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.

Providing a state-of-the-nation treatise amid the Ronald Reagan presidency, the track regarded on the decline of the economic northwest via the japanese Pennsylvania city that bears its identify. Extra primarily, “Allentown” – a metropolis on Joel’s touring circuit early in his profession – was additionally emblematic of the erosion of the Child Boomer version of the American Dream.

As Joel sings within the bridge: “Each youngster had a reasonably good shot / to get not less than so far as their outdated man received. / However one thing occurred on the best way to that place / They threw an American flag in our face.”

Although it takes authorities and company America (implied) and unions (immediately) to activity, the track that producer Phil Ramone dubbed “a ballsy anthem” is extra topical than overtly political. Both method, it put Joel in a territory that hadn’t been a part of his repertoire so far.

“I by no means considered myself as having to be a socially acutely aware documentarian,” Joel informed UCR just lately. “My politics are the politics, however the music is one thing else.” On the time, nonetheless, he informed this author: “How will you not write about it? That is what I see. That is what is going on on on this nation. I am not attempting to be Bob Dylan, essentially, however I am a songwriter – and also you write about what you see happening.”

The impetus for “Allentown,” in line with Joel biographer Fred Schruers, got here from a baby at considered one of his concert events in Allentown. “Some child got here as much as me after the present and mentioned, ‘You are by no means coming again right here,'” Joel says in Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. “I requested him why, and he mentioned, ‘As a result of anyone who will get huge by no means comes again right here.’ … He was proper; there was no venue large enough to play in Allentown” after Joel turned profitable. “So I assumed, ‘How do I write for that child who informed me I might by no means be coming again?'”

Joel had a melody from the late ’70s with the working title “Levittown,” after the hamlet on Lengthy Island. “However what was there to write down about Levittown? That the sweet retailer was understocked?” Joel informed Schruers. Allentown popped into his head — “that seems like an actual America,” Joel recalled — and he used the plight of America’s steelworkers as a car for a normal commentary.

Watch Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’ Video

“I wished to look again and discuss how our fathers had fought the battle, and the way they’d met our moms on the USO, but in addition about how the subsequent era, who thought they’d have a job — a bit of upward mobility – noticed these hopes dashed.” Within the liner notes of The Full Albums Assortment in 2014, Joel added, “I began perceiving this a very long time in the past: Hey man, it isn’t going to be as simple because it was for the sooner era.” The track was extra significantly about neighboring Bethlehem Metal, which went right into a extreme decline throughout the ’70s and ’80s, affecting Allentown enormously. The corporate declared chapter in 2001 and closed for good two years later. However Joel felt “Allentown” sang higher than “Bethlehem,” which additionally introduced up spiritual connotations that he did not wish to be projected onto the track.

“I by no means regarded myself as certified to hold forth on politics in a kind of typical boards which are open to celebrities,” Joel informed Schruers. “I felt I used to be presenting an affordable, correct portrayal of the life lived by that child who spoke to me after the live performance.”

Some, after all, felt Joel’s voice was not needed for the dialogue. “There was a sure perspective of ‘Who the hell is he to speak about being unemployed? He is a wealthy rock star,'” Joel recalled in The Full Albums Assortment. “I assumed it was so ironic. I mentioned, ‘Wait a minute, you are saying this as a result of I am a musician, [that] I do not know what it is prefer to be unemployed? Are you fucking kidding me? We invented the phrase. I have been extra unemployed than most individuals I do know.'”

Joel added that he too had labored in an ink manufacturing facility, in addition to a painter, landscaper and short-order prepare dinner earlier than pursuing music full-time.

These naysayers have been in a minority, nonetheless. Launched in November 1982, “Allentown” hit No. 17 on the Billboard Scorching 100, No. 14 on the Money Field High 100 and was licensed gold. Its video stayed in heavy rotation on MTV throughout 1982-83, and the track has been a fixture in Joel’s stay exhibits since its launch.

It additionally took him again to the Allentown space for a Dec. 27, 1982 live performance in Bethlehem, appropriately sufficient. Joel opened and closed the present with “Allentown,” and was awarded the important thing to Allentown by Mayor Joseph Daddona, who referred to as it “a gritty track a few gritty metropolis.”

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