Music videos offer a unique chance for songwriters and musicians to see their stories fully realized, but most fritter away the opportunity and aim for cheap thrills, tributes to themselves, and the shine of their well-cultivated images. Billy Joel’s music video career doesn’t match the grandeur of his legendary pop music career — how could it? — but while every video Joel made isn’t above the fray, and they don’t all represent the highest peak of the art form’s range, there are bold attempts to marry the two worlds and talk about our shared history in powerful videos like the one for “Goodnight Saigon,” “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and “The Downeaster Alexa.” There are also some fun videos, some silly ones, some awful ones, and a bunch of boring concert videos. Together, though, they form a body of work that deserves to be honored and maybe lovingly skewered. With that in mind, here’s a ranking and appraisal of all of Billy Joel’s music videos…
We Didn’t Start The Fire
One of Billy Joel’s many trips through our collective history, this is the best known and most well executed… at least as far as the videos go. No schmaltz, just a collection of relatable (at the time) and serene scenes mixed with the shock of seeing a house on fire and images that pierce the sedate bubble that was our culture in the ’50s and ’60s behind Billy and within the once happy home whose innocence burns away through the course of the song. Hate the earworm of a song if you want, and many do, but the video is pitch perfect.
The premise is simple: Christie Brinkley is an uptown girl, and Billy Joel is a working stiff mechanic, but he wins her over. Don’t knock the barebones classics. They can get you a lot further than high art.
This song debuted around the time I was born in Allentown, so my mother always made it seem like it was a gift delivered unto me like frankincense for the King of Kings. That means I’m a little biased when it comes to this mostly depressing trip through the collapse of the American dream complete with beefy construction workers and rare ’80s male shower tush. There’s also some lackluster Billy Joel guitar strumming, a baton of fire, and an American flag thrown in our face after the line, “They threw an American flag in our face.” As for Allentown, it seems okay. They’ve got a pretty dope mall.
Billy Joel isn’t a Vietnam vet, but growing up when he did, he’s familiar with the story and penned a powerful tribute to those many soldiers, and, in this case, the Marines who never came back or never came back whole. It’s a performance piece with a heart punch at the end when a group of vets gather to sing the chorus after we’ve been primed by a collection of wartime still photographs.
Mmm… do you know what high concept Billy Joel means? I’ll tell you what it means: Kubrickian hallways, the Ludovico torture technique from a Clockwork Orange, some heavy Pink Floyd-y imagery, and several allusions to drowning.
I Go To Extremes
This video is mostly grey tone with ample snapshots with color and stolen moments. Billy and the band are in a loft space above a sunglass factory as they act out select lyrics. It looks like the opening theme for an early ’90s FOX primetime soap called Go to the Extreme about a retired Olympic skier, throwing himself into a new career as a pro-bono attorney while surrounded by his rock climbing model friends. Or something.
Tell Her About It
I love the Spike Jonze-directed “Buddy Holly” Weezer video as much as the next guy, but Joel pulled off the same basic thing with an Ed Sullivan impersonator and a Rodney Dangerfield cameo a decade earlier, and Dangerfield collar adjust > Fonzie dance.
It’s hokey when a video faithfully matches up with a song’s lyrics, but it works here as Billy does his “Piano Man” thing while introducing us to John at the bar, Paul the real estate novelist, and Navy Davey.
Keeping The Faith
There’s a lot to unwrap here. Essentially, Billy gets brought up on charges in music court (which is real; ask Robin Thicke). The question is, is he innocent or guilty of keeping the faith?
If you listen to Billy as he sings to judge Richard Shull (Heartbeeps), the jury, and the assembled spectators — with the help of a judges bench that doubles as a jukebox (metaphor!) — the answer is, yes. While keeping the faith, Billy also reminisces about matador boots, tight chinos, and stealing his father’s condoms, which feels a bit creepy upon reflection. He then implies that the past is bullsh*t after talking about it for the entirety of this song (career) — “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” — which is an easy thing to say when you’ve got Christie Brinkley on your arm and a bunch of oversized quarters in your pocket. Also, in most of Brinkley’s Billy Joel music video cameos, it really feels like she is there solely for Billy to remind us that this is happening.
Years later, El DeBarge tried to top Billy’s courtroom groove in the “Who’s Johnny?”/Short Circuit music video, but he failed for a myriad of reasons, chiefest among them is… real live Joe Piscopo cameo > Steve Guttenberg cardboard cutout cameo.
