In a world populated by endless boring debates about the ever-changing times of music and pop culture, two lovable millennials, Mike Duquette and Stephanie Salo, scour the world in search of yesterday’s coolest sounds and today’s hottest takes. Armed with little more than a Spotify account and a dream, this dynamic duo brings you fun, informative fireside chats on the pop giants of yesterday.
The artist: Billy Joel, a piano-playing singer/songwriter scoffed at by critics, but a bona fide superstar by the end of the 1970s.
The album: Glass Houses, released in 1980
The lowdown: Joel won back-to-back Grammy Awards for 1977’s The Stranger and 1978’s 52nd Street, but as the eighties dawned, it was time for Joel to do something to grab that critical acclaim that often evaded him.
Duque: Salo, you and I are both relatively proud New Jerseyans, so, not unlike Bruce Springsteen, the music of Billy Joel has seeped into our DNA a bit. His songs are radio anthems across most formats, and most of our friends can probably name a handful of favorites from his solid songbook.
Salo: I grew up on Billy Joel. I was raised to think that he was cool and that anyone that doesn’t like him probably has bad taste. It wasn’t long before I started listening to him and discovering his music on my own, and I always thought it was weird that my peers didn’t share this same affection.
Duque: And that’s where we reach an interesting revelation: once you leave the cocoon of New York or New Jersey, there’s a huge part of the country that thinks Billy Joel suuuucks. The opening line of his bio on the All Music Guide (written by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a guy I can’t believe I’m actual #pals with on social media) notes that he “never was a critic’s favorite;” when I read that line at the age of ten or eleven on our shitty dial-up connection, you might as well have told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. (At the time, I had no idea.)
But Remember The Time with Duque & Salo is a proud pro-Billy zone, and why not? The dude is selling out arenas to this day, from his ongoing residency at Madison Square Garden to his headlining spot at this year’s Bonnaroo. It makes sense to talk about him, namely one of his arguably best albums, Glass Houses, released 35 years ago this March. Here is a playlist for our listeners to follow along on this musical journey, with a few bonus tracks hand selected by your fabulous hosts:
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Salo: I should probably start off this celebration of one of my favorite albums/artists by saying I do not like this album in its entirety. The parts that are bad, in my opinion, are very bad. But the parts that are good are soooo good that you kind of forget about the bad. Like a really dumb boyfriend or something. For as amazing of an album as this is, it has a pretty immense cheese factory. I mean, the glass shattering in the opening track? Come on, William. I REALLY DO LOVE THIS ALBUM THOUGH I PROMISE. I genuinely love most of it and genuinely love to hate some of it.
Chuck Klosterman did a great interview with our boy Billy, and in it writes that he was never “cool” enough to make it into the rock ‘n’ roll world. Which I guess I kind of agree with? I never really think of him as a rock star, and that’s why “You May Be Right” is so annoying. It’s almost like he’s trying to fit into that role, and something about that just seems desperate and cheesy.
“Rolling Stone magazine would not say anything positive about me, and they were the tastemakers at the time,” Joel explain in his interview with The New York Times. “There were people from the old guard who insisted I wasn’t a real rock and roller. Well, O.K., fine—I’m not a real rock and roller. You got me.”
Duque: When Billy put out Glass Houses, he was in the weird position of being on the defensive for no reason. He was a multiplatinum artist and a top concert ticket, but he cared immensely about what critics, not paying fans, had to say. He’d rip up reviews onstage, but he wasn’t fooling anyone with that.
So he adopted this weird pose that Glass Houses was saying something about the current state of affairs in music—there’s some great candid audio in which he talks to producer Phil Ramone about promoting the album and broadly sends up punk and New Wave in the process—but proceeds to do an album that’s largely what you’d expect from Billy Joel.
Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you! “You May Be Right” is Billy Joel 101, like “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Big Shot” before it. It’s a rollicking opening track that sets a very particular scene (a lovably dysfunctional couple), and a solid delivery from Billy’s longtime live band, particularly Liberty DeVitto pounding the drums and Richie Cannata’s runaway sax solo.
Salo: I think the bit about “I rode my motorcycle in the rain” thing is what makes me cringe the most. To be honest, the lyrics are what bother me about this song. The music is fun, rompy, and definitely sets the tone of the rest of the album. But the concept of Billy Joel trying to look like a “bad boy” is just sort of laughably silly. I picture him tripping a lot and getting his comb stuck in his hair.
Duque: It’s weird, though, because none of the lyrics are really better or worse than what we’ve come to expect from the Piano Man. He’s got the same fistful of restless, not-so-young hapless romantic tropes that he’s always had—like Springsteen at a Long Island community college—and for all his posturing about taking New Wave “back,” some of these songs would never work on a Roxy Music or Elvis Costello album. But they fit fine on a Billy Joel album!
Salo: “Sometimes a Fantasy,” however, I genuinely think COULD work on a more New Wave-y record. It is so much fun, though it’s still got a bit of cheese to it. It’s the kind of cheese you don’t mind though, like a Wisconsin cheddar or something.
Duque: “Sometimes a Fantasy,” depending on what day you get me, is in the upper echelon of all-time Billy Joel favorites. This is one of the times Billy’s eighties rock pastiches works perfectly.
Salo: It’s definitely a favorite of mine too! I would really like for someone to set a laser light show to this song. It sounds like a laser light show.
Duque: I’d also like to point out that “Sometimes a Fantasy” is responsible for my favorite insane Billy Joel collectible: the original single somehow ran longer than the album version, with some killer extra guitar work and a raucous, messy ending.
Salo: “Don’t Ask Me Why” uses a lot of acoustic guitar, something I don’t really think of when I think of Billy Joel. Also, are those castanets I hear?!
