Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody

All rock music artists, every one of them, have had to deal with harsh criticism.

Even in light of huge commercial success, some bands get raked over the coals by critics who have decided they Just. Don’t. Like. Them. Led Zeppelin famously faced this. So have Justin Bieber, and Madonna, and Nirvana, and U2. God knows The Beatles certainly faced this, particularly when they first appeared and upended popular music.

And that’s okay.

The response to art of all kinds — music, painting, theater, sculpture, literature — is subjective. It’s created, and when it’s put out there for public consumption, it’s liked by some and disliked by others. More accurately, there are those who love it, or like it, or are ambivalent about it, or dislike it, or hate it. That’s just the way it is. It elicits an emotional response, or it doesn’t. There’s no accounting for different tastes.

But let’s examine the rather unusual case of one Billy Joel.

Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, Joel has been a loyal New York guy all his life, a composer of some of the most recognizable melodies of the 1970s and 1980s, and a guy who has sold upwards of 150 million records and still sells out Madison Square Garden shows every month for the past six years (until the pandemic). He is beloved by many millions of fans across multiple generations. And yet, through the years, he has had to cope with some of the most scathing critical derision of any artist of his time.

Consider, for example, this withering summary of Joel’s music from a 2019 piece by Jonah Mendelson in The Michigan Daily: “It is the Applebee’s of pop music, a tepid, microwaved repackaging of actual musical expression, and it deserves little more than contempt.”

Even more difficult to swallow is this brutal 2009 assessment by Ron Rosenbaum in a Slate essay entitled “The Awfulness of Billy Joel, Explained”: “He thinks people can’t stand him because he dresses wrong or doesn’t look right. Billy Joel, they can’t stand you because of your music; because of your stupid, smug attitude; because of the way you ripped off your betters to produce music that rarely reaches the level even of mediocrity. You could dress completely au courant and people would still loathe your lame lyrics.  It’s not that they dislike anything exterior about you. They dislike you because of who you really are inside. They dislike you for being you. At a certain point, consistent, aggressive badness justifies profound hostility. They hate you just the way you are.”

Ouch.

This is the kind of “criticism” that is little more than what they call a “hatchet job,” a cruel vivisection of not so much the music but the man himself. It’s not constructive in any way, and says more about Rosenbaum’s shortcoming as a writer of critiques than about Joel or his oeuvre.

It gives credence to Joel’s propensity at various times in his career to cry foul. Despite being advised by contemporaries to let it go and not make a fuss, Joel has complained publicly throughout the decades about what he sees as unfair treatment. One time in concert, he read from a blistering review of the previous night’s show, then tore it up into little pieces. The adoring crowd went wild, of course, but it showed his thin skin in a business that requires a much tougher facade.

Me, I like Billy Joel. I truly love certain tracks, and while I agree he has more than a few duds in his catalog, he has shown a phenomenal musical talent for composing immaculate pop songs that deserve our admiration and respect. He released 12 studio albums of original material between 1971 and 1993, and every one has at least two and as many as a half-dozen songs that, to my ears, belong in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

My friend Irwin, a professional musician and extraordinary keyboard player, sums up Joel’s skills this way: “I see him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. There has been no greater melodist since the pre-rock songwriter. His chord changes and stylistic concepts are wonderful. He has the diversity of a chameleon, but with originality. He writes great hooks, a perfect combination of music and words. Take ‘Uptown Girl’ — the same note three times and an instantly evocative two words. That sort of simplicity is much harder than writing fancy shit.”

I’m inclined to agree with all of that. I often felt Joel would have done very well writing for Broadway shows. He has a very New York theatrical flair to his presentation, and his uptempo tunes in particular would have lent themselves well to stage plays and musicals. I hear an over-the-top showstopper like “Big Man on Mulberry Street” from his 1986 LP “The Bridge” and can visualize the choreography and staging for it. Same goes for his jazzy masterpiece “New York State of Mind” from 1976’s “Turnstiles” and the exuberant 1977 hit “Only the Good Die Young.”

The diversity shows up in his quieter numbers. “Just the Way You Are,” one of the best love songs of the past half-century, is a cocktail lounge standard, while his 1980 minor hit “Don’t Ask Me Why” has delightful Latino influences. “She’s Always a Woman” from “The Stranger” album and “And So It Goes” from his later “Storm Front” LP offer instantly pleasing melodies sung with tenderness and sincerity.

