Why Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man disproves John Philip Sousa’s musical fears

Why Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man disproves John Philip Sousa’s musical fears

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“We may observe the English sparrow, which, introduced and welcomed in all innocence, lost no time in multiplying itself to the dignity of a pest,” wrote the composer, conductor, and stalwart nostalgist John Philip Sousa in 1906. The title of his infamous essay, “The Menace Of Mechanical Music,” singles out the target of his sparrow analogy: recorded music. Innocently, Sousa claimed, man was destroying his own creative capacity by locking songs into reproducible forms—a practice he said would lead to “an interruption in the musical development of the country.”

Too bad Sousa never met Billy Joel.

An Innocent Man, Joel’s 1983 full-length, simultaneously proves and refutes Sousa’s prognostication. The album is obsessed with recorded music—particularly ’60s R&B—but in addition to paying loving homage to those scratchy old LPs, it attempts to update soulful sounds for a plastic, neon decade.

It also has horns. Lots of horns. Sousa liked horns. One thing Sousa liked even more, though, was the past. A sentimentalist of the highest order, he made it his mission in life to not only preserve a grand, romantic musical tradition—the military march—but to throw out a lifeline of musical familiarity to people floundering in the cultural tumult of his era.

In a sense, so did Joel.

If there’s a year that the boomer generation can be said to have hit middle age, it’s 1983. That summer, Neil Young—the archetypal hippie—traded his tattered flannel for a pink suit, slicked back his hair into a pompadour, and released an album of rockabilly tunes titled Everybody’s Rockin’. A month later, The Big Chill hit theaters. The film, more than any other retroactive piece of ’80s pop culture, became emblematic of the baby boomers’ first midlife crisis: a misty-eyed glorification of its own adolescence.

Granted, it was one hell of an adolescence. The music of the ’60s is excellent. Joel knew this. He was there. He began playing in his first band, The Echoes—a British Invasion covers act—in his native New York when he was 14. The year was 1964. Three years later he was in a group called The Hassles, which played a handful of Joel originals alongside R&B songs like Sam And Dave’s “You Got Me Hummin’” and Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Giving Up.”

By the time Joel recorded An Innocent Man, he’d already started to come full circle. His 1980 album, Glass Houses, had been a huge leap forward. Not only was the piano man behind “Piano Man” abdicating most of his keys in favor of rockier instrumentation, he was extolling the virtues of upstart styles like punk and new wave. Glass Houses’ boldest statement, “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me,” featured an invigorated Joel, liberated from his ivories, stomping out a sharp beat and proclaiming that punk wasn’t new or radical—it was just good, old-fashioned rock music.

The massive success of Glass Houses empowered Joel to backpedal. Like a 10-song session of regression therapy, An Innocent Man attempts to recapture the innocence of a bygone time. In a neat twist of the zeitgeist, it came out in August of ’83, sandwiched between Everybody’s Rockin’ and The Big Chill. It resonates more closely with the latter—An Innocent Man—the Big Chill soundtrack reads like the track list of the mixtape stuck on repeat in the dashboard stereos of Joel’s cars throughout the early ’80s. The cars he didn’t crash, that is. The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops: These artists formed the core of the movie’s way-back machine. And Joel’s.

“Easy Money”—which, aptly enough, tops a soundtrack of its own, that of the eponymous Rodney Dangerfield comedy—kicks off An Innocent Man with a bang. Like Wilson Pickett filtered through The Blues Brothers filtered through a smelly lunchbox, the song is smeared with greasy brass and cheesy female backups. Joel isn’t even recognizable until the song’s middle break; until that slow, melodic passage, he grunts and squeals as if he were back in 1965, playing Stax covers in a school gym full of kids on the cusp of hippiedom.

