Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Scandinavian Skies" And "Where's The Orchestra?": The Nylon Curtain Goes Off The Rails

As of tracks one through seven, The Nylon Curtain was already staking its claim as Billy Joel's most bizarre album, but the final two tracks really sealed the deal.

In my initial post on the album, I half-jokingly referred to it as "Yuppie Rock goes psychedelic." Well, on "Scandinavian Skies," Billy actually goes psychedelic. Seriously. I mean, it's freakin' Magical Mystery Tour time. This British DJ interviewing Billy in 1982 caught on pretty quickly:
DJ: This next one, which is "Scandinavian Skies," and is ... "Strawberry Fields," "I Am The Walrus." The two together, I mean, especially the beginning. The ending of this song is like the fade-out of "Strawberry Fields" and the beginning of it is like the fade-in with the backward bits.

Billy Joel: It's Beatle-esque, um, yeah.

DJ: Very Beatle-esque. All the instrumentation. This must have taken a long time to record.

Billy Joel: It did. I think it took six weeks to mix, even, because there were so many different things going on in it. This is another good headphone song. I kind of liked those old records where you put on those big - not the Walkman. You plug your headphone into your stereo set and you sat in the chair and you just ... "oh wow," you know, "listen to this," and you call up somebody, "Did you know there was a banjo way in the background?"
If you always wondered what Billy Joel would sound like if he dropped acid, here's your answer. The song opens with the distant sound of a stewardess speaking over an intercom in an unidentifiable Scandinavian language, and then the strings come in. As Billy describes:
You know, the Beatles used orchestration in a really clever way. They didn't use strings in a plush way. They used them to do melody lines, and they used them, almost integrated them into a rock ensemble kind of way. And I liked using strings, not as that Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow ... valium strings, I call them. [Instead] they're there in kind of a jarring way.
The track is actually not too weird until the bridge, where off-kilter ... bongos (?) bounce across the stereo channels and the strings become extra warped and menacing; it almost feels like the song is tumbling around in the dryer.

It's quite possible that, for some people, "Scandinavian Skies" might be the only Billy Joel song that they'd ever like. It's also quite possible that, for other people, "Scandinavian Skies" is the most ridiculous song Billy Joel ever recorded. Personally, as much as I enjoy it, I always felt it was more of a stylistic exercise than an emotionally affecting composition. That is, until I heard the rest of that interview with the British DJ, where Billy began revealing perhaps more than he intended. I had always assumed the lyrics were quasi-trippy, nonsensical quirkiness, but according to Billy, they were more or less autobiographical. "Go on ...":
Billy Joel: Um ... it's a little dicey explaining this song, but there are drug references in it. Put it that way.

DJ: Oh yeah, getting of the plane.

Billy Joel: Or getting on the plane.

DJ: And about being part of a European tour.

Billy Joel: Yeah. I suppose it's a personal song in that respect, but ... that's another experience people my age have had, you know? Had their ins and outs with it.

DJ: But not a happy time, I don't think. The sound of the song isn't a happy ...

Billy Joel: It was pretty gruesome, I gotta tell you, it was a pretty gruesome experience. It was a pretty heavy drug too. But that's sort of a summation of the whole drug experience, which is sort of a down ...

DJ: Well this whole trip, you were on a trip, I mean, really.

Billy Joel: Yeah. And there's a reference to playing the blues, which is, really, you know, the junkie's favorite music is the blues, when you think about it.

DJ: "I could have played the blues all night." Ah. I see. I didn't get all this. I thought it was just a grim tour.

Billy Joel: No, this just made it grimmer. Although, there's a dichotomy because the ... flying over the fjords of Norway, the clouds were beautiful, but it was eerie. It was ugly and beautiful at the same time.

DJ: When was this?

Billy Joel: I actually started writing the melody in the early '70s, on the first Scandinavian tour that I did. "Naw, that sounds like an airline commercial, I'm not going to write this." But then when I was writing this album I thought, "I have to talk about this, I have to mention this, it wouldn't be a complete album without having mentioned this experience we had."
Wait, what? Is "Scandinavian Skies" about Billy Joel and his band doing heroin? Uh ... that British DJ isn't the only one who "didn't get all this." I don't think anybody got all this. First of all, how many of Billy's fans know that he ever did heroin? Maybe it was just a one-time deal. Maybe he was taking his Ray Charles fixation just a little bit too far. All right, time to take a closer inspection:
The sins of Amsterdam
Were still a recent surprise
And we were flying over
Scandinavian skies

