Fantasy”).
The songs on 52nd Street are no different. “Until the Night” is a rewrite of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and once you hear it, you realize “Until the Night” is a pretty limp attempt. “Half a Mile Away” is Billy doing the Manhattan Transfer, so it’s really corny, but because Billy sells everything hard, it works. And it’s better than the title track “52nd Street,” which is a paltry jazz workout finding Billy applying his Al Jolson cream.
And “Zanzibar” is Steely Dan, circa The Royal Scam. There’s some “Green Earrings” in there, a little of the title track, and a protagonist straight out of the Dan playbook: a barfly trying to score with the waitress.
But the lyrics of “Zanzibar” clue the listener into why Billy can never be smooth like Becker and Fagen, why he could never be considered Yacht Rock:
“Rose, he knows he’s such a credit to the game, but the Yankees grab the headlines every time.”
When Steely Dan opts for sports metaphors, they reach for the silky smooth passing and driving of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. Billy? His main character laments that nobody cares enough about Pete Rose, the pug-faced brute who barrels into catchers and hits singles for the Cincinnati Reds. Pete Rose isn’t smooth. In fact he’s the farthest thing from it.
With that in mind, ignore the other flashes of Yacht Rock heard throughout 52nd Street. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” may recall the sea, but it’s a Latin jazz song with marimba about Billy’s mom. “Honesty” may sound like something David Foster would fart out in 1986, but it’s slow, not smooth. “Big Shot” may have hints of “Hold the Line” Toto in there, but Jesus it’s such a blue-collar New Yorker throwdown.
The closest 52nd Street gets to Yacht Rock is probably “My Life,” a top-10 single that later became the theme song to Bosom Buddies. But calling it “closest” is even a stretch. The piano recalls a Fender Rhodes but is actually a Yamaha CP-70. It bounces not like the R&B of the Doobie Brothers, but of the white New York jazz of, again, the Manhattan Transfer. And it’s a story song, Billy telling us all about his friend who left New York to become a stand-up comic in Los Angeles.
Yes, the song is about going to Los Angeles, but to become a comedian. And it kind of sounds smug.
So there’s no Yacht Rock in 52nd Street, just as there’s no Yacht Rock in anything Billy Joel ever recorded. “Just the Way You Are” earns a couple musical points but is much closer to a 10CC ripoff than anything on the yacht. But that’s it. There’s really nothing else. This is a dude from Long Island recording average-man blue-collar pop straight out the Brill Building. He’s an entirely New York creation.
You don’t get Yacht in 52nd Street, but you do get Billy Joel doing what Billy Joel does best: copy a bunch of styles, make them his own using his trademark New York pitbull style, put out a couple hits and otherwise collect a decent paycheck. In some ways, he is the ultimate royal scammer.