It's Still Rotten Joel to Me

Hall of Fame's recent induction of Billy Joel makes a bad idea seem that much worse

In his ungracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Joel still tried to come off as a defensive rock rebel who's howled with the wild boys of Levittown. Propping up his self-importance, he took this opportunity to take pot shots at the usual rock 'n' roll villains, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and especially Pat Boone, whose 1959 hit "Fools Hall of Fame" seems positively prophetic now. If we're letting Joel in the Hall of Fame for his string of 33 Top 40 hits, Boone racked up 38, and it only took him seven years to do it, not 25!

As inexplicable as it seems, Boone is at least responsible for several great rock 'n' roll moments: 1) For every joke you can make about his laughably sanitized versions of Little Richard and Fats Domino hits, you'll never hear those two guys ever say a bad word about Boone. He was a courteous fellow, all right, and he opened the door for white audiences to accept future Fats and Little Richard recordings. 2) His last Top 40 hit was "Speedy Gonzales," a novelty hit that Elton John ripped off for "Crocodile Rock" and was sued for. Even with a cartoon Mexican mouse singing into an adjacent mike, "Speedy" and Pat rock harder than anything Billy Joel ever conjured. 3) According to the liner notes in last year's Nuggets boxed set, it was Boone who discovered and signed the Leaves, the band that made a fuzzy masterpiece of "Hey Joe." Yes, we can thank Pat for the psychedelic "Louie Louie," which gave Jimi Hendrix his first hit.

That should be the entrance exam to Hall of Famedom. You've gotta be able to rattle off some credible, indisputable R&R moments. To return to Nuggets for a moment, this four-CD compilation is filled with one-shot garage bands whose whole existence can be distilled to one great rock moment. And with the exception of a white-Afro-wigged Tom and John Fogerty hiding out in the Golliwogs, none of the musicians here will ever see the inside of the Hall of Fame. Yet can anyone name one thing Joel has done that screams out rock 'n' roll better than a Standells single or the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie"? Meditate on these flimsy possibilities:

1. "Captain Jack," a maudlin story ballad that gets heavy FM airplay for being the first rock song to use the dreaded word "masturbate," but it's no "Pictures of Lily." More aptly, it's the male counterpart to Janis Ian's poor-poor-pitiful-me anthem "At Seventeen." Joel's protagonist is even worse off: He's 21 and his mother still makes his bed. Probably shocked his Long Island audience when they heard that line and wondered, "Yeah, so is that a bad thing?"

2. "The Entertainer," the single off his second Columbia album, is the first song to complain that records wind up in the bargain bins because unfeeling record companies cut down never-ending self-pitying story ballads like this one to three minutes and five seconds. It's 1975, Billy's singing about playing in a rock band and he's using woozy Moog sounds even transsexual Wendy "Switched-On-Bach" Carlos stopped using around the same time she stopped using the men's room.

3. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" hardly rocks even with a motorcycle break, but it does contain a fun moment, with Joel simulating a heart attack, complete with "ack-ack-acks." Too bad Queen did it the year before with their more arresting "Sheer Heart Attack." They'll probably never get in the Hall--they're way too silly. Rule of thumb: If you can't imagine Robbie Robertson playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the all-star jam, it won't happen.

4. On "Big Shot," Joel feigns toughness by slipping into a pinched-nose Brando impersonation, something Tom Petty already did all over his first album. And Joel would soon have to recant this song's disaffection for Halston dresses and getting a good table at Elaine's once he married Christie Brinkley.

5. "You May Be Right" is a laundry list of "crazy" things Joel does, which he believes makes him a rebel (riding a motorcycle in the rain, crashing a party and apologizing the next day, telling dirty jokes and walking through Bed-Stuy alone), but he comes out sounding like a mall rat. Guess that must make Andrew "Dice" Clay the Fonz.

6. Billy "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" Joel changes his leather jacket, puts on a skinny tie and tries to pass himself off as a New Wave advocate. Instead, he keeps tripping himself up by telling us his car is out of style and he's out of touch. That's what people look for in a parent, not a rock star.

7. Joel's serious motorcycle accident (must be all that riding in the rain) wins him some sympathy, but no new-Dylan comparisons. Or Springsteen comparisons. When Bruce wrote about Vietnam, he at least talked to some vets. Judging by "Goodnight Saigon," Joel's grandiose bid for social relevance on The Nylon Curtain, Billy probably rented Apocalypse Now twice to make sure they really did listen to Doors tapes.

8. Billy's awkward dancing on the "Uptown Girl" video may have single-handedly convinced English piano man Joe Jackson to stop making videos. And at this late date, who's to say Christie Brinkley's clumsy variation on the Curly Shuffle didn't cost her some runway work?

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