Classic Rock Bottom


Artist: Billy Joel

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Member: Yes (1999) 

Album: Streetlife Serenade

Producer: Michael Stewart

Disclaimer: All info that does not reside in my brain is gathered from (mostly because Jon can't stand it) unless otherwise noted.

Two weeks left, that's it.  This run through the early 70's is coming to an end.  Don't fret. We still have the second half of the 70's and the 60's to tour.  Anyway, this week I have Streetlife Serenade from Billy Joel.  It is Joel's third album and it followed Piano Man. Undoubtedly, the record company wanted to cut the length of the title track from that album for radio airplay and Joel took exception to it.  So he wrote The Entertainer, which is an awesome autobiographical song.  The album reached number 35 on the album charts while the aforementioned single reached number 34.  The album is certified Platinum by the RIAA.

There are some terrific album cuts here, including Streetlife Serenader and Los Angelenos. If you ever wondered if Joel could really play the piano, just check out Root Beer Rag (the whole album really, but especially this instrumental). Amazing.  

It's readily available. You can get a brand new remastered copy for less than six bucks on Amazon.

Side One:

1. Streetlife Serenader

2. Los Angelenos

3. The Great Suburban Showdown

4. Root Beer Rag

5. Roberta

Side Two:

6. The Entertainer

7. Last Of The Big Time Spenders

8. Weekend Song

9. Souvenir 

10. The Mexican Connection

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I heard this album for the first time, only half a year ago. I love spotify!!

Actually, I heard a lot of Joel's albums, that I hadn't heard in full before. I can't exactly remember, what I thought about this one, but now it's the time for a second listen.

1. Good start. Great song. Simple, but great.

2.  Joel's got a very good singing-voice. This is not one of his best songs imo, but it's not bad. Again a simple song, not so great. Love the electric piano, though.

3. He has written some of the best ballads, but also some boring ones. This one is boring imo. Like a boring Elton John-song. I think, I remember now, that I didn't like tihs album as much as "Piano Man".

4. Ohhh, this one I like!!! Great, great stuff!! Again, a bit simple, but most of Joel's tracks probably are. Never the less, It's the best track so far.

5. If the voice was different, this could had appeared on Tom Waits first album. I like it. This is definitely among the 3 best tracks on side 1.

6. I bought a double best of album in 1990, and I don't think one of the songs from this album appear, not even this one. Classic stuff, but not as good as the 3 good tracks from side 1. He keeps, doing it simple. A reason, why I only occaisionally listens to BJ.

7. Who's best at this kind of music - Elton or Joel? If I had to choose, I would choose EJ (Elton Joel?) Elton doesn't makes as simple songs as Joel imo. This one is also good, but a bit too simple.

8. Like with Elton, I also like Joel the best when he rock'n'roll (not all the time, though). Still, this one is probably the weakest song so far.

9. Short and simple. What's more to say.

10. And a simple ending. 

What's to say: Keep it simple, stupid.

I'm looking forward to your 60's and late 70's AOTW's.

Joel writes his own lyrics though.
Good point.

Could have sworn I have this album, but I do not. I wonder why.


Well, I guess I'm going to have to get it now since I really like it and I have most of his other albums. "The Entertainer" is a great song, one of those I've kinda memorized for some reason.

Still, this kinda bugs me. If I have Piano Man and Turnstiles, why don't I have this one? It came out between those two albums. Maybe something happened to me while this album was playing and I've blocked it out.

I will have to remedy that.

For less than $5. 

Thanks for making me spend more money.  


the only mention you've made of Streetlife Serenade prior to this post comes courtesy of a older SHT list...  You comment was, and I quote...

  • Streetlife Serenade has been mostly "meh" with me, but the song you picked is ok. As for Turnstiles, this is when he started to rock a little bit more. Rjhog mentioned a couple other songs off this album, but Angry Youn Man is killer stuff, especially with him pounding on the peeano (see what I did?).

I guess I have it then. And yet, I can't find it. How odd.

There is some great hidden treasure to be found in Joel's pre-Superstardom catalog.  This album contains some of those, but if your looking for the motherlode, Turnstiles is the best IMO.  Not to discount this one, its a must have as well.

The album opens with a smart slower tempo'd tune, its a real nice open.  It has great keyboard work which a Joel album must have anyway, but the rhythm section is stellar and technically sound.  There's nice guitarmanship, if all too brief, and a great decent out of the tune.  This gives way to, in Joel's repertoire anyway, a nice rocker.  The electric piano sounds great playing along side a nice riff... and the keyboard work to end the tune, again all to brief, but is real nice.

The Great Suburban Showdown give us more hints to his future success, though there were several indicators prior to this, this tune is a great reminder.  Still, its probably the best track on here.  The instrumental Root Beer Bag follows as a great showcase for his talent, though it does seem out of place for an album written and recorded in Los Angeles.

The Entertainer is great!  The lyrics are angry and straightforward while the music is whimsical and, well, entertaining.  Roberta is really the first stumble on here, but its not a bad stumble.  But compare this ballad to the next one, Last of the Big Time Spenders, so  much more feeling and spirit in Spenders...  Great track!

Weekend Song is also one of the weaker tracks but it does have some redeeming quality, like its foreshadowing of some of the work we will hear on The Stranger and 52nd Street.  It aged well...  Souvenir is short and sweet, and closer is a nice soft rock instrumental.

The unique thing about this album is the Los Angeles connection and how it took him out of his comfort zone, maybe that's why you hear some anger in him and some urgency in some tracks to.  It is also likely why Turnstiles was such a strong follow up to this as he returned home and laid down one of this best albums!  One other note to make about Joel's band that I love and that's the work of the drummer, and though Liberty DeVitto isn't the guy behind the kit here (He joined for Turnstiles), you can really hear the beat influences that would come later...

