Monday, April 1, 2013

Billy Joel 4: Turnstiles

While one usually has to go to California to make it big in the music business, that’s not to say that talent and potential will help you along, as Billy Joel learned. He simply is not a West Coast guy, so he went back to Long Island to re-establish himself as a native New Yorker. It was the smart move, as the quality of Turnstiles—chock full of songs about starting over and fading dreams—can attest, even if it didn’t pay off right away.
The “Be My Baby” intro, percussion and warble makes “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” something of a Spector homage (and indeed, Ronnie Spector would cover it) but the song itself is better than the recording here. His lyrics have definitely improved, as shown on the reflective “Summer, Highland Falls” (a.k.a. “sadness or euphoria”). That progress, however is hampered by the ever-so-slight “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”, which meanders around a Latin beat to no real purpose. It’s forgotten as soon as “New York State Of Mind” comes in. This song has become something of a standard, and for good reason. Even before the city in question became a focal point for benefit concerts, this little Ray Charles homage managed to hit all the right notes and scale the right chords to be a song that you’d figure some Tin Pan Alley guy had to write already, but they didn’t, and it’s little Billy Joel who had to hire the sax player to help him nail the ending. And he does, and they do.
“James” is a one-sided letter to a childhood friend; fictional or not, it’s a little too close to “Daniel”. The rest of the album more than compensates. “Angry Young Man” begins with the famous “Prelude” that recycles all the Copland touches he’d used in “Ballad Of Billy The Kid”, then nicely punctures the egos of so many of his misguided contemporaries. “I’ve Loved These Days” begins as another slightly classical piece, and is another big farewell to the good times he may have once known. It’s not the album’s finale, however. That place of pride goes to “Miami 2017”, better known by the subtitle “Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway”. It’s a very clever science fiction scenario, written from the point of view of a retiree in the year of the title. What’s remarkable about the song is not that we’re only four years away at this writing, but there was no way he could have known how frightening the images would be after a certain September. Still, it’s got enough local references to make audiences cheer.
If anything (outside of moving back home) helped make this album as strong as it is, that would be the band. In LA he relied on hired guns to translate his ideas. But on Turnstiles, he stuck with his touring band, and found the glue he’s been missing thus far. These aren’t the best versions of these songs; that would happen eventually, and for posterity. In the meantime, it was good that he learned a little humility.

Billy Joel Turnstiles (1976)—

1 comment:

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