Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Goodnight Saigon"; Hello Tear-Jerking Cheese?

Per the official Yuppie Rock bylaws, Billy Joel had no choice but to try his hand at a Vietnam song. And when he did, boy, it was a doozy. "Walking On A Thin Line," eat your heart out.

Here's a question for you: can a person like a song and also ... not like it? Can you admire the artistry of a composition and also wonder if you really need it in your life? That's me and "Goodnight Saigon." I feel like "Goodnight Saigon" is touching, it's effective, it's dramatic, and it's so ... manipulative. Billy Joel wants me to feel sad about Vietnam. He wants me to feel very, very sad. And actually, when I listen to the song, I do feel pretty sad. I also feel like I'm being cajoled into feeling sad. OK, I got it, Vietnam was a nightmarish jungle of napalm-fueled pain. What do you want me to do about it? Geez Billy. Why didn't you write a funny song about Vietnam, like Country Joe & the Fish did?

Here's how he described his intentions in a 1982 interview with a British DJ:
There was a lot of, I think in the late '60s, early '70s, political songs, you know, anti-Vietnam songs. Then there was your pro-Vietnam song, which is "The Ballad of the Green Berets." There was never a song really written from the soldiers' point of view, who was the guy over there, getting his ass shot off. And just at this point of time in the States, people are just beginning to be able to deal with the whole Vietnam syndrome. And there's a lot of guys, especially my age, I'm 33 now, who went there, a lot of my friends went there, and I always wanted to write a sort of All Quiet on the Western Front, from their point of view. Not whether it was wrong or whether it was right, it was just, "How did you feel when you were over there?" You know, "'Cause you were the guys who were on the line."

When they came back, nobody waved any flags, nobody gave them a big parade. You know, they went over there and they fought, and they got kicked in the ass, coming back. As a matter of fact, I thought the fitting memorial for a Vietnam soldier would've been a statue of a guy carrying a gun with a screw going through his back. These guys have never had a chance or an outlet to really talk about it.
Well, why talk about it when Billy Joel can talk about it for you? Although the "official" video, a fairly strong live recording with tasteful Vietnam stills interspersed between the footage, is worth watching if you're curious, I wouldn't say it's a substitute for the studio version:

First there's a helicopter noise, and I feel like I'm lying in bed, half-drunk, staring at the ceiling fan in my hotel room, about to punch my fist through a mirror. I never said a word to my wife until I said "yes" to a divorce. Never get off the boat. Wait, where am I? Then the piano comes in, gradually joined by an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, and why do I get the impression that John Lennon is about to start singing "I read the news today oh boy"? The lyrics are simultaneously chilling and a bit overwrought:
We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives

We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses
And we learned fast
To travel light
Our arms were heavy
But our bellies were tight

We had no home front
We had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy
They gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might
"We came in spastic/Like tameless horses/We left in plastic/As numbered corpses"? People died. I got it Billy, I got it. On the other hand, I like the sarcastic tinge to these details: as if Playboy and Bob Hope were going to help out anybody in a firefight against Charlie in the jungle, right? So far, so delicate, but then the drums come in, and Billy turns up the heat a notch:
We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we'd write

And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together
Whoa, whoa. When did this turn into Kumbaya? It's freakin' "We are the World" time on The Nylon Curtain. And whose idea was that sustained echo on "night"? Was that supposed to be scary? Was Billy having another heart attack-ack-ack-ack? Phil Ramone should have nixed that idea the moment it was suggested.
Remember Charlie
Remember Baker
They left their childhood
On every acre
And who was wrong?
And who was right?
It didn't matter in the thick of the fight
OK, I know it's a figure of speech, but I just wanted to clarify that you can't actually leave your childhood on physical partitions of land. It's not like sunflower seeds. This last part is pretty good though:
We held the day
In the palm
Of our hand
They ruled the night
And the night
Seemed to last as long as six weeks
On Parris Island

