Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Glass Houses: Yuppie Rock Tries To Go Punk, Ends Up Accidentally Going New Wave?

Billy Joel could've entered the '80s by sticking with his mildly rockified Tin Pan Alley Broadway New Yorker schtick, and probably wouldn't have received too many complaints. But no - he wanted more. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
The back-to-back success of The Stranger and 52nd Street may have brought Billy Joel fame and fortune, even a certain amount of self-satisfaction, but it didn't bring him critical respect, and it didn't dull his anger. If anything, being classified as a mainstream rocker -- a soft rocker -- infuriated him, especially since a generation of punks and new wave kids were getting the praise that eluded him. He didn't take this lying down -- he recorded Glass Houses.
You see, Billy Joel may have been a dork in the world of pop music, but he wasn't exactly a dork in real life. He'd been a boxer, he'd dropped out of high school, he frequently rode a motorcycle - he was a tough guy at heart. He also played the piano. So here he is, it's 1979, he's made it to the top of the music world, but everybody thinks he's a wimp. He decides to show everybody he can be a bad ass hard rocker.

Except he can't. Which is fine. Every artist has his strengths and his weaknesses. Look, I'm the biggest Billy Joel advocate in the whole God damn universe, but ... is being a hard rocker one of his "strengths"? Eh ... erm ... gee Billy ... I don't know about this one. The Billy Joel entry in Rolling Stone's album guide starts out by saying, "With Billy Joel, a light touch is everything." Well, his touch on Glass Houses is about as light as Mama Cass.

To be honest, I hadn't listen to the album in its entirety in about fifteen years; I just had the big singles in my mp3 collection and felt pretty satisfied with that. So I recently gave it another spin. You know what? It's better than I remembered it being! But it's definitely top-heavy. The first side is loaded. The second side is not quite filler, but I feel like it's weaker and lacks cohesion.

Now that I know a lot more about rock history than I did when I was 14, I've noticed a couple of qualities that totally passed me by earlier. You know what I realized? Glass Houses is totally Billy Joel's "New Wave" album! It's his Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson album. As Joe Jackson did on his first couple of albums, Billy barely plays piano here, even though he is essentially a piano player. And now that I'm more familiar with Elvis Costello's catalog, I'm shocked to realize how much the verses of "I Don't Want To Be Alone" sound like a dead ringer for "Alison," complete with the awkwardly stiff white guy reggae beat, and how much "Sleeping With the Television On" sounds like his version of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."

Making an imitation New Wave album, however, was not Billy's exact intention. Here's what he recently had to say about the album's genesis:
When it came time to do Glass Houses, that was around 1980, and we were playing ... we had now had about two or three years of playing in arenas and colosseums, and I recognized that I needed to write bigger music. Songs like "Just the Way You Are," Honesty" ... ballads, didn't always fly that well, you need big sound. So I started writing harder-edged songs, guitar based songs.
Well, I guess if you take a random clump of Billy Joel songs and press the "harder-edged" button, you end up getting skinny tie power-pop. It's sort of like adding green and yellow together, hoping you'll get blue. You won't get blue, but you'll probably get something kind of weird and compelling anyway. In one sense, that's what makes Glass Houses interesting. None of his other albums sound like this. On the other hand, Glass Houses still strikes me as the sound of Billy Joel trying on a style that's not really "his." At least he tried it, realized it, and moved on. Let me put it this way: I often feel like I need to "defend" Billy Joel to his detractors. The problem with Glass Houses is that it's not the album I would give in his defense - even if I sort of like it myself. It's Billy Joel at his most ... bratty.

