BILLY JOEL: TURNSTILES (1976)
1) Say Goodbye To Hollywood; 2) Summer, Highland Falls; 3) All You Wanna Do Is Dance; 4) New York State Of Mind; 5) James; 6) Prelude / Angry Young Man; 7) I've Loved These Days; 8) Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway).
Billy Joel is back on the East Coast, and he wants you to know it. No, scrape that, make it «he wants you to feel it with the most sensitive fibers of your soul». He did not like it in California, he likes it a lot better in New York, and this provides him with enough inspiration for 36 conceptually organized minutes — and a rather odd-looking album sleeve photoshoot where he is looking at you as if you were a policeman, readying to apprehend the artist for attempting to take a subway ride without a ticket. Meanwhile, each of the people behind his back is supposed to illustrate one of the stories behind the songs, solidifying this comprehensive panorama of life in the Big Apple as forming a much more interesting, if not necessarily much more wholesome, opposition to life on Sunset Boulevard.
The album quite consciously begins with a Californian touch — not only is the message of ʽSay Goodbye To Hollywoodʼ totally transparent already from the title, but it also chooses the rhythmics and arrangement style of Phil Spector's and the Ronettes' ʽBe My Babyʼ for its backbone: not coincidentally, the original song was recorded at the Gold Star Studios in LA, even though both Phil Spector and the Ronettes were both from the New York area, so this is as good a hint as any at Billy's «transition» — bye-bye Hollywood, hello Manhattan.
But it's all fine and dandy with the symbolism, what about the actual song? Well... it's «okay». Decent imitation of Spector's wall-of-sound, big bombastic drums and saxes and all, except Phil used these things to imitate romantic soaring of the spirit, while Billy seems to imitate them just because he wants to. The repetitive chorus of "say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby" quickly sticks in your head all right, but I have no idea what I am supposed to feel about it. Laugh? Cry? Ache? Rejoice? For a good example of a tribute that is quite spiritually true to Spector's vision, check out ʽDon't Answer Meʼ from Alan Parsons' Ammonia Avenue; ʽSay Goodbye To Hollywoodʼ, in comparison, is technically accomplished but emotionally dead.
Not that it necessarily gets better even when the song is quite emotionally alive: few things in this world are cornier than ʽNew York State Of Mindʼ, where Billy channels about 50% Sinatra spirit and 50% Ray Charles and, once again, ends up like a really cheap, but extremely pretentious, shadow of both. It may be one of the most lyrically direct and slavering anthems to the city ever written, but the lyrics are awfully crude and straightforward, the melodic moves are too textbookishly predictable, and the resulting love declaration really has all the potency of a birthday greetings card bought in the nearest Five and Dime. It is too bad that the talents of sax master Phil Woods, specially recruited by Billy to add depth and authenticity to the song, are unable to save the song — it still sounds way too much like the product of somebody's rashful decision to have himself his own ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ or die trying.
Unfortunately, I do not have anything better to say about the rest of the songs. The only one I'd really care to hear again is probably ʽAngry Young Manʼ, mainly due to its introductory ʽPreludeʼ section — which arguably packs more composing ideas than the rest of the album in its entirety, and provides the album's lightest, most adequate and simply-friendly two minutes of entertainment. What follows, though, is an attempt at yet another Deep Important Statement, in which our hero expresses profound sympathy towards the collective Angry Young Man ("he's been stabbed in the back, he's been misunderstood") while at the same time decisively distancing himself from such a personality ("I believe I've passed the age / Of consciousness and righteous rage"). It is very hard to refrain from snickering at lines like "I once believed in causes too", though, looking back on Billy's past and remembering Attila the Hun in the meat locker — does that count as one of the causes? Look at the «angry young man» of Attila and, say, the «angry young man» of ʽMy Generationʼ or ʽLondon's Burningʼ, then tell me who is really an expert on the «age of righteous rage» and whose credentials are more trustworthy.
And we have not even begun to mention the really awful songs on the record — such as ʽJamesʼ, a tepid electric piano ballad that swaddles you sick, or ʽAll You Wanna Do Is Danceʼ, which, seeing as how it is a song about New York in 1976, should have been a disco track, but, for some reason, is really ska (taken much too seriously once again for such a style). Here there is really no interesting composing to speak of — but the tone and the message stay as intentionally serious as everything else. The man is simply riding on his own wavelength, overestimating his talents and insights to such a huge extent that he is simply bound to get himself a fanbase, out of all the people who regularly confuse style with substance. Throw in a bit of orchestral bombast with ʽI've Loved These Daysʼ and a bit of «rock'n'roll bombast» with the half-Elton, half-Springsteen ʽMiami 2017ʼ, and voilà, you are already a source of simplistic inspiration for a massive audience, and ʽNew York State Of Mindʼ gets covered by Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.
To be fair, Turnstiles was a serious commercial letdown for Billy, with sales dropping quite radically from the level of his Californian records — it would take the extra sophistication of The Stranger for New York to finally accept his new streetlife serenader. Musical life was rich and diverse in the Big Apple in 1976, way too colorful for people to fall in droves for this third-rate piano pop pretending to major artistry level. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the songs from eventually becoming radio and concert staples: once Billy Joel became a household name, ʽNew York State Of Mindʼ, ʽI've Loved These Daysʼ and ʽAngry Young Manʼ became a constant presence in American life — and, for some reason, in a «rock» context at that, despite really being a set of Broadway musical tunes.
As usual, «hatred» for this album is out of the question: on the whole, Turnstiles is not so much «godawful» as it is «useless», a record that has no reason to exist in the presence of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and, I am afraid to say, even Bee Gees albums of the same era. And maybe I wouldn't have been so direct in this judgement if it weren't for Billy's provocative pose on the album sleeve — every time I take another look, it's like he's staring me directly in the face: «Well? What do you think, really? Have I made it? Is it on the level? Are they gonna let me past that turnstile? See, I've brought some friends with me, they'll all vouch I'm a good guy, really! Honestly! Swear to God, I do belong!» Come on now, Mr. Joel, you don't need to be trying that hard, really. Nothing against you personally, but it gets irritating. I'd like to like this music, but I can't stand that striped tie of yours, so a thumbs down it is.
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