Episode 2: Billy Joel – If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)

Episode 2: Billy Joel – If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)

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Here’s an adaptation of episode two of our podcast 1000 Songs You’ve Probably Never Heard which can be found on Spotify. You can listen to the episode through the link below.

Episode Two of 1000 songs you’ve probably never heard. Today we’re going to talk about someone you definitely have heard of before, Billy Joel. As I said in the introduction for this podcast, from time to time I’ll put in songs from very popular artists that I guess you’d call album tracks. Songs that have probably been forgotten with time. And this is one of those songs. ‘If I only had the words to tell you’ by Billy Joel from the album Piano Man.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Get off Josh. Piano Man is one of the most popular albums of all time. Everyone’s heard the song ‘Piano Man’, we’ve all sung it while drunk in a bar somewhere. This is ridiculous. How can you claim this is a song we’ve never heard? But, I’d wager that many of you don’t actually know the song that I’m talking about.

This will depend a little bit on how old you are. I don’t really think I can come up with with a delicate way to say this, so the reality is that if you’re over 50 you probably will have heard it and if you’re under 50, you probably won’t have. That’s because I dare say many over 50s will have owned this album at some point in their lives. Whether on vinyl, cassette or even CD. Whereas it’s unlikely younger generations would have. In fact I’d go a step further as to say that the majority of people under 50, especially those under 40, may not have listened to much Billy Joel at all in their lives, other than the very popular singles.

Which nicely brings us full circle back to the reason why I started this podcast. There are so many of these songs out there. There are so many of these songs that exist captured and frozen in a time when people listened to whole albums. They didn’t just pick songs here and there that they liked on a streaming service. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When you bought an album in the 70s, you listened to every song on it because you weren’t sure when you were going to hear it again. If you owned the album, you listened to all the songs on the album. Not only was there less radio available, but it was also very limited in what it played. So if you liked the music, and you wanted to listen to it, you bought the record and you listened to the whole record.

But for this episode, in particular, I’m really speaking to people under 40. And in particular, I’m speaking to those people between 20 and 35. Because the inspiration for putting songs like this on this podcast comes from my own life. You see I’ve got three sisters. One is 7 years younger than me, one is about 11 years younger than me, and the other is about 15 or 16 years younger than me. This is the kind of song that I put on this list, because I knew for a fact they’d never heard it before – in particular the younger two. I further assume most people in that age group would never have heard this song before. And that, to me, is a crying shame, because I think it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s that for a number of different reasons.

I want to address something about artists like Billy Joel. You’ll find that as we go through the list, you’ll hear a number of tracks from Billy Joel, from Elton John, from 70s rock artists, maybe even a couple from the Beatles. I’ll feature songs from those high profile artists because many in the age group of 20-40 would immediately write it off as yacht rock, or dad rock or easy listening. They’d say it’s a “golden oldie”, that it belongs on classic FM. I’m tired of hearing that.

So I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about why it happens. Those genre terms, like dad rock, mean well and are embraced at times by people who genuinely enjoy the music. Yet I feel they minimise and simplify the music to a damaging point. Because some of the greatest music ever written slips into these erstwhile categories. Which upsets me. Because it’s quite possible that we’ll never hear musical genius like Billy Joel ever again. There certainly hasn’t ever been anyone like Billy Joel ever since.

I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. But the particular combination of voice, instrument mastery and songwriting ability is uncommonly rare nowadays. Further, when it does pop up, the artists displaying it are generally always shunned for a unwillingness to conform. So I’d argue that to dismiss a song like this, and an artist like this, into the classic rock genre, is musical sacrilege. As Billy put it in ‘The Entertainer’, “And if I go cold I won’t get sold, I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack, like another can of beans.”

Put plainly, no matter your age, if you see Billy Joel as easy listening or dad rock, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Because if you really stop and think about it, and make concerted effort to remove the prejudices that you have against this kind of music and listen to it as if you were listening to it for the first time – I’m fairly sure that a lot of a lot of you would agree that it is a beautiful song.

So, having addressed that, I’ll attempt an explanation as to why it’s such a beautiful song. Number one is the musical tools used within the song, which make it so dramatic. A frequent and sort of timed juxtaposition between major and minor chord progressions. Further, those chord progressions themselves and the incredibly emotive nature of them. They’re both beautiful and haunting all at once. A lot of people might assume that’s easy to achieve. But sit down behind a piano for 10 minutes and see if you can come up with anything even similar. Hell, sit down behind a piano for three days and see if you can come up with something even close. It isn’t anywhere near as easy as it sounds.

Then, of course, the lyrics. What Billy had an ability to do was capture and speak directly to existentialism – the business of existing from a human condition perspective. I spoke about this in the introduction of this podcast – that the way I saw music was that it had this ability to explain to us, in a rare way, what the cure for the human condition is. So many people use music in their lives to process, they use it as a filter, they use it as something that they can pass life’s life’s experiences through so as to make sense of them.

Artists like Billy have the ability to see the world, to perceive it, and then express it, more meaningfully and precisely than our minds ever could, in a song. And when we listen to it helps us make sense of the world. This is one of those songs. The lyrics in this song are truly poignant. I believe the subject of this song is a relationship that that is either breaking down or has broken down. The assumption, I think, is that it’s a romantic one, but it could apply to any kind of relationship.

“If I only had the words to tell you, if you only had the time to understand. Though I know it wouldn’t change your feelings. And I know you’ll carry on the best you can.”

It’s just line after line of lyrics that speak directly to the way things happen so often in relationships. That people can see it happening, it’s right under their nose. They know it’s falling apart, but they let it happen. Because they’re not committed to the relationship. Presumably the more mature or the more healthy thing to do might be to just say, ‘Listen, I don’t think this is working, let’s talk about’, but they don’t do that. They just let it slide because that’s easier thing to do.

Billy’s lyricism has always had this incredibly visceral tone of cynicism. Billy Joel is the kind of man who has always looked at the world and said, “Well, Shit.” I think that that’s that’s just who he is. He he sees the world in an incredibly pragmatic and very raw and real way. So there’s no flowering in this song. It’s a musically beautiful and uplifting song in many ways, but also a little haunting. The lyrics in a way don’t match with that, in that they’re raw, they’re real, and they strike to the point. It’s warts and all with Billy Joel, you’re always going to get that in his songs and lyrics. It’s really no surprise he had a massive hit with a song called ‘Honesty’.

I put this song on this list because I think there’s enough people out there who’ve never heard it. It’s one I believe you should. So when you listen to it, I’d like you to try to remove all of the things you think you know about music from the 70s or Billy Joel. Pretend that you’re hearing a song from a modern artist for the first time. Listen to it in that way and see if you get a different experience. I’ve had to do that with new music. There’s a lot of new music that people have recommended to me that I’ve had prejudices against. I have been pleasantly surprised some of the time with just how much I do enjoy it if I use this method.

I’ll let Billy do the rest of the talking because I don’t think there’s any way I could say it better. I hope if you are listening to it for the first time, that you enjoy ‘If I only had the words to tell you’ by Billy Joel.