Nice work again!!

I thought the same thing about the drumming. I was surprised that Liberty was not the drummer here.


41 Years Ago: Billy Joel Tries to Find His Feet With ‘Streetlife Serenade’

In 1974, Billy Joel had one hit album under his belt (1973’s Piano Man) and a whole bunch of platinum records in his future (starting with 1977’s The Stranger). First, though, he had to make it through a frustrating few years that found him adjusting to life as a touring recording artist while trying to solidify his sound – a period that started with the Piano Man follow-up, Streetlife Serenade.

Released Oct. 11, 1974, Streetlife Serenade had a couple of things working against it off the bat. As Joel explained in a later interview, he fell victim to a number of factors that tend to make life difficult for young artists experiencing their first flush of success.

“I had been on the road playing in theaters and clubs, and opening up for other acts — I opened up for the Beach Boys during that time – and I didn’t have a lot of time to write new material, but there was a lot of pressure to put out a new album after Piano Man,” he recalled. “I just didn’t have a lot of stuff. There’s even two instrumentals. ”

The record also reunited Joel with Piano Man producer Michael Stewart, a talented songwriter in his own right, but one whose preference for session players kept Joel from really digging in and developing an identifiable sound of his own. Surrounded by studio vets like bassist Larry Knechtel, guitarist Mike Deasy, and Elvis Presley drummer Ron Tutt, Joel couldn’t help but sound a little anonymous and outmatched. Add that to the rushed material, and an increased experimentation with the Moog synth, and the result is a snapshot of an artist audibly finding his feet.

“He was used to working with them, and on that particular album I didn’t want to go too far away from what he was used to, because he knows more about the production of records than I do,” Joel told ZigZag in 1975. “I’m still a baby as far as production goes. I’m not ready to take over. … I wanted to make this album a lot simpler. I wanted to keep it within the framework of a streetlife kind of sound. I didn’t want a big orchestral happening. It was kind of a concept album, not so much a concept from beginning to end, it’s just the overall production and the feeling of the material — a streetlife concept.”

Streetlife Serenade is a transitional record, then, but not one without its charms. In fact, although the album would be somewhat cast to the margins after Joel’s post-Stranger ascension, it probably contains more than its share of solid songs, given how hard he had to work in order to fill its 38-minute running time.

Watch Billy Joel Perform ‘Souvenir’

As Joel derisively noted, the album contains a pair of instrumentals, but they’re interesting ones: the bucolic audio landscape “The Mexican Connection” closes the record on a fittingly searching note, and the sprightly “Root Beer Rag” served as both a showcase for Joel’s melodic gifts and as the name of his long-running bi-annual newsletter. The album’s opening numbers, “Streetlife Serenader” and “Los Angelenos,” became concert staples that finally found a wider audience with 1981’s Songs in the Attic live collection – and in those more confident concert recordings, you can hear what Joel was aiming for all along.

The album’s “deeper” cuts don’t lack for charm, either. “The Great Suburban Showdown” presents a picture of Joel the temporary West Coast transplant returning home for an uneventful visit with the folks (“Mom and Dad, me and you and the outdoor barbecue / Think I’m gonna hide out in my room”), eyeing the old neighborhood with the same jaundiced ennui that would thread through the narrative of many of his best records – and although he may not yet have grown into the world-weary pose he adopted for Streetlife cuts like this one or the hooker-crush ballad “Roberta,” you can still hear flashes of the artist he’d become. “Souvenir,” the record’s penultimate track, would go on to serve as a perfectly bittersweet concert closer for years.

And although like Piano ManStreetlife Serenade boasts a distinct ’70s California vibe, with banjo and pedal steel coloring the generally laid-back arrangements, it’s also a relatively eclectic affair, with cinematic compositional flourishes and periodic bursts of the bluesy hard-rock bite that would later inform records like 1980’s Glass Houses.

It also marks the spot where Billy Joel first vented his ire regarding his occasionally tempestuous relationship with the rock press and the music industry in general. This album’s single, the middling hit “The Entertainer,” is a snide laundry list of rock star gripes (making small talk with suits, dealing with single edits, watching your fortunes rise and fall on the public’s fickle whims) tucked behind an up-tempo pop arrangement.

Listen to Billy Joel Perform ‘Streetlight Serenader’

“That was kind of the hit,” Joel shrugged later. “So, the disc jockeys are saying, ‘Okay, first he’s the Piano Man and he’s bitching about playing in a piano bar, and moaning about his life here. Now, he’s got a successful record and he’s bitching about being successful!” But as he pointed out in the weeks after the album’s release, he didn’t really mean it that way. “It’s a putdown. Sticking a pin in the balloon of the performer,” he insisted. “I’m a composer … when the entertainer side gets blown out of proportion, if I started to believe all the things I hear about me, I’d be walking around going, ‘Hey, I’m a star.'”

Neither “The Entertainer” nor Streetlife Serenade made much of an impact in terms of sales, both stalling just inside the Top 40 and keeping Joel’s career in the same holding pattern he’d remain stuck in for 1976’s self-produced Turnstiles, which fared even worse on the charts. Much of his work from this period was later swept aside during the frenzy that followed The Stranger, and the typically self-deprecating Joel has occasionally seemed to regard those less successful albums as the musical equivalent of embarrassing old pictures.

For the casual fan who may have missed out all these years, however, these songs are well worth a listen. Billy Joel may have been a work in progress at the time, but the difference between struggling artist and Grammy-winning star was more of an incremental shift than a quantum leap, and on Streetlife Serenade, you can hear those pieces starting to fall into place.


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