ATTILA (BILLY JOEL): ATTILA (1970)
1) California Flash; 2) Wonder Woman; 3) Revenge Is Sweet; 4) Amplifier Fire; 5) Rollin' Home; 6) Tear This Castle Down; 7) Holy Moses; 8) Brain Invasion.
From time to time, critics get bored and go on a hunt to find «the worst album of all time». As a rule, the hunt process does not involve the critics specifying what they mean by «worst», so, depending on one's own criteria, they might return with either Rod Stewart's Blondes Have More Fun or Sgt. Pepper hanging on their belt — no matter, really, as long as the album seems «outstandingly» something. Outstandingly pretentious, outstandingly unprofessional, outstandingly overproduced, outstandingly conceptually-idiotic, whatever. You cannot take, say, a Backstreet Boys album and declare it the worst ever just because it is so utterly boring. Boring is not outstanding. The album has to scream I'M THE WORST right in your cringing face.
Viewed from that angle, Attila is as easy a piece of game as they come. Recorded in 1970, at the peak or near-peak of trendiness of all things «heavy» and «progressive», it features young aspiring keyboardist and singer Billy Joel, his pal Jon Small on percussion, and... that's it. An organ / drums combo, with Billy, like Ray Manzarek, supplying the required bass parts with his second (sometimes third) hand. A unique experiment, to be sure, within the «rock» world at least, and one that would surely have to be loved, if it succeeded, or hated, if it failed. Guess which.
Ever since the album's release, it has quite consistently been featured on all sorts of «worst ever» lists, with its status currently codified by S. Th. Erlewine in the All-Music Guide: «there have been many bad ideas in rock, but none match the colossal stupidity of Attila» — a phrase that, I am sure of it, has increased Attila's popularity twentyfold and sends dozens, if not hundreds, of curiosity seekers and cheap thrill aficionados in search of used copies or faithful uploads of the album on a yearly, if not daily, basis. Who could ever stay away from savoring The Most Colossal Stupidity in Rock? The sight of the two thoroughly stoned Huns in quasi-authentic attire alone, standing as they are inside a meat locker, would be enough to ensure proper cult status.
What is more interesting, however, is whether any of these people would actually want to agree with Erlewine's and other critics' assessments. As far as mine is concerned, I find nothing inherently wrong in the «idea» of Attila, and even find a few things to like about how the idea was realized — the one major flaw of the record is its monotonousness, as the same basic emotional state is being generated and explored on virtually every song. For instance, with Billy being a competent organist, you'd think they might have allocated a couple spots for «softer» stuff — mixing in some gospel, soul, or classical influences. In fact, knowing Billy's subsequent reputation, you would probably very much expect a couple spots for «softer» stuff! But no, what you get throughout is «Billy Joel, The Organ Godzilla», and as fun as it may be to watch Godzilla blast its way through several blocks of Manhattan, you'd probably fall asleep midway through, were you forced to watch the beast's entire journey from Battery Park to Isham Park.
That said, it is downright hilarious to see the dinosauric duo open up with a set of distorted, overdriven organ hiccups that clearly mimic the intro to Hendrix's ʽVoodoo Chile (Slight Return)ʼ — but only to serve as the opening fanfare for a song about a... male stripper? Whatever. Along the way, as Billy unfurls the silly saga of «California Flash», he makes his organ squeal, grunt, roar, and make just about every aggressive noise that the poor instrument is capable of when connected to every amp, pedal, and special effect generator that could be afforded by two struggling barbarian musicians operating from inside a meat locker. However, I have no idea what the aforementioned Mr. Erlewine is talking about when he speaks of a «wall of white noise» — no matter how much gadgetry Billy has hooked up to his keys, he is most clearly playing them; and, while we're at it, the funky bass riff he blasts out at about 1:06 into the song is awesome.
Fairly often, Attila sounds like Gillan-era Deep Purple with Gillan (and Blackmore, and Glover) removed — similarities between Jon Lord's incorporation, use, and abuse of classical motifs and Billy's «experimental» approach are inescapable, although, to be fair, it must be noted that In Rock, on which Lord finally consented to adopt a heavy distorted sound, was only released a month prior to Attila, and it is not even clear if Billy and Jon knew at all about Deep Purple's existence on the other side of the ocean. In any case, extended organ jamming on tracks such as ʽAmplifier Fireʼ and ʽBrain Invasionʼ is stylistically quite similar to the lengthy escapades one hears from Lord on early Purple jams, and even though Joel's technique and complexity seems to be slightly (but not tremendously) below Jon's, Attila is not to be castigated for being inept or incompetent — both men had enough qualification to work in any second-rate «progressive» band of the time. The question is, with so many first-rate progressive bands around, why would we actually care about their employment?
Ultimately, it all depends on whether you believe that a combo like this could actually «rock». This is, after all, what they set out to do in the first place — «tear the castle down» with «amplifier fire» in an all-out «brain invasion», «Holy Moses»! There is no place for subtlety, spiritual depth, or contemplation here. Even a fourty-minute album by Hendrix himself with that much brawn on the outside would be capable of melting your brains — now what about a fourty-minute album where, instead of inventive electric guitar soloing by one of the most visionary players who ever lived, you get formally competent, but utterly derivative distorted organ soloing by a guy who would later go on to give us... well, you know.
I have read statements that complained how Joel's organ tones on this album gave people headaches — a little amusing, really, for anybody living in a post-Metal Machine Music world. Much more troubling is to realize that the songs work as «unintentional comedy», reminding one of parodies on the whole «let's rock the classics» movement, like ELP's ʽNutrockerʼ, except that the only people in the world who do not realize the album's parodic value are its very authors. But on the other hand, I also believe that at least half of these songs do feature interesting riffs, and that in terms of composition alone, Attila is hardly worse than a large part of Billy's subsequent output. It's all wasted — on a curious, but inadequate enterprise, but «worst album ever?» Come now, Uriah Heep's Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble was released at the same time, shared many of Attila's problems (silliness, pretentiousness, extra overdrive) and actually had fewer memorable riffs. Just because the band actually had its own guitar player should not automatically act as a status raiser. And a rotting head on the album cover is not too much of an upgrade over a couple of «Huns» in a meat locker, unless you're a vegetarian and a necrophile at the same time. Oh, and the rating? Well, thumbs down, without any provocative iconoclasm, but a mildly amused one. Still worth a listen, if only to capture just a bit more of that ultraviolet from 1970.