Discover more from This Week in The 90s
'River of Dreams' is Billy Joel's resignation letter [August 22, 1993]
Plus: Mariah. SWV, and The Pharcyde
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to August 22, 1993!
📽️ Clint Eastwood battles John Malkovich in assassination thriller In The Line Of Fire.
📺 It’s the end of an era as Dot Cotton leaves Albert Square. She’ll return to Eastenders in 1997.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Mr Vain’ by Culture Beat, which we’ll discuss next week. Today, we’re talking about this week’s Number 3…
Billy Joel, ’River Of Dreams’
My local music venue, a tiny, sweaty room, has been booking in some amazing legacy acts recently. It’s been an incredible experience to be so close to some of rock’s all-time greats, especially as many of them might be approaching their final years on the road.
All of them have been great, but all of them struggle with the same problem faced by all once-great artists: nobody wants to hear the new stuff. Chrissie Hynde played some tracks from her new album, which sounded great but weren’t great enough to stop people constantly yelling for ‘Brass In Pocket’.
Peter Hook played for over three hours (which is incredible for a guy in his late 60s), yet he only performed one song written in the 21st century (New Order’s ‘Crystal’ from 2001). Stiff Little Fingers, who still rock like bastards, apologetically introduced a track by saying, “We hope you don’t mind, but this is from the new album”. Then Jake paused and added, “I just remembered the new album came out 10 years ago. It was shite, but we’re going to play a track off it anyway”.
All of these artists would all love to write a new hit song, just to prove that they’ve still got it. People like Paul McCartney and Elton John stayed in the songwriting game for decades past their creative peaks, frustrating their fans by creating material that’s pretty good but nowhere close to their Imperial Phase.
The alternative to this is to simply quit. Stop writing songs. Just play your old stuff. Become your own cover band. King of these quiet quitters is Billy Joel, a man who hasn’t written a new song since 1993.
I go walking in my sleep
Billy Joel is a hard guy to pin down.
Billy Joel—aka your uncle’s favourite musician—has this regular-guy, blue-collar persona, but he’s the son of a wealthy Jewish emigree. He sings about working-class life like Springsteen, but he’s got rich piano melodies like Manilow. He writes complex, storytelling lyrics that are fun to sing along to in the pub.
One person on Twitter summed up the paradoxical nature of Billy Joel:
Joel’s father was a classically trained German pianist who fled Hitler in the 30s, then returned to Europe in a US army uniform. After the war, he struggled to make ends meet and the Family Joel scratched by on a barebones existence.
One day, when Billy was a boy, his father told him, “Life is a cesspool”.
Young Billy’s musical support came from his mother, who managed to scrounge $10 a week to pay for piano lessons. Teenage Billy got some gigs playing piano in New York dive bars, which paid enough to justify dropping out of high school and pursuing his dreams of stardom.
It did not go well. Joel spent most of the 60s moving from one failed band to another until he finally released an LP in 1969 as part of the psychedelic proto-metal duo, Atilla.
Atilla didn’t succeed, and not because they were terrible. To be clear, they were terrible and Atilla has been called the worst album in history, but the band faced a much bigger problem than being rubbish: Billy was sleeping with the other guy’s wife. Unsurprisingly, the band split up.
Joel’s first solo record, Cold Harbor Spring, didn’t do much business either, but the follow-up, Piano Man, was much more successful. Although ‘Piano Man’ is the most famous song on it, it was ‘Captain Jack’ that started to earn him a cult following.
Finally, in 1977, The Stranger launched Billy Joel into the A-tier. ‘Just The Way You Are’ became a worldwide hit thanks to its moving lyrics about how Weber was perfect and he would never, ever leave her for a supermodel. The Stranger marked the beginning of Joel’s Imperial Phase, consisting of five massive albums released in a span of six years.
(I was five years old when Joel’s imperial run ended. In my memory, An Innocent Man was as big as Thriller. The ‘Uptown Girl’ video was a genuine cultural phenomenon.)
And then… things started to wind down. Joel left his wife and—plot twist!—married a supermodel. They started a family. His next album, The Bridge, took three years to complete and even that was too fast for Billy, who later said:
I don’t think the material was good; I was pressured by management to put it out too fast. By the end, I sort of gave up caring, which for me was unusual. I remember reading bad reviews and agreeing with them.
The next album was in 1989 and also appeared to mixed reviews, although it did produce a freak hit in the form of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, an odd song that doesn’t really fit in Joel’s oeuvre. Joel fans had another long wait before 1993’s River Of Dreams.
River Of Dreams sold well, with the doo-wop/gospel title track reaching the Top 10 in America, Australia and Europe. However, the LP’s other songs failed to gain any real traction, which seems to have really hurt Joel.
In a 2018 interview, he said:
You work so hard on your stuff and you want people to hear it. If it doesn’t get exposure — the nature of the album format is for that album to get disseminated and River of Dreams didn’t… I just had higher expectations for it. Then the record company came in and said, “Okay, what’s your next album going to be?” And I went, “No, that’s it.”
He was true to his word. Apart from a collection of classical compositions and two writing credits for Celine Dion, Billy Joel hasn’t released any new material in 30 years. He quit.
I've been searching for something
That 2018 interview is very revealing. He talks about his his A-list buddies and their urge to recapture their Imperial Phase:
Elton would say to me, “Why don’t you put out more albums?” I would say, “Why don’t you put out less albums?” I didn’t want to come out and say, “You’re dragging down your legacy.” People feel compelled... Paul McCartney, to this day: “Gotta be relevant. Gotta be new. Gotta have a hit.” I stopped feeling like that a long time ago.
