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52nd Street
Billy Joel

Columbia 35609
Released: October 1978
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 76
Certified 5x Platinum: 10/19/84

Billy JoelOn 52nd Street and The Stranger, Billy Joel is the quintessential postrock entertainer: a vaudvillian piano man and mimic who, having come of age in the late Sixties, has the grasp of rock and the technical know-how to be able to caricature both Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as "do" an updated Anthony Newley, all in the same Las Vegas format. Joel seems to have been born knowing what many Seventies pop stars have had to find out the hard way: that rock & roll was always part of show business. Being a pianist (and a bravura one), he's also been more aware than many of his guitar-based peers that rock has always been a species of popular music and not a totally separate art form.

52nd Street, produced by Phil Ramone, is more rock-oriented than The Stranger and quite different in spirit. Whereas The Stranger -- particularly its centerpiece, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" -- captured the texture of urban neighborhood life in an Edward Hopper-like light, 52nd Street evokes the carnivalesque neon glare of nighttime Manhattan, using painterly strokes of jazz here and there to terrific effect.

Billy Joel - 52nd Street
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
The characters in Joel's new compositions -- a Puerto Rican street punk ("Half a Mile Away"), a social climber ("Big Shot"), a sexual bitch ("Stiletto"), a barfly sports fan ("Zanzibar") and a Cuban guitarist ("Rosalinda's Eyes") -- comprise a sidewalk portrait gallery of midtown hustlers and dreamers. The likenesses, though roughly sketched, are accurate and sometimes even tinged with romance ("Rosalinda's Eyes"). The artist's fault-finding songs are among his least interesting, and "Stiletto," a psychologically trite bit of misogyny, is the LP's one outright failure. Even the numbers that aren't portraits fit nicely into Joel's scheme. "Honesty," a big, brazen, Anthony Newley-type ballad, laments the cynicism and loneliness behind the facade of Gotham glamour, while "52nd Street" is a fragmentary pop-jazz picture post card. "Until the Night" niftily re-creates Phil Spector's New York.

Joel tried once before to imitate Spector (in "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" on the self-produced Turnstiles), but failed to build a mighty enough wall of sound. This time, his caricature of that master pop caricaturist works splendidly. The singer is as keenly aware as Spector of the ridiculousness as well as the sublimity of the big-city teenage sexual jungle, and because his Righteous Brothers imitation is as tongue in cheek as it is reverent, "Until the Night" works as both tribute and joke. Billy Joel and Phil Ramone are the first artist/producer combination to capture the precarious balance between the ludicrous and the monumental in Phil Spector (how can anyone take Spector more than half-seriously these days?), and Joel's lyric -- simultaneously nonsensical, self-parodying and romantic -- is as charming as it is bogus. "Until the Night" is the formal piece de resistance of an album that, though far from great, boasts much of the color and excitement of a really good New York street fair.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 12-14-78.

Bonus Reviews!

Billy Joel's new 52nd Street is about being grown-up and making your first few attempts at adult responsibility, just as The Stranger was about the trauma of leaving home. There is no internal evidence to explain why he has chosen 52nd Street as a symbol (it is an area of Manhattan famous for its jazz clubs in the Forties, a time when Joel was probably not even born yet), why the "mean streets" cover photo shows him holding a trumpet he never plays on the album, or why there is a swing/jazz inflection to so many of the arrangements. The title song itself may be a good enough, if rather arbitrary, reason: it's short on meaning and inventiveness for a Joel effort, but it is fun to listen to. So's the rest of the album, the work of the same warm, sensitive, and ironically funny songwriting talent who first plugged into the big time with Piano Man, a Stereo Review Record of the Year award-winner for 1974.

Well, enough about the roots and on to the flowers. Let's take "Half a Mile Away" for starters. It's about a housebound romantic who, once the lights are out, creeps out and joins his friend Little Geo on the corner where they split a bottle of wine, "Talk about women/ And lie, lie, lie...." There is a certain amount of heartache, but there's also a lot of wry humor and sardonic wisdom in this saga of a guy who'd like to fit into a class stereotype despite a nagging sense that "There's gotta be more to life/ Than just try, try, try...." Then there is "Zanzibar," which seems to be a kind of parody of a typical Selby/Scorsese/Price scenario: the squalid, dingy Zanzibar Club where Anything Can Happen. For Joel's hero it's all pretty cool, however: "Me, I'm just another face at Zanzibar/ She's waiting out in Shantytown/ She's gonna pull the curtains down for me...." This is sung against a beguine tempo that hasn't been heard since Alice Ghostley went careering around Boston Common in "New Faces of 1952."