Even Joel is willing to concede that he’s not the best singer in the world. “I think, when I hear a bad reaction to my work, I chalk it up to my voice. Hey, sometimes I hear my voice and it annoys me!” My friend Irwin thinks Joel is a horrible singer. “He’s all affectation with no soul. He affects a different person in every song. Imitation is great in pop music but only when you assimilate and distill stuff into your own gumbo. Billy Joel doesn’t do that. He lacks his own vocal identity.”

I’ll concur that his voice at times can be a bit off-putting, with the over-enunciations (“It just may be a LOOOOONatic you’re looking for”) and collateral nonsense he sometimes insists on using, apparently just to be cute (“Working too hard may give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack”). But he’s capable of singing well when he wants to, so by and large, I’m willing to overlook it.

One of the themes critics have harped on the most is what they see as Joel’s inauthenticity. They claim he hasn’t experienced any of what he’s singing about and is therefore something of a fraud, a con man. It’s all just a show. He didn’t go to Vietnam, so how can he credibly write a piece like “Goodnight Saigon”?

To that, I say “Nonsense.” “Saigon,” in particular, is one of his finest bits of lyrics writing, precisely matching words to musical phrases like in a jigsaw puzzle, and the effect is harrowing and hugely memorable. So what if he didn’t serve? He knew plenty of people who did, and he can deftly tell their stories instead of his own.

His first success, the oft-played 1973 war horse “The Piano Man,” is a fine example of Joel writing his own story of his days playing at an L.A. piano bar, while also offering thumbnail sketches of the people who frequented the place. Musically, it’s repetitive and has suffered hugely from radio overexposure and unmerciful mangling at karaoke bars everywhere. It’s the song that put him on the map, though, and kept him getting bookings as he evolved and experimented with different genres on ensuing albums.

His 1976 album “Turnstiles” was unjustly ignored, stalling at #122 on US album charts (although it later reached platinum sales status), despite the inclusion of quality tunes like “Angry Young Man,” “Miami 2017,” “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Joel did leave L.A. and returned to New York, where he insisted on recording with his touring band rather than session musicians. The great engineer/producer Phil Ramone, fresh off successes with Paul Simon, saw eye to eye with Joel about his band and agreed to run his upcoming sessions.

The result was the 1977 classic LP “The Stranger,” which featured not only a string of four Top 20 singles that turned him into a bonafide headliner but a couple of quintessential gems in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Vienna,” which emerged as fan favorites as well. Just as winning to me was “52nd Street,” the 1978 follow-up also produced by Ramone that had three Top 20 hits (“Big Shot,” “My Life” and “Honesty”) and brought some more sophisticated material to the table in the form of “Zanzibar,” “Stiletto” and “Until the Night.”

It was around this point that punk and New Wave styles were making inroads, and Joel, smarting from rock critics who labeled his music as “too soft to rock,” went full out with “Glass Houses,” which sold well but showed (to me) that he wasn’t all that effective as a rock ‘n roll poseur. “You May Be Right” is okay, but “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” may be his most annoying hit ever.

The remainder of his studio albums throughout the ’80s reached #1 or came close, with still more smash hit singles, most of them enormously catchy and worthwhile (“Allentown,” “This is the Time,” “Modern Woman” and “A Matter of Trust”). Critics continued to deride his work for the most part, but they found they had to give grudging praise to his amazing 1983 LP “An Innocent Man,” a triumphant concept album paying homage to musical styles of Joel’s childhood, including doo-wop and soul music. In addition to the Four Seasons-ish “Uptown Girl,” there was a Motown send-up (“Tell Her About It”), an a cappella workout (“The Longest Time”) and a tribute to The Drifters (“Innocent Man”), all of which were huge hits.

In 1993, after writing and recording his 12th album, “River of Dreams,” Joel assessed his work and his professional growth and decided he’d reached the end. “I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be,” he said in a 2018 interview. “I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. I didn’t think the quality trajectory was going to continue to go up. So I stopped.

“I remember reading a quote from Neil Diamond where he said that he’d forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. I read that and went, ‘That’s my problem: I haven’t.’ But I did the best I could. I don’t think I coasted. There are artists who continued to record because they felt like that’s what kept them relevant, but I stopped feeling like that a long time ago.”

He’s no dummy, this guy. He may have been naive, getting fleeced for millions of dollars more than once by nefarious managers and business people, but in the 2000s and 2010s, when tour earnings supplanted record sales as the best gauge of an artist’s financial success, Joel focused on live performances instead of writing and recording. He did many dozens of crowd-pleasing shows with Elton John, where they played their own songs, each other’s songs and even a few duets. Since 2014, he has put on the regular monthly concerts in Manhattan, and occasionally schedules special shows elsewhere around the country. His fans eat it up.

