1979: Billy Joel’s 52nd Street

In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.

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1979: Billy Joel’s 52nd Street

For much of the ‘70s, Billy Joel was struggling. He’d release four albums that at best had sold moderately well. His fusion of Elton John’s down-the-middle piano-driven rock music and balladry along with Bruce Springsteen’s storytelling lyrics all induced with his working-class New York attitude hadn’t translated to great success. His label Columbia Records was ready to drop him but for his fifth album he teamed up with legendary producer Phil Ramone who’d just won an Album of the Year Grammy for producing Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and just formed a consistent backing band made up of New York area musicians that he grew to like.

The resulting album, 1977’s The Stranger, helped to fuse his musical and lyrical styles with a more mainstream polish. And it worked! The Stranger was a massive hit when released in late 1977 reaching #2 in early 1978 behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and was eventually certified Diamond. Billboard named The Stranger the #4 album of 1978 behind Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Rumours. The Stranger also had hits with the biggest being the Grammy winning gooey devotion ballad “Just The Way You Are” becoming Joel’s first Top 10 hit peaking at #3 along with three other Top 30 hits.

Billy Joel was now famous and so of course he and his team went right back to work to capitalize on this newfound success. That follow-up, 52nd Street, may not be as widely remembered today but at the time it was a bigger deal. Released in October 1978, 52nd Street vaulted to the top on the Billboard 200 the next month in only four weeks and stayed there for the entire 1978 holiday season. After falling for a few weeks in January 1979 thanks to a Barbra Streisand greatest hits album it had one more week at #1 at the end of the month. In the process, it wound up 1979’s biggest-selling album over Spirits Having Flown, Minute by Minute, The Cars, and Breakfast In America.

Born in the Bronx, William Martin Joel grew up on Long Island in the community of Hicksville during that region’s post-war suburban development. His mother got him started on piano at the age of four with music instantly becoming a big part of his life but it wasn’t until he was a teenager and watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when he decided to pursue a music career. He joined a couple of local bands that didn’t go anywhere and had a hand in some big hits for the Queens-based girl group the Shangri-Las playing piano on the demo versions for their #1 hit “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand).” All of this happening whole Joel trained as a boxer and dropped out of high school after falling a credit short of graduating.

Eventually, Joel got a deal with local record label Family Productions but his first album 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor did nothing. A live recording of his cautionary anti-drug tale “Captain Jack” became an underground radio hit when a station in Philadelphia started playing it helping Joel get signed to major label Columbia. He soon moved out to Los Angeles playing piano in local bars where he formed a lot of the songs for his label debut and second album Piano Man which became a moderate hit along with its title track which despite being Joel’s signature song now peaked only at #25 on the Hot 100. The next album, 1973’s Streetlife Serenade, also did moderately well along with its big single, the #34 peaking “The Entertainer.” By 1975, Joel had returned to New York to record his fourth album Turnstiles which was a giant commercial disappointment peaking at #122 despite containing some of Joel’s most iconic songs today including his immortal ode to his home city in “New York State of Mind.” From that, you can see why Columbia was wanting to drop Joel and how The Stranger was a major saving grace.

Billy Joel was one of those artists that didn’t want to repeat the formula of the album that made them famous. For following up The Stranger, Joel took inspiration from New York’s jazz scene. The title 52nd Street is a reference to the street in Midtown Manhattan where a few decades earlier was a major hub for jazz music in the city. Joel recorded the album with his regular backing band and Ramone at the A&R Recording Studio on 52nd Street with the album cover showing Joel outside the studio holding a trumpet. He even brought in many jazz players to participate including a noteworthy trumpet solo from the legendary player Freddie Hubbard on “Zanzibar” along with Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus of the jazz-rock group Chicago singing backing vocals on “My Life.” It’s an album that wears its influences on its sleeve.

Listening to 52nd Street for this review, it’s an album that of the albums reviewed so far I feel the most familiar with from front to back. I grew up and still live on Long Island not far from Joel’s hometown so his music is essentially a part of the local cultural fabric here. My parents are fans and have memories of Joel’s music playing including 52nd Street so it feels hard to give any kind of critical analysis to music like this that I’ve grown accustomed to. The album, at nine songs, never drags for me. You have the three singles as the first three tracks and from there it gives you deep cuts that never get boring even if for others it may not feel the same way. 

Despite the creative difference, 52nd Street still follows a lot of the Billy Joel quirks. You still got the working-class New York slice of life songs, love ballads, and various stylistic dress-ups. The first track “Big Shot” is easily my favorite song on the album mainly because it’s the only song that really rocks out as Joel sneers about the extravagant cocaine-fueled lifestyle of Manhattan’s rich elite. The next track “Honesty” finds Joel is familiar ballad territory as he sadly croons about how there’s not enough honesty in a relationship. The album’s big hit “My Life” is a breezy down-the-middle pop-rock song about living the American Dream while Joel dismisses all the advice people give to him about living his life. They can still offer him another chance and speak their minds just not on his time. 