"Rosalinda's Eyes" is a perfectly charming, charmingly perfect little romance about a young musician knocking around listlessly from gig to git, fairly discouraged about it all but sustained by his girl Rosalinda and her confidence in him: "All alone in a Puerto Rican band/ Union wages, wedding clothes/ Hardly anyone has seen how good I am/ But Rosalinda says she knows...." "My Life" is again about a man who wants to escape from a cliché life. He takes off for California (which for Joel characters seems to have the same promise of mystery and excitement India did a hundred years ago for the English working classes) and discovers the joys of making it on his own. He's talking to his buddy from back east, telling him that L.A. may not be all he wanted, but it's more than he used to have. His anger flashes in the closing lines: "I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home/ I don't care what you say any more, this is my life/ Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone." Strong stuff, beautifully performed.

There is even stronger stuff in "Stiletto," deep into blood-and-gore territory, and the rage-filled "Big Shot," a man's abusive tirade against a woman who has hogged the spotlight on a gala evening. They are powerful songs, but they are also ugly and angry and abusive. Joel's greatest strength in comparison with his contemporaries is his ability to show people as they are without lapsing into the condescending kitsch of All in the Family or the spasmed frenzy of a Scorsese Grand Guignol. The thinking here seems to me to be coming from somewhere outside, something along the lines of "Hey, look, you wanna stay in fashion, right?" No, not really. Not if you have talent with the breadth and depth of Billy Joel's; with that you make your own fashion. Despite these two inauthentic lapses, 52nd Street is another fine piece of work from a fine composer/performer, an album that belongs in any serious collection of the young pop masters.

-Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 1/79.

Joel follows his platinum breakthrough The Stranger, still in the top 15 after a year on the chart, with an equally well-designed mix of punchy midtempo tunes and pretty ballads. An all-star cast of backup musicians assists this time out, including Freddie Hubbard, Mike Mainieri, David Spinozza, Steve Khan, Donnie Dacus, Peter Cetera, Ralph MacDonald, Eric Gale, Dave Grusin and the Brecker Brothers. Joel, who shines on piano and vocals, has blossomed into a consummate record craftsman for the hipper half of the mass audience. There is no shortage of singles candidates here, which should continue the string of four Top 40 hits Columbia was able to lift off The Stranger. Best cuts: "Big Shot," "My Life," "Honesty," "52nd Street," "Until The Night."

- Billboard, 1978.

There is nothing here really to challenge the quality of the tracks on The Stranger though 52nd Street followed its predecessor up the charts, reaching Gold and Platinum Disc status in under a month after its release. The album does have a solid ring of consistency about it and contains the wry "My Life" which became familiar through the many cover versions. The other hit single "Big Shot" sounds unnervingly like an up-tempo verson of Elton John's "Blues for Baby and Me."

The CD version of 52nd Street has a rubbery, pounding bass line particularly behind laid-back tracks like "Rosalinda's Eyes" which could well be the result of "sweetening" equalisation for CD mastering. The Brecker Brothers' brassy contribution now glitters.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Joel consolidated his position with this somewhat harder rocking follow-up to The Stranger, which contained the hits "My Life," "Big Shot," and "Honesty." * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The intensive road-work dictated by The Stranger produced a leaner, rock-oriented follow-up, typified by "Big Shot." Like an American Elton John, Joel assimilated whatever styles (jazz, Latin rhythms) suited his purpose. "I don't want to limit my diet," he said, "sampling only one vegetable in the garden."

52nd Street was chosen as the 352nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

For 52nd Street Billy Joel stuck wisely to the mid-tempo songs and ballads that had broken him through with his previous album The Stranger. The album, which was produced like its predecessor by Phil Ramone, explored a jazzier feel to Joel, with a guest spot for trumpet-great Freddie Hubbard, but the high calibre of the sure-fire hits present on the album ensured that the singer-pianist was not about to deviate from a winning formula that had turned him into one of the US' biggest music stars.

The thumping but characteristically melodic lead-off single "My Life" gave Joel his biggest US hit since "Just The Way You Are," selling a million and reaching Number Three in January 1979, and this was followed into the Top 40 by "Big Shot" and "Honesty." On the song "Until The Night" Joel pays homage to Phil Spector and, in particular, the Righteous Brothers.

After Joel's frustration at the all-conquering Saturday Night Fever preventing The Stranger reaching Number One, this follow-up took just three weeks after its October 1978 release to give him a first US chart-topper. Residing there for eight weeks and spending 76 weeks in the charts, it was declared Album of the Year at the February 1980 Grammy Awards and went on to become the first-ever album issued on CD.

As of 2004, 52nd Street was the #20 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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