Billy Joel is a lot like Tony Manero, the John Travolta character in "Saturday Night Fever." Both come from the tightly knit yet often repressive culture of New York City's Catholic working class neighborhoods. Both are clearly talented entertainers who sense the potential for something more substantial. Yet neither quite knows how to get hold of that something else.
Manero's talent is strutting his stuff with style on the disco floor. Joel's talent is spinning out melodies at the keyboard and microphone. At the end of "Saturday Night Fever," Manero sits at the window of his girl friend's Manhattan apartment and looks out to an uncertain future. But at least he's out of the confines of the Brooklyn disco singles bar, sure of his talent if not sure how to use it.
Billy Joel is in much the same position with his new album, "52nd Street" (Columbia FC 35609). He has put some distance between himself and the top 40 conventions that made his last album, "The Stranger," sell more than three million units. But not enough distance for his full potential to emerge.
The potential is clearly there. Joel has a knack for catchy melodies that repeatedly run through one's mind soon after they appear on the radio. He has a strong and flexible voice capable of uncanny imitations of Bob Dylan ("Piano Man"), Paul McCartney ("Movin' Out"), and the Young Rascals ("Only the Good Die Young").
But Joel's songs have always suffered from a lack of shadows. What you hear the first time is what you get. the lyrics have no ironies or implications to search out. The music has no counterpoint harmonies or solos to discover.
This singleness of purpose limits the songs of "52nd Street" as well. "Big Shot" has punchy guitars backing Joel's biting challenge: "You had to be a big shot, didn't you? You had to prove it to the crowd." But that's all there is. The lyrics repeat the same idea over and over with minimal shuffling of words. There's no hint of envy or hurt qualifying the speaker's sarcasm. The whole band knocks out the same two phrases without variations.
"Honesy" is a formula ballad that asks for honesty in the world. "My Life" is yet another Billy Joel song about someone giving up the lower-middle-class routine to pursue his future with no insight into the difficulty or implications of such a move.
"Stiletto" has one of the album's catchiest melodies, but the lyrics are insultingly sexist. The woman in the song who cuts up men is so poorly defined she could by any woman.
But there's evidence on the other songs that Joel can break out of these traps, even if he never does on this album. The neighborhoods that Joel and Manero come out of are the heart of mass radio audiences. Joel sings about and for such people, and it's unlikely he'll ever make music that would cut them out.
What he might do is combine quality art and mass radio appeal, and on "52nd Street," he imitates several predecessors at such a combination. On "Until the Night," he tries Phil Spector's resonating wall of sound.
The intro is practically a direct steal of Spector's intro for Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" and Joel sings like Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. The massive instrumentation and heavy echo aren't up to classic Spector but are satisfying enough to encourage further attempts.
"Zanzibar" is a blatant limitation of Steely Dan, probably the most sophisticated rock 'n roll group currently on the radio. Joel imitates all the patented Dan trademarks: the twisted ironic vocals, the shimmering jazz vibes, the repetitive syncopated piano, the constant musical changes, the elusive lyrics and the cameo jazz solo (performed for Joel by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard).
Imitation though it is, "Zanzibar" is probably Joel's most original work. Never before has he attempted such leaps in lyrical and musical themes. There's still no indication, however, that Joel means anything more than just what he's saying, and consequently he still falls far short of Steely Dan.
Joel's flirtation with jazz influences the whole album. the album's title is a reference to the days when 52nd Street in Manhattan was the center of bebop jazz. There's no bebop on the album, though, and very little jazz. What jazz there is comes from electronic "fusion" artists like Hubbard, the Brecker Brothers, Eric Gale and Mike Mainieri.
"Rosalind's Eyes" has a Latin motif - in both the lyrics and music - brightened by these guests. "Half a Mile Away" benefits from an enigmatic Steely Dan reference to an unspecified "other world just half a mile away" and good horn charts. The title tune throws together several early jazz styles - Dizieland, blues, swing - with some nice scat singing and a nice soprano sax solo by Richle Cannata.
"Saturday Night Fever" ends with Tony Manero still caught with his talent between the limitations of his past and the promise of his future.
There's no way of knowing what happens to Manero, but it's possible to watch Billy Joel negotiate the same transition. He would certainly be an influential success if he made it, for millions of Tony Manero listen to him on the radio and look to him for inspiration.