Witness the lead-off track and Top 10 hit, "You May Be Right." I once read an article describing "You May Be Right" along these lines: "Billy Joel's idea of being a rocker is acting like an asshole." Well sure, but you probably can't take these lyrics too literally:
Friday night I crashed your party
Saturday I said I'm sorry
Sunday came and trashed me out again
I was only having fun
Wasn't hurting anyone
And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change

I've been stranded in the combat zone
I walked through Bedford Stuy alone
Even rode my motorcycle in the rain
And you told me not to drive
But I made it home alive
So you said that only proves that I'm insane

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for
Turn out the light
Don't try to save me
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right

Remember how I found you there
Alone in your electric chair
I told you dirty jokes until you smiled
You were lonely for a man
I said take me as I am
'Cause you might enjoy some madness for awhile

Now think of all the years you tried to
Find someone to satisfy you
I might be as crazy as you say
If I'm crazy then it's true
That it's all because of you
And you wouldn't want me any other way

He even rode his motorcycle in the rain! He told her dirty jokes until she smiled! The man is unhinged!

Then there's "Sometimes A Fantasy," which is either about phone sex or just plain old masturbation. Even though it doesn't appear on any of his hits collections, it was actually a small hit (peaking at #36), and as Billy Joel wannabe uptempo rockers go, I'd say it's sort of a hidden gem, with Billy trying to out-Ric Ocasek Ric Ocasek. The video might be even more hidden, and even more of a gem. Beware of evil greaser Billy:
Ooh, I didn't want to do it but I got too lonely
I had to call you up in the middle of the night
I know it's awful hard to try to make love long distance
But I really needed stimulation
Though it was only my imagination

It's just a fantasy
It's not the real thing
It's just a fantasy
It's not the real thing
But sometimes a fantasy
Is all you need

When am I gonna take control get a hold of my emotions
Why does it only seem to hit me in the middle of the night
You told me there's a number I can always dial for assistance
I don't want to deal with outside action
Only you can give me satisfaction

Sure it would be better if I had you here to hold me
Be better baby but believe me it's the next best thing
I'm sure there's many times you've wanted me to hear your secrets
Don't be afraid to say the words that move me
Anytime you want to tell them to me

"Don't Ask Me Why" is the one single on Glass Houses that fits right in with his mellower late '70s hits. Whenever this one comes on, I always have the desperate desire to stick a rose between my teeth and dance the tango. Also, I've always swooned over the "dueling" piano solo, where Billy plays one piano on the left channel, and then overdubs another piano on the right channel playing the exact same solo, only an octave higher. On the lyrical side, like "She's Always a Woman" before it, I can't really tell if he's praising or slyly insulting his subject, but the music's so relaxing, you barely notice the sarcastic barbs:
All the waiters in your grand cafe
Leave their tables when you blink
Every dog must have his everyday
Every drunk must have his drink
Don't wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don't ask me why

All you life you had to stand in line
Still you're standing on your feet
All your choices made you change your mind
Now your calender's complete
Don't wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don't ask me why

You can say the human heart
Is only make-believe
And I am only fighting fire with fire
But you are still a victim
Of the accidents you leave
As sure as I'm a victim of desire

All the servants in your new hotel
Throw their roses at your feet
Fool them all but baby I can tell
You're no stranger to the street
Don't ask for favors
Don't talk to strangers
Don't ask me why

With its pounding keyboard riff, "All For Leyna" sounds like an homage to Toto's "Hold The Line" (which itself was an homage to Sly & The Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime," but whatever). Billy's high-pitched vocal overdubs on the chorus sound like groggy Queen, or maybe Bowie with a cold? Meanwhile, the lyrics paint a vivid picture of a frustrating teenage crush. Leyna might be a maddening tease, but I sure as hell wouldn't want a guy this tightly-wound pursuing me if I were her. I'm kind of thinking that Weezer ... started here?
She stood on the tracks
Waving her arms
Leading me to that third rail shock
Quick as a wink
She changed her mind

She gave me a night
That's all it was
What will it take until I stop
Kidding myself
Wasting my time

There's nothing else I can do
'Cause I'm doing it all for Leyna
I don't want anyone new
'Cause I'm living it all for Leyna
There's nothing in it for you
'Cause I'm giving it all to Leyna

We laid on the beach
Watching the tide
She didn't tell me there were rocks
Under the waves
Right off the shore

Washed up on the sand
Barely alive
Wishing the undertow would stop
How can a man take anymore

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