Ever since piano man Billy Joel released his “angry-at-the-world” hits, such as “My Life,” “Movin’ Out,” “The Stranger,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Always a Woman,” and “Big Shot,” I’ve been spellbound. These songs were intended for me, I was sure.
There was always an unleashed energy and poetic angst in most of his early songs. Filled with relentless, often ugly emotions, in-your-face lyrics, bubbling over with torment and power, the songs ripped right through my soul. His songs mirrored my own personal demons, my own disappointments. His melancholy was MY melancholy.
So, when I first heard Joel’s 1983 album An Innocent Man, ebullient retro songs like “For the Longest Time,” “Tell Her About It,” and “Uptown Girl” were baffling and irritating. I felt betrayed. What happened to the angry young man I had embraced and admired, who worked magic with bad-attitude lyrics like no one else? An Innocent Man album was like stepping into Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons: doo-wop, jazz, classic rock from previous American music eras. Nothing at all like what was currently hitting the top of the charts in 1983, and the songs were an about-face from his hard-hitting tunes on “The Stranger,” “52nd Street,” “Nylon Curtain,” and “Piano Man.” It was film noir vs. Disney. I was in agony.
But, once I stopped expecting Joel’s trademark tirades and fury, I really listened. And I was unexpectedly bowled over. The diverse selection of tracks he had created for An Innocent Man, were, on the surface, trifling and bubblegum-pop-ish. But they proved to be much deeper, more soulful than I had given them credit to be.
Awash with new-found respect for his artistry, I heard and felt a new Billy Joel. He had evolved as a songwriter, was in love with the girl of his dreams, and decided, for this album, to just have fun while paying tribute to the music genres of his childhood that had influenced his musical path.
Of the tracks on An Innocent Man, I feel that the album’s title track is the most consistent with his earlier “angst” music. With this song, though, his anger is tempered and controlled, and hope and compassion weave the lyrics together. Less self-centered lyrically, he prefaces most of the stanzas with the words “some people.” Rather odd, but I liked it. One of my favorite stanzas: “Some people run from a possible fight / Some people figure they can never win / Although this is a fight I can lose / The accused is an innocent man.” Other verses that begin with “some people” include: “Some people stay far away from the door” / “Some people live with the fear of a touch” / “Some people say they will never believe” / “Some people sleep alone all alone every night” / “Some people hope for a miracle cure.” Peeling back and peeking into the layers of Joel’s creative evolution, these lyrics indicate that he was becoming less id-driven and more empathetic of others’ plight, offering himself as sage support having been a former victim himself, as his own emotional battle scars proved.
An Innocent Man’s other tracks gambol into the lighthearted genres of rock and soul’s early days. The songs capture the joys of innocence during less complicated times, and offer hope and strength to the listener. “For the Longest Time” is still brilliant. Joel combined the breezy bliss of doo-wop music, tight harmonies, and poignant lyrics. While the song credibly recreates the sound and vocal harmonies of so many from the 1950s that Frankie Valli, Dion & the Belmonts, The Penguins, The Five Satins, and other 1950s groups and crooners put out, the song’s lyrics in “For the Longest Time” reflect a deeper level than most other lyrics of the pre-Beatles’ era. The lyrics are multi-faceted, pensively painful, and mature (a departure, I feel, from his earlier works). One of my favorite couplets is “I don’t care what consequence it brings / I have been a fool for lesser things.” The clarity and precision of his poetry, his well-crafted, meaningful internal rhymes, and the proclamation of his self-analysis are moving and less cynically self-indulgent than many of Joel’s earlier efforts. The music video of “For the Longest Time” relates a story of a man at his high school reunion and details his honest, raw memories of love and youth. Haunting, yet hopeful, the song was even used in the 1980s children’s Saturday morning cartoon, “Alvin and The Chipmunks”.
Saluting Motown, “Tell Her About It” became Joel’s second Billboard #1 hit and ranked #45 for the year. Snappy, straightforward lyrics and an infectious beat made it one of the public’s favorite singles from the album. “Easy Money” has a bit of the earlier Joel cynicism, and was used in the soundtrack of the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Easy Money.
