For whatever reasons, perhaps the same dumb, young metalhead tendencies that Chuck Klosterman notes in Fargo Rock City kept him from admitting any interest in pop for ages, I never bought any Billy Joel albums, despite always kinda liking quite a bit of his early stuff. I finally gave in for some strange reason a few weeks ago and ordered a copy of his early live album, Songs in the Attic, and 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, the former because it seemed to steer clear of the songs that long ago became overplayed radio fodder and the latter because it sounds like a lost Beatles album.
And now that both have arrived, I am kicking myself for having spent so many years Joel-less. As I mentioned above, when I was younger, I suffered from a condition that Klosterman described so well in his book – the odd, complete deafness we metalheads had toward anything outside of our chosen genre. If it was pop, if it was catchy, or, worse, pleasant, it was terrible, awful music that must be ignored. The thing was, I had seen Billy Joel in concert years before and it had indelibly stamped some of his music in me – much of Nylon Curtain, in fact, “Allentown,” “Goodnight Saigon,” and many of his older, now lesser known songs – and I’d forced the memory into submission because, I felt, it wasn’t cool to like the “piano man.” Well, maybe it’s still not. I also don’t care anymore – I can’t deny the power of a bunch of great songs. What’s more, this era of Joel’s music is very obviously a template for fellow pianist Ben Folds, who, for a while at least, was deemed pretty cool. Billy’s okay in my book, and so is Ben.
If you’re looking to pick up some old Billy Joel, skip the remasters and head straight for the cheap old versions. The sound is sparkling clear and stunning. The acoustic guitar in “Goodnight Saigon,” for example, has that very live, “in the room with you” feeling that gets lost in modern remasters due to EQ choices, compression/limiting, and other things that are done to them to (ahem) “modernize” them. I know the Billy Joel remasters are not considered bad, but they absolutely cannot surpass the sheer beauty of sound I’m hearing in these 20+ year old discs. They won’t make you look cool, however. Even the remasters with their nicer packaging can’t do that.