When Billy Joel spoke up for the working class with ‘Allentown’

Billy Joel threw a curveball with “Allentown,” the second single from The nylon curtain.

Offering a state-of-the-nation thesis amid the Ronald Reagan presidency, the song looked at the decline of the industrial Northwest through the eastern Pennsylvania town that bears its name. More essentially, “Allentown”—a town on Joel’s touring circuit early in his career—was also symbolic of the erosion of the Baby Boomer version of the American Dream.

As Joel sings in the bridge: “Each kid had a pretty good shot / to get at least as far as their old man got. / But something happened on the way to that place / They threw an American flag in our face.”

Although it takes government and corporate America (implied) and labor unions (directly) to task, the song that produces Phil Ramone dubbed “a ballsy anthem” is more topical than overtly political. Either way, it put Joel in territory that hadn’t been part of his repertoire to date.

“I never thought about being a socially conscious documentarian,” Joel recently told UCR. “My politics is the politics, but the music is something else.” At the time, however, he told this writer, “How can you does not write about it? That’s what I see. This is what is going on in this country. I’m not trying to be Bob Dylannecessarily, but I’m a songwriter – and you write about what you see going on.”

The impetus for “Allentown,” according to Joel biographer Fred Schruers, came from a child at one of his concerts in Allentown. “Some kid came up to me after the show and said, ‘You’re never coming back here,'” says Joel i Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. “I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because anybody who gets big never comes back here.’ … He was right; there was no place big enough to play in Allentown” after Joel’s success . “So I thought, ‘How do I write to the boy who told me I’d never come back?'”

Joel had a tune from the late ’70s with the working title “Levittown,” after the village on Long Island. “But what was there to write about Levittown? That the candy store wasn’t full?” Joel told the Schruers. Allentown popped into his head — “it sounds like real America,” Joel recalled — and he used the plight of America’s steelworkers as a vehicle for general commentary.

Watch Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’ Video

“I wanted to look back and talk about how our fathers had fought the war and how they had met our mothers at the USO, but also about how the next generation that thought they wanted a job — a little upward mobility — they saw hopes dashed.” In liner notes of The complete album collection in 2014, Joel added, “I started realizing this a long time ago: Hey man, it’s not going to be as easy as it was for the previous generation.” The song was more specifically about neighboring Bethlehem Steel, which went into serious decline during the 70s and 80s, affecting Allentown tremendously. The company declared bankruptcy in 2001 and closed just over two years later. However, Joel felt that “Allentown” sang better than “Bethlehem”, which also brought out religious connotations that he did not want projected onto the song.

“I never considered myself qualified to talk about politics in one of the typical forums open to celebrities,” Joel told Schruers. “I felt that I presented a reasonable, accurate portrayal of the life that the kid who spoke to me after the concert lived.”

Of course, some felt that Joel’s voice was not necessary for the discussion. “There was a certain attitude of, ‘Who the hell is he to talk about being unemployed? He’s a rich rock star,'” Joel recalled in The complete album collection. “I thought it was so ironic. I said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re saying this because I’m a musician, [that] I don’t know what it’s like to be unemployed? Are you fucking with me? We invented the word. I’ve been unemployed more than most people I know.'”

Joel added that he had also worked in an ink factory, as well as a painter, landscaper and chef before pursuing music full-time.

However, these naysayers were in the minority. Released in November 1982, “Allentown” hit #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 14 on the Cash Box Top 100 and was certified gold. Its video remained in heavy rotation on MTV in 1982-83, and the song has been a fixture in Joel’s live shows since its release.

It also took him back to the Allentown area for a December. 27, 1982 concert in Bethlehem, appropriately enough. Joel opened and closed the show with “Allentown,” and was awarded the Key to Allentown by Mayor Joseph Daddona, who called it “a cruel song about a cruel city.”

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