In the late ’90s, he began writing classical music, even releasing an album of classical piano pieces, “Fantasies and Delusions,” in 2001, performed not by Joel but by classically-trained pianist Richard Joo. Since then, he has continued to write, but without any intent to release it.

“I have a lot of music that no one’s ever heard and no one may ever hear if I decide not to do something with it,” mused Joel. “It’s really the creative process that’s important to me now, not about having records on the charts or selling a lot of recordings. I just don’t feel compelled to share what I’m doing with the world. It’s for me. I’m learning all the time, and I don’t want to ever stop learning. That’s what’s good about the writing process. You always learn something new when you create.

“But I’m never going to say never. I may come up with an idea that could become a song. I may write a movie soundtrack. I may write a symphony. I don’t know. Anything’s possible.”

Joel said he chuckles as he notices there have been substantive essays written about him in major publications (and in small blogs!) that amount to critical reassessments of him and his contributions to the popular music canon. “I know good music. You can’t tell me everything I wrote was bad. That’s just absurd. So now I just shake my head and laugh when I read some critic say something like, ‘Well, his material is catchy, but then, so is the flu.'”

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I’m so happy just to dance with you!

I know that there are many folks out there who aren’t at all happy that their candidate lost the Presidential election in November. But here at Hack’s Back Pages, we are overjoyed that a new President has been inaugurated and the former one has left town. Let there be dancing and merriment in the streets!

I’ve written so many blog posts over the past six years that I was stunned when I realized I haven’t covered one of the most obvious of all for a rock music blog: Songs about dancing.

Nearly all genres of rock music — from ’50s rockabilly roots through the British Invasion and soul music of the ’60s to the funk and disco eras of the ’70s to the New Wave and dance club vibes of the ’80s, and beyond — have shared the same mission: Get everybody out on the dance floor. It doesn’t take much research to come up with a list of many hundreds of records that compel us to get up and dance to them. What I’ve done for this week’s post is to center on dance songs from the ’50s through the ’80s that actually include “dance” or “dancing” in the title…and there are five or six dozen of them!

I’ve whittled that group down to 20 tunes to focus on here, with a Spotify playlist at the end that I encourage you to play loudly as you dance around your living room or back yard.

Shake your groove thing, people!

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“Dance, Dance, Dance,” The Beach Boys, 1964

Many of the early Beach Boys hits featured session musicians, but this one has the quintet manning their own instruments and belting out those fabulous harmonies. That’s Carl Wilson on an electric 12-string guitar, and Brian Wilson and Mike Love collaborated on the music and lyrics, inserting a key change not where you’d expect it but in the middle of the verse. This infectious tune, which reached #8 in late 1964, was the seventh of 13 Top Ten hits they registered between 1963 and 1966.

“Let’s Dance,” David Bowie, 1983

The chameleon of rock had been through a half dozen ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in his musical styles and stage personas by the time he made a calculated turn toward his most commercial approach with his 1983 top seller, “Let’s Dance.” The title track, which overtly copies the “aahs” from The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” in the intro, may be Bowie’s most danceable song. The great Niles Rodgers held the producer’s reins, and you can hear then-newcomer Stevie Ray Vaughan doing fills and solos on the track’s second half.

“You Should Be Dancing,” The Bee Gees, 1976

If you haven’t yet seen The Bee Gees documentary, by all means do so. You’ll learn about their early career and how, after foundering for a few years, they came roaring back in 1975-76 with their “Main Course” and “Children of the World” albums, focusing on discofied rhythms and the strength of Barry Gibb’s newly discovered falsetto vocal. “You Should Be Dancing” shot to #1 on pop charts, and the song was #1 for seven weeks on the Dance Club charts. It also appeared on the hugely successful “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack LP two years later.

“Keep On Dancing,” The Gentrys, 1965

Producer/songwriter Allen Jones came up “Keep on Dancing” in 1963, and the R&B group The Avantis were the first to record it, although it didn’t chart. By 1965, a garage band from Memphis known as The Gentrys got a hold of it and gave their cover version a straight rock beat. The timing was right, and it reached #4 in the summer of ’65. The reason for the false fadeout is that’s all the Gentrys recorded, so producers repeated the opening 40 seconds at the end to bring it up to a minimum standard 2:00 running time.

