Monday, January 7, 2013

Billy Joel 1: Cold Spring Harbor

Billy Joel causes arguments like few other musicians of his or any generation. For some he’s a pompous hack, while others hail him as a terrific songwriter and live performer. For those of us who grew up near New York City, he seemed almost as ubiquitous on the radio as Springsteen, even though it took him a while to become a household name. And even though his last album of songs is two decades old, an all-star benefit at Madison Square Garden isn’t complete unless he comes out to play songs loaded with local references.
As he’d say, he was a classically trained pianist who loved rock ‘n roll, and many of his melodies started out as instrumental pieces grounded solidly in classical piano. That’s one reason why his attempts to rock aren’t as convincing as when he emulates pieces by 18th-century longhairs. With the benefit of hindsight, we consider him a guilty pleasure, with everything both of those words suggest.
His first album was soundly ignored when it came out, and even the version of Cold Spring Harbor that you can find today isn’t quite the album it might have been. Apparently the first (and only) pressing ran fast, and it wasn’t until well after he was a big star that his old manager arranged to have it reissued—at the right speed, but remixed and rerecorded in places. Some have compared this to what Alan Douglas did to the Hendrix legacy; we’d suppose even Billy would say that’s extreme.
The album deserved better, since it not only sounds like the Billy Joel that would be embraced within a few years, but it’s not much like other singer-songwriter albums of the period (except maybe that Elton John guy). “She’s Got A Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” would get another lease on life a decade later, having been well-worn on the road. “You Can Make Me Free” comes between those on side one, and builds up into a terrific jam (complete with overdubbed Beatlesque harmonies) removed from the reissue. His manager may have screwed him over, but at least he put his charge in touch with some decent session guys. “Falling Of The Rain” is built around a trademark Joel piano run, and there’s even an original “Nocturne”; both show off those aforementioned classical chops.
It’s a short album at a little over half an hour, so the misses stand out. “Turn Around” would be rewritten better a few times on future albums, while “Why Judy Why” is pretty ordinary. “You Look So Good To Me” simply has too much Hammond organ. “Tomorrow Is Today” gets away from itself in the middle, when his “soulful” voice makes its first appearance and the strings saw away at arpeggios at top speed. “Got To Begin Again” leans heavily on the “end of the road” metaphor, even for a closing track.
Still, there’s enough on Cold Spring Harbor that suggests his potential. Some enterprising individuals have used digital technology to speed-correct the original LP, which would be the best way to hear it. Again, his voice isn’t quite there, suggesting a lack of confidence (well-placed as it turns out). But again, these things are clearer with the perspective of forty years. If anything suggested he wasn’t ready for the big time, it was the mustache.

Billy Joel Cold Spring Harbor (1971)—3
1983 reissue: "same" as 1971

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