Wednesday, January 20, 2016
TMFW 124 - Q. Man, What Are You Doing Here? A. It's a Legal Thing.
Today's TMFW is the story of how a recording screw-up helped launch Billy Joel's career.
Before we get into that, let's pause for a moment to appreciate Mr. Joel's body of work. Starting with The Stranger in 1977, which reached #2 on the album chart and is a 10x platinum record, every one of his eight studio records until 1993 was a top-10 hit and every one was certified multi-platinum. Four of the albums reached #1, and he's had 33 top-40 singles and 7 top-5s (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Respect to Billy Joel.
Joel played in rock-and-roll bands from a young age; he joined his first group The Echoes when he was just 16. He left the Echoes (then called the Lost Souls) at 18 to join The Hassles. After two failed records with The Hassles, at 20 he formed the hard rock/psychedelic duo Attila. The duo featured just drums and a distorted Hammond organ, and their music wasn't the best. They put out a record and that was a failure too (but check out the album cover with them dressed like Huns and hanging out in a meat locker - holy cow.)
Against that backdrop, you'd think Billy Joel was a grizzled industry veteran by the time he went solo. But he was also only 22 years old and was undiscovered as a singer-songwriter. Joel signed his first solo contract with Family Productions, a label owned by the producer Artie Ripp. Ripp took every advantage for himself in that contract, which required Joel to make 10 albums and gave Ripp's label ownership of masters and publishing rights.
In July 1971, Joel recorded his first album for Family Productions. Titled Cold Spring Harbor after a town near where he grew up in New York, the record featured ten original songs written by Joel. Artie Ripp oversaw the mastering of the album, and something went wrong during the process. The result was an entire record that played just a bit too fast and sounded a bit off. The odd pitch is evident right from the first track: an early version of "She's Got a Way," which later reached the top-40 with a (non-Chipmunk) live version in 1982.
Though it was clearly messed up, Family Productions released the album anyway in November 1971. Like Joel's previous efforts, the record failed, but he toured in support of it and opened up for big-at-the-time acts like J. Geils Band and The Beach Boys. That touring - specifically, a live "radio concert" recording of his song "Captain Jack" in April 1972 - got him noticed by Columbia Records.
Joel was understandably angry with Artie Ripp for wrecking his first solo album, and so he was more than happy to jump to Columbia in 1972. The only problem: that 10 album contract (with publishing rights) that he'd signed the year before. Columbia's lawyers needed to figure out how to get him out from under it; in the meantime Joel's career was stalled.
That's where today's TMFW comes in. Needing to bide his time while the legal details got worked out, Joel moved to LA with his wife. She took a job as a waitress at the Executive Room bar, which despite its name looks like it was a bit shabby. Joel worked there too: using the stage name Bill Martin, he played piano at the bar for six months until he was clear to record for Columbia.
You see where this is going by now, of course. While at the Executive Room, Joel's wife the waitress was "practicing politics," and Joel was getting to the know the characters that came in and out of the bar. John at the bar really was a friend of his, and Paul really was a real estate agent who was working on the next great American novel (a/k/a a "real-estate novelist.") It is unclear from my research whether Davy, who at that time was reported to still be in the Navy, was real or just a convenient rhyme. Joel's experience of working at that LA piano bar while record lawyers worked out a deal became "Piano Man." When he got back into the studio - to get out from his old contract Columbia had to cut Artie Ripp in on royalties for the next decade-plus! - "Piano Man" became his first single and gave its name to the album, too. Though at the time it reached only #25 on the Hot 100, it is now rightfully regarded as has signature song.
One wonders whether Billy Joel would have become Billy Joel if his first producer didn't screw up so badly and he had stayed a Family Productions artist. Perhaps he would just be "that guy from Attila."
BONUS FACT: For as good of a musician as he is, Billy Joel has had almost equally bad luck as a businessperson. This Spy magazine piece from 1991 details his troubles: after Artie Ripp screwed him out of 10+ years of royalties, he made an extremely friendly divorce settlement with his first wife (who was also his business manager), and then to replace her he hired her brother (yes, his newly-ex-brother-in-law) as his new manager. At the time of the article, Joel has just filed a $90 million fraud suit against him, and the brother-in-law had just filed bankruptcy. Oof.
BONUS FACT 2: Between 2012 and 2014, the actor Adam Scott made four installments of a series called "The Greatest Event in Television History." Each episode culminated in a lovingly-detailed, shot-for-shot remake of an '80s television intro. (Here are Simon and Simon (with a side-by-side comparison to the original), Too Close for Comfort (with comparison), and Hart to Hart (with comparison).) It's a stupid and pointless idea that is wonderful and great. I love everything about it.
The last in the series was Bosom Buddies (with comparison). The original intro for the show featured Billy Joel's song "My Life," but to save a bit of money the theme was done with a "sound-alike." For the Greatest Evemt in Television History version, Billy Joel made a good-sported cameo (his bit starts at 4:31) and provided the soundtrack himself.
BONUS FACT 3: In a 2014 interview, Joel explained that he does not sell the front row at his concerts, and instead sends his road crew out before each show to "upgrade" fans who are sitting in the cheap seats. He explained: "For years, the scalpers got the tickets and would scalp the front row for ridiculous amounts of money...I'd look down and see rich people sitting there...puffing on a cigar, 'entertain me, piano man.' They don't stand up, make noise, sit there with their bouffant haired girlfriend lookin' like a big shot. I kinda got sick of that, who the hell are these people, where are the real fans? It turns out the real fans were always in the back of the room in the worst seats. We now hold those tickets, and I send my road crew out to the back of the room when the audience comes in and they get people from the worst seats and bring 'em in to the front rows."
BONUS FACT 4: Billy Joel struggled with depression as a young man, and after the failure of Attila he tried at age 21 to commit suicide by drinking furniture polish (he had his choice between that and bleach, and said that he thought the polish would "probably taste better than the bleach."). His experience with depression helped inspire the songs "Tomorrow is Today" (from Cold Springs Harbor; here is the original with the goofy mastering) and "You're Only Human (Second Wind)." In the case of the latter song, Joel pledged all of the song's royalties to a suicide prevention charity.
BONUS FACT 4.5: Starting at around 2:03 of the video for "You're Only Human (Second Wind)," a young man is pulled from the ocean and saved from drowning. It is a young, pre-Mythbusters Adam Savage.
BONUS FACT 5: Anticipating today's entry, last night I asked my wife if she knew any good True Music Facts about Billy Joel. Off the top of her head, she said "Christie Brinkley painted the album cover for River of Dreams." And it turns out she did! That's pretty cool (both the painting itself and that my wife has been carrying around a nugget of Billy Joel trivia since 1993.)