“Zanzibar” might just be the jazziest sounding song on the record sounding like Joel’s attempt at melding the genre with the slick studio pop of the late ‘70s a la Steely Dan. When Freddie Hubbard comes in with his solos, the song starts to sound like an improvisational jazz jam. The other major jazz-inspired song is the closing title track which isn’t much but features nice New Orleans style clarinet playing. “Stiletto” is another one of those songs warning about woman maneaters with a cool strutting piano riff to boot. “Half A Mile Away” is a fun mid-tempo jam. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a nice little Latin-inspired ode to Joel’s mom of the same name though from listening to it you wouldn’t tell since it comes across as a standard love song. “Until The Night” was by Joel’s own admission his way of emulating the style of the ‘60s blue-eyed soul duo Righteous Brothers which in turn sounds like a full-on ‘60s Wall of Sound Phil Spector production right down to that sax solo. For nine songs, it goes through a lot of styles.

All in all, aside from some moments 52nd Street isn’t exactly a jazz album. It’s a down-the-middle rock album with jazz influences but a perfectly good one at that. 52nd Street makes for good rich people’s music, the type of inoffensive and sophisticated music that rich people put on at parties and other fancy functions. What also helps is Billy Joel himself who adjusts his voice well to the differing styles going from soft and somber on his ballads to snarky and harder-edged on his uptempo tracks. And like a lot of his other work, Joel also has a nice storytelling quality to his voice that keeps you engaged with the songs. 

If I had to guess why 52nd Street resonated the way it did in 1979, it’s probably because of the AC/DC rule that critic Chris Molanphy coined where its success largely had to do with people being high off of the last and ultimately more successful album. People were just excited for the next thing Billy Joel would release. The album essentially exists to continue the momentum Joel had from The Stranger and it succeeded in that. While 52nd Street was the first of four Billy Joel albums to hit #1, it did not pull The Stranger numbers ending up at seven times platinum, still a great figure all things considered. At the time though, it seems like 52nd Street mattered more than even The Stranger did especially by the recording industry since it would win Album of the Year at the 1980 Grammys which probably has to do a lot with the jazz influence. If there’s one thing that the Recording Academy loves it’s a young artist making an album based on an older style of music.

By any means, the success of 52nd Street set Billy Joel up for a hugely successful 1980s. Albums like 1980’s Glass Houses and 1983’s An Innocent Man were major sellers showing Joel delving into styles both current and retro from hard-rocking new wave to doo-wop and early ‘60s pop. Singles wise, Joel got his greatest success netting his three Hot 100 #1 hits all within the ‘80s from the beginning to the end of the decade with “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” to “Tell Her About It” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” 

Billy Joel was still a chart force into the ‘90s when he released 1993’s The River of Dreams which for a late period album did pretty well like Joel’s previous releases. And that’s been it in terms of new music. Joel hasn’t put out a new album or any new music since The River of Dreams aside from a 2001 album of classical piano instrumentals. By his admissions, Joel has had enough of pop music and recording which seems fair enough considering his long string of classics. Even now, Joel doesn’t seem interested in going back to the studio to record new material which must be nice. 

But it’s not like Billy Joel needs to record more music, in recent years he’s done a lot of performing and been hugely successful there. He’s still a big supporter for his home city performing at benefits concerts after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy as well as performing the final concerts at Shea Stadium before it was torn down. In 2014, Joel began a monthly concert residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden and was performing there every month up until the pandemic. I saw him at one of those MSG concerts in 2016 and I can see why he continually sells out. The man still knows how to put on a show. There have also been career honors most notably with Joel being awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, America’s highest cultural award, in 2013. His legacy is secure. 

With arena concerts opening back up now, Joel will presumably be back to performing at MSG once a month saying the residency will continue as long as there is demand which going from its popularity, it looks like he’ll be continuing to perform for a good amount of time.

Honorable mentions: 1979 was a good year for slick expensive-sounding studio rock and pop albums to get big but a couple of albums that made the year’s Top 10 albums stood out to me. The #4 best-seller The Cars’ self-titled debut shares the same slick and clean production styles as some of the other albums in 1979 but uses it to create something new and exciting. It’s an album that takes the crunchy simplicity of punk and the ascendent synth-pop style to create a fun album of bangers creating an early example of the new wave sound that would get bigger into the ‘80s.

My other pick for 1979 is Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, 1979’s #8 album. Up to this point, Summer and her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had been a big creative force for disco and dance music at large with Bad Girls being a great culmination of that partnership. It reminds me of Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on FutureSex/LoveSounds where they use their imperial fame to do some cool shit together. It’s a disco album that also mixes with other styles like rock, ballads, and even country. And like The Cars, Bad Girls is an album that anticipates ‘80s styles like the blockbuster dance-pop and synth-pop that would soon replace disco. It’s an album that was so undeniable that even the rock-friendly critics at Rolling Stone dubbed it as “the only great disco album other than Saturday Night Fever” which seems very ignorant today but you’ll take what you can get.

Next time: Pink Floyd bring themselves and prog rock to its commercial highpoint with the classic concept album The Wall

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