Whenever a legendary music artist is asked which album among their deep catalog is their favorite, most struggle to come up with an answer. But Billy Joel has no problem picking 1982’s “The Nylon Curtain,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.
“I consider this maybe my best recorded effort,” said Joel on the 2011 promotional video for “The Complete Album Collection” while holding up the record. “I wanted to write a real sonic masterpiece. ‘The Nylon Curtain’ took a long time to record … It was a labor of love, but it was exhausting. I think by the end of making this album, I felt like I had almost died. It was just a great, great deal of work.”
“The Nylon Curtain,” which was released Sept. 23, 1982, came after a windfall of success for the Piano Man who had a trio of massive multiplatinum albums from 1977’s “The Stranger” to 1978’s “52nd Street” to 1980s “Glass Houses.” Those three albums alone sold a collective 24 million copies, garnered five Grammys and scored 11 hits.
“ ‘The Nylon Curtain’ proved Joel was on the same level as Elton John, David Bowie, maybe even Paul McCartney,” says superfan Tony Walker, 52, of Massapequa. “This album solidified Billy as one of the best American singer/songwriters ever.”
TIME TO CHANGE
“The Nylon Curtain” found Joel taking some artistic license. He was ready for a change.
“I wanted to do something 180 degrees different. This is a lot more complicated. I wanted to make a quantum leap,” Joel told UK DJ Roger Scott in 1982. “I never want to do the same thing, the same way twice. It’s the only way to do anything.”
To start, saxophonist Richie Cannata left the band to open Cove City Sound Studios in Glen Cove. This immediately altered Joel’s sound.
“I really kind of got tired of writing songs based around a saxophone solo. It was sort of confining actually,” Joel said to Scott. “Plus, the guitar player we’ve been working with, David Brown, who has been on the past two-three albums, is really, really good and I wanted to give him a chance to shine more.”
This time around Joel wasn’t seeking commercial success (Although “The Nylon Curtain” went double platinum, it’s one of his lowest-selling studio albums from 1977-1993). He was strictly focused on the artistic process.
“ ‘The Nylon Curtain’ was a departure from anything Billy had done before,” says Joel’s former drummer Liberty DeVitto, 72, who played on the album.
"When we went in to do this album, Billy said, ‘Don’t even think about how we are going to play this live. Whatever fits and makes a great record, that’s what we are going to do. We will figure out how to play it live later.’ ”
"Billy wrote what he wanted to write and made it personal,” says former Miller Place resident Michael DelGuidice, 51, who currently plays guitar and sings background vocals in Joel’s band plus runs his own Joel tribute, Big Shot. “Every album is almost like an ode to a time period or style. ‘The Nylon Curtain’ was really him.”
JOEL THE ADULT
“The Nylon Curtain” saw Joel heading in a more mature lyrical direction addressing subjects like unemployment, life intensity and war.
“Something about this album felt more adult,” says fan/musician Adam Seely, 52, of Farmingdale. “Billy was graduating to more sophisticated thematic material. This wasn’t an album with straight ahead rock songs like ‘You May Be Right.’ ”
Michael Grosvenor, 42, who runs the Billy Joel podcast, “Glass Houses,” adds, “This feels like the first album where Billy shed the young punk in favor of an adult taking stock of his life and America.”
SERIOUS SONG SUBJECTS
The song “Allentown,” which hit No. 17 on the Billboard chart, focuses on the collapse of the steel industry in America causing severe layoffs with the factory workers in Pennsylvania.
“We are not playing in the same ballpark our parents did. There’s limits now on everything,” Joel told Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky in 1982. “But, there’s still some hope in the song. To me it’s an American thing of it’s getting hard to stay but we are still here. We are going to stick it out because we’re Americans.”
Perhaps the most poignant song is Joel’s seven-minute epic anthem, “Goodnight Saigon,” which pays homage to the soldiers of Vietnam.
“There was never really a song written from the soldier’s point of view,” Joel said to Scott. “A lot of my friends went there and I always wanted to write kind of an ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ Not about whether it was wrong or whether it was right, just how did you feel when you were over there? Our guys didn’t get a hero’s welcome coming back. I think they deserved some sort of mention.”
When performing the song in concert, Joel typically invites local veterans on stage to provide the backing vocals.
“They would put their arms around each other and sing, ‘We will all go down together,’ ” says DeVitto. “It was always a serious moment in the show.”
DelGuidice adds, “There’s not a dry eye on the stage. You look around and get chills. There’s not many times that we’ve come together as a country. That song creates a wormhole. There’s seven minutes where we are all united.”
“Pressure” sees Joel grappling with the concept of intense tension, which in turn spawned a top 20 hit that he regularly plays in his set to this day.
