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I spent my teenage years in New York, growing up on Long Island, and there are certain sights, sounds and smells I will always associate with my time there - things like going for a slice of Sicilian at Vinny's Pizzeria with friends after school, the intoxicating smell of new books and comics at Creation Science Fiction on Northern Boulevard, and listening to the strains of New York native Billy Joel's "Scene's From an Italian Restaurant" on the coin-operated booth-top jukebox at the Scobee Diner, while making a rich, thick banana milkshake last all afternoon.
Billy Joel seemed to be part of the fabric of Long Island living, one of few singer songwriters to be so indelibly connected to his home state. His talent for telling a good story in his songs (the autobiographical "Piano Man", "Goodnight Saigon" and "Allentown" are perfect examples), his social conscience, unique voice and down to earth personality were the keys to his (continuing) popularity, longevity and success.
One of my favourite albums - possibly because it was the first one I really connected with - was 1989's "Storm Front", an album permanently etched in my mind because it encapsulates the era perfectly. I went to see Billy Joel live at Jones Beach, when he toured after releasing this album, and it's one of the best concerts I have ever been to. It made the album and the artist seem all the more real and accessible. Twenty years on, and the faded black tour T-shirt with red album logo still lurks somewhere in the bottom of my wardrobe.
Released on Columbia Records in 1989, at the tail end of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989) "Storm Front" was Billy Joel's eleventh studio album, and the first to be recorded digitally (this was of course, the early days of CD). The album did quite well, reaching No. 1 in the Billboard charts and giving Billy one of his three No. 1 singles - the epoch defining "We Didn't Start The Fire". The CD comes in a standard jewel-case and the insert provides a full set of lyrics to all of the songs.
The album cover features a storm warning flag used by ships at sea, which is not only an reference to the eponymous track on the album, but also to the troubles and uncertain times the album refers to - not just in world politics ("Leningrad"), but in his own life as well ("I Go To Extremes). The maritime theme continues with the excellent "Downeaster Alexa" an evocative homage to the dying breed of "baymen" trying to scratch a living by fishing off Long Island.
Rather than do a blow by blow, track by track summary, I have picked out my favourites, which I think offer a good and fair representation of the album as a whole.
> We Didn't Start The Fire
This fast-paced tongue twister of a song is a biography of Billy's life through the headlines and headline makers of the time, from 1949 when he was born, to 1989 when Storm Front was released. The printed lyrics actually preface the headlines with the relevant date, something you won't know by just listening to the song. Many of the references are global ("Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev") some are national ("Birth Control, Ho Ch Minh, Richard Nixon back again") and some are local, which you wouldn't know unless you lived in New York at the time ("Bernie Goetz, hypodermics on the shores...").
The genius is in the way he has managed to hang it all together without seeming forced or contrived. The song is often interpreted as a rebuttal of the criticism levied at Joel's post-war "Baby Boomer" generation - in other words, "we didn't start this mess people - this has always been the state of the world".
> The Downeaster "Alexa"
This evocative, powerful and earnest tribute to the fishermen of Long Island is centred around the "Downeaster Alexa" - a trawler captained by the narrator of the song. It tells a heart-rending story of the struggle to make ends meet:
"Like all the locals here I have had to sell my home, too proud to leave I've worked my fingers to the bone...I've got bills to pay and children who need clothes, I know there's fish out there but where God only knows".
The swaying, rhythmic, repetitive beat accompanies the words perfectly, helping you imagine the small, storm tossed trawler going up and down with the swells, as the men pull nets on board hand over hand, in time to the music. Patently ridiculous, as they'd probably have used a winch, but you get the point. A beautiful song, and typical of Joel's prodigious talent in spinning a good yarn in his songs. Incidentally, the boat was named after Joel's daughter - Alexa.
This song perfectly captures the mood and feelings of the time. Another story, it parallel's the lives of Viktor, born in 1944 in the Soviet Union ("a child of sacrifice, a child of war, another son who never had a father after Leningrad..."), and Joel, born in 1949 in America ("a cold war kid in McCarthy time...), making references to the Cuban Missile crisis and Vietnam, before finally bringing the two together, with their own children, in Leningrad ("We never knew what friends we had until we came to Leningrad").
Joel was one of the first western artists to perform in the USSR when he embarked on a six date tour in June 1987. As a self-confessed history buff, the significance was not lost on him. Storm Front was his first studio album after that tour, and its easy to see the influence the trip had on him as a song-writer. This beautiful piano-led song, which starts with a melody faintly reminiscent of a Soviet military march, was inspired by his meeting with a Russian clown while on tour in Leningrad.
> And So it Goes
Billy does like a beautiful lovelorn ballad - think "She's Always a Woman" and "She's Got A Way" - and this is an echo of the latter. This sad, almost regretful number about a doomed relationship, was actually written in 1983, but held back because it didn't fit in with the theme of his "An Innocent Man" album. This simple track - Billy plays the piano himself and there are no other instruments - is the most emotional and contemplative on the album - illustrating Joel's versatility perfectly. "And every time I've held a rose, it seems I only felt the thorns. And so it goes, and so it goes, and so will you soon I suppose." It's heart-rending and deeply moving. A fitting end to an excellent album.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
Having bought mine in New York twenty years ago (gosh that's a frightening thought!) I did some digging to find it on-line. It is currently available on Amazon for just under a fiver, and is very good value at that price. This is easily one of the best of his albums and provides a good insight into the later work of one of the finest artists of our time.
The album is a good mixture of tracks, tackling all manner of subjects and in a variety of styles that surprisingly hangs together quite well. From the overtly rocky "State of Grace" and "I Go to Extremes", to the evocative and emotional "Downeaster Alexa" and the aching ballad "And So It Goes", you get a little of everything. There are few genuinely weak tracks - I am not a fan of the, soulful, Motown influenced "When In Rome" for instance, but that's probably more down to personal taste. There's not really anything you could truly call a duffer on the album.
Joel's strength is his song writing and his ability to raise social and political issues without sounding overtly preachy. Of course, some of the sentimentality may come across as mawkish to non-Americans (who are used to, and expect this sort of thing) but don't let that put you off. The album has dated well, despite being firmly anchored in a particular moment in time. It's a favourite of mine, due its personal relevance, so I am far from an objective critic - which is why I would recommend it to fans and first-timers alike. Thanks for sharing Piano Man.
FULL TRACK LISTING
1. That's Not Her Style (5:10)
2. We Didn't Start The Fire (4:50)
3. The Downeaster "Alexa" (3:44)
4. I Go To Extremes (4:23)
5. Shameless (4:26)
6. Storm Front (5:17)
7. Leningrad (4:06)
8. State of Grace (4:30)
9. When In Rome (4:44)
10. And So it Goes (3:38)
© Hishyeness 2009
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 That's Not Her Style
2 We Didn't Start The Fire
3 Down Easter Alexa
4 I Go To Extremes
6 Storm Front
8 State Of Grace
9 When In Rome
10 And So It Goes