Billy Joel, Glass Houses

Published on November 29th, 2010 in: Issues, Music, Music Reviews, Retrovirus, Three Of A Perfect Pair |

By Less Lee Moore

billy joel glass houses

My first “grown up” album was Barry Manilow Live, which I received as a Christmas present when I was five. My sister Summer’s interest in rock and roll started at an earlier age; she was so obsessed with Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album that she received it for a present when she was two.

I read a lot of music magazines when I was a kid, and though I can’t recall the specific ones that criticized Glass Houses, I recall that it was a bit of a deal-breaker for Billy Joel’s fans. One of the most vocal critics was my then-stepfather Larry, who thought Joel spent too much time trying to sound like other musicians on the album and not enough time just being himself.

This kind of analysis was far too advanced for my little sister so it didn’t dampen her enjoyment of the album one bit. In fact, we spent many hours cracking up at her miming of the single “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” despite that fact that she only knew about five percent of the lyrics.

Even though I probably listened to this album hundreds of times as a kid, with the exception of the three “hits,” I haven’t heard it since my stepfather passed away in 1982. Thus hearing it again after more than twenty years is like being shoved into some kind of sense memory time machine.

Overall, Glass Houses features less of Billy Joel as the Piano Man and more of him as the Keyboard Man, which probably irritated the purists of the time who derided keyboards as not being “real” music. And there is some truth to my late stepdad’s complaints about Joel’s derivative styles on the album.

“You May Be Right,” Larry claimed, sounded like Billy Joel doing his best Mick Jagger impersonation, particularly the Jagger of “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue” (though Glass Houses‘ release preceded the latter by a few months). This was the first time I’d ever heard someone accuse a musician of trying to sound like someone else, and it definitely influenced my opinions on future decades’ worth of wanna-be musicians.

I didn’t really get the song lyrics, even though they were included with the album; I can’t recall if it was Larry who explained what Bedford-Stuy was to me, but I’ve certainly never forgotten it. Despite the fact that I was nearly addicted to MTV in 1981 and 1982, I don’t think I ever saw the video for the song until now. It’s a bare bones studio lip sync set up, though Joel’s outfit—aviator shades, black shirt, retro tie, green blazer, and white sneakers—is awesomely cool and I would love to see more dudes dress like this now. He seems particularly goofy in the video, doing interpretive dance moves that may have inspired Electric Six’s Dick Valentine.

Hearing “Sometimes a Fantasy” now blows my mind. One, because this was one of my favorite songs on the album and two, because subject-wise, it’s a total clone of Cheap Trick’s “She’s Tight,” even though that song didn’t come out until two years later! I couldn’t understand how Billy could sing the fade out refrain at the end because I had no idea about multitracked vocals at age nine, and I definitely had no idea that Billy Joel was singing about phone sex.

Yet again, the video for this completely escaped my radar. It took me a minute to realize that the rough-looking biker dude with the cigarette is in fact, Joel himself, in some sort of proto-Tyler Durden role. This is basically what I picture all New York apartments to look like, complete with the flashing HOTEL sign in the window.

Watching Billy Joel’s mugging in all the videos might seem odd to those who don’t know what a truly hilarious guy he is. One of my favorite things to watch on MTV was this special called Night School, during which Billy performed songs and answered questions from students. As a huge fan of stand up comedy, I adored this special; I actually have some of my favorite quotes from it written in diary entries of the time period. (Although I don’t think it’s available on DVD, it is on YouTube.)

Although “Don’t Ask Me Why” was not an official single from Glass Houses, it was and is still enormously popular. I don’t remember who Larry suggested this song sounded like, but I’m guessing it was probably Harry Nilsson. I didn’t quite grasp these lyrics, either, although they do imply more than they actually explain (like why does the female in question own a hotel?).

The most played song in our house was definitely “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” with its multiple references to fashion trends of the past, a possible precursor to Joel’s love letter to 1950s music, 1983’s An Innocent Man album. Summer would act out the entire song, including the “All right big guy!” intro to the sax solo through the very ending “Oooh whoo!” This song also had an unseen-by-me video, which was nearly identical to the one for “You May Be Right,” only Billy takes off the shades and swaps the green jacket for a red one. He also takes several swigs from a beer bottle which I find hilariously anachronistic.

glass houses back

The next track, “All For Leyna,” actually reached #40 in the UK Singles Chart. It was another one of those songs, which, at least lyrically, was a bit beyond my years; thus, I never really liked it all that much at the time. Hearing it now, it actually sounds more Billy Joel-like than the others, particularly the vocals and piano. The rhythm section also sounds amazingly similar to what Sparks was doing several years earlier (“Hasta Manana, Monsieur” from 1974’s Kimono My House comes to mind). The line, “She didn’t tell me there were rocks under the waves right off the shore,” now makes me think of Joel’s 1977 song “Always A Woman” with its reference to someone who “carelessly cuts you and laughs while you’re bleeding,” a lyric which has always disturbed me.

I cannot remember if Larry said anything specifically about “I Don’t Want To Be Alone,” but certainly he must have commented on how much it sounds like Elvis Costello’s 1977- 79 period, or perhaps even Joe Jackson from the same time frame. It’s almost eerie, in fact. There is more of that Sparksian rhythm section, too.

“Sleeping With The Television On” begins with a the ending of the US National Anthem and the off-air signal, which Popshifter writer Laura L. has pointed out, must be considered a relic in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Subject-wise it has much in common with Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate,” which was written about Chris Stein’s habit of falling asleep with the TV on. The bridge in this song is particularly good, making this song one of the better tracks on Glass Houses.

In “C’√Čtait Toi (You Were The One),” Billy’s voice sounds much more like the Billy Joel we’re used to hearing. (And in another odd similarity to Blondie, there’s a section in French, like their song “Denis.”) While “Close to the Borderline” has more of the reverb vocal mix that is found on the rest of the album, it is far more reminiscent of 1978’s “Big Shot,” the lyrics of which made a huge impression on me as a kid. As did the use of the word “bitch” as a verb in this song.

Finally, there is “Through The Long Night,” which doesn’t even sound like part of this album in many ways, recalling the older “Piano Man” style that made Billy Joel famous in the first place.

5 Responses to “Billy Joel, Glass Houses

  1. JL:
    November 30th, 2010 at 11:12 am

    YES! YES! YES!
    Loved this review to pieces, LLM.
    Billy Joel is his own worst enemy, but dangit, the man deserves a fitting review like this. Great job.

  2. Popshifter:
    November 30th, 2010 at 12:31 pm


    I’m really glad I dug this out again. I forgot how much I liked this album. I also look forward to watching that special on YouTube and seeing how many of his comedy bits I remember.


  3. Mama Peanut:
    December 1st, 2010 at 1:51 am

    I can’t believe you can remember all this dialogue between you and Larry. Of course I wasn’t one to pay attention to lyrics back then. Only cared about the dance beat. I will have to go listen to this album now. I love the “piano man”. Saw him on TV once playing classical music and hearing his background and was very impressed.

  4. Popshifter:
    December 1st, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    And here I was thinking I wasn’t remembering ENOUGH detail, haha! I do remember sitting down and trying to figure out lyrics a lot back in those days, particularly with this album, SPACE ODDITY, and SGT. PEPPER. You should watch that YouTube link of his “Night School” performance/comedy act that I linked in the article. It’s SO funny. Well, I remember it being funny; hopefully it still holds up.


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