Not Fade Away: Billy Joel ‘An Innocent Man’

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Billy Joel‘s 1983 tribute to his early influences, An Innocent Man.

Mid-life crisis or genius tribute to the ’50s and early ’60s?  An Innocent Man is a little bit of both.  In the early ’80s, Billy Joel was coming off of his Nylon Curtain album. A record that had a number of hits (“Allentown,” “Pressure,” “Goodnight Saigon”), it sold considerably less than his three prior smashes (The Stranger52nd Street and Glass Houses). 

In the below interview, he says that he wanted to do an album completely different from Nylon Curtain – and  also, he had gone through a divorce and was now dating a number of models, including Christie Brinkley (whom he would soon marry).  A multi-platinum rock star and newly single guy, he now felt like a teenager all over again. He turned to the music of his teenage years for inspiration.

And that’s how doo-wop and Four Seasons-style pop music returned to the charts (and bum-rushed MTV) in 1983.

By the early ’80s, Motown Records’ biggest artists were Lionel Richie and Rick James, artists with long careers, but who had decidedly ’80s sounds. On An Innocent Man, Joel reminded the world of how much fun the label’s earlier records were: “Tell Her About It” was a thinly-veiled homage to the early Motown artists. The video paid tribute to The Ed Sullivan Show, the show which often gave American teens their only glimpses of their favorite rock and pop stars (a quaint and hard-to-digest concept to MTV’s audience, who at that point were used to a whole channel playing music videos all day long).

But it was “The Longest Time” that was the album’s most extraordinary accomplishment–as was getting the instrument-free, all-vocal song onto the pop charts. While the music video saw Joel and his backing band playing an a cappella group revisiting past glories at a high school reunion, Joel sang all of the parts on the studio version: other than his voice, all you hear are snaps.  Today it may be the music of Broadway revivals and theme restaurants, but in its heyday it was bona-fide street music. No one at that time, or since then, has brought that music back to the mainstream as Joel had with this song.

“Uptown Girl” was such an over-the-top tribute to Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons that Valli would have been excused for thinking it was one of his outtakes. These days, the Four Seasons’ music, of course, lives on on Broadway’s Jersey Boys. But in ’83, this song carried the torch for their jubilant brand of team-vocal pop.  In the video, Joel casts himself as an auto mechanic, something Bruce Springsteen would later do in his “I’m On Fire” video. But Billy had a hell of a lot more fun at his gas station, leading his fellow mechanics/backing singers in dance moves around Christie Brinkley, who shows up in a limo.

And, of course, Brinkley figured heavily into the album. The title track, which sounds more like Billy Joel’s earlier material than the rest of the album, was a plea to an unnamed woman to put her trust in him after a failed relationship.  You can figure that that one was about Brinkley, but you didn’t really need to do much guesswork on the piano workout “Christie Lee,” a humorous story of a woman who fell in love with a saxophone (as opposed to the guy playing it).

Ah, and the video for the horn-driven “Keeping The Faith,” in which Joel is, for some reason, on trial.  Is he “keeping the faith” or is he “an innocent man”? Um, what? Still, it was another fun throwback, albeit one where he sings, “The good old days weren’t always  good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” He loved the music of the era, but didn’t have rose-colored glasses on when he looked back.

An Innocent Man brought Joel back to multi-platinum status, and also won him Brinkley, whom he married in 1985.  And while neither lasted — Joel had just three more albums left in him, and his marriage with Brinkley ended in a divorce (although the two have a daughter, Alexa Ray Joel) — the album has gone on to be one of Joel’s best sellers, and holds up to the rest of his enviable catalog.

- Brian Ives, Radio.com

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