On 52nd Street and The Stranger, Billy Joel is the quintessential postrock entertainer: a vaudevillian piano man and mimic who, having come of age in the late Sixties, has the grasp of rock and the technical know-how to be able to caricature both Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as “do” an updated Anthony Newley, all in the same Las Vegas format. Joel seems to have been born knowing what many Seventies pop stars have had to find out the hard way: that rock & roll was always part of show business. Being a pianist (and a bravura one), he’s also been more aware than many of his guitar-based peers that rock has always been a species of popular music and not a totally separate art form.
A bantam, hyperkinetic Rocky Balboa onstage, Joel works audiences into a lather of adulation with the snappy calculation of a borsch-belt ham. As cockily aggressive as Sammy Davis Jr., he lards his performances with schtick that usually includes impersonations of such genre greats as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, et al. In the past, I’ve been hostile to this artist’s feisty bravado, to the competitive edge of these impersonations, to Joel’s strutting himself off as a rock & roll winner, because his blithe lampoons of rock icons have looked suspiciously like the blandishments of a spiritual impostor.
But in all fairness, Billy Joel has never pretended to be more than the consummate showman that he is, and his charades contain a great deal of humor. Besides, times have changed. The late Seventies are not very conducive to rock shamanism. And Joel is very much a phenomenon of the times: an urban realist in the age of gossip mongering and the sinking dollar, a cynical ultraprofessional in a booming culture racket, the artistic standards of which are now almost completely determined by mass-market technologies.
Neither a great singer nor a great writer, Billy Joel is a great show-business personality in the tradition of Al Jolson. The same qualities that distinguish his schtick also distinguish his singing — bluntness, brashness, a middle- to lower-middle-class fringe urbanity and plenty of heart. Joel’s is a sidewalk voice from the chorus of West Side Story, vending chutzpah. His complete lack of vocal subtlety, though an artistic limitation, is still one of his charms. He’s every scuffling city boy who ever made it big, crowing with ego but also giving back his all.
Joel’s songwriting forte is pop pastiche. As with so many rock stars, one of his most important early influences was Bob Dylan — in fact, “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack,” two of his more ambitious early tunes, as well as the more recent and better “She’s Always a Woman,” are practically keyboard parodies of Dylan critiques. Both lyrically and musically, Joel’s compositions tend to be very direct (there’s not much beneath the surface), a little awkward, somewhat overstated and extremely melodic. Billy Joel’s best pop songs — sentimental standards such as “New York State of Mind” and “Just the Way You Are” — are closer to the old-fashioned, tub-thumping, Tin Pan Alley razzle-dazzle of George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin than to the polite theatrical tradition of George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Perhaps the most characteristic Joel numbers (e.g., “The Entertainer,” “Only the Good Die Young”) are breathless raveups that, when propelled by the singer’s dauntless energy, remind one as much of pep talks as they do songs. Recently, Joel has mastered Beatlesque pop-rock. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from The Stranger and “My Life,” “Zanzibar” and “Half a Mile Away” from 52nd Street have a jittery note-to-syllable diction reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s playful rockers.
Billy Joel would probably still be only a cult figure, idolized in concert but poorly represented on record, if he hadn’t found the perfect studio collaborator in producer Phil Ramone. Starting with The Stranger, the two completely rethought Joel’s music: instead of focusing on a piano, they built the arrangements around a band, balancing the singer’s piano playing against Steve Khan’s guitar, then adding studio ornamentation to make sophisticated, allusive rock glosses. Here, Joel’s saxophonist, Richie Cannata, becomes his foil in a Clarence Clemons/Bruce Springsteen sort of relationship. The rhythm is powered by a streamlined, Elton John/Wingsstyle propulsion, and everything is mixed hot. The result is as perfect and flattering a studio presentation as can be imagined.
52nd Street, also produced by Ramone, is more rock-oriented than The Stranger and quite different in spirit. Whereas The Stranger — particularly in its centerpiece, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — captured the texture of urban neighborhood life in an Edward Hopper-like light, 52nd Street evokes the carnivalesque neon glare of nighttime Manhattan, using painterly strokes of jazz here and there to terrific effect.
The characters in Joel’s new compositions — a Puerto Rican street punk (“Half a Mile Away”), a social climber (“Big Shot”), a sexual bitch (“Stiletto”), a barfly sports fan (“Zanzibar”) and a Cuban guitarist (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”) — comprise a sidewalk portrait gallery of midtown hustlers and dreamers. The likenesses, though roughly sketched, are accurate and sometimes even tinged with romance (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”). The artist’s fault-finding songs are among his least interesting, and “Stiletto,” a psychologically trite bit of misogyny, is the LP’s one outright failure. Even the numbers that aren’t portraits fit nicely into Joel’s scheme. “Honesty,” a big, brazen, Anthony Newley-type ballad, laments the cynicism and loneliness behind the facade of Gotham glamour, while “52nd Street” is a fragmentary pop-jazz picture post card. “Until the Night” niftily re-creates Phil Spector’s New York.
Joel tried once before to imitate Spector (in “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” on the self-produced Turnstiles), but failed to build a mighty enough wall of sound. This time, his caricature of that master pop caricaturist works splendidly. The singer is as keenly aware as Spector of the ridiculousness as well as the sublimity of the big-city teenage sexual jungle, and because his Righteous Brothers imitation is as tongue in cheek as it is reverent, “Until the Night” works as both tribute and joke. Billy Joel and Phil Ramone are the first artist/producer combination to capture the precarious balance between the ludicrous and the monumental in Phil Spector (how can anyone take Spector more than half-seriously these days?), and Joel’s lyric — simultaneously nonsensical, self-parodying and romantic — is as charming as it is bogus. “Until the Night” is the formal pièce de résistance of an album that, though far from great, boasts much of the color and excitement of a really good New York street fair.