Tuesday, February 12, 2008
1970 was truly a great year for heavy metal and proto-metal alike, the two most obvious releases of the year coming from the UK, Black Sabbath's debut, and Deep Purple's "In Rock". Across, the Atlantic however, something was a-cookin' in the Northeast. Acid, grass, reds, and speed must have been fairly free-flowing in the Big Apple at the time, clearly displayed on Brooklyn combo Sir Lord Baltimore's "Kingdom Come" through sonic fierceness alone. Over in Long Island, what would become Blue Öyster Cult was still tooling around as Soft White Underbelly and/or Stalk-Forrest group, and when they would finally crystallize into B.Ö.C. and release their eponymous debut in 1972, the lyrics (if you could make out what the hell Eric Bloom was saying) made subtle references to grass (Then Came The Last Days of May) and reds (Transmaniacon MC, Before the Kiss, A Redcap).
But back to 1970 - Billy Joel and Jon Small of Long Island combo the Hassels are sensing this new vibration. Billy Joel's had his eardrums seared by "In Rock", but his his megalomaniacal acid visions speak to him: "BILLY! YOU ARE THE PRIMAL GOD OF THE HAMMOND ORGAN! YOU CAN OUT SQUEAL JON LORD! YOU DON'T NEED NO RITCHIE BLACKMORE, YOU DON'T NEED NO ROGER GLOVER!" Hence the birth of Attila, a heavy-rock/proto-metal organ and drums duo of mammoth proportions. The cover features longhairs Joel and Small dressed as huns in furs and armor standing in the middle of a meat locker. Billy Joel pounds out some of the most heavily distorted, wah-wahed to fuck, MONSTER riffs I've ever heard, occasionally breaking out into leads that may not out-finesse Jon Lord, but certainly out-punk Jon Lord with noisy, ham-fisted ferocity. I'm not a keyboard player, but I believe he may also be using his feet to play the bass lines with bass pedals. Ham-fisted really is the word to describe Joel's organ on the whole record, and regarding Jon Small's drumming, let's just say on this record, Billy Joel is to Jon Lord as Jon Small is to Ian Paice. He lacks Paice's finesse and dexterity, but is a harder and meaner pounder. SO HAM-FUCKING-FISTED, I just can't get enough. As far as vocals are concerned, the only comparison I can even think of would be S.L.B.'s John Garner, so my guess is seeing S.L.B. endowed Joel with a hefty sense of competition. Not exactly what you were expecting from a pre-fame Billy Joel is it? Well, me neither!
Side One opens with exactly what you want, a bracingly heavy organ riff, Billy pounding his keys like Jon Lord ripped on several reds and a lethal dose of speed, and screaming a lust-driven tribute to a certain "Wonder Woman" ("WONDER WOMAN! You have got me in a spin! JESUS CHRIST, I can't believe the shape I'm in!") It's quite a doozy, and there's a moment of respite in the mid-tempo "California Flash," a tale about a rock and roller with a "twenty-foot mustache" who drives the crowd wild stripping nude on stage until he's busted by the fuzz ("Suddenly we all heard a crash, everybody hid all their hash, the door caved in with a smash, and 99 policemen busted California Flash").
My favorite cut on the first side is probably "Revenge Is Sweet," featuring another pounder of an organ riff almost as good as that on "Wonder Woman." Billy is rambling about how people called him names and treated him like a loser, but now that he's taken a trip and realized his purpose on the planet, he will have the last laugh. "People laughed at me and said I'd never win, now I turn around and KICK YOUR FACES IN! KICK-YOUR-FACES-INNNNN!" Billy belts out with a punk-sneer, later letting us know "I could spit on those who called me names, I'm a phoenix rising from the flames!" You tell 'em Billy! Of course the irony is this album was such a critical and commerical disaster, that after it's failure (and after breaking up the band by stealing Jon Small's wife) Joel guzzled an entire bottle of furniture polish hoping for an easy way out. If that had been his end, this album's legacy would be oh-so-much greater without Billy tainting the memory with his solo career. I mean, at this point, could he be considered anything less than a hack? But we must move on...
Completing side one is the brilliantly titled two-part instrumental "Amplifier Fire". Part I, Godzilla, is a pretty un-exciting jazz styled solo vamp. Part II - March of the Huns, is one of the highlights of the album, and certainly its most "evil" moment. Billy pounds out a raw, ultra-heavy riff, and Joel and Small chant primitively over a march beat, definitely worthy enough for actual Huns off to march off war to. It seriously comes off like a raw, organ based version of Black Sabbath's "Supertzar," and Sabbath couldn't even reach that territory until 1975.
Side Two opens with what is probably the album's finest moment, "Rollin' Home". Structurally similar to "Wonder Woman," this number concerns the simple yet universal drama of a man coming home from a hard day with one thing on his mind: bedding his woman. This track is exceptional because it is probably the most honest and explicit explanation of the male sex drive since the Troggs "I Can't Control Myself". Just check out these lyrics: "I'm coming to you baby like I've never come to you before, I've been away so long and I've been feeling lovin' more and more, Sitting in the movies I got a feeling I just couldn't ignore, AH! You know EXACTLY what I mean!" Yes, Billy, I absolutely do, but it gets even better, "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 'em out in bed, oooh I've got it in for you baby - HEY HEY!" That's gotta be one of the best lyrical couplings of all time, I don't believe that anyone other than Blowfly and Billy Joel have ever sung about trying not to beat off so perhaps they could get laid instead. And it's all delivered at an intense, amphetamine-fueled, needles-in-the-red pace, with Billy shouting in John Garner style and here beating Mr. Garner at his own game, at least lyrically.
The rest of the album ain't too shabby either. "Tear This Castle Down" seems to document the death of the ego on an acid trip, and I think Budgie was listening in to the line "You have let them twist your mind - and cut off all your hair!" when they wrote "Rape Of The Locks" a year later. "Holy Moses" seems to be about a midnight trip with some chick who turns out not to be right for Billy, but he's got Attila now and he's going to take over the world, so he's alright. It all comes to a head with "Brain Invasion" (Not a bad song title in the lot!) which comes off like a much cooler, complex, and longer version of Part I of Amplifier Fire from the first side.
Through sheer ham-handed gusto, Billy Joel comes fairly close to beating Deep Purple at their game with just an organ and drums. But it's just too over-the-top... the album cover, the vocals, the lyrics, it just ends up being an extremely entertaining joke that Billy wasn't in on. But I've gotta say, I dug his trip, and the record still puts me in a good mood every time.