Although maybe there’s something a little deeper with Billy Joel, who hints that he feels like he’s never been quite good enough. Commercial success didn’t save him from the critics, who have always dismissed his work as crowd-pleasing schmaltz. He is the Jack Vettriano of popular music.
In 2009, Slate.com published a piece called “The Awfulness Of Billy Joel, Explained”, a rambling, jokey opinion piece about why Billy Joel sucks. It’s not a good article and says little that you wouldn’t hear from any Joel-hater, but what is surprising is that Joel has read it and thought about it.
I’m reading this rant and I’m going, “This guy completely misinterpreted almost everything I wrote.” It didn’t bother me. I remembered it because it was so over-the-top. Had I been younger and still recording it would have bothered me because it was so wrong. I know good music: You can’t tell me everything I do is bad. But some people just have that reaction to my stuff.
There’s a hint there, possibly, that Joel’s critical failure has always gnawed at him. Billy admits to lofty goals: he wanted to be as good as Beethoven; he uses The Beatles as a career benchmark. Commercial success seems incidental and doesn’t seem to have impressed Joel’s father. No, Billy Joel wanted to achieve greatness. To be recognised as a genius, elevated above life’s big cesspool.
In a New Yorker feature titled, “Thirty-Three Hit Wonder”, Joel describes himself as an average pianist. “Mediocre left hand,” he says.
This is pure speculation, but perhaps that’s why Billy Joel called it a day in 1993. Maybe he knew, deep down, that he’d given his best shot throughout his best years, but it hadn’t been quite good enough. Despite his immense success and popularity, he’d fallen one fingertip short of true greatness.
The river that runs to the promised land
Joel has been touring constantly since River of Dreams, essentially becoming his own tribute act. The audience never has to worry about him trying out some new stuff.
In 2013, he started a residency in Madison Square Gardens, playing to a sold-out crowd every month. He’s recently announced that this residency will end in 2024 after over 150 shows.
In that 2018 interview, he talked about what his final show might be like:
The stage is a living-room set: couch, TV, coffee table, food. And there’s bulletproof glass between me and the audience. Then I come out and lay down on the couch. I grab the remote and start watching TV. The crowd after a couple minutes goes, “Fuck this,” and starts throwing shit at the glass.
I’ll have created a bond between me and the audience where I know they will never pay another nickel to see me again.
Billy Joel probably won’t do this in his last show at Madison Square Gardens, although it would be cool. It would be a fitting end to a career that was, in some ways, strangely unsatisfying.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number One] Culture Beat, ‘Mr Vain’
The most fun thing online this summer was Kyle Gordon’s ‘Planet of the Bass’, a parody of 90s club bangers that went viral a few weeks ago. The full version of the song is very good.
One thing Kyle nailed (unfortunately for him) is that lots of these songs used the same formula: an insanely charismatic female vocalist on the chorus who keeps getting interrupted by some flat-footed rapping. For example, Snap!’s ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ or 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limits’ (Pete Waterman personally insisted on removing the rap verses from the UK edition of ‘No Limits’, and he was not wrong).
Jay Supreme’s rapping on ‘Mr. Vain’ isn’t that bad, but Tania Evans’ delivery of the chorus is so good that nobody could possibly keep up with her. She should have the song to herself. As a famous poet once said, “women are my favourite guy”.
[Number 5 ↑] SWV, ‘Right Here (Human Nature Remix)’
A much more fruitful partnership here. ‘Right Here’ was already a pretty great track, but didn’t have quite enough juice to put Sisters With Voices into the mainstream.
But producer Teddy Riley had a direct line to The King Of Pop, having produced some tracks on Dangerous, and was able to secure the rights to sample ‘Human Nature’. Riley also had help from his young protégé, Pharrell Willams, who created the “es-double-you-vee” hook.
The result is pop perfection, one of the most irresistible mash-ups this side of ‘Freak Like Me’.
[Number 9 ↑] Mariah Carey, ‘Dream Lover’
Fun fact: this is the song that prevented SWV from getting Number One in the Billboard Charts. They’re both knockout pop songs, so I think Billboard should have declared a tie.
[Number 32 ↓] Onyx, ‘Slam’
Onyx were a bit too late to surf the post-Public Enemy wave of angry East Coast rap, and then they got bodied by the rise of G-Funk. Bacdafucup was a really enjoyable, shouty album though.
[Number 39, New] Curve, ‘Missing Link’
First single from Curve’s album Cuckoo. It was deemed by Beavis & Butthead to be “pretty cool”, although they reckoned Toni Halliday should have a raincoat.
Album of the Week
The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
We’re at a pivotal moment in hip-hop history now. Conscious, jazzy rap like Tribe and De La Soul is waning; angry East coast acts like Onyx sound a little corny; Dre’s slick Californian G-Funk is surging.
Hip-hop’s future, right now, could go in any direction. Imagine if it had ended up sounding like this?
Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde is a big, jazzy gumbo of record, filled with clever hooks and samples. Sonically, it’s closest to the conscious rap acts like Tribe and Arrested Development.
But the big difference is that… it’s just really fun.
Bizarre Ride is one of the few albums where it’s hard to tell what’s a skit and what’s a song. ‘It’s Jigaboo Time’, which features the guys freestyling over a piano (the pianist also seems to be freestyling), is officially listed as a skit but does a great job of setting up the record’s sonic palette.
Meanwhile, ‘Yo Mamma’ is literally a collection of yo mamma jokes over a lush instrumental.
The Pharcyde were probably never the future of hip-hop. Bizarre Ride is a very goofy record that doesn’t have a fraction of the innovation shown on records like The Chronic.
Still though. If it had inspired a hip-hop movement, the world today would be so much more fun.
Finally, share if you like this and subscribe if you haven’t already! See you next week!