Duque: Dude, it’s a samba. This dude rails against New Wave, and he does a song you can salsa to. Don’t get me wrong: I love it, but it anchors this album firmly in Billy Joel territory.
Salo: That song definitely exemplifies his whole “Yeah-I-Don’t-Care-I’m-Talented-And-I-Know-It” deal. He’s going to go with whatever sound he wants, and if you don’t like it, you’re wrong. This is the only one of the big singles that I genuinely enjoy.
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” by contrast, is awful garbage shitty shit. It’s the sort of “hah hah you guys are so try-hard and lame” point he was trying to make in the Glass Houses promo talk you mentioned earlier. It’s that desperate Rolling Stone mentality of “my old way is the best way and you kids don’t know what good music is.” I like to picture Billy Joel throwing darts at a picture of Echo and The Bunnymen while writing this one.
Duque: I wonder if he knew who Echo and The Bunnymen even were! “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” is probably the most dated track on the record, and a fascinating reminder of how Billy Joel, for all his genius, made a few missteps here and there. If nobody gives you the torch of rock and roll (and, for right or wrong, critics didn’t) they’re not likely to care what you have to say about its brightness.
Salo: Yeah, for someone that really shouldn’t have to be so demanding of acclaim, he sure tries to drive home the point of “I don’t care, this is what GOOD rock and roll sounds like and I’m making it and you’re all WRONG” a lot here.
Duque: But we only add to that brilliantly infuriating trope of “try-hard rock,” as Side 1 ends with “All for Leyna,” an actually great rock/New Wave song. Those relentless chords (both from Billy and guitarist Russell Javors) and the wild synth solos are some of the rawest shit he’s ever done on record. And lyrically, this may be the song that hits me the hardest. I’m sure most of Joel’s youngest fans, like me, dreamed of being the dude singing “Leyna”—recipient of one night of passion with a (likely older) woman and hungry for more, no matter what the cost.
“All for Leyna” may be the Rosetta Stone for a huge subset of Billy Joel’s fan base, and I’m not just saying that because I dress like he does in the video at least twice a week.
Salo: “All For Leyna” probably could have been a huge single if Billy Joel were more accepted by New Wave fans. This is such a crazy mix of genre, putting a pretty true-to-genre New Wave track on the same side of the record as a samba song. And this “Leyna” chick is probably the Manic Pixie Dream Mom that every young man dreams of getting entangled with. I’m into this trope. There needs to be more cougars in pop music.
On to Side 2, “I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore” is one of my top tracks. Despite the fact that Billy Joel saying the words “Oooh, it’s so erotic” makes me want to leap out of my skin and slither into a hole, it’s a great song. He’s not trying to prove anything here, other than he is a dude that’s bad at relationships but good at piano.
Duque: “I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore” is more Billy at his peak. I think the people who’ve stuck with him—the people who can afford tickets to the Garden to see him now—were exactly like this character he’s written, waiting in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel “sweating bullets in this stupid old suit.” They’ve since managed to find the love they thought would elude them forever, made compromises or kids or both, but the feeling they get from songs like this one is why they (and we!) keep coming back to a guy who hasn’t written much of anything in 25 years.
Salo: “Sleeping With The Television On” is the BEST song of the album, if you ask me. The Ergs (a punk band, for those that may not know) did a fantastic cover of it, which shows what a good song it is! If you can transcend genres without really altering the bones of the song, you’ve really got something good on your hands. Everything about it works, from the weird “The Star Spangled Banner” intro, to the super electronic keys, to the amazing breakdown before the chorus. It’s perfect, easily my favorite Billy Joel song of all time.
Duque: This is high on my list of favorites, too, for very personal reasons: in 2002, I sang this with an all-boys vocal ensemble at a high school concert. It was my first solo, and definitely the first time I dug deeper into Billy Joel beyond the dozen-plus hits that were played on Lite FM in the Tri-State area. Again, going back to this “answer to New Wave” vibe, this is one of the only songs on Glass Houses that really fits that mold. In another universe, this song was tacked onto Side 2 of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ Armed Forces.
Now here’s where the album starts to sag a bit. “C’etait Toi (You Were the One)” is Billy’s own pick for his worst song, and Klosterman got it when claiming a friend compared “Close to the Borderline” to Stryper unplugged. But “Through the Long Night” is one in a long line of strong Billy Joel album enders, with a beautiful, harmony-laden vocal melody and a bridge that gives me chills almost every time I hear it.
Salo: I can pretty much agree with Billy here, “C’etait Toi” is pretty…bad. I can’t really speak much of it other than to give a big ol’ “YAWN.” “Through The Long Night” could have been thrown onto Abbey Road seamlessly without anyone noticing. I think this is really cool, because Billy himself is a little bit of a Beatles historian. I know in an interview he mentioned his love of Abbey Road, so it comes as no surprise that he would be influenced by that specific sound.
Duque: So, dearest Salo, did Glass Houses meet your exacting standards as piano queen and New Wave maven?
Salo: While Glass Houses has a definitive cheese factor, I have to say it is by far my favorite Billy Joel album. I’ll take it, good, bad, and ugly. The Piano Man seldom disappoints and he certainly didn’t here.
Duque: For my money, it really is one of the perfect intro courses to Billy Joel: roughly half hits you know from endless radio indoctrination, with a fair amount of solid deep cuts and a good rock ‘n’ roll feel all around.
Duque & Salo Remember The Time runs the third week of every month on Deadshirt.net, whether you like it or not. Last time we said “third Thursday,” but today’s a Friday, so sorry for the inexactitude, I guess.