One Track Mind: Billy Joel, "Prelude/Angry Young Man" (1976)

by S. Victor Aaron

So yesterday I read that Billy Joel has written an autobiography that he plans to publish June 14, called The Book Of Joel, and the book’s editor promised that “there is a lot in this book that he has never revealed before.” (Ex-Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar’s memoirs, incidentally, arrive on March 15, so there’s two tales of excessive sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll comin’ to a Barnes and Noble near you.) The news got me thinking more about the guy’s music more than his life, and he’s arguably had a nice run from 1973’s Piano Man until his last proper album River Of Dreams in 1993.

I don’t consider myself a Joel fan, but he had his moments…actually, he had a lot of moments in the latter half of the 70s. I still remember hearing on an album-rock station in 1976 this incredible piano playing with some quicksilver witty lyrics attached to it after a dizzying intro. It was by this guy who had some fairly well-known hit three years earlier but I didn’t know much else about him. Of course, that was Joel: talented, confident and getting ready to bust out into superstardom.

That song, “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” wasn’t the song that propelled him into the stratosphere, but it did a pretty good job of showing just what Mr. Joel was capable of, in terms of being both a performer and composer. I was never one to mind when he would drop his mondo chops down on me, because there’s been so few rock stars who can flat-out play their asses off on a piano, and that’s perhaps even more true today. We know that Elton John can plow on the piano but really, who else immediately comes to mind?

But back to that song. The initial two-minute instrumental hurls a kaleidoscope of ideas at listeners, abruptly shifting and punching like a tightly compacted Yes song. Then Joel fires off verses that blurt out almost faster than you can comprehend them. But they arrive so logically, the cynical, sarcastic wit comes across just as he no doubt intended:

And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.

Joel, of course, could have been singing about himself; he’s had his share of angry moments, too. Out of that anger some pretty good music has come forth, so I’m not complaining. “Angry Young Man” must have been a helluva concert staple for him too (see video above); there is a rippin’ live version of this song tagged on the double CD The Stranger, 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition.

So when BJ’s autobiography gets here, and if there’s bile in it directed at people he feels crossed him in his life, will I think of this song and smirk at the irony? No. I might think of this song, but that would be because it is a good song.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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