“Everybody has some kind of pressure one way or another. I don’t think that ever stops,” Joel said to Sciaky. “The biggest pressure is the one you put on yourself. That’s the most intense of all.”
The album title serves as a play off of former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s term used to describe the Soviet Union after World War II.
“If you think about the eastern bloc, it’s behind The Iron Curtain. I’m thinking what kind of curtain are we behind?” Joel told Sciaky. “It would be some kind of synthetic that you could see through but there’s still some kind of barrier.”
Joel spent more time in the studio creating than he ever had before. He worked closely with his longtime producer Phil Ramone to capture the sound he was chasing.
“Phil was all about the moment. He wanted the studio to completely disappear as far as the artists were concerned,” says associate engineer Brad Leigh, who worked on the album. “There was no four hours trying to get a bass drum sound. It was all about the vibe.”
On “The Complete Albums Collection” video, Joel adds, “There was so much recorded — different instruments, sound effects, orchestral things, percussion instruments, vocals, synthesizer. There’s so much going on in this recording, it’s very, very rich … I was experimenting, playing the studio as an instrument.”
BEATLES IN THE BACKGROUND
One of the biggest influences on the album’s sound stemmed from his heroes, the Beatles. With the murder of John Lennon occurring months before he entered the studio, Joel clearly had The Fab Four on the brain.
“I was destroyed. If it wasn’t for John Lennon there wouldn’t have been a Beatles, there wouldn’t have been a Billy Joel. All I’ve done or become is because this guy did this thing. It’s like my father, almost. It was just really intense like, ‘Oh my God, the fountainhead is gone!’,” Joel said to Sciaky. “It’s sort of a tribute I guess to John.”
DeVitto adds, “This album was very much a tip of the hat to the Beatles. I think ‘The Nylon Curtain’ is our ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ ”
Longtime Joel fan Tom Trabucco, 61, who grew up in Uniondale, definitely feels the Beatles influence when listening to the album.
“ ‘Laura’ would have fit on the ‘White Album,’ ‘Scandinavian Skies’ was straight out of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’,” says Trabucco. “ ‘Surprises’ had a lot going on lyrically, but musically it was John Lennon all the way.”
“Surprises” is a song Joel wrote after his April 15, 1982 motorcycle accident, which occurred on New York Avenue in Huntington where he shattered the tip of his left thumb as well as fracturing and dislocating his right wrist.
“I was coming to an intersection, I had a green light and a lady decided to run a red light on a cross street. She zoomed through the intersection and there she was. There was really no time to do anything,” Joel said to Scott. “My bike hit her car. I flipped over the top of the car and she kept going … It was just a mess.”
The lyrics of “Surprises” are written in a stream of consciousness style tying them to his accident experience.
“I was trying to recall what I was thinking about when the accident happened. There were a lot of jumbled up images and these thoughts,” Joel to Sciaky. “There’s some kind of sense in it — like a maze. It means something. You are not the captain of your own fate no matter how in control you try to be.”
FROM UNIONDALE TO HBO
On Dec. 29, 1982, Billy Joel played Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. Although this was his sixth time headlining the arena, this performance was a special one. The concert was being filmed by HBO for a legendary special and later home video called, “Live from Long Island.”
“Everybody we ever knew in our whole life is here!” shouted Joel to the crowd after enthusiastically opening the show with “Allentown,” “My Life” and “Angry Young Man.”
David Clark, 55, who grew up in Hempstead and leads a Joel tribute band, All About Joel, was in the crowd at age 15.
“I remember they left the house lights on when they played for a good chunk of the show because they were filming,” recalls Clark, who will be performing at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove on Sept. 8. “There were guys with over the shoulder cameras on stage and there was a crane camera too.”
The show aired on HBO the following summer on July 24, 1983 helping to expand Joel’s fan base.
“That show brought in people who were in doubt about seeing Billy Joel live,” says Joel’s former drummer Liberty DeVitto. “After watching ‘Live from Long Island’ many people became fans.”
“Live from Long Island” completely hooked former Miller Place resident Michael DelGuidice, who now performs in Joel’s band and runs his own Joel tribute, Big Shot.
“I watched it religiously and even recorded it on cassette. I just loved that show. The energy of the Coliseum was just amazing,” says DelGuidice, who will perform a two-night 50th anniversary tribute to Joel on Oct. 28 and 29 at The Paramount in Huntington. “At that point, I went out and got all of his albums.”
Adam Seely of Farmingdale used to play the tape so much he wore it out and had to buy a second one.
“I knew every note backward and forwards,” says Seely. “You could see Billy was just on top of the world. He’s the Gershwin of Long Island.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