We held the coastline
They held the highlands
And they were sharp
As sharp as knives
They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive
Pretty much sums up why we lost. Maybe at times we felt like we were doing OK; as he sings, "We held the day in the palm of our hands." But eventually ... the night comes. And while we were complete strangers to the environment, they actually lived there. And when you're a stranger in the jungle at night, you're basically a sitting duck. Eventually you're going to find yourself sitting around a foul, corpse-ridden compound with a fat Marlon Brando rambling about failed innoculations and T.S. Eliot. But I digress. We could only dominate around the edges, but we couldn't become them. And that's probably true of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and every American war since.

See, it's a good song! But man does he lay it on thick. It might be that "Goodnight Saigon" is all of Billy Joel's brilliance and schmaltz rolled into one. Perhaps his audience felt the same way, as the song only peaked at #50 in the US, although amusingly enough, it was a #1 hit in the Netherlands (!). At least Garth Brooks likes it:

Honestly, when I actually sit down and listen to "Goodnight Saigon," I enjoy it, but most of the time, when I put on The Nylon Curtain, I tend to skip it. Which is probably what most Americans wish they could have done with the Vietnam War.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Eye In The Sky": Don't Mess With This Passive Yuppie Husband, Or He Might ... Watch You

Whenever a riot breaks out in a third world country, the UN security forces should just play the Alan Parsons Project's "Eye in the Sky," because it might be the most soothing song ever made. I think it would be physically impossible to use violence against another human being while Eric Woolfson is gently admonishing the listener, "Don't say words you're gonna regret/Don't let fire rush to your head." 

Ostensibly, Eye in the Sky was supposed to be a concept album about Orwellian surveillance or "Big Brother is watching you" or something vaguely dystopian along those lines. Of course, it turns out that George Orwell was completely wrong about all of those things and we would never have to worry about government agents following our every move, but the Alan Parsons Project couldn't have known that back in 1982. Despite surveillance being the song's official "concept," however, I've always imagined that "Eye in the Sky" is being sung from the point of view of a passive middle-aged man whose marriage is falling apart. He's so meek and mild that his wife is brazenly cheating on him and she doesn't think he'll do anything about it. Well, he won't. But what he will do is imagine that he is this big, powerful, omniscient being who can see and hear all. Sure, in reality he's this docile wimp, but in his mind he's a fierce, omnipotent sorcerer hell-bent on vengeance. I'm a sucker for songs about people who try to pretend that they're powerful even though in reality they're quite pathetic. "Eye in the Sky" is like an '80s version of the Who's "I Can See For Miles."
Don't think sorry's easily said
Don't try turning tables instead
You've taken lots of chances before
But I'm not gonna give anymore, don't ask me
That's how it goes
Cause part of me knows what you're thinkin'

Don't say words you're gonna regret
Don't let the fire rush to your head
I've heard the accusation before
And I ain't gonna take any more, believe me
The sun in your eyes
Made some of the lies worth believing

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don't need to see any more
To know that
I can read your mind

Don't leave false illusions behind
Don't cry, I ain't changing my mind
So find another fool like before
Cause I ain't gonna live anymore believing
Some of the lies
While all of the signs are deceiving
Oooooh, I'm scared. Woolfson captures the gentle menace of this character as only he can. He starts out low, but jumps up an octave by the time he arrives at "And I ain't gonna take anymore, believe me." The chorus has those nice stacked harmonies, like a drowsier Journey, suggesting "Don't fuck with me, woman." This is what a wimpy guy sounds like when he's angry. But even a couple of threats take too much energy out of the guy, so by the time he gets to "I can read your mind," he's soft and gentle again as he tiptoes his way back to the study. "I can't stop you darling, but I can make you feel very, very guilty about it while you're doing it."

