1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear – Billy Joel’s baby steps

1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear

#58: Attila – Attila (1970)

Before he was a better-than-average singer-songwriter, Billy Joel tried his hand at hard rock. Oh dear! MATT KELLY on Attilla.

“I’m having such a hassle

With the ladies going through my head

I’m trying to keep my hands

From doing all the things you did instead!

I’ve got some new ideas

I’m gonna have to try them out in bed!

 

Now’s the time

When we’re in the mood

You can be the wine

And I’ll be the food!”

– Attila, ‘Rolling Home’

Just about the closest thing you’ll find to real-life Spinal Tap, Attila is a gloriously funny once-in-a-career disaster. While The Hassles’ second album Hour Of The Wolf failed to find an audience, keyboardist Billy Joel and drummer Jon Small spent ‘69 listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple albums and decided that heavy metal was where it was at. They weren’t wrong about that, but they were wrong about trying it themselves as they formed their own hard and heavy outfit Attila.

 

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The first thing you’ll notice – aside from the album cover of the band looking super badass in armour while hanging out in a meat-packing warehouse (probably) in New Jersey –  is that Joel’s voice really doesn’t suit this material. Adopting a high, piercing cry, reminiscent of Geddy Lee but worse, Joel’s continual yelping becomes either incredibly funny or insufferably annoying (if not both) before too long. But the real star of the show is arguably the lyrics. Here is how ‘California Flash’ goes:

“About two years ago

Working in the rodeo

I saw the strangest-looking man

Playing in a rock’n’roll band

He had a twenty-foot moustache

Wore a purple lavender sash

Then he started doing a dance

He said it was imported from France

The girls all started to crash

To see the California Flash!

He removed his pants!”

I don’t know what happened here – Joel will prove to be an above-average pop lyricist in his solo career. But these lyrics are *atrocious*, unintentional comedy  as the singer of ‘Honesty’, ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘The Longest Time’ screams with comical levels of confidence:

“People laughed at me and said I’d never win

Now I turn around and KICK THEIR FACES IN!

Kick your faces in!!!

Revenge is sweet

And now I’ll make you kiss my feet!”

I don’t like to use the word cringe – in fact I think this is the first time I’m using it in this series – but it’s hard to think how else to describe the rhyming dictionary doggerel that constitutes this record.

“Wonder Woman – with your skin so fair

Wonder Woman – with your long brown hair

You have the velvet touch

You have what I want so much

My love is burning fire

My need is my desire!

You came in the dead of night

You brought me a firelight

My brain has lost control

My heart is freezing cold!

Hey, hey, hey!

Whoa, oh, oh!

I can’t believe you’re mine

Your body feels so fine

My senses have been drowned

You came and shot me down!

Oh, yes you did!”

But what about the music? Well, I will say that Joel’s souped-up Hammond sound is pretty badass at times and when he and Small get cooking on the instrumental ‘Amplifier Fire’ it is fun in a silly way, though a bit Deep Purple karaoke. Joel’s keys are thick and meaty enough that you don’t really notice the absence of guitar. But in general, though Small and Joel can play, their songwriting is poor with little in the way of memorable hooks and song structures and everything blurring together in a push-the-instruments-down-the-stairs way. They’re imitating their influences but bringing little of their own creativity to the table and on the barely-under-control ‘Rollin’ Home’ they sound rather uncomfortable.

The album was a flop and in despair over his career, Joel attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish. To complete the comedy, the polish wasn’t actually fatal and Joel himself says all he did was fart furniture polish and clean his mother’s chairs for a few days. And to top it all off, Small found out Joel was banging his wife Elizabeth Weber behind his back and they ran off together to get married. Fortunately, Elizabeth got Billy a new manager, her brother Frank. That sounds like a nice family arrangement and I’m sure nothing bad would ever happen there.

An amazing before-they-were-famous album. Both fans and detractors of Billy Joel will find plenty to astonish the senses here.

 

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