“Come Dancing,” The Kinks, 1983

When The Kinks were signed by Arista Records in the late ’70s, they chose to abandon (for a while) their decidedly English tone and structure and serve up some hard pop rock for the American audiences that had just discovered them. They scored three Top 20 albums — “Low Budget,” “Give the People What They Want” and “State of Confusion,” which included “Come Dancing,” their highest-charting US single ever. Ray Davies thought it too inconsequential, but thanks to a popular music video, it peaked at #6.

“Dancing in the Street,” Martha and The Vandellas, 1964

One hot summer day, songwriter/producer Mickey Stevenson saw young people in Detroit dancing and playing in the water from open fire hydrants in Detroit and thought it would make a great song. Marvin Gaye helped him write it, and then Martha Reeves suggested putting the names of various cities in the lyrics. The finished product, recorded by Reeves and her band, The Vandellas, went all the way to #2 in 1964. It became an anthem for marches and protests, and was later covered by Mick Jagger and David Bowie in a duet.

“Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984

Springsteen was ticked off when producer Jon Landau felt his almost-finished “Born in the USA” album needed one more song as a single. “I already wrote about 70 for this album,” he retorted, but he went home that night and wrote “Dancing in the Dark,” which reached #2 on US charts as the song that preceded the album’s release in 1984. It used synthesizers for the first time in Bruce’s music, and a music video of a concert performance in which he pulled a young Courtney Cox from the crowd to dance with.

“Save the Last Dance for Me,” The Drifters, 1960

The dynamic duo of Doc Pomus and Mort Shulman, who also wrote “A Teenager in Love,” “This Magic Moment” and “Viva Las Vegas,” wrote this dreamy slower-tempo tune about a guy who didn’t mind his girl dancing and mingling with others as long as her last dance was with him so he could take her home. The 1960 record by The Drifters, produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, was a #1 hit in the US, and #2 in the UK. It wound up being the last Drifters song featuring Ben E. King on lead vocals before he went solo.

“Dance Hall Days,” Wang Chung, 1984

Among the better New Wave bands to come out of England in the ’80s was known as Huang Zhong, meaning “yellow bell.” They Anglofied it to Wang Chung and, although they were reasonably popular in the UK, they were bigger in the US, Canada, Australia and Germany. Frontman Jack Hues wrote and sang “Dance Hall Days” for their ignored first LP in 1982, then re-recorded it for their second LP, “Points on a Curve,” in 1984. It reached #15 here and was the first of three Top 20 successes (along with “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” at #2 and “Let’s Go!” at #9).

“Dancing in the Moonlight,” King Harvest, 1973

A guy named Sherman Kelly wrote this song in 1969 in St. Croix while lying bleeding on the ground after a vicious gang attack. “I was in pain, trying to imagine a more pleasant alternate reality as I lay there looking at the moon,” he recalled. His band Boffalongo released it to no avail, but Kelly’s brother Wells, the drummer of a band called King Harvest, urged his band to give it a whirl. It took another year, but by early 1973, their version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” reached #13 in the US, and #5 in Canada.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Whitney Houston, 1987

George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who had written the big hit “How Will I Know” for Houston to sing, wrote this monster single in 1987 for her second LP, and it became her fourth consecutive #1. Critics felt it was a rewrite of the first hit, while others felt it had “the giddy zest of Cyndi Lauper.” Rubicam said she wrote the lyrics about someone hoping to find that special someone. “It wasn’t ‘I wanna go down to the disco and dance’ but more of a ‘I wanna do that dance of life with somebody.'”

“And We Danced,” The Hooters, 1985

Eric Bazilian, who later wrote the big hit “One of Us” for Joan Osborne, was the lead songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for the Philadelphia-based group The Hooters in the 1980s. They scored on the charts here and elsewhere with “All You Zombies,” “Day By Day,” “Johnny B” and this fun track, “And We Danced,” a #21 hit in the US from their LP, “Nervous Nights.” The group utilized a Hohner Melodica, a keyboard/reed combination instrument that sounds vaguely like harmonica.

“Dance With Who Brung Ya,” Asleep at the Wheel, 1990

This durable group plays a sweet brand of country swing, melding country instruments with a Louis Jordan style (their first single was Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”). Emerging from West Virginia in 1973 and now based in Austin, Texas, Asleep at the Wheel continues to perform and record today, with frontman Ray Benson still at it on guitar and vocals. He wrote “Dance With Who Brung Ya” for the group’s 11th album, “Keeping Me Up Nights,” in 1990.

