It was this day in 1978 that Billy Joel released his first number one record, 52nd Street. Ryan Briles from The Hot Stiffs and The Ugly American is here to tell us why the album is great and why you shouldn’t be ashamed to think so too.
On this day thirty three years ago, Billy Joel released 52nd Street, his first number one record. Many of the people, myself included, who are reading this might like to consider themselves cool and due to that obvious fact, they, again myself included, consider their taste impeccable and also cool. In general, this standpoint would seem to exclude the cheesy emanations of a piano bar, like Billy Joel. However, I am here to tell you that Billy Joel is awesome and 52nd Street is a kick-ass record. Yeah, so get over it. You like Billy Joel.
Admitting to liking Billy Joel might be difficult for some people. For example, I was in denial for years. As previously stated, I thought of myself as some kind of “cool” guy. I liked rock and roll, man. Obscure European post-punk bands. Shit you’ve never heard of because you’re not as cool as me. Obviously, this did not include rocking out to Billy Joel. This all changed one drunken night when my then-girlfriend-now-wife put on 52nd Street during a post-last call party. “What the fuck!?” me and my friends (who were also “cool”) wanted to know. If we had wanted piano, we would have put on The Boss, or Queen.
Maybe due to my drunkenness, maybe due to my patient girlfriend/wife’s explanations, I gave Billy Joel a grudging chance. What really pissed me off about it was that it was good. “Big Shot” is a great album opener. It’s about hating rich, pretentious people, which appealed to my self-righteous punk rock coolness. Billy Joel sings with an awesome sneer and makes references to cocaine. It’s even got a cool guitar riff.
And dudes, get down off your high horses and admit that you like piano ballads. Seriously, you’re a jerk if you don’t. As far as piano ballads go, “Honesty” is top notch stuff. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but so is a lot of awesome stuff. For years, I would proudly and drunkenly play ridiculously cheesy George Jones songs on the jukebox. I always thought there was something tough about liking George Jones. Yeah, Billy Joel and his ballads aren’t tough, but fuck it, they’re awesome.
52nd Street isn’t all ballads though, by a long shot. “My Life” is a defiant song about doing whatever the hell you want no matter what other people think. That’s kind of punk rock when you think about it. “Half A Mile Away” is about being a drunken delinquent. That’s a little tough, in a Billy Joel kind of way. If being a tough guy means that I can’t like big horn sections and falsetto whoa-oh-ohs, then I’ll proudly be a prancing nancy boy.
So much of “the scene” is about pretentious navel gazing. Sometimes we try so hard to be cool, to have the best taste, that we miss out on what got us into music in the first place. Music is fun and makes us feel good. Even my evilest black metal record (and I have some truly vile black metal records) makes me feel good. That’s why we buy records and go to shows. We meet our friends because they share our awe of music and what it means for us. If we limit what we get excited about to what can be passed off as “cool,” we’ll miss out on so much good music. It might be cool to listen to the Descendents play “Through Being Cool,” but it isn’t cool not being cool. So, just do it and get over it. Crack another beer, throw on some Bily Joel, and rock the fuck out.
Ryan Briles plays guitar and sings as The Ugly American and in The Hot Stiffs. He’s cool enough to not care about whether or not you think he’s cool.
Thanks to the power of the internet, here’s the entire 52nd Street album via YouTube playlist.