Behind the Album: Billy Joel Moves Forward by Looking Back on ‘An Innocent Man’

Many people know that An Innocent Man acted as a tribute to many of the bands and artists Billy Joel loved as a youngster. The album also served as a way for Joel to put some of the darkness in his most recent past behind him, all while looking forward with optimism to a new life and love.

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Joel’s touch for pleasing crowds helped the album and several songs from it to massive success, even as it all sounded almost like an anachronism amidst the other music on the radio in 1983. Let’s keep the faith and take a look back at one of Billy Joel’s most beloved records.

Bringing Down the Nylon Curtain

Many people consider Joel’s 1982 album The Nylon Curtain to be among his finest. But it came out of a period of darkness for the singer/songwriter. He was dismayed at what he saw in the country and world around him, while his personal life simmered in turmoil due to the dissolution of his first marriage.

Following the tour for that record, Joel decided to take a Caribbean vacation at the urging of his friend Paul Simon. It was rare for him to take time away, but he soon found himself enjoying himself as some of the gloomy vibes of the past few years burned off in the St. Bart’s sun. It didn’t hurt that the island was being visited around the same time by several supermodels, including Elle Macpherson, whom he would soon start dating, and Christie Brinkley, whom he started seeing after the relationship with Macpherson ended and eventually married in 1985.

At one point, Joel found himself at a piano in a bar playing old rock and roll and R&B songs while the women leaned over and sang along. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1986 interview, the experience fired him up to write again, only this time around with a much more benign outlook in his mind and new romance in his heart:

“It started being written while I was dating other women. The whole idea came about because of the joy of finding myself to be an innocent man all over again. I was new to dating and romance and all that stuff, and that’s where the seed of the album began. With Christie, the album became focused, all those feelings going toward one person. It became the valentine.”

Oldies but Goodies

Joel had already started in the direction of an homage to classic artists he loved when he wrote and recorded the song “Easy Money” for the Rodney Dangerfield movie of the same name. Inspired by his Caribbean experiences, he quickly began churning out songs for an album that he would record in the spring of ’83.

It’s fun to play spot-the-influence upon hearing An Innocent Man, but Joel’s newfound outlook is what ultimately lends the album its charm. “The Longest Time” and “This Night” are yearning love songs without a hint of irony. The title track, which digs a little deeper than the lyrics on the rest of the album, finds Joel putting himself out there for a new love, fully knowing that the chance of him getting hurt again exists.

Then there are songs that are just plain fun, such as the Frankie Valli pull “Uptown Girl” and the comical tribute to his future wife “Christie Lee.” And it wouldn’t be a Joel album without him getting a bit snippy with his critics. “Keeping the Faith” is fascinating because it’s a kind of preemptive strike, with Joel firing back at the anticipated complaints that he was simply dealing in nostalgia with the album.

And so what if he was? An Innocent Man is a breeze of a listen, one that made many fans remember the beloved music of the old days, even as many others sought it out if they hadn’t heard it the first time around. In addition, it gave us a content, playful version of Billy Joel, one who knew that he could find something pleasant in the past that would inform a more hopeful future.

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Photo by Vinnie Zuffanate/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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