Joel fast-forwards the tape jarringly with the album’s title track, a slight variation on The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk” that sounds slick and sterile in spite of its source material. The chorus is classic Joel, sumptuous and baroque, with strings and piano gently leading the way. It’s more Neil Diamond than Ben E. King—but the lyrics belie the kind of emotional knottiness Joel had already spent a career crafting. “I’m not above making up for the love / You’ve been denying you could ever feel / I’m not above doing anything / to restore your faith if I can,” he sings. Here, the dual meaning of “An Innocent Man” comes into focus: He’s harkening back to an earlier, simpler age, but he’s also a man on trial trying to prove—perhaps only to himself—that the death of a romantic relationship wasn’t first-degree homicide.

Joel had, in fact, just divorced his wife. He was also in the midst of rediscovering his youth—to the extent that phrase means “bedding Christie Brinkley.” Not that his courtship was very suave; An Innocent Man’s least successful track, “Christie Lee,” is Joel’s valentine to the supermodel. A tuneless slab of potboiler R&B, it features Joel grunting through lines like “She was a nice piece of music / She had a rhythm all her own”—and then, “All she wanted was the sax.” He comes on with all the sensual finesse of Anthony Michael Hall’s dorky lothario in Sixteen Candles. Gossip columns at the time marveled at how an average-looking-at-best dude like Joel could have snagged a babe like Brinkley. (They married in 1985.) It wasn’t just in spite of his looks; it was in spite of this song.

The hits of An Innocent Man, however, far outweigh the bombs. “Tell Her About It” is a fizzy cocktail of upbeat pep and Motown sass. On a similar but slinkier tip, “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” taps into late-’60s Stevie Wonder, giving Joel a chance to jump back on the piano and flaunt some vocal chops—not anywhere near Wonder’s level, but his fluttering, roughhewn falsetto underpins the song’s heartthrob vulnerability.

The album’s two tributes to vintage vocal groups, “Uptown Girl” and “The Longest Time,” have wound up becoming paradoxically timeless. The first bows before the altar of Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, and that gosh-wow, pre-Beatles sweetness is tempered by Joel’s Romeo-and-Juliet tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks aching for his uptown girl. In the song’s video, Brinkley stars as the object of Joel’s grease-monkey desire; the mythology of it all pushes against, yet succumbs to, the socioeconomic undercurrent of the ’80s; for the heartsick goon of “Uptown Girl,” trickle-down love is enough to live on.

“The Longest Time” is An Innocent Man’s most stunning and indelible track, and in many ways, it embodies the album. Consisting exclusively of Joel’s overdubbed voice and some finger-snapping, the a cappella doo-wop song is almost cloyingly sweet. Or at least it would be, if Joel weren’t able to pull it off with such conviction and vulnerability. It’s a love song—but not, as the lyrics would suggest, aimed at any one woman. Instead, it’s an aching, imploring plea for youth, innocence, and that hormonal rush of losing one’s musical virginity. “That hasn’t happened for the longest time,” he croons, and that longing, unguarded sentiment might as well be directed at Joel’s long, rocky relationship with music as a whole. The Piano Man, at last, is no longer hiding behind his piano. Or anything.

An Innocent Man ends with “Keeping The Faith”—and as with the album’s title, this one works both ways, hinting at fidelity (or the lack thereof) while spinning a litany of period details from Joel’s early-’60s coming-of-age. Over a light, funky instrumental, the singer rambles about his teenage days full of Gene Chandler 45s, sexual awakening, sharkskin jackets, and the pompadour he once wore—probably around the same time a young Neil Young was letting his grow out. But the most telling lines of the song cut through the fog of nostalgia with a hard-won, bittersweet wisdom: “Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies / ’Cause the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” With those words, Joel pops every balloon of nostalgia he’d blown up throughout the previous nine songs, drifting through the scraps with a hangover and lingering ache.

Raised on the radio of his childhood, Joel more or less buries a parent in “Keeping The Faith.” But An Innocent Man isn’t a funeral, it’s a wake. Among the many paranoid prophecies in Sousa’s “The Menace Of Mechanical Music,” the backward-gazing preservationist asks this question of the 20th century: “Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs—without soul or expression?” With An Innocent Man, Billy Joel became a human phonograph with soul.