30 Years Ago: Billy Joel Emerges From a Transitional Period With ‘The Bridge’
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Joel’s problem, so to speak, was a nice one to have: in March of 1985, he’d married his girlfriend, supermodel Christie Brinkley; their daughter, Alexa Ray, was born that December. At that point, the Innocent Man album — recorded, in part, as a Valentine to Brinkley during their courtship — was over two years old, and although he’d extended his hiatus with the release of a stopgap greatest hits collection, it was time to get back to work. With domestic bliss beckoning, he really didn’t want to.
“It knocked me sideways,” Joel admitted years later. “I had a difficult time writing, a difficult time touring. I didn’t have a father when I was growing up, and I wanted to be a father. This was my opportunity.”
Complicating matters further was the fraying bond between Joel and his bandmates. More than many solo performers, he’d long operated as a musician among confederates; while they weren’t necessarily his equals in the group, they’d been a crucial component of his early success, helping him translate his live act’s energy into a studio setting. From 1976’s Turnstiles onward, he’d worked with the same core crew — including producer Phil Ramone, who’d helmed the vast majority of Joel’s biggest hits. But as he entered the studio in 1985, he could feel things changing.
“It got to a point, it became such a big business, what we were doing,” Joel said. “We did arena tour after arena tour, and rather than be friends like we used to be, we became business associates. People would kvetch about money, and their deal, and we weren’t close. Everybody was looking in everybody else’s pocket,” Joel told Newsday. “It came to a head. We weren’t having fun; it just wasn’t fun.”
Personally and professionally, Joel understood he was undergoing a metamorphosis. “I knew that this album was going to be a transitional album,” he observed. “That’s the purpose it served. It bridged that gap.”
The end result of all this conflict — which Joel, naturally, titled The Bridge — arrived in stores on July 29, 1986, and although in some respects it retained the form and function of a classic Billy Joel record, it wasn’t hard to hear the strain behind the scenes. For the first time in awhile, Joel sounded like he was reaching, and not always in a good way. Joel records like Turnstiles and The Stranger were willfully eclectic, but they sounded like the work of a guy whose restlessness pushed him to explore; in contrast, The Bridge sounded like a bit of a hodgepodge.
Listen to Billy Joel Perform ‘This Is the Time’
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On one hand, the record’s disjointed feel was a product of its time — not just in the studio, where Joel was working with Ramone and many of his longtime bandmates for what would end up being their final album together, but in pop music in general. Although in interviews, he’d often lament the technological creep overtaking production in mainstream music during the ’80s, The Bridge ended up being a virtual time capsule of its era, larded with instruments and production techniques that lived up to a line he belted in the record’s leadoff single, “Modern Woman”: “After 1986 / What else could be new?”
On the other hand, Joel himself didn’t do The Bridge any favors by dragging himself kicking and screaming back to work. One of the album’s better tracks, “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” is inspired by the way he’d have to psych himself up while walking to his writing studio; another, “Temptation,” is about not wanting to leave Alexa Ray. Never a prolific writer, he had to work harder than ever to assemble the track listing for this album, and although it definitely inspired some worthy material, it also added up to a collection of songs that, as he put it, “are not necessarily related to one another … they were written in the same time period.”
Of course, even middling Billy Joel was a major event in 1986, and The Bridge was far from a flop. Although it didn’t come close to replicating An Innocent Man‘s impact, it still broke the Top 10 and went double platinum, sending a string of singles into heavy rotation. And as much as its title reflected Joel’s season of change, it also pointed to the number of musical connections he made during its recording — he cut a duet with his idol Ray Charles (“Baby Grand”), lured Steve Winwood in for some studio jamming and a cameo (“Getting Closer”), and even got a last-minute songwriting and vocal assist from Cyndi Lauper (“Code of Silence”).
In the wake of The Bridge‘s success, Joel would embark on a major world tour — one that ultimately took him to the Soviet Union for a series of dates later commemorated with a TV special and live album — while facing the aftermath of the upheaval surrounding the sessions. On the other side loomed a period of even more profound and often painful change.
“I’m looking at the album, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s where I am. That’s where I am now,'” Joel mused in the weeks after wrapping the record. “Which makes me start thinking about the next thing.”
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