“Dance to the Music,” Sly and The Family Stone, 1967

Sylvester Stewart assembled a marvelously diverse group that played a combination of soul, funk and rock which served them well and influenced many who came afterward. For this commercial hit, he used it to introduce the group and its instruments: Greg Errico’s drums, Larry Graham’s funky bass line, Freddie Stone’s guitar, Sly’s gospel organ and the horns of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson. It peaked at #8 in late 1967 and started the band’s successful chart run of great, danceable music.

“The Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats, 1983

Led by the multi-talented Ivan Dortoschuk, this quirky band got its name when he and his brother and friend, living in Montreal’s frigid winters, chose “style over comfort” by not wearing hats. They began as a punk band but then refashioned themselves with a synth-pop New Wave style that did well in the US and Canada, particularly in 1983 with “The Safety Dance,” which was a worldwide hit and reached #3 on the charts here. It was very popular in the dance clubs at the time, and it’s fun to hear it again now in the 2020s.

“Dancing Days,” Led Zeppelin, 1973

Led Zeppelin doing dance music? Sure, why not? Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote a range of musical styles, and this catchy track from their 1973 LP “Houses of the Holy” is certainly danceable. Page and Plant heard the basic musical bones of this track while in Bombay, which inspired several Led Zep tunes in the ensuing years. Some critics hated “Dancing Days, dismissing it as filler, but I dug it right away. It showed up as the B-side of the single featuring “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

“Let’s Dance,” Chris Montez, 1962

California-born Montez had a big smash hit with this obvious dance tune, reaching #4 in the US and #2 in the UK in 1962. Curiously, he struggled to come up with follow-up dance songs that matched the success of “Let’s Dance,” so he switched to more easy-listening choices, like “Call Me” and “The More I See You” in 1966. In 1978, the soundtrack to the popular film “Animal House” included “Let’s Dance,” breathing new life into Montez’s career.

“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” Leo Sayer, 1976

Sayer began his career in the early ’70s as a songwriter with fellow Brit David Courtney (“Giving It All Away” was a minor hit for Roger Daltrey), and soon became a successful recording artist in the UK, with songs like “The Show Must Go On” and five Top Ten albums. His exposure in the US exploded in 1976 with his 4th LP, “Endless Flight,” which included the slow-tempo “When I Need You” and the disco-flavored “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” which both reached #1.

“Dancin’ Fool,” Frank Zappa, 1979

Leave it to rock music’s most notorious maverick to have a hit dance song during the disco years that mocks the disco culture, focusing especially on the inexorable desire to dance even if you’re awful at it. Zappa’s lyrics skewer his dancing skills as “social suicide,” saying, “The beat goes on and I’m so wrong.” In a way, he was sympathizing with those who never mastered dancing skills and look like fools out there (or think they do). Although it stalled at #45, it helped sales of his double album “Sheik Yerbouti” in 1979.

“Dancing Queen,” ABBA, 1976

Sweden’s most famous musical act enjoyed widespread critical praise and sales success with a string of singles in the mid-’70s (“Waterloo,” “SOS,” “Fernando”), but in the US, their albums failed to sell much. That changed with a Greatest Hits LP and their fourth album, 1976’s “Arrival,” which featured “Dancing Queen,” the Europop version of US disco that remains one of the top songs of that era. It was inspired by George MacRae’s “Rock Your Baby” from 1974, focusing on a teen girl who hopes to meet a dancing king.

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Honorable mention:

Dance Away,” Roxy Music, 1979; “After the Dance,” Marvin Gaye, 1976; “Dance With Me,” Orleans, 1975; “Dancin’ With Myself,” Billy Idol, 1981; “Dancing Machine,” The Jackson 5, 1974; “Moondance,” Van Morrison, 1970; “Dancing on the Ceiling,” Lionel Richie, 1986; “Do You Wanna Dance,” Bette Midler, 1972; “Last Dance,” Donna Summer, 1978; “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” Loggins and Messina, 1972; “Ballroom Dancing,” Paul McCartney, 1982; “Dance Sister Dance,” Santana, 1976; “Neutron Dance,” The Pointer Sisters, 1983; “Dancing With Mr. D,” The Rolling Stones, 1973; “Don’t Stop the Dance,” Bryan Ferry, 1985; “I Got Ants in My Pants (and I Want to Dance),” James Brown, 1973.