Musically, the song should carry a disclaimer: "Do not listen to while driving as it may induce sleep." "Eye in the Sky" is a perfect stew of somnolent: the swampy keyboard (reminding me, on the chorus, of Rick Wright's funky licks on Dark Side of the Moon's "Breathe" reprise), the delicately finger-picked acoustic guitars, and do I even detect a steel guitar adding a slight country flavor? But it's those constant, omnipresent rhythm guitars that lull you into that (false?) sense of security. According to Parsons, "...I hated the song when we first started recording it — I was quite ready to drop it altogether. Then we hit upon the hypnotic guitar chugs and it all came together." Well, Alan, don't say words you're gonna regret.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Breaking Down "Breaking Us In Two" Is Hard To Do

Initially written as a jingle for the KitKat candy bar, Joe Jackson ended up liking "Breaking Us In Two" so much, he decided to keep it for himself. OK, I made that up. My guess is the song, which peaked at #18 in the US, was an attempt to write a contemporary and yet "classic" sounding romantic standard, and I'd say he more or less succeeded. It certainly opened up the second side of Night and Day with an explosive burst of panache, as if Joe had just pulled back the ornately decorated doors of a ritzy, sparkling ballroom and invited us to walk on in. Nonetheless, the verse has a naggingly familiar feeling. Oh, wait a second, maybe that's because he lifted it from Badfinger's "Day After Day"?

The lyrics veer a bit close to the generic side, with Joe hoping to rhyme "do" with "do" and "us" with "us," without anyone noticing (I noticed), but his corrosive cynicism somehow still manages to shine through. Maybe Joe hadn't yet learned to enjoy the comforts of female companionship, but at least his veins weren't bulging out of his neck anymore while he was complaining about it.
Don't you feel like trying something new
Don't you feel like breaking out
Of breaking us in two
You don't do the things that I do
You want to do things I can't do
Always something breaking us in two

You and I could never live alone
But don't you feel like breaking out
Just one day on your own
Why does what I'm saying hurt you
I didn't say that we were through
Always something breaking us in two

They say two hearts should beat as one for us
We'll fight it out to see it through
I say that won't be too much fun for us
Though it's oh so nice to get advice
It's oh so hard to do

Could we be much closer if we tried
We could stay at home and stare
Into each other's eyes
Maybe we could last an hour
Maybe then we'd see right through
Always something breaking us in two
Bickering aside, with its gentle latin percussion and vibraphone embellishment, the song is like a glamorous ride in a Central Park carriage. Oddly, for a song that oozes such Big Apple atmosphere, the video was clearly filmed in England and seems to be more suited toward an early '70s Rod Stewart or Elton John vibe.

On the whole, the song could probably pass for a genuine Tin Pan Alley standard aside from one arguable error in judgement: the amazingly dated synthesizer solo. Gershwin meets ... E.T.?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Head Over Heels": It Can't Be Your Secret Favorite Go-Go's Song, Because It's My Secret Favorite Go-Go's Song

I may have been dimly familiar with the chorus of "Vacation," but (to my initial loss and belated enjoyment) the only Go-Go's song I really, truly knew until about three years ago was "Head Over Heels." I knew "Head Over Heels" because it was one of the tracks on my infamous '80s Tape. In fact, it was one of the hardest rocking songs on that tape, and I remember being surprised that one of the hardest rocking songs on that tape was by the so-called "all-girl group." And yet, despite being impressed by that, I didn't take the Go-Go's very seriously or bother to listen to their other music ... for another fifteen years! Well, to everything there is a season, but in the meantime, there was "Head Over Heels."

Now let me describe to you what I feel like when I listen to "Head Over Heels." When I listen to "Head Over Heels," I feel like I've just stumbled out of bed at 6:00 in the morning and I've splashed my face with cold water. When I listen to "Head Over Heels," I feel like I've just jumped out of an airplane and I'm hurtling seven thousand miles per hour toward the surface of the earth. When I listen to "Head Over Heels," I feel like I've just snorted ten zillion grams of coke and I'm running around Los Angeles like a crazy person. "Head Over Heels" is three minutes and thirty-eight seconds of pure, concentrated pop energy.

