Just as veteran rock & roller Bob Seger once attempted (successfully) to add a crisp new edge and some fiery freshness to a chunk of his time-honored repertoire with 1976’s Live Bullet, so Billy Joel has brought forth a number of dusty gems from his less-heralded years (1971-1976) and given them an appealing live showcase on Songs in the Attic. For Seger, Live Bullet was an opportunity to offer performances of good, tough tunes (“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Get Out of Denver,” “Heavy Music,” et al.) largely unknown outside his Midwestern power base. The first time around, most of this material was so poorly recorded that only heart and sheer energy rescued it from near-total obscurity.
Billy Joel’s early output likewise suffered from studio snafus (when Cold Spring Harbor, his first LP, was mastered, the sixteen-track ran slow and left him sounding like Alvin of the Chipmunks), and a couple of Songs from the Attic standouts were rendered unlistenable on the debut album. But where Seger sought to celebrate and cap the first half of an unusually long rock & roll career with Live Bullet, Joel’s Songs in the Attic is a very careful edit of his scuffling days. These cuts are gimcracks from a catalog that didn’t catch fire until the release of The Stranger in 1977, and Joel, very much aware that they show his development from intent greenhorn to creator of standards, plays them with self-absorbed vigor.
It’s precisely this vigor, along with Joel’s canny pugnaciousness, that lifts Songs in the Attic above the level of a pop-rock rummage sale. At his best, Billy Joel is an angry, defensive wiseacre of a songwriter, so angry about his own suburban angst that he storms with exquisite impatience from typewriter to piano, scarcely noticing the shift in keyboards as he skillfully sketches his all-American rage. The poorest kid on the poor-people’s block in Levittown, Long Island, he grew up to simultaneously mock and admire the fierce follies of the middle-class dream, turning out car radio singles that forged a neat link between Barry Manilow and Paul McCartney. This is especially true of his sweet but sturdy ballads, yet you have to be in the mood for the uptempo stuff, because it’s sometimes spiced with a venom that smells like piss and tastes like vinegar.
While I’m not a fan of everything that Joel cranks out, I love his ballsiness. And I’m captivated by the commitment of his truly exceptional bar band to his often quirky material. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” from 1975’s Turnstiles, is one chauvinistic New Yorker’s reaction to the famous Daily News default-era headline, ford to new york — drop dead, and the composer’s elaborate fantasy-farce about the apocalyptic destruction of the city is as take-it-or-leave-it defiant as the front page that inspired it. The screwball, Marlboro Man splendor of the historically inaccurate “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is equally ingratiating, especially when you learn from the liner notes that it was a deliberately made-up paean to a beloved bartender back in Oyster Bay, L.I.
Joel, a true rock & roll anomaly, is blatantly retracing his first halting steps as a dismantler of pop myths — he’s a vicious but not ungenerous malcontent who loved to parody Leon Russell, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen in his early appearances. On Songs in the Attic, you sense he might even go after himself in his brutally unsentimental way, but he and his unbridled musicians battle past that impulse in the first few stanzas of “Miami 2017” and then keep cooking, imbuing great (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”) and grating (“Captain Jack”) compositions of yore with surprising color and dimension.
Songs in the Attic is a reprise of miniatures and night moves made by Joel on the way to tempering the best of the music he hears in his head. As such, these revised versions of his seminal works may not be especially significant (though the bitchy dynamism of the frenetic “Everybody Loves You Now” flirts with real inspiration), yet they’re frequently a lot of fun. And, hell, it’s commendable that this talented eccentric still has the nerve to be his own surly self.
The resurrected past says a lot about Billy Joel’s future: he won’t go changing to try and please us. We’ll have to take him or leave him just the way he is.