Billy Joel: The Life & Times Of An Angry Young Man

Successful, volatile, creative, self—aware and self—destructive, singer—songwriter Billy Joel's life reads like a popular novel. Hank Bordowitz's "Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Yo

Doesn't Matter What They Say in the Papers

Late in the winter of 1980, ads started appearing in the music-business trades with Billy in jeans and a leather jacket, in a field tossing a rock in the air, looking every inch the hood he had wanted to be as a teen. The legend said, "Hey—I got a little something for ya." In the lower-left corner was a picture of his new album, showing Billy in the same outfit getting ready to toss the same rock at an enormous picture window.

Thus Columbia chose to announce the release of the newest Billy Joel album, Glass Houses, in February 1980. The album came out on the heels of the 22nd Grammy Awards on February 27, 1980. Once again Billy took home two of the trophies, an Album of the Year statuette and a Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, both for the 52nd Street album.

The experience of having won four Grammys and landing two multi-platinum albums had not been all Billy had hoped it would be. For one thing, of the seven hits from the two albums, three were ballads, a much higher percentage than he recorded in that genre. That had led to what Billy felt was a misperception of his work.

He recorded Glass Houses to disabuse both the press and the public of this image. It was Billy's effort to chuck some rock—hence the cover—at the public perception that he was a middle-of-the-road ballad singer.

But it was more than that. When Billy took the band into A&R Studios once more to lay tracks with Ramone, he had several other things on his mind. In the wake of his successes of the last couple of years, his live show had moved from relatively intimate venues to arenas. To answer that, Billy had brought guitarist David Brown into the band on lead guitar. This allowed him to record Glass Houses with the notion of adding some coliseum-strength material to his shows—both in terms of the music and in terms of the sound. Steve Khan had allowed him a little more guitar leeway on 52nd Street, and the addition of David Brown to the band on lead guitar offered him that much more.

Beyond that, the record reflected the state of pop music, brought into his home by his teenaged stepson Sean (whom he thanks "for the inspiration" in the liner notes). Any complexity in pop had largely caved in on itself by the time Billy was in the studio making Glass Houses. The songs and the relative starkness of the recording reflect that.

So, in addition to the "usual suspects" of pop radio like the Eagles, when "You May Be Right," the first single on Glass Houses, started working its way up the charts to #7 in the spring of 1980, it was also competing against newer blood like Blondie. The music on Glass Houses was at once Billy's reaction to the growing New Wave and his answer to it.

This became even more evident in the spring when the second single started climbing through the likes of Gary Numan's "Cars," Rocky Burnette's "Tired of Toein' the Line," and Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" (along with more generic fare like Bette Midler's "The Rose" and Olivia Neutron Bomb's "Magic"). That tune, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," became Billy's first single to top the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.

It was the song's bridge that threw gasoline on the flame war that had erupted between Billy and the press: "It doesn't matter what they say in the papers, 'cause it's always been the same old scene. There's a new band in town, but you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine aimed at your average teen."

The press responded in kind. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" was voted the worst song about rock and roll ever in a Rolling Stone critics poll. "The song is an out and out attack on the press, so why shouldn't it try to get even?" Billy wondered, amused. "I don't sit around and play footsie with the press, especially Rolling Stone. I have a running battle with them. I don't know when it started, but I know I'm not about to let it drop . . . I kind of dig it."

"'It's Still Rock and Roll to Me' wasn't against punk rock," he added. "I thought punk rock was healthy for the music business, which had gotten bloated."

"I thought about doing an album [during the '70s] called The Age of Jive and taking a pot shot at everything. But I'm no F. Scott Fitzgerald; I [was not] gonna be the conscience of the seventies."

"Sometimes a Fantasy," with a video that hinted at phone sex and lyrics that more than hinted at masturbation -- the first line is "Oh, I didn't want to do it, but I got too lonely," which led Billy to admit, "What else could the song be about?" -- didn't even raise eyebrows less than three years after Virginia had sparked a controversy with the Church. Consequently, it broke the Top 40, but just barely, peaking at #36.

The mid-tempo "Don't Ask Me Why," however, gave ammo to the people who were accusing Billy of going "middle of the road." The track did top the Adult Contemporary chart, while breaking into the pop Top 20. Even the Latinesque track had its experimental fillip. "In the midsection of the song 'Don't Ask Me Why,' there are fifteen pianos overdubbed on top of each other," Billy noted.

The closest thing to a ballad on the album was "C'Etait Toi," and it was also one of Billy's biggest musical misfires, by his own admission. "I don't think we'll ever play that song again. Although I like that song musically, I did it in French, and I don't even speak French, so I really made a mess out of that. It's not really a crowd pleaser, not even in France."

Despite the "bad press," Glass Houses spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. It quickly sold the 1 million copies required for platinum status in the United States. It also won the American Music Award for Album of the Year.

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