The song is a collaboration between Charlotte and Kathy (Charlotte claims that she wrote the bulk of it and that Kathy merely helped out, but then I've heard Jane refer to it as "Kathy's song," so let's just call it even). I used to think "Head Over Heels" was a cookie-cutter love song, with the singer being "head over heels in love," but after having learned a little more about the Go-Go's, I now realize that it's more of a song about tumbling head over heels through "life," which is not necessarily a good thing:
Been running so long
I've nearly lost all track of time
In every direction
I couldn't see the warning signs
I must be losin' it
'Cause my mind plays tricks on me
It looked so easy
But you know looks sometimes deceive

Been running so fast
Right from the starting line
No more connections
I don't need any more advice
One hand's just reaching out
And one's just hangin' on
It seems my weaknesses
Just keep going strong

Head over heels
Where should I go
Can't stop myself
Out of control
Head over heels
No time to think
Looks like the whole world's
Out of sync

Been running so hard
When what I need is to unwind
The voice of reason
Is one I left so far behind
I've waited so long
So long to play this part
And just remembered
That I'd forgotten about my heart
Somebody check this entire band into the Betty Ford Clinic! This ain't no love song; it's more like a first-person account of drug addiction. The Go-Go's were a runaway freight train and apparently they knew it; as Belinda writes of the song, "It perfectly captured our state of mind at that point in time." I continue to be impressed by the manner in which the Go-Go's were able to write lyrics that do not seem particularly highbrow or intellectual, and yet still manage to avoid cliche. I mean, songwriters have been rhyming "part" and "heart" since songwriting has been a thing, but no one has ever expressed quite what that last verse expresses with that rhyme, i.e. blindly chasing a goal without taking care of oneself. And if slant rhymes were your drug of choice, Charlotte and Kathy would be your dealers: "time/signs," "me/deceive," "line/advice," "on/strong" ... I think "part/heart" is the only genuine rhyme in the whole damn song. And the best part is, I noticed none of this until about ten minutes ago, because who even notices the lyrics when the music rocks this hard?

When rock critics talk about "power pop," they tend to mean '70s bands like the Raspberries or Cheap Trick, but what they should mean is a song like "Head Over Heels," which has that "power," and yet it is so absolutely ... "pop." You get me? The track storms out of the gate with Charlotte's electric piano and never lets up for one nanosecond, as the hooks just pile on top of each other like streaks of paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas (Did I just compare the Go-Go's to Jackson Pollock? Why yes I did). Jane does a nice job singing high harmony with Belinda on lines like "from the starting line" and "anymore advice," trying to tame the beast, but this beast can't be tamed. "Head ovah heeeeels," she growls like a panther. "Can't stop myself": she wants it all and she wants it now.

But's that not the best part of the song. Oh no. The best part of the song is the solo. Charlotte hammers away at that electric piano like it's about to take away her heroin fix, playing a melody line that doesn't appear anywhere else in the song, and then suddenly she slides her fingers along the keys and starts rocking out Jerry Lee Lewis style, while the band roars along behind her. Goodness gracious, great ovaries of fire!

The first time I listened to the second disc of Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's, I was riding Muni on my way to work. I'd been so transfixed by the first disc, of course, that it had taken me a couple of months to get around to the second disc. The point is, I hadn't heard "Head Over Heels" in a long, long while, and I'd almost forgotten that it was even on that collection, or that it was even one of the Go-Go's' later hits. I briefly wondered if I'd like it as much as I used to, or be sick of it, but when it came on, no sir. It was like hearing an old friend tucked in between all these new Go-Go friends. At any rate, I was standing up and holding on to one of the bars because the car was packed. But when I got to that solo, I twisted and contorted so that I could reach down to my mp3 player and turn that shit up. Because, if that solo doesn't make you want to crank up the volume in your headphones, then I don't know what would.

