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?