Because I was not born in an era when Billy Joel ruled everything around him in a similar fashion to the way certain famous rappers do now, I usually only remember him when prompted or if someone starts playing him at a party when we’ve all been drinking too much. It’s usually at this exact moment that I remember to very important facts about Billy Joel; first, that he really did write a sweeping suite of great songs and second, that only very few of us will at some point cease to be the next big thing. Joel, who famously had Top 40 hits across three decades in the United States, all of which he wrote himself, has managed to remain a lion in contemporary music while many of his peers simply failed to keep up. His last record came out in the early nineties, but he was still touring some twenty years later. It’s not that there was any less music in 2010 than there was in 1990 or 1980 – on the contrary, there’s more than ever before. But perhaps Joel exhibited a sort of timeliness that his successors would not. Certainly there were throwaway songs, as with any artist. But the ones that have endured, like this one recorded in 1978, simply refuse to age. When they get updated by other musicians or bands or hell, even Glee, they sound amazing. That’s because the base material is so strong. Among other things, this is what makes Billy Joel a living legend.
It’s unfortunate that this tune comes from the same album as ‘Moving Out’, which Jake Stone wrote about so brilliantly for us back in 2009. But frankly, I discovered first copped it on his Greatest Hits package anyway, so I don’t feel as terrible because it’s nestled next to a whole bunch of other great ones that don’t come from The Stranger. Before I could drive or was allowed to change the radio dial, I used to hear ‘Only The Good Die Young’ everywhere; in barbers, in my Dad’s car, in supermarkets, you name it. Because everyone – old and young- knew the words I assumed that it was some sort of crossover contemporary hit, which was pretty astute given that at the time the only hits I knew came from All Saints and Backstreet Boys. I would internalise it because I always enjoyed the clickety-clack of the acoustic guitar and seemingly invisible drum kit, which rocked and rolled with such a distinct smack of Americana that it was impossible to resist. Outside of the chorus, I never bothered to learn any of the other words.
One thing I’ve realised after reading up more on Billy Joel’s life, particularly this fantastic, long-winded yarn with Alec Baldwin on the latter’s show, Here’s The Thing, is that he’s a phenomenal smart-ass. Both in the way he wrote his music and how he couched that around his lyrics, Joel was a great wiseguy. because you’d find yourself singing along to almost anything before realising what it was about. As it turns out, ‘Only The Good Die Young’, which details the idealised deflowering of a Catholic schoolgirl by a Jewish entertainer, was among one of Joel’s more obvious ploys. He was probably banking on the groove and chorus figure to deflect some of the heat – or perhaps he didn’t even care – but there was certainly a minor shit-storm when this came out. Catholic stations refused to play it, which of course helped the single rocket up the charts. But the rub was that it was impossible to hold it against Joel for too long, because even when he was trying to bed virgins, there was no sense of malice. That’s complemented by the throwaway rockabilly pulse, an update from an original reggae groove (which you can hear remnants of in the organ ostinato in the chorus) that Joel’s drummer allegedly refused to play.
Good ol’ Billy Joel; still relevant after all these years.
Billy Joel – ‘Only The Good Die Young’