That night, I went on YouTube and thought, "There's no way the video could match the sheer energy of the recording." Thank God I didn't bet on that, because I would've lost my life savings, even though the band is performing on some empty sound stage with bad multi-colored lighting. Despite wearing a baggy grey off-the-shoulder sweatshirt/sweatpants combination (?), Belinda actually looks pretty cute here, although the haircut isn't doing her any favors. At 0:29 you can actually see her look down for her "mark" on the set, most likely a piece of tape. Uhh, Belinda ... we're not supposed to "see" you doing that, but whatever.

Then come the real special effects. Belinda twirls around and the set goes dark. Suddenly, the lights come back up, and ... she's on the same set! "Why did they turn the lights off in the first place?," you're asking. Because it looked cool! And it looks even cooler when spotlights suddenly shine over Kathy, Charlotte, and Jane in succession. It's like the studio was filming test footage, and then decided they liked the footage and left it in the video. Then there's a bizarre interlude where Jane is reading a book on a monitor while a couple in silhouette starts kissing behind her. All is essentially normal as Charlotte starts the solo, but when she runs her fingers across the keys for that little glissando ... the keys fly off the piano! At that point, all hell breaks loose as we're treated to a surreal, disorienting montage of normal-seeming L.A. buildings, freeway traffic jams, dancing cartoon L.A. buildings, random Go-Go's close-ups, and a ring placed on Gina's finger that suddenly turns into a Beetle. What the hell just happened. It's like they spent 80% of the budget on that one little montage. And yet, it may have been worth it.

Then, as Kathy's bass solo and the immortal hand claps grace our ears, Gina and Kathy find themselves on an airport runway without seeming to have moved in the least. The director closes out the clip by dividing up the screen into little strips so that the Go-Go's can all take their turns singing and/or keeping Belinda from hogging the entire screen. But in the final seconds, Belinda performs her supremely chaotic dancing, she tosses her hands into the air, and the song comes to a crashing halt. Whoo!

Although "Head Over Heels" became a reasonably sizable hit, peaking at #11, I've rarely heard it on the radio and I thought I was the only person who knew about it and/or liked it (nevertheless, I almost dropped my zucchini when I heard it come on the speaker system at my local supermarket a couple of weeks ago; nothing like a coked-out '80s girl band to give me energy while I'm wreaking havoc in the produce aisle). Little did I know that, at least according to the commentators over at the A.V. Club, it's everyone's secret favorite Go-Go's song. One commentator started a "game" of "Pick your favorite Go-Go's song," and these were some of the responses:
Best Go-Go's song -- Go!
I pick "Head Over Heels."

Seconded. Must be the handclaps.

seconded....the bridge with the handclaps is a killer

I'd pick Head Over Heels. The video has the best example of 80s "Go-Gos dancing" you'll ever see. Plus a one-shouldered sweatshirt AND someone wearing a proto-Kill Bill (or, retro Bruce Lee) yellow jacket!

Our Lips are Sealed was the first time I heard them, so it's a special song for me. But I am a sucker for using the piano as a rhythm instrument, so Head over Heels wins for me too. The piano rock out music before the hand claps is the moment in the song I wait for.

"Head Over Heels" is great. One of those rare songs that's actually enhanced by its' 80s production.

I had no idea this many other people love "Head Over Heels." It should be played on the radio more than "Come On Eileen" and "Coming Home (Major Tom)" combined. It has a freakin' bass solo, for Pete's sake. A real, live eighties bass solo. And everyone else is correct about the handclaps.

You could fit my patience for most 80s pop into a thimble, but "Head Over Heels" is one of those great singles. It's one of the few uses of synth from back then that doesn't make me feel sad and icky.

I'm pretty sure there is no synth on "Head Over Heels," although there is an electric piano.

