In October of 1978 Billy Joel released 52nd Street, his follow-up to The Stranger. Within three weeks, it would do something The Stranger never did : top the Billboard album charts on its way to selling more than 7 million albums in the US and winning a Grammy for album of the year. Yes, I bought it too. I was 14. But these days I only listen to 52nd Street for "Rosalinda's Eyes", which made such a memorable appearance on an episode of "Freaks and Geeks". Rolling Stone ranks 52nd Street as the 352nd greatest rock album of all time, which means almost nothing to me.
Stephen Holden reviewed the album for Rolling Stone :
On 52nd Street and The Stranger, Billy Joel is the quintessential post-rock entertainer: a vaudevillian 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'n' 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.
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.
Robert Christagu was less pleased with the album, which he graded a B-:
Despite the Chapinesque turns his voice takes when he tries to get raucous, he makes a better Elton John than Leo Sayer--he's got that same omniverous hummability. But when he is (was) good, Elton balances(d) off the smarm with camp, while Billy makes as if he really wants people to believe the words. Yuck.
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