It had always sat there on my brother’s shelf in between his Blues Brothers Soundtrack and Pat Benatar’s Ballerina LP. I listened to it then and wondered why my brother had also bought the singles. He had three: All for Leyna, You May Be Right, and Sometimes a Fantasy. I tell you, at the age of six or seven, I learned a lot from Billy Joel about masturbation.
My record player was a birthday present: a bright blue Disney suitcase that opened to Mickey in the hood with a huge smile on his face, his arm holding the stylus that you put onto the vinyl. It was built primarily for ‘45’s and story board singles that came along with a story. Star Wars, Raiders, and a dozen others that I listened to endlessly. But if I opened the case just a little wider I could fit a full 33 and a 1/3rd, and one of the first ones I spun was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.
I knew nothing of the time of punk rock or raw rock or where the new wave was going. In fact I still hadn’t seen the image later emblazoned in my mind of two astronauts planting the MTV flag on the moon. But I knew good shit when I heard it, and Glass Houses was full of good shit.
There was, of course, the opener everyone became addicted to even if you didn’t like Billy Joel: You May Be Right. Unbelievably this opened the album but was not cut as the first single. It followed second in March of 1980, just in time for my birthday. It was a huge eye into the young New York life, a life that some may say was exaggerated, but I tell you, I had two brothers ten and twelve years older than me and it didn’t seem like that life was too exaggerated when I spent my summers with them. And as if to enunciate what the song and the album was all about… a good Catholic boy singing about love and sin… the first thing you hear before You May Be Right is the sound of glass shattering. Here we go, you could say, on a ride to take us on the borderline.
Elvis had only been dead three years, so imitating him was in some cases more dangerous than when he was alive. Joel’s voice mimicry far surpassed what every one before him tried to do: how do you sound like Elvis without it sounding like a joke? Elvis wasn’t a joke, and to a musician who toured most of the year away from friends and family, neither was masturbation. The second track, Sometimes a Fantasy, therefore was an odd mix between the traditional gospel vocal sound and the punk rock guitar-mixed-with-a-Moog that had such a huge impact in the late 1970’s. We can all point to the Sex Pistols because they are easy prey. They sold the most records but keep in mind they only made one – only one real one. Most punk bands of this time were like this. Flipper churned out just one. So did Death. Rare were those like Bad Brains or Black Flag who lasted more than three. But Joel isn’t out to imitate punk rock, only draw from it, and oddly this makes Sometimes a Fantasy, the last single released in the summer of 1980, one of two songs you did not expect to be the lasting legacy of this album.
The obvious legacy is You May Be Right and It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me, track four. And after two songs of overbearing machismo, Joel follows it up with Don’t Ask Me Why which isn’t Dylanesque, but has a very solid history going back to A Hard Day’s Night. This soft melodic tune following such hard hitting songs really shows Joel’s vocal range…but also his songwriting range as well. And when he follows this up with It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me you start to think he might be the American Paul McCartney. Ostensibly about acceptance, the heart of the song is about more than that. Like the album Glass Houses itself, It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me is about conflict between what society wants us to be and what we want to do. Expectations are not set against reality but rather against inner-expectations. In the end it doesn’t matter to Joel what rock and roll is or is not, because he likes it all. He’s already proven that up to now.
But the show stopper was the first single off the album in January of 1980: All for Leyna. Unbelievably paced with rapid piano punches and a Moog instead of a lead guitar for the solo, the song issues metaphors before the bridge, and solid reality after it. The subject of the song, how one perfect night with the right person can just fuck up a person’s perspective on the world, is something the young can side with. You could very well replace Leyna’s name with your first heartbreak and it could be your song. But surprising to this isn’t Joel’s deep machismo voice or his soft melodic ‘For the Longest Time’ barbershop quartet voice, but an angst-ridden midway that screams much like Jonny Rotten would. There are many times I just can’t believe the mike picked it all up flawlessly. There’s not a single hint of feedback or screech. So not only does Glass Houses have excellent song writing and musicianship, it has outstanding engineering and producing.
As if junxta-positioning the machismo voice against what could be the softer side of his songwriting, side two offers up I Don’t Want to Be Alone. About an established couple wondering whether to take the first step, the song sounds like the man is bringing a lot of baggage to the table: perhaps a Leyna or a Diane to be specific. So we have the young, the old is to come, but here on side two we have reached middle age.