I absolutely love "Head Over Heels" and feel it's their best song by a mile, but based on the video, Belinda Carlisle dances like my mom.
I guess the secret is out.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Three Singles From Sports, Illustrated

Despite Patrick Bateman's infamous claim that Huey Lewis and the News "didn't really come into their own, commercially or artistically, until their 1983 smash, Sports," given my feelings toward Picture This, I'm not so sure I'm about to go along with that. I'll also have to pick a bone with Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who writes in his AMG review, "Where their previous albums were cluttered with generic filler, nearly every song on Sports has a huge hook." Correction: nearly every single on Sports has a huge hook. Because let's face it, some of these album tracks are pretty crappy. "Bad Is Bad" is accurately titled, "Finally Found A Home" may have finally found a home in my desktop Recycling Bin, and "You Crack Me Up" is like a poor man's "You May Be Right" (which actually does a better job of cracking me up). And whereas "Buzz Buzz Buzz" closed Picture This on a zesty and surprising note, "Honky Tonk Blues" closes Sports with what might be the least authentic Hank Williams cover in the history of popular music. Hello, McFly!

Granted, there were more hit singles (five) on Sports than there were remaining album tracks (four), but I don't grade albums like a record executive does. Sports is Huey Lewis and the News' Thriller: sure, maybe it has a lot of great singles on it, but I don't know if it's necessarily a great album. To use a sports metaphor, Sports is like a baseball line-up with five all-star sluggers and four semi-injured, washed up bench players who just got called up from the minors. By contrast, Picture This may have had only one or two all-star hitters, but everybody in the line-up had a solid batting average and they could all do the little things right. Man, that team really gelled in the clubhouse. Anyway, here's my post where I round up the other three singles from Sports I didn't already tackle.

A lot of people probably have a soft spot in their hearts for "The Heart of Rock and Roll," but let's admit it: Huey's done better. Yeah, sure, I thought this song was awesome ... when I was five years old. As Jefferson Starship proved a couple of years later, there's nothing lamer than a band proclaiming the continued relevance of rock an roll over a slickly-produced, mid-tempo slice of bar boogie that wouldn't have even qualified as a ZZ Top b-side. How is this song lame? Let me count the ways:
  1. The heartbeat sound effect. You hear this on the radio and you're thinking, "All right! Dark Side of the Moon! Oh wait, this isn't "Speak To Me/Breathe"..." No, it's some lame fucking heartbeat sound effect.
  2. Huey's reluctance to say the word "ass." "Ass" isn't even a bad word! It certainly isn't one of the seven deadly words. Remember when Huey chickened out and decided not to say "shit" on his debut album? That's a word you don't want to say on the radio. But "ass"? Howard Stern probably says that every five seconds. Even Clark Gable wasn't afraid to say "damn" - and that was in 1939!
  3. The horrible little "The-The-The-The-They say the..." effect at the start of the last chorus. I can see them sitting in the studio now: "Check this out, guys! I can put this cheesy delay effect on the vocals, this is gonna be great!"

Then of course there's the requisite Vietnam song that almost every bar band/heartland rocker was contractually required to record in the '80s. Truth be told, I didn't even realize "Walking on a Thin" line was a Vietnam song until someone pointed it out to me on the internet. Does that mean that the songwriters (Andre Pessis and Kevin Wells) and the performers were brilliantly subtle, or ineffectively subtle?
Sometimes in my bed at night
I curse the dark and I pray for light
And sometimes, the light's no consolation
Blinded by a memory
Afraid of what it might do to me
And the tears and the sweat only mock my desperation

Don't you know me I'm the boy next door
The one you find so easy to ignore
Is that what I was fighting for?
Walking on a thin line
Straight off the front line
Labeled as freaks loose on the streets of the city
Walking on a thin line
Straight off the front line
Take a look at my face, see what it's doing to me

Taught me how to shoot to kill
A specialist with a deadly skill
A skill I needed to have to be a survivor
It's over now or so they say
Well, sometimes, it don't turn out that way
Cause your never the same when you've been under fire

Well if it was that bad, why did you even go to Vietnam in the first place? Geez buddy. Ah, but the true crowning achievement of Sports is the little doo-wop pastiche known to the world as "If This Is It."

