When Billy Joel Decided to Get Serious on ‘The Nylon Curtain’
It tends to get lost in discussions of Billy Joel's most popular works, but The Nylon Curtain is his underrated masterpiece.
By 1982, Billy Joel had established a solid reputation as a hit-maker. His previous four albums, The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses and Songs in the Attic, had all reached the Top 10. But he was looking to make a more mature artistic statement with his music, one that looked at the Baby Boomers as they settled into adulthood in the Reagan years.
Released on Sept. 23, 1982, The Nylon Curtain begins with "Allentown," about a struggling industrial Pennsylvania city used as a microcosm for the decline of post-World War II optimism. "Pressure" is about how the Boomers' refusal to grow up would soon come back to haunt them as they approached middle age and had to face tough situations.
The specter of the Vietnam War was raised in The Nylon Curtain's centerpiece, "Goodnight Saigon." The song took the listener from basic training through the DMZ and the horrors of war, with the moving chorus singing the promise that they "would all go down together." Despite the adult themes, all three songs, which comprise most of the first side, were hit singles.
But it's the deeper tracks that make The Nylon Curtain stand out among Joel's albums. Casual fans who mainly knew Joel as a balladeer were shocked by the f-bomb in the powerful "Laura," which takes the erotic torment from Glass Houses' "All for Leyna" one step further. "She's Right on Time" and "Surprises" feature Joel's trademark innovative chord progressions and lovely melodies.
Musically, the album shows Joel paying tribute to late-period Beatles. His vocal phrasing on "Laura" alternates between John Lennon in the verse and Paul McCartney in the chorus and bridge, as if he was recording his own version of "I've Got a Feeling." Meanwhile, the bluesy piano on "A Room of Our Own" gives a nod to Abbey Road and the cello in "Scandinavian Skies" echoes "I Am the Walrus."
Joel's band, anchored by the criminally underrated drummer Liberty DeVitto, navigated the stylistic diversion with aplomb. Legendary producer Phil Ramone, who had worked with Joel on every album since The Stranger, puts everything in their proper place and gives it his trademark radio-friendly sheen. It received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, but lost to Toto 'IV.'
Despite their heavy use of synthesizers and the complexity of the arrangements, the songs translated well onstage. Joel's Dec. 30, 1982, show from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. was recorded for broadcast on HBO and released on video as Live From Long Island.
When he appeared on Alec Baldwin's Here's the Thing podcast in 2012, Joel said The Nylon Curtain was his favorite of his albums. We couldn't agree more.