And middle age is threatened when you find the right person but they don’t realize it yet or don’t want to take the risk, which is the topic for track seven: Sleeping with the Television On. The track even openes with the danger one faces when they hit forty: the sound of the National Anthem playing before the broadcast signal is cut off. This is Joel’s warning to anyone who lives in a Glass House. This could happen to you if you moralize too much, accuse too much, if you can’t leave that baggage at the station.
Cetait Toi (You Were the One) follows in this very same theme only from the male side of the relationship. Having found your one-and-only, you have to recognize that comfort should be found from that person instead of seeking it from someone else. This would be a rejection of say Outside Woman Blues, most successfully reincarnated by Cream just twelve years before, and more than just in theme but in voice. Joel softens it all the way, even sings a whole verse in French, to get his endearing point across. The crass drunkard youth from You May Be Right seems a million miles away from this song. From a different album. From a different time. From a different person. This song slips us to the mature. So now that we’re mature, what do we do?
Effectively, you have two choices: track nine, Closer to the Borderline in which you put everything you have earned at risk. Or track ten, Through the Long Night, in which you settle down with that perfect somebody, all your baggage neatly packed away, and ready yourself for the rest of your life. This isn’t so crazy a choice. For a long time the nation was under the accepted impression that the divorce rate was about half. Some indications are this was inflated but no one seemed surprised. Where you go, Joel is telling you, is really based on whether or not you live in a Glass House… and if you throw any stones. His preference despite his four marriages is the last track on the album. Bless him for it.
It’s a brilliant album concept. The theme relates to all of the tracks in different ways. Some complain about there being a shortage of music: the longest song is 4:15 for You May Be Right and All for Leyna. But ten tracks is compact and the album might have suffered with the inclusion of any tracks not deemed worthy to include. As it is, these ten tracks are all ten tracks that should have been hits, and Joel had five hits off a ten track album. Glass Houses was nominated for a Grammy but won the AMA. Then he was nominated for Male Artist for the AMA but won the Grammy. The charts read like something stupid. One in Canada and the US but Two in three other countries. It charted in fourteen countries. It didn’t just go platinum. In the US it went platinum SEVEN TIMES. Five times in Australia and Canada, platinum in New Zealand of all places, and gold in the UK and…Hong Kong.
This was a different age of music. Joel replaced Pink Floyd’s The Wall and was replaced by The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue. I know that everyone grows up and listens to the ‘music’ of the time and thinks ‘this is shit.’ I find it fucking hysterical that people are looking back at Britney Spears’ first two albums and thinking that it’s some kind of fucking golden age. But looking at what is cranked out now, or what is autotoned now, it seems the argument of ‘the old’ not liking the ‘new’ is predicated on music getting worse. We all know art is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m not sure what is made these days is really art unless the artist is truly in charge. Oops…I Did It Again outsold Glass Houses in every market exactly too decades later. In the case of the US, it outsold it by three million albums. But that album has thirteen producers to Glass Houses’ one. It has twenty-one writers, including Spears herself who took one-third credit on only one song… versus Joel writing everything himself.
I remember watching a hysterical bit on Letterman a couple of decades ago when Barry Manilow released a record with a slip of paper that asked people to take ‘the Manilow Challenge. Play this record track for track against any record and see which one has better quality.” In the case of Glass Houses, we can confidently say not everyone at the time liked it. One reviewer said it’s tunes were “catchy,” but then so was the flu. But I have to give credit to Manilow, of whom I am not a fan. He would have lost every challenge had I put any album of his on one turn table with Glass Houses on the other. But then, most records would, regardless of the Beholder… regardless of their sales… regardless of their writers… regardless of their producers… because what Glass Houses has to say about Americans trying to find their way in 1980 is profound. And what Spears has to say… about anything… is not. The best song on her sophomore album is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Writers: Jagger and Richards. Talk about needing an Emotional Rescue.
And you have to wonder… just a little bit… if Spears is aware of what Satisfaction is all about. Does she know its about a guy throttling his cock at the lingerie commercials on TV? And did she choose to cover that song because she is clearly, just by her writing credits, incapable of writing anything remotely close to anything in the same universe as Sometimes a Fantasy? I’d like to think that my fantasy today is a girl who has my heart talking dirty to me over the phone in an effort to get me off. But in reality, my fantasy is that some day, some pop artist will chart something that is remotely akin in quality to Glass Houses.