We climbed towards the sun
We turned and cursed as one
We pulled the shades and closed our eyes

The Stockholm city lights
Were slowly starting to rise
And we were strapped against
Those Scandinavian skies

The landing gear came down
And touched the Swedish ground
And we were all so paralyzed

On the plane
We were mainly sound and lights
In the veins
We could play the blues all night
In the veins? Duuuuuude. This album just got real.
The tour of Germany
Was bleeding into our eyes
And we were sailing over
Scandinavian skies

We had the Midas touch
Until we met the Dutch
And they exhausted our supplies

Who's to pay?
For this international flight
Who could stay
We were only there for the night

We watched the power fall
Inside the Oslo hall
While all the cold Norwegians cried

Who could say
What was left and where was right?
By the way
I could play the blues all night
O-kaaaay. Well then. I'm glad he ultimately decided to stick to alcohol. But without even giving you enough time to work that nasty Baltic Sea dope out of your system, Billy does a complete 180 with the album's closing track, "Where's the Orchestra?," a song that is equally as Beatlesque as "Scandinavian Skies," but in an intriguingly different way. This time he takes a dip into the refined, theatrical, McCartney-esque chamber pop of "Martha My Dear" or "Golden Slumbers," which may not be particularly unusual territory for Billy, except in this case there is no obvious pop hook, or even a chorus. "Where's The Orchestra?" is almost in the style of 19th century leider. It also features some of the most extreme stereo separation in mainstream pop music since ... Queen? The Wall?
Where's the orchestra?
Wasn't this supposed to be a musical?
Here I am in the balcony
How the hell could I have missed the overture?

I like the scenery
Even though I have absolutely no
Idea at all
What is being said despite the dialogue
There's the leading man
The movie star who never faced an audience

Where's the orchestra?
After all
This is my big night on the town
My introduction to the theater crowd
I assumed that the show would have a song
So I was wrong

At least I understand
All the innuendo and the irony
And I appreciate
The roles the actors played
The point the author made
And after the closing lines
And after the curtain calls
The curtain falls
On empty chairs
Where's the orchestra?
Yes, Billy, where is the orchestra? Or perhaps, as one great and very early rock lyricist put it, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing." What's the point of it all? Billy elaborates:
It's basically, on one level it sounds like a guy sitting in a theater, figuring he went to see a musical and it turns out just to be a straight play, and he's saying, "OK, I got it, I hear the dialog, I see what the actors are doing. Gimme a song. You know, entertain me." And it's sort of a symbol for, you know, you get to a certain point in life and you go, well life isn't a musical, it's a play. And it sort of seemed to sum up the album. I understand, da da da da da, I paid my dues, right and, this is the way life is, but ... where's the orchestra?
This theme sounds kind of ... familiar. Wait, I got it: "Well we're living here in Allentown/For the Pennsylvania we never found/For the promises our teachers gave/If we worked hard, if we behaved." Which brings me to the one final Beatlesque flourish in Billy's arsenal. Just as McCartney weaved brief reprises of earlier tracks into the conclusions of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, so astute listeners will notice that, as the song fades, a lonely clarinet plays a snippet of "Allentown." At first glance this might seem like a superficial touch, but there is a method to Billy's madness, for what was the theme of "Allentown"? Disappointment, disillusionment - an overall failure of life to live up to one's expectations! And so just as the aristocratic protagonist of "Where's the Orchestra?" feels like the performance has let him down, John Q. Yankee, living in Anytown U.S.A., feels like modern American society has let him down. It all ties together.

As much as I find the conclusion to The Nylon Curtain poignant and insightful, it's kind of a downer. It's such a downer, in fact, that I almost always feel the need to put on a more cheerful piece of music immediately afterwards. And Billy must have felt the same way, because he swiftly abandoned the album's dark subject matter and late '60s art-rock quotations faster than you can say "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue." Because for Billy Joel, it turns out there was an orchestra. That orchestra just happened to have long blond hair, a nice tan, and a killer smile.


Unknown said...

You know, I just listen to "Allentown" and "Pressure" and put it away.

Little Earl said...

Cool story bro!

joel stark said...

Nice piece. Thank you.

Grant Lamarche said...

This is one of my favorite albums, a mood that sometimes needs to be played on consecutive days in a row to get the hit. The album IS a drug, a trip in itself. It leaves me exhausted and ready to take it again.....tomorrow. Sheer brilliance.