Here, ladies and germs, is Huey at his most effortless and effervescent. No ill-advised anthemic statements on the state of rock and roll, no jaded political commentary arriving about ten years too late to have any legitimate impact ... just pure, refined, concentrated Huey. The video was apparently filmed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and my guess is either in April or October, because otherwise it would have been foggier than a librarian's glasses in a hot tub. Signy Coleman was supposed to make a return appearance, but I guess there was a scheduling conflict and they ended up using her friend Janet (the naughty brunette) and another woman named Sandra (the mysterious blond) instead. Mostly, I'm just impressed they had enough room in the budget for a boa constrictor, an airplane flying a "Please Let Me Know" banner, and a shark that can swim through sand. Musically, the song's most transcendent moment would have to be the ascending, harmonizing guitar chords that climb and climb against the backing vocals at about the 3:37 mark. Oh yeah. That's the hard stuff, Huey.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Pressure": Welcome To Billy Joel's Nightmare

If you thought the life of a yuppie was all fun and games, well, clearly you never caught "Pressure." Billy Joel's a man who's known something about pressure - songwriting pressure:
The pressure I was writing about in this song wasn't necessarily music business pressure, it was writing pressure. ... At the time, I was saying, "Well, I gotta write some more stuff for the album"; I was about halfway through, and I said, "Well, what am I gonna do? I don't have any ideas, it's gone, it's dead, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. There's nothing." And then the woman who is my secretary came into the house at that point and said, "Wow, you look like you're under a lot of pressure. I bet you that'd be a good idea for a song." And I went, "Thank you!"
Someone give that secretary a raise! However, a modest peak at #20 may or may not have alleviated any mounting commercial pressure from Columbia Records. Sliding along with a keyboard-driven, white funk vibe, at first the pressure in "Pressure" doesn't seem so bad. But then, in comes a baroque synthesizer riff that continues to poke and prod at your eardrums and it feels like a thousand insects are slowly eating away at your brain. The '80s are here - and they're going to drive you insaaaaaayne.
You have to learn to pace yourself
You're just like everybody else
You've only had to run so far
So good
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you'll have to deal with

You used to call me paranoid
But even you cannot avoid
You turned the tap dance into your crusade
Now here you are with your faith
And your Peter Pan advice
You have no scars on your face
And you cannot handle

All grown up and no place to go
Psych 1, Psych 2
What do you know?
All your life is Channel 13
Sesame Street
What does it mean?
It means some serious pressure is what it means. "In the 9th, two men out and three men on"? How about a rain delay? I believe I read somewhere that, at one point the pressure got so intense in the recording studio that, right around the 3:56 mark, Billy immediately dropped all the instruments out of the mix and shouted "Pressure!" into the microphone as loud as he could.

But if the music hasn't persuaded you, the video certainly will. Let me just say that you can check out of this video any time you like, but you can never leave. Here's what being a Yuppie is really like: you find yourself trapped in a dark room where you're forced to watch rapid-fire films that berate you with images of MacArthur, Sinatra, Vietnam, atomic bombs, and stamps, while occasionally words like "Mother," "Hate," and "Money" flash across the screen; careless drivers speed right through a puddle and ruin your brand-new suit; your bedroom fills up with sloshing water; seemingly innocuous rugs suck you into their feathery clutches, while the jaded cognoscenti looks on; your childhood self becomes trapped in a bright white maze and/or stuck in The Shining, only to be sucked into a vegetable-devouring television; and you find yourself on a game show where you've managed to win without knowing how you did it or even how you got there in the first place (priceless contestant description: "William Joel, Age: 29, Occupation: Computer Software, Interests: fast bikes, cooking, water sports"). Sesame Street, Time magazine, and Channel 13 aren't going to save you here.