Billy Joel – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “Songs in the Attic” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Billy Joel – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “Songs in the Attic”

The Album First Came Out on September 14, 1981

Sep 14, 2021 By Austin Saalman Bookmark and Share

Coming off of the mainstream success of 1977’s The Stranger, which earned Billy Joel a spot at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, as well as two Grammy Awards, the formerly struggling Long Island piano man was still hungry, but no longer starving.

By summer 1980, 32-year-old Joel, then waist-deep in his international Glass Houses tour, had managed to secure an expanding fanbase and a chorus of enthusiastic critics—a far cry from the bluesy underdog he had been less than a decade prior.

A performing musician since age 16, Joel played in local bands, before making the wise decision to pursue his own career. His endeavors as a solo artist resulted in the release of four studio albums between 1971 and 1976, his greatest success during this period being 1973’s US Billboard Hot 100 hit “Piano Man,” which had introduced Joel to a wider audience.

Joel’s early albums—1971’s Cold Spring Harbor, 1973’s Piano Man, 1974’s Streetlife Serenade, and 1976’s Turnstiles—contain a number of worthwhile tracks, many of which failed to gain much traction in their time. According to Joel later on, the songs on these albums were not produced to his satisfaction, leaving him with the desire to present them as he had initially intended.

Now at the top of his game, and with great public interest in his work, Joel set forth in his effort to acquaint his expanding fanbase with his pre-Stranger output, selecting 11 songs from his earlier releases. The chosen songs were performed at various venues in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and New Haven in summer 1980.

Released on 14 September 1981, the tracks featured on the aptly-titled Songs in the Attic are just that—melodic relics of a past not yet so distant. The album art says it all, featuring a casually dressed Joel walking up his attic stairs, the ghostly beam of his flashlight falling across a dusty piano hidden in the shadows, a page of sheet music upon the music desk. Some of these songs had since gathered dust, the oldest of them reaching their 10-year mark at the time. Certainly, there was the occasional mothball shaken out as Joel took to the stage, breathing new life into stale dreams.

What is quite possibly the most exhilarating of the collection opens the album—“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” is an apocalyptic epic concerning the destruction of New York City, as recalled by refugees now living in Florida. Joel gives an impassioned performance, the audience cheering with each reference to various New York locales. The live rendition sounds infinitely fuller than the studio version from Turnstiles—not that the two versions are really so different from one another, the former simply carries a certain electricity found only in live performances.

“Summer, Highland Falls”—one of the greatest compositions of Joel’s career— “Streetlife Serenader,” and “Los Angelenos” follow, preceding a remarkably intimate rendition of early favorite “She’s Got a Way.” This version of the latter became a radio hit for Joel, as did “Miami 2017.”

“Everybody Loves You Now” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” are given their proper dues—especially the latter. The reason such an endeavor worked for Joel is that he has always been such a dynamic performer, while also remaining sensitive to the expectations of his audience, allowing for him to maintain an air of accessibility. This is no more evident than on “Captain Jack.” Joel’s band shines here specifically, lending hands to create an exhilarating seven-plus minutes for both the listener and Joel’s roaring audience.

The tender ballad “You’re My Home” is a suitable follow-up to the bombast of its predecessor, and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” reveals a fresh side of Joel as a songwriter. Closer “I’ve Loved These Days” is, despite its pointed lyrics and satirical sentiment, a splendid finale for a fine album. Overall, Songs in the Attic is a stellar effort, with very little wasted on Joel and the band’s part.

Upon its release, reception was generally favorable. Of particular value to fans was the availability of Cold Springs Harbor material, which, until then, had been difficult to come by. The effort successfully piqued interest in Joel’s older releases and kept him at the top of his game as he moved on to 1982’s Grammy-winning follow-up The Nylon Curtain.

40 years later, Songs in the Attic is a faded snapshot of tremendous talent reaching its pinnacle, as well as a solid live album and, more importantly, something undeniably personal to the artist, making the experience all the more intimate.

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