40 years ago: Billy Joel escapes writer’s block with ‘Pressure’

Billy Joel was about halfway through his eighth studio album, The nylon curtain, and sense the creative strain. He turned that feeling into the album’s lead single.

“The pressure I wrote about in this song wasn’t necessarily music industry pressure. It was writing pressure,” Joel told MTV’s. Night school in 1982. “I said, ‘I have no ideas. It’s gone! It’s dead! I’ve got nothing, nothing, nothing! There’s nothing!’

“And then the woman who’s my secretary came into the house at that point and said, ‘Wow, you look like you’re under a lot of pressure. I bet that would make a good idea for a song.’ ,” Joel added. “And I said, ‘Thank you!'”

The creative pipes opened, Joel went on to pen the aptly titled “Pressure,” an existential treatise that both acknowledges and mocks the modern angst of the early 80s. The word “snowflake” is never used, but the song is a sort of slap on the head to anyone—including himself—paralyzed by the stresses of the modern world: “You have to learn to pace yourself. … You are just like everyone else.”

Along the way, he mocks those who “can’t handle pressure,” mockingly invoking totems of innocence like Peter Pan and Sesame Street as part of his message to move on and get on with it. “I’m basically saying you can’t be soft,” he told this writer when The nylon curtain was released. “The pressure is out there whether you like it or not. It’s going to be there, so either you deal with it or you crumble.”

Released ahead of the album’s arrival on Sept. 23, 1982, “Pressure” got The nylon curtain the campaign got off to a fast start as his seventh Top 20 single on the Billboard 200. The single version shaved nearly a minute and a half from the album counterpart and edited the third verse and second bridge.

Watch Billy Joel’s ‘Pressure’ Video

Meanwhile, the recording of “Pressure” became a creative adventure. It was part of the sessions that producer Phil Ramone described in his book Making records as “an opportunity to make a credible avant-garde statement. Our palette was huge.”

The song itself was powered by a synthesizer instead of Joel’s trademark piano, and the instrumentation also included a group of New York balalaika players. They “used to perform at Russian Orthodox weddings,” Ramone added. “They had no idea who Billy Joel was.”

Also worth noting is a section at the 3.46 mark that sounds like an instrumental version of a taxi horn, but is actually Joel “singing every note in my repertoire” and then putting his vocals through an emulator. A happy accident ensued about 12 seconds later, when Joel barks out the song’s title “with the same inflection a Royal Air Force captain might use to reveal a command like Ten-Hunt!” he interjected Making records.

“While the master tape was running, I impulsively hit all the buttons on the tape machine to knock out everything except the yelling section,” added Joel. “Phil was dumbfounded. ‘God! What did you do? You deleted part of the song!’ Phil was right: For that one segment, everything stops dead except my voice, but it was just what the track needed.” Ramone agreed that “the unintentional mistake added an inexplicable dimension to an already stylized song.”

“Pressure” can now be found on most of Joel’s compilation albums, and several of his live sets. It was followed the same month by the second Nylon curtain single, “Allentown.” A third, “Goodnight Saigon,” was released the following February.

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