Behind the Song: Billy Joel, “Allentown”

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As we celebrate Labor Day, it’s only natural to think of songs that honestly and sympathetically depict the working man and woman. In the 1980’s, many of the most successful singer-songwriters, people like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, wailed about the trials and tribulations of everyday people and their occupations, and a whole genre called heartland rock seemed to spring from those songs.

Billy Joel was never really a part of that movement, and he often didn’t enjoy the critical respect of the aforementioned troubadours. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a song that addressed the plight of the put-upon laborer better than “Allentown,” Joel’s Top 20 hit from 1982.

That was the year that Joel released The Nylon Curtain, his most ambitious album, both in terms of the sonics of the music and the subject matter of the lyrics, to that point. For “Allentown,” he reworked a set of lyrics he had previously written about Levittown, New York, becoming inspired when he heard about the struggles of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s steel industry.

“I know people who moved to places like this, to these boom towns,” Joel told Billboard magazine in 1983. “They were promised a job, and it didn’t work out. The whole romanticism of unions and factories has gone right down the toilet. But it’s still a hopeful song. What I’m saying is that it’s getting hard to stay here, but we’re American and we’re going to stick it out. We have hope, but we don’t have that limitless boundless future outlook that our parents had after the war. There’s been a monkey wrench thrown in the works.”

Joel decided that Bethlehem carried too much of a religious connotation and liked the rhyming potential of Allentown better anyway. Utilizing one of his most wistful melodies and a chugging mid=tempo rhythm, he plays the role of one of the town’s citizens who has watched the deterioration take place right before his eyes. “They’re closing all the factories town/ Out in Bethlehem, they’re killing time/ Filling out forms, standing in line,” he sings, explaining how the malaise that settled on the nearby town seems to be infiltrating his own.

His mention of the Second World War is crucial, because, ironically, that was a time when the steel industry boomed due to massive demand. Since that point, that elusive idea known as the American Dream had mutated, leaving the descendants of the soldiers and USO moms scrapping and clawing for a good living. “Well, we’re waiting here in Allentown/ For the Pennsylvania we never found/ All the promises our teachers gave,” Joel sings. The “Iron and coke, chromium steel” that once sustained the town were now slowly killing it.

In the crunching bridge, the music soars, but there is no deliverance from the doldrums crushing the town, only more empty promises. The sarcastic mention of the old slogan “It’s hard to keep a good man down” is followed by the ultimate evocation of depression: An entire say spent in bed. “It’s getting very hard to stay,” Joel sings as the melody rises to a fever pitch of urgency, only to resign itself again to the status quo: “And we’re living here in Allentown.”

Although many in the titular city felt Joel was unfair, he actually was named an honorary citizen in ceremonies not long after song’s release. In any case, even if “Allentown” didn’t quite represent Allentown, it certainly represented America, and the struggling laborers within it, as well as any song from the decade.

Read the American Songwriter Billy Joel Interview – Part I, Part II, Part III.

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