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Sunday, August 09, 2015

Album Spotlight: Billy Joel - An Innocent Man

I hope you guys are excited for another edition of the Sunday Jukebox.  And, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, for the rest of the year, I'll be doing album spotlights, as opposed to just doing one song.

I think that way, I can talk about more than just one song.  I can offer trivia on how albums were recorded, or how album covers were shot, or how the music videos were made.  It's worked well the last couple of weeks I've done this, and I expect that it will continue to be a fun exercise.

So, how I've been choosing what albums to take another look at is simple.  I go through the history of the Billboard 200 list (that's the album chart as opposed to the single chart), and I choose albums that were released in the past during the week that we are currently in.

So, today's album spotlight comes to us from the year 1983.  Hard to believe that it's been thirty-two years since this album was released.  It certainly makes me feel very old, given that I remember hearing songs from this album playing on the radio throughout my childhood.  It's uncanny.  Although I was only two years old when this album was released, I swear that you would frequently hear songs from this album some five, ten, even twenty years down the road.  That's how great an album it was.

And while most acts who were around in 1983 are no longer charting today, this man has defied the odds and continues to tour all over the world, even though his last album of new material came out over twenty years ago.  At the age of 66, this man - who kicked off his career with 1973's "Piano Man" has earned a number of accolades.  He earned a total of 33 Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, has won six of the twenty-three Grammy Awards that he was nominated for, and has sold over 150 million records worldwide.

Today, we're going to take a look at one of Billy Joel's most famous albums - "An Innocent Man" - which was released 32 years ago this weekend.

The album cover is a simple one, with Billy sitting on the front steps of a building in the middle of New York City's SoHo district.  At the time that he recorded the album, his personal life was in a bit of an uproot.  He was divorced from his first wife, and was re-entering the dating scene by dating supermodels who were considerably younger than he, and the experience he said made him feel like a teenager all over again.  And back in the days in which Billy was a teenager, the music scene was filled with doo-wop, Motown, and rockabilly pop - which inspired the sound of most of the tracks of "An Innocent Man".

And the album was extremely popular.  Of the ten songs that appeared on the album, seven were released as singles.  Some made it all the way to the top, and some stalled on the charts after a while, but six of the seven were Top 40 hits.  Not a bad track record at all!

And yes...we'll be listening to all seven single releases on this album.  Who knows?  You might even learn a bit of trivia about some of them.

So, let's listen to the first single, shall we?  It also happens to be my favourite track on the album.

Released:  July 1983
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts: #1

Though this single was the only one to reach #1 from "An Innocent Man", it also happens to be one of the best tracks on the whole album.  I think part of it comes from the music video, which was designed to be like a performance seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show".  Billy performing on the soundstage while people are watching from home or bars was a genius concept - one that was reused by Outkast in 2003 with "Hey Ya!".  The song about someone telling a young man to grab his chance at love before it slips away was certified Gold in 1983, and if you look closely at the end of the video, you'll see a cameo by Rodney Dangerfield.

Released:  September 1983
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts: #3

You know, with the way that our local radio station played "Uptown Girl" every hour on the hour for what seemed like seven years straight, it shocks me that the song only peaked at #3.  But, nevertheless, it was still a huge hit for Billy Joel.  Who knew meeting an Uptown Girl and living in a white bread world could be the inspiration for such a catchy song?

But just who was the Uptown Girl in question?

Obviously most people would think that it was the woman who played the girl in the video.  That would be Christie Brinkley, and she was definitely the epitome of America's Next Top Model - well, if the show began in the 1980s, that is.  Christie would later marry Billy Joel in 1985 and they would have a child together, Alexa.  Though the couple divorced nine years later, they still remain amicable with each other.  But Christie wasn't the only woman Billy dated after his divorce was finalized.  Rumour has it that the song could also be about Elle Macpherson (who was only nineteen when "Uptown Girl" was released), who dated Joel at the time the song was written.  It's hard to say exactly who the "Uptown Girl" was.  Joel later confirmed in an interview with Howard Stern that the song started out being about Macpherson, but ended up being about Brinkley as well.

