Monthly Archives: April 2014

Storm Front, the Billy Joel album for people who can’t fucking stand Billy Joel

[Billy Joel - Storm Front]

Truth be told, I don’t actually hate Billy Joel. I just recognize I’m not the target audience for his music.

Nor am I the target audience for Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. My music experience pretty much started with Duran Duran, although ABBA did lay a bit of ground work. So I don’t see much point for dumping on music that’s not intended for me.

At the same time, I understand why my peer group would despise Billy Joel.

If I had any disdain for Joel during the  years I was exploring Duran Duran and all those invading British bands, it was rooted in sibling rivaly. My brother liked Billy Joel, and if one of us four siblings claimed an artist, we weren’t going to share.

So I kept my mitts off his Billy Joel, so long as he stayed away from my ABC and Tears for Fears.

That sibling Cold War started to defrost in the late ’80s. I encroached on my brother’s monopoly on Sting, while he warmed up to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor.

By the time Storm Front came around, neither of us really gave much thought to Billy Joel. He was so ubiquitous during the first half of the decade that he induced a No Jacket Required-level of fatigue.

The minimal album cover — a red flag against a dark gray sky, the title in a stark sans-serif typeface — caught my attention. The darker hue of the songs also seemed to line up nicely with the weirder music to which I was starting to gravitate.

Also, a guy I had a crush on liked the album, and I wanted to figure why he liked it.

“Downeaster Alexa” probably cinched the album for me. It’s one of those songs I can find myself humming without any prompt. “And So It Goes” appeals to the incompetent pianist in me.

Mick Jones’ big production gave Storm Front an edge that made me momentarily forget about “Uptown Girl” or “Tell Her About It”.

I liked Storm Front depsite myself.

But that wouldn’t suit well with my peer group.

I was playing the album one night at work ca. 1998, and my co-worker asked why I was listening to Garth Brooks. I hadn’t realized Brooks turned the song into a country music hit. Her question dripped with disdain.

When the Dot-Com Bubble burst, I had to cull my music collection for cash. Remembering that exchange, Storm Front went on the chopping block. I did back it up on CD-ROM, though — just in case.

At another job ca. 2008, a different co-worker professed his love for Billy Joel, and I kept my poker face on. I could no better understand his love for Billy Joel any more than he could understand mine for Alfred Schnittke.

Slate explained what makes Billy Joel ripe for ridicule, and yeah, I see it. If Joel were an actor, he’d be the kind who tears the scenery. He can’t come across as anything other than a blowhard.

And yes, Storm Front is not immune to those moments where you just have to roll your eyes at Joel’s earnestness. See “Leningrad”. See “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.

I found that CD-ROM with a rip of Storm Front and gave the album a listen. And I remembered “Downeaster Alexa”, and I remembered “And So It Goes”.

If I can make peace with the inner homophobia that prevented me from re-embracing ABBA, I can certainly get over the judgmental comment of a co-worker from the distant past.



How I stopped worrying and learned to appreciate ABBA

ABBA - Arrival

There was a time in my life when it was absolutely not OK to admit to liking ABBA, and that time just happen to coincide with junior high school.

Well, it extended throughout high school as well, but a very specific incident in junior high school schooled me in what was then conventional wisdom. I had drawn the ABBA logo with the backward “B” on my copy of the Webster dictionary, and it opened me up for ridicule.

This being junior high, such ridicule had a lasting effect.

It became acceptable to like ABBA again in my sophomore year of college (ca. 1993) when a column in the Village Voice signaled the all-clear. The column tied ABBA’s resurgence with the gay community, and I was another two years away from being in the psychological mindset to come out.

So I clung to my internalized homophobia and maintained my ABBAmnesia.

Muriel’s Wedding hit theaters in 1994. Mamma Mia opened in London in 1999.  In 2000, the members of ABBA turned down 1 billion dollars to reunite.

It’s been OK to like ABBA for a very long time now, but up until last summer, I couldn’t do it.

And I had long run out of excuses.

The biggest obstacle was my rockism. Straight guys with guitars — that is the bulk of my listening, and a lot of those straight guys instilled in me the idea that “disco sucks”. ABBA, even today, has not shaken off the perception of being a disco band, even when close examination of their output demonstrates otherwise.

Tied to rockism is internalized homophobia. Yes, even after nearly 20 years out of the closet, there are acceptable conventions of gay male culture to which I just say no. I don’t get drag. And I didn’t get ABBA.

It wasn’t always the case.

I drew that ABBA logo on my dictionary because I really did like them when I was 8 years old. I was in mall record store when the clerks put a LaserDisc of ABBA’s music videos on the TV. After that, I was hooked.

Pac-Man later derailed my attention from ABBA, but by then the group had broken up. And then came Duran Duran.

A recent holiday conversation with my sister in Chicago revealed that her own 7-year-old daughter was absolutely addicted to Mamma Mia.

Maybe that was it.

ABBA’s melodic sense is so basic and tuneful, it’s children’s music. I was a child when at the height of my ABBA fandom. I didn’t understand the words — and there were no lyric sheets on my albums — so all I had to go one was melody.  Have I really been looking down on that instinctive appreciation all this time?

Today, I recognize that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote some sophisticated pop music. And while “Dancing Queen” put a lot  of cash in their coffers, “Intermezzo No. 1” showed the band could do a lot more.

I’ve culled my music collection numerous times over the years, but the four vinyl albums by ABBA survived each purge. I put those albums on my turntable after purchasing some decent stereo speakers in May 2013, and I realized I was just way too freaking old to hold onto a slight from more than 30 years ago.

I’ve since added Super Trouper, The Visitors, Arrival and The Album to my collection. I’m passing on Voulez-Vous, and the jury is still out on Waterloo and Ring Ring.

I was right to draw that logo on my dictionary. Too bad I was too young to recognize it.