We return to AFDPJ’s ongoing series with a look at the most successful album of Billy Joel’s career. When it first arrived in UK stores in the late summer of 1983, things didn’t look too promising….
BILLY JOEL: “An Innocent Man” (CBS)
- Easy Money
- An Innocent Man
- The Longest Time
- This Night
- Tell Her About It
- Uptown Girl
- Careless Talk
- Christie Lee
- Leave A Tender Moment Alone
- Keeping The Faith
1983 was the year when Michael Jackson’s Thriller swept all before it, blazing a trail with a succession of hit singles, memorable videos and a chart run that lasted close to two years of peak popularity. The U.S. charts were also in thrall to the “second British Invasion” of Culture Club, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. A refocused, energised and utterly commercial David Bowie was back on the scene. During June and July, The Police spent an eternity at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with Every Breath You Take and its parent album Synchronicity was proving immovable at the summit.
In what now seems a vintage year for some of the ’70s biggest artists, even Elton John had managed to find his mojo again with the excellent Too Low For Zero set, and its smash singles I’m Still Standing and I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. The second half of 1983 would see Lionel Richie truly come of age as a solo megastar courtesy of Can’t Slow Down, but more surprisingly it would also give us by far the most popular period of Billy Joel’s career thanks to An Innocent Man and its seven….yes, seven….singles, spread over more than 18 months.
His previous album, The Nylon Curtain, had been only a modest seller, lacking the usual major hit single and weighed down by a bleaker, socio-political outlook. Allentown and Goodnight Saigon became acknowledged classics in his repertoire, but none of the singles cracked the U.S. Top 10.
Interestingly it was released on the same week in September 1982 as another downbeat record from a major CBS act, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (was it merely coincidence that both artists followed up these albums with massively crowd-pleasing efforts?).
The Innocent Man campaign got off to the best possible start in America, with lead single Tell Her About It going all the way to #1. In common with all the songs on the album, it was a homage to the music of Billy Joel’s youth, which took in Soul, R&B, Doo Wop, Motown, Stax and Rock & Roll. Tell Her About It evoked the winning urgency of classic Motown, sounding not a million miles from something Daryl Hall & John Oates were coming up with around 1982/1983, while the lyrics were smart and cliche-free.
Over in Britain, however, it was a different story; Tell Her About It failed to reach even the Top 75, and An Innocent Man‘s first appearance on the chart would be at a dismal #56. Placed into context, it was 21 places lower than the debut position of Y&T’s latest album, Mean Streak.
The key song, the one which really launched the album into people’s consciousness in the U.K., and the one which most obviously referenced the newfound joy and freedom in his personal life, was Uptown Girl. Though the majority of An Innocent Man‘s material is an exercise in characterisation and riffing on timeless, classical pop writing tropes, its inspiration came from Joel’s sense of “feeling like a teenager again” after the divorce from his first wife was followed by spending time with, amongst others, model Christie Brinkley.
If its infectious, nagging melody and brilliant pastiche of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons wasn’t enough, the video arguably sealed the deal; Joel memorably cast as a “downtown man” jobbing as a mechanic in the garage where the limousine belonging to Brinkley’s “uptown girl” pulls in for gas…cue a spot of West Side Story/Grease-style choreography. She had a choice. And in real life, she married him.
Five weeks at #1, dethroning the mighty Karma Chameleon and holding off the likes of Lionel Richie, Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson and Paul Young (whose Love Of The Common People gave CBS a notable one-two on the British Top 40 in late 1983), Uptown Girl defied An Innocent Man‘s ignominious start (and its own slow lift-off, after entering at #94!), dragging the parent album into the UK Top 20 and eventually into the Top 3 by the end of the year. Curiously, the single was a lesser hit in the U.S. where it could only peak at #3.
A reactivated Tell Her About It swiftly made amends for its earlier failure, reaching #4 during a lengthy stay in the Top 10 over Christmas and the New Year. CBS continued to mine the album, with the Ben E. King / Drifters-esque title track coming next. Always a consummate, articulate lyricist, Joel excelled himself on a tender but emotionally defiant love song whose qualities rather went over the head of this 12-year old boy at the time!
A selection of singles sleeves from An Innocent Man, highlighting the different design aesthetics between the US and UK releases of Tell Her About It and The Longest Time.
Three hits in, yet we weren’t even halfway done. The Longest Time‘s showy tribute to the Doo-Wop sound of the late ’50s was an obvious single-in-waiting, as was the graceful ballad Leave A Tender Moment Alone (perhaps the most traditionally Billy Joel-sounding track on the LP). The UK edition of the latter was backed with Goodnight Saigon, the Nylon Curtain track given equal billing during its low-key residency on the charts, while the US B-side This Night was somewhat hopefully issued in time for Christmas 1984, complete with luxury gatefold packaging and sparkling sleeve. (Unsurprisingly given it was for a seventh single from the album, it still didn’t manage to make it into a hit).
..and more singles! The US versions of Leave A Tender Moment Alone and Keeping The Faith, plus the former’s UK counterpart and This Night’s Christmas-themed UK gatefold cover.
Indeed, there were so many singles taken from An Innocent Man that the Greatest Hits Vol. I & II release which followed in mid-1985 couldn’t find room for all of them (although in fairness, including more than a handful would have been ill-advised). Keeping The Faith – the only one not to chart at all in the UK – and the title song were held over for Greatest Hits Vol. III, partly one suspects to compensate for the shortfall in available Billy Joel hits from the 1986-1997 period.
Stats and achievements aside, was An Innocent Man a great record? Does it measure up to the other seminal albums in the Billy Joel catalogue? Is it better than The Stranger, or 52nd Street, or even Glass Houses? The Nylon Curtain may not have been a blockbuster, but many fans think highly of it too. Can it really be called a classic?
Well, excuse me while I adjust the fence beneath me, but…yes and no! Its biggest hits are absolute corkers…anyone of a certain age will be transported back to late 1983 on hearing Uptown Girl or Tell Her About It. An Innocent Man, the song, is something of a masterpiece. Keeping The Faith serves as the perfect closer, summing up the feel and intentions of the project in yet another astutely constructed lyric. Leave A Tender Moment Alone could have slipped onto one of his late ’70s records and not been out of place.
Yet, much in the same way other big albums of 1983 tended to be some killer but also some filler (think of the aforementioned Let’s Dance, Synchronicity and Too Low For Zero), some of the tracks aren’t as stellar. Easy Money, the opening cut, attempts to channel the spirit and energy of an Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, but it doesn’t suit Joel’s style, as versatile and adept at mimicry as he is. Likewise, Christie Lee is too forced and too lightweight to sustain interest, while Careless Talk is pleasant enough but has the unenviable job of following Uptown Girl on the album.
An Innocent Man eventually hit a high of #2 on the British album listings, almost a whole year after release, and clocked up just a couple of weeks shy of 100 in total. Figures which dwarf anything else he managed in his illustrious career. It remains one of the quintessential ’80s albums, on a par with Born In The U.S.A., Private Dancer, Brothers In Arms or any of the other multi-platinum sellers from that time.