So, there you have it.  There was more than one Uptown Girl that tickled his fancy.

Released:  December 1983
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #10

At a time in which MTV was really gaining in momentum and every artist was using the power of the music video to get noticed, this Ben E. King inspired ballad did not have a video made for it.  And, you know?  I can probably see why this was the case.  The song was so moving and powerful that it didn't need one.

This song also has one moment that according to Billy Joel would NEVER happen again.  You know that really long high note that Billy Joel delivers at some point during the song?  That would be the last time you would ever hear him sing that high, as according to Joel, there would be no way that he could ever duplicate that note without destroying his vocal cords.  So, you won't hear him croon like Minnie Riperton anytime soon.  That's okay though.  The rest of the notes he can sing more than make up for it.

Released:  March 1984
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #14

I'm really baffled at how this song only peaked at #14.  But then again, he did have to compete against Michael Jackson, who was releasing singles from "Thriller" at about the same pace that Joel was releasing singles from "An Innocent Man".  In fact, Joel lost to Jackson in the Album of the Year category at the 1984 Grammy Awards!

Anyway, this song is unique in that the song is almost entirely performed a cappella.  Listen you hear any musical instruments in the song at all?  I can't!  Though apparently a bass guitar and snare drum were used at some point.  But the fact that you can't even hear them in the song is a testament to Joel's talent.  Would you believe that he recorded all of the lead and backing vocals himself and that they were all spliced together to create this single?  That is impressive.

Released:  July 1984
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #26

This single is probably the worst performing single that was released from this album in the United States...and honestly, I'm really struggling with that fact, as I absolutely love this single.  It's definitely got a nice groove to it, and was inspired by soul music from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but with an 80s twist.

I mean, let's face it.  Growing up in the 1980s, a lot of pop songs used the harmonica to give the songs a more bluesy feel.  And in this case, the harmonica was provided by guest musician Toots Thielemans.

It should have been a better chart performer though.  You certainly don't hear music like this nowadays - and the recording industry is all the poorer for it.  Though, this single does illustrate the success of this album.  After all, this song was released a full year after the album's first single was!  And we aren't finished yet!

Released:  September 1984
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #18

Okay, we're back to the dancing and the grooving with this fantastic hit!  The sixth single from "An Innocent Man", this would be the last song to chart on the American charts, peaking at #18.  And, this track essentially is the very answer to why Billy Joel released "An Innocent Man" in the first place - a celebration of music and style of his youth. 

And I think part of the reason for the single's success comes from the music video.

First, the video is chock full of celebrity cameos.  Watch for appearances from Christie Brinkley, Joe Piscopo, and Richard Pryor in this video.  Secondly, get a look at some of the costumes that the courtroom audience wears.  One half is decked out in 1950s garb, and the other is dressed in 1960s psychedelic chic.  The costume designer definitely worked overtime in this music video!  And finally, listen to the lyrics and count how many 1950s references you hear Joel singing about.  There's quite a lot.

Mind you, if this song were remade today, you'd have to take out the references on Sen-Sen mints and 45s, and replace them with Bonkers fruit chews and cassette tapes!

Released:  November 1984
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  N/A

Okay, I know what you're thinking.  When was this single ever released?  Well, it wasn't.  At least not in America.  But in the United Kingdom, this single was released instead of "Keeping the Faith", and it peaked at #78.  In Japan, the single peaked at #88.

Maybe it wasn't Billy Joel's strongest single release, but since it was released in some parts of the world, I have to include it.  Oh, and while the subject of "Uptown Girl" was slightly ambiguous in the subject, Joel confirmed that the subject of this single was without a doubt, Elle Macpherson.

So, there you have it.  A celebration of "An Innocent Man", released thirty-two years ago this weekend!  Great album.  If you don't have it, go download it or see if you can find it in hard copy.  You won't regret it.

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