Billy Joel's Wild Heavy-Metal Duo Attila
Billy Joel and drummer Jon Small had spent the mid-Sixties playing together in a hard-working Long Island outfit called the Hassles. The band had released two LPs on United Artists showcasing their talent as purveyors of blue-eyed soul on the order of the Young Rascals and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, but by the end of the decade both Joel and Small wanted to make something weightier. "We wanted to be a heavy band and we decided we were going to get heavy ... somehow," Joel told biographer Fred Schruers.
Splitting from their longtime band in 1969, the pair holed up in the basement of Small's parents' wallpaper store in Syosett, New York to build a Frankenstein's monster of amplification. Braving the occasional electric shock, they rigged Joel's Hammond organ into a Marshall stack. "I got a wah-wah pedal so I could wow-wow-ee-oe like Jimi [Hendrix] and added a distortion pedal, which I figured would double the mangled noise we were already making. Then we just pinned the volume to the wall." Using just drums, keyboards and Joel's vocals, they set about cooking a sickly sonic stew that culled rancid bits of Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, the Doors and Led Zeppelin at their most indulgent.
Believing themselves to be "unstoppable," they played the results to manager Irwin Mazur. Even though he privately thought the music was "the worst crap I ever heard in my life," he managed to get them a $50,000 advance from Epic Records – and an epic record it would be. "We were going to destroy the world with amplification," Joel told Dan Neer in 1985. "We had titles like 'Godzilla,' 'March of the Huns,' 'Brain Invasion.' A lot of people think [I] just came out of the piano bar. ..." Doubling down on the whole death and destruction motif, they named the project Attila. "If you're going to assault the rock world and crush it under ten Marshall amps, wouldn't Attila the Hun, who plundered Italy and Gaul and slaughtered quite a few innocents along the way, work as a role model?"
Released in July 1970, the album was, by Joel's estimation, "a colossal failure" that he later dismissed as "psychedelic bullshit." The souped-up amplification that they had so richly prized proved to be their undoing during their handful of gigs, driving the audience away. "People went fleeing from the place. We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people's ears," Joel said in a 2012 interview with Alec Baldwin on NPR. "It was just horrible. Thank God it didn't happen because I would've screamed myself right out of the business."
Their partnership ended in a spectacularly dramatic fashion when it was revealed that Joel was having an affair with Small's wife, Elizabeth Weber. Joel, believing the couple was on the verge of a split, felt that his bandmate was aware of his affections – but the discovery caught Small off-guard and led to a physical altercation. Weber promptly left them both, moving out of the communal home they shared. Despondent, Joel took an overdose of sleeping pills. His body was discovered by Small and taken to a nearby ER to have his stomach pumped. He would be back in the hospital within weeks after downing a bottle of Old English Scratch Cover. "I remember sitting in a chair waiting to die," he said later. "I thought, I'll sit in this chair and I'll die here. I ended up sitting there, polishing my mother's furniture by farting a lot."
Joel eventually sought help for his depression, and survived to forge a new chapter in his artistry. "I decided I no longer want[ed] to be a rock and roll star. I got that out of my system. I was about 19 or 20. I want to write songs now," he said. Many of the songs he wrote – including "She's Always a Woman to Me" and "Just the Way You Are" – were inspired by Weber, whom he married (and divorced).