No Man’s Land
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Here, a stout power-suited (and power-bearded) Billy takes to the guitar once more for this cynical R-O-C-K song about how sh*tty everything is in the ’90s, thanks to sprawl, consumerism, and the media. Apparently, going to Russia turned Billy into a commie. Also, what happened to the Billy who once sang, “Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems,” in the previous song? Would he even know the Billy who sang, “Thanks to the condo kings, there’s cable now in zombietown,” in this song?
She’s Right On Time
This is the “Henry’s Awful Mistake” of music videos as Joel’s carefully orchestrated plans come undone through a series of calamities while his special lady goes through her own version before the two merge and things really start to fall apart. There’s also this:
Sometimes A Fantasy
Billy is a man apart as his bad-boy bearded half (the one from the “No Man’s Land” video, no doubt) convinces choir boy Billy to call up a nice young lady for a bit of phone sex, just like he convinced him to throw a rock at that glass house on the album cover. Also, when the action gets as hot and heavy as a 1980 music video can go, bearded Billy Joel is a little too into the idea of watching himself pleasure himself, no?
You’re Only Human (Second Wind)
In this video, Billy Joel dresses up as an upscale version of Fagin from Oliver and Company and uses a magical harmonica to take a suicidal teenager through all the things he’ll miss if he throws himself off a bridge. The message is, of course, commendable and personal, but when tied to ’80s music video wackiness, it almost feels like a farce now. A for effort, I guess. And for the power of the magical harmonica.
A Matter Of Trust
It’s entirely too hot in the performance space, so Billy orders the windows open, irritating one neighbor lady and launching the rest of the block into group party mode, a popular collective happening in the ’80s. Also, am I the only one who gets uncomfortable when Billy isn’t playing the piano? Where’s the Piano Man’s piano? Billy’s rocking out here with a guitar and his nefariously short sleeves, a sight that got Christie Brinkley pregnant on the spot and answered all questions about their Goddess/Goblin love story.
River Of Dreams
We have graduated from gray to sepia as Billy sings his last big pop hit on a bridge and in a barn. Apparently, the river of dreams runs through the countryside, but it’s all good. We also have our last Christie Brinkley cameo. Notice the end of the video, though. I’m pretty sure that isn’t Christie B. macking with some rando while Billy pilots his boat into the great unknown. Being that they got divorced a short time later, and Billy did pilot his career boat into the great unknown that is co-headlining with Elton John and writing only classical music, wouldn’t it make for a better story if it was her, and if this was all predictive?
This feels like a gritty “New York Story” kind of video, then it devolves into Billy and the band laying down a track while an alternate Billy looks on in the booth. At least that’s how I see it. While the official video ranks low on this list, the Bosom Buddies version* deserves better.
Note, that’s the Adam Scott theme remake clip, because Billy Joel didn’t sing the original Bosom Buddies theme song.
That’s Not Her Style
I don’t agree with this Yankee Stadium performance video, and, with all due respect to my colleague, I don’t agree with his selection for the soundtrack to last week’s epic Peggy GIF on Mad Men.
“That’s Not Her Style” +
= All Day Fabulous.
As much as I hate to see Billy with a guitar, I love to see him with an accordion as he sings this song about the sea and the people who earn their living supplying Long John Silver with popcorn shrimp and other delicacies. It’s a poignant video for a poignant song, and it doesn’t whack us over the head with its quest to be artistic. For instance…
The Night Is Still Young
Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)
A heartfelt ode to Joel’s daughter filmed in the ever-popular grey tone and filled with frolicking kids with angel wings (who can walk on water!), baseball fields, haircuts, and photographs of soldiers. I have no idea what is going on. It’s an imagery tag cloud. Are the kids supposed to be dead? What kind of lullaby is this?
The Longest Time
Billy Joel, Liberty DeVitto and the band reassemble their high school doo-wop group with a little white in their hair, and they go on a magical and transformative trip to the bathroom together that restores their youth and vitality.
The Concert and Recording Session Videos
Concert, performance, and recording session videos bore me in most instances that don’t feature Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito as backup singers. Billy Joel had a lot of them, so there’s nothing shiny and unique that I can really say about them, unless there is. In which case, I’ll include those videos because it will please me to do so. The videos listed below, however, lack the magical ’80s video showmanship that I think we all came to this place expecting.
“You May be Right,” “And So it Goes,” “Baby Grand,” “All For Leyna,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “James,” “Big Shot” (despite Billy’s take on the “sexy-tea-cup” era dance moves of Mick Jagger), “To Make You Feel My Love,” “Hey Girl,” “Honesty,” “Leningrad,” and “It’s Still Rock N’ Roll To Me” despite this: