How The Beatles Inspired Billy Joel’s ‘The Nylon Curtain’

Billy Joel was underway when he began making his eighth album.

The singer-songwriter rode three consecutive multi-platinum triumphs – the 1977s The strangerThe 1978s 52nd Street and the 1980s Glass houses – the latter two of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The three sets also yielded eight Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. When the dust settled (sort of), Joel was a worldwide superstar.

So what to do? No more of the same.

“I definitely wanted to do something a little different,” Joel told this writer a few weeks into September. 23, 1982, publication of The nylon curtain. “I was thinking big The Beatles especially albums Sgt. Pepper‘s and all the great sonic stuff they did in the studio. I had such high hopes for this.”

The nylon curtain was indeed like nothing Joel had released before.

A student of music and great productions, whether it was the Beatles or Brian Wilson or Phil Spector, Joel ensured that his nine-song set featured a rich soundscape that complemented his strong melodies with detailed and at times daring nuances. Lyrically, it was equally expansive, with Joel offering a state-of-the-world, and occasionally self-state, treatise on political and social issues such as the economy (“Allentown”), the legacy of Vietnam (“Goodnight”) Saigon”) and societal Zeitgeist (“Pressure“)—all drawn as singles. It looked beyond the cocktail lounge or the Italian restaurant down the street or the girl down the block and out into the world at large.

Watch Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’ Video

“It was right in the middle of the Reagan era and things were changing in America,” Joel told UCR earlier this year. “I was very conscious of that. It was the heyday of the baby boomers, the early ’80s. Things were changing then. I was very proud of that album. The songs still seem to resonate with audiences and younger people as well.” At the time, Joel explained, “I think people my age—the post-World War II babies—are thinking the same things: Whatever happened to the cornucopia, the boundless horizons? Where’s the clean air? Where’s the clean water? Where is it all? Halfway through the album I was like, “What am I doing here? I have a song about Allentown, a song about Vietnam … I guess this is my stab at the great American novel.”

Joel – who divorced his first wife, Elizabeth, while The nylon curtain was about to finish – was also just as ambitious on the musical front. “One day in 1982, Billy said, ‘I want to make a good ‘headphone album’ and use exotic instrumentation and layering like the Beatles did,'” producer Phil Ramone, who had worked with Joel since. The strangerwrote in his memoirs, Making records: Behind the scenes of the music. “The timing of a departure from Billy’s previous work seemed right… I saw Billy’s proposal as an opportunity to make a credible avant-garde statement.”

Joel and Ramone worked at the A&R and Mediasound studios in New York City starting in late 1981 and entered the task with enthusiasm. Joel’s band had changed. With the departure of mainstay Richie Cannata, it would be the first time since 1974 that Joel recorded without a saxophonist in his band. (Eddie Daniels plays the album’s lone sax role on the closing track, “Where’s the Orchestra?”)

They used a variety of sound effects – helicopter sounds for “Goodnight Saigon”, industrial clangor for “Allentown” and airport atmosphere in “Scandinavian Skies”. “Our palette was huge,” Ramone wrote. “We broke our own form with it The nylon curtain. It was our kind of musical expressionism and the closest we got to a concept album.”

There were also some happy accidents. The sharp bark of the title during “Pressure” came after Joel impulsively pressed a button in the studio, erasing every other sound on the track in that brief moment. And on “A Room of Our Own”, stylistically a salute to the late John Lennondrummer Liberty DeVitto accidentally started playing the beat backwards, but it sounded so good that Ramone signaled from the control room to keep playing that way.

Listen to Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’

“I guess I wanted to write a real sonic masterpiece,” Joel told him in an interview The complete album collection in 2014.”The nylon curtain took a long, long time to record. Instead of starting with just the base song and adding to it, we kind of started with the song from the outside and worked our way in. We didn’t really know what we had until we were close to the final mix. There was so much recorded – different instruments, sound effects, orchestral stuff, percussion instruments, vocals, synthesizers … I experimented [with] plays the studio as an instrument.

“It was a labor of love, but it was exhausting. I think by the end of making this album I felt like I almost died.” Funny that he should say that…

On April 15 of that year, Joel was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle, sending him flying and severely injuring his right wrist and left hand. He was forced to wear a cast for several weeks, which delayed the album, but it gave him one final song, “Surprises”, which was inspired by the flash-of-life-before-his-eyes experience of the accident. He recorded “Where’s the Orchestra?” while wearing the cast, and during the subsequent tour—which was originally booked on a tentative, show-by-show basis, based on Joel’s recovery—he played with his left thumb taped and his right wrist wrapped in an ACE bandage.

Fans did not receive The nylon curtain as enthusiastic as its predecessors—it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and only went double platinum compared to the previous multiplatinum records—and Ramone recalled that Columbia Records executives were lukewarm when they first heard a play, and failed to hear a sure hit single among the tracks. But it was a critical triumph and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1983. The three singles have been staples of Joel’s live performances ever since. “I consider this perhaps my best effort on record,” said Joel The complete album collection. “This is, I think, essentially, the material I’m most proud of, and the material I’m most proud of so far [River of Dreams] in 1993.”

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