The Fire in His Belly

Billy Joel’s best songs are an intriguing, genre-defying mixture of melody, musicality and lyrical brimstone. What’s with the attitude? Is he a great-but-flawed entertainer or forever just a Bronx Joe made good.  
Photographed by Richard E. Aaron in 1970 (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

You think you know Billy Joel, but you don’t know Billy Joel. There’s an easy way to prove it: go to YouTube and search for ‘Attila’. You’ll hear a cacophonous late-sixties version of heavy metal led by over-amplified organ and see a picture of two longhairs in armour standing in an abattoir. One of them is the organist, and he’s Billy Joel.

Most musicians have a past they’d rather forget, and this is Joel’s. He went through a succession of cover bands and failed beat bands, then the terrible Attila, and all of it to show that he wasn’t made for his times. In truth, though, he wasn’t really made for any times, which is both a blessing and a curse for an artist. The songs that made his name — Piano Man and Captain Jack, released in 1973 — were character sketches that might have been excerpts from a Broadway show. The big ballads that made him a bit of a joke for a long time, such as Just The Way You Are, were equal-parts Sinatra-ready tributes to the Great American Songbook and seventies soft-rock schmaltz. With them came punchy little numbers, like Only the Good Die Young, that veered into Springsteen epic territory, and the rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop pastiche of It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me and Uptown Girl. And that’s before we get to We Didnt Start the Fire, which could have been the work of some eighties alternative-rock band contemporary of R.E.M.

It’s partly down to the fact of writing on the piano — Elton John is equally hard to place, and even Coldplay have the same confusing effect — but Billy Joel really is a curious figure in pop, a collision of nature and nurture, contradicting impulses and unusual driving forces. For a start, as his return to the form in later years reinforced, he’s really a slumming classical pianist, a proper child prodigy who started playing at four. His half-brother, Alex, is a prominent European conductor, his father an equally gifted musician, and his mother the daughter of a long line of English intellectuals.


    James Medd


    April 2022


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