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52nd Street
Billy Joel

Columbia 35609
Released: October 1978
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 76
Certified 5x Platinum: 10/19/84

Billy JoelOn 52nd Street and The Stranger, Billy Joel is the quintessential postrock entertainer: a vaudvillian piano man and mimic who, having come of age in the late Sixties, has the grasp of rock and the technical know-how to be able to caricature both Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as "do" an updated Anthony Newley, all in the same Las Vegas format. Joel seems to have been born knowing what many Seventies pop stars have had to find out the hard way: that rock & roll was always part of show business. Being a pianist (and a bravura one), he's also been more aware than many of his guitar-based peers that rock has always been a species of popular music and not a totally separate art form.

52nd Street, produced by Phil Ramone, is more rock-oriented than The Stranger and quite different in spirit. Whereas The Stranger -- particularly its centerpiece, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" -- captured the texture of urban neighborhood life in an Edward Hopper-like light, 52nd Street evokes the carnivalesque neon glare of nighttime Manhattan, using painterly strokes of jazz here and there to terrific effect.

Billy Joel - 52nd Street
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
The characters in Joel's new compositions -- a Puerto Rican street punk ("Half a Mile Away"), a social climber ("Big Shot"), a sexual bitch ("Stiletto"), a barfly sports fan ("Zanzibar") and a Cuban guitarist ("Rosalinda's Eyes") -- comprise a sidewalk portrait gallery of midtown hustlers and dreamers. The likenesses, though roughly sketched, are accurate and sometimes even tinged with romance ("Rosalinda's Eyes"). The artist's fault-finding songs are among his least interesting, and "Stiletto," a psychologically trite bit of misogyny, is the LP's one outright failure. Even the numbers that aren't portraits fit nicely into Joel's scheme. "Honesty," a big, brazen, Anthony Newley-type ballad, laments the cynicism and loneliness behind the facade of Gotham glamour, while "52nd Street" is a fragmentary pop-jazz picture post card. "Until the Night" niftily re-creates Phil Spector's New York.

Joel tried once before to imitate Spector (in "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" on the self-produced Turnstiles), but failed to build a mighty enough wall of sound. This time, his caricature of that master pop caricaturist works splendidly. The singer is as keenly aware as Spector of the ridiculousness as well as the sublimity of the big-city teenage sexual jungle, and because his Righteous Brothers imitation is as tongue in cheek as it is reverent, "Until the Night" works as both tribute and joke. Billy Joel and Phil Ramone are the first artist/producer combination to capture the precarious balance between the ludicrous and the monumental in Phil Spector (how can anyone take Spector more than half-seriously these days?), and Joel's lyric -- simultaneously nonsensical, self-parodying and romantic -- is as charming as it is bogus. "Until the Night" is the formal piece de resistance of an album that, though far from great, boasts much of the color and excitement of a really good New York street fair.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 12-14-78.

Bonus Reviews!

Joel follows his platinum breakthrough The Stranger, still in the top 15 after a year on the chart, with an equally well-designed mix of punchy midtempo tunes and pretty ballads. An all-star cast of backup musicians assists this time out, including Freddie Hubbard, Mike Mainieri, David Spinozza, Steve Khan, Donnie Dacus, Peter Cetera, Ralph MacDonald, Eric Gale, Dave Grusin and the Brecker Brothers. Joel, who shines on piano and vocals, has blossomed into a consummate record craftsman for the hipper half of the mass audience. There is no shortage of singles candidates here, which should continue the string of four Top 40 hits Columbia was able to lift off The Stranger. Best cuts: "Big Shot," "My Life," "Honesty," "52nd Street," "Until The Night."

- Billboard, 1978.

There is nothing here really to challenge the quality of the tracks on The Stranger though 52nd Street followed its predecessor up the charts, reaching Gold and Platinum Disc status in under a month after its release. The album does have a solid ring of consistency about it and contains the wry "My Life" which became familiar through the many cover versions. The other hit single "Big Shot" sounds unnervingly like an up-tempo verson of Elton John's "Blues for Baby and Me."

The CD version of 52nd Street has a rubbery, pounding bass line particularly behind laid-back tracks like "Rosalinda's Eyes" which could well be the result of "sweetening" equalisation for CD mastering. The Brecker Brothers' brassy contribution now glitters.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Joel consolidated his position with this somewhat harder rocking follow-up to The Stranger, which contained the hits "My Life," "Big Shot," and "Honesty." * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The intensive road-work dictated by The Stranger produced a leaner, rock-oriented follow-up, typified by "Big Shot." Like an American Elton John, Joel assimilated whatever styles (jazz, Latin rhythms) suited his purpose. "I don't want to limit my diet," he said, "sampling only one vegetable in the garden."

52nd Street was chosen as the 352nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

For 52nd Street Billy Joel stuck wisely to the mid-tempo songs and ballads that had broken him through with his previous album The Stranger. The album, which was produced like its predecessor by Phil Ramone, explored a jazzier feel to Joel, with a guest spot for trumpet-great Freddie Hubbard, but the high calibre of the sure-fire hits present on the album ensured that the singer-pianist was not about to deviate from a winning formula that had turned him into one of the US' biggest music stars.

The thumping but characteristically melodic lead-off single "My Life" gave Joel his biggest US hit since "Just The Way You Are," selling a million and reaching Number Three in January 1979, and this was followed into the Top 40 by "Big Shot" and "Honesty." On the song "Until The Night" Joel pays homage to Phil Spector and, in particular, the Righteous Brothers.

After Joel's frustration at the all-conquering Saturday Night Fever preventing The Stranger reaching Number One, this follow-up took just three weeks after its October 1978 release to give him a first US chart-topper. Residing there for eight weeks and spending 76 weeks in the charts, it was declared Album of the Year at the February 1980 Grammy Awards and went on to become the first-ever album issued on CD.

As of 2004, 52nd Street was the #20 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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