Other tracks on “An Innocent Man” are diverse and satisfying, and had companion music videos that jump-started their chart-topping success. “Uptown Girl” (his optimistic fairy tale of a rich debutant falling in love with a grease monkey living on the wrong side of the tracks, a blatant salute to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) and “Christie Lee” (homage to 1950s piano-thumping legend Jerry Lee Lewis and jazz-sax-great Phil Woods, protégé of Charlie Parker, per his 2009 JazzWax interview) are bouncy and exhilarating. Joel was like a giddy schoolboy in his relationship with girl-next-door cover girl and supermodel Christie Brinkley (they were married two years later and were divorced in 1994). Many tracks on the album reflected his peace of mind following his divorce from first wife, Elizabeth Weber; they were thinly veiled tributes to Brinkley, per some critics, or a natural by-product of his relationship with her. Although Brinkley appeared in the music video of Uptown Girl, it is disputed that the song was actually written about her. Some critics say it was written about fashion model Elle MacPherson, whom Joel dated six months before Brinkley. In a 2006 TimesOnline interview, Joel revealed that the song was originally titled “Uptown Girls,” and was inspired by a chance meeting with Brinkley, McPherson, and then-model Whitney Houston.
Mark Rivera’s masterful alto saxophone solos are employed beautifully in “Keeping the Faith,” “This Night,” and “Christie Lee,” giving the songs an ageless quality. The music video for “Keeping the Faith,” that of Joel facing a judge in a court of law where everyone ends up singing and dancing, is absurd and hasn’t aged well, in my opinion (the video really “jumps the shark,” and we never really know why or for what offense Joel has been charged). But back in the 1980s, music videos were increasingly influential in boosting record sales, no matter how goofy. Case in point: the pop/rock single “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” was one of the few songs that had no accompanying music video, and didn’t sell as many singles as Joel’s other singles on the album. A competent, lovely song, it reached only #27 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts, becoming the only released single from the album that did not reach the top 25 of the chart. Not having a music video made a huge difference in cash receipts.
All songs on “An Innocent Man” were penned by Joel, although he borrowed heavily from Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1798 emotional Pathétique Sonata (Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 13, 2nd movement) as the foundation for the haunting chorus in “This Night.” The album peaked at Number 4 on the Billboard 200 charts on November 12, 1983, and ended up with six top-30 singles, the most of any album in Joel’s catalog.
While touring in 2006, Joel expressed mixed emotions about performing songs from the 1983 album. He said in his TimesOnline interview, “That whole album An Innocent Man was a homage to The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli sings as though someone’s squeezing him in the corleones, you know. It’s supposed to sound like you’re in pain. But, that’s easier to do in the recording studio than night after night on tour.”
The oft-edgy synth-disco-soul blend of US chart-topping tunes in 1983 was comprised of a wide range of original musical styles: these ranged from Prince to Madonna, from The Police to Duran Duran, from Michael Jackson to Styx, from Pat Benatar to Culture Club. MTV had finally grown to be a legitimate, compelling marketing showcase for new artists and their music. In December 1983, Time magazine predicted that a “musical revolution” was taking place as a result of MTV’s growing popularity, a revolution in which “video will be the way to keep time with the future.”
Of all the albums released in 1983, though, Billy Joel’s funky valentine of An Innocent Man, his ninth album, stands out, as did many of his album’s music videos. The album boldly embraced old-fashioned, slightly corny music infused with his incomparable skills to tweak and rev things up a notch to seamlessly make the music current. And for once, he offered happy endings and hope. Joel’s typical cynicism and grim outlook on love had been cleansed to the bone: Love and life triumph once in a while; love isn’t always bitter, agonizing, or unrequited.
Joel’s innovative 10-track album and upbeat music videos contrasted well against the murky-black sea of MTV’s younger, more brooding, more sexually explicit performers. Joel once said of himself, “I’m just this shlubby guy who plays the piano.” But his unique talents say otherwise. He has the rare gift to tell riveting stories through his narrative lyrics and distinctive music that touches hearts, contradicting his harsh judgment of himself. For a new generation,An Innocent Man revived interest in rock and soul’s earliest, simpler roots. Joel imbued the songs with enough of himself and his happier perspective to make the album relevant and contemporary in the 1980s. And the album remains relevant and fresh to this day.
I still love the darker side of Billy Joel, but listening to An Innocent Man is far better medicine to lift the spirits and encourage the heart during these rough economic times.
Links to buy album An Innocent Man:
The Official Billy Joel Site
The Official Billy Joel Site, “An Innocent Man”.
Billboard discography and Top 200 charts.
Wikipedia, “Billy Joel”.
Lyrics.com, “An Innocent Man”.
Marc Myers, JazzWax, “Interview: Billy Joel,” February 24, 2009.
The Eighties Club, The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s, “The Year in Music – 1983”.
Pete Paphides, The Times: TimesOnline, “Billy’s 88 ways to woo a goddess,” July 7, 2006.
Tags:80’s Music Review: Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man (1983)