New book takes scholarly look at Billy Joel's music
As a piano man himself, Ryan Raul Bañagale has always taken the music of Billy Joel very seriously.
"I’m a pianist and when you’re learning how to play pop and rock music in the '80s and '90s, Billy Joel is that kind of go-to music," he said.
Now he wants others to get a richer understanding of Joel's music. Bañagale, an associate professor of music at Colorado College, is one of the editors of "We Didn't Start the Fire: Billy Joel and Popular Music Studies" (Lexington Books, $105), a scholarly collection of essays offering an analysis and insight into Joel's music. He and fellow editor Joshua S. Duchan, an ethnomusicologist at Wayne State University, even got the seal of approval from Joel, who penned the foreword.
The idea for the book sprang from "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," a symposium at Colorado College in 2016 that looked at Joel's music and lyrics. When Bañagale and Duchan asked Joel to do a live phone interview at the conference, Joel was apprehensive but agreed and relished the experience.
"So when we told him we had this book coming, he jumped right in at the chance to provide a foreword," Bañagale said.
One revelation in that foreword, Joel writes, is that "There are some songs that I wrote that, in my opinion, have not aged well and that I don't think are very good — probably somewhere around 20% of my published song catalogue." No titles are provided.
Chapters in the book cover every aspect of Joel's music and career, starting with the first one titled "From Liverpool to Hicksville: 'Sgt. Pepper' Meets 'The Nylon Curtain.' " Others essays explore his connection with Bruce Springsteen, the road to Joel's Madison Square Garden Residency, "gendered and physical embodiment in interpreting Billy Joel in American Sign Language" and Bañagale's study of Joel's greatest hits. The final chapter is a transcript of Joel's phone interview from the 2016 conference.
"Billy Joel’s songwriting it’s not era specific," Bañagale said. "There’s a narrative and characters and a story on each song. His music is adaptable over time and over place and experience. Because the specificity is not so tied to a particular place and time, the songs can still have appeal to people down the road."
Bañagale and Duchan had hoped to present Joel with a finished copy of the book at a concert in Detroit over the summer. Those plans were squelched once the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"That concert has been rescheduled for next summer, so we're hoping to do it then," Bañagale said.