Spotlight Album Review #19

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In the age of American Idol, the entertainment industry appears to transform amateur singers into instant pop stars. For that reason, we may sometimes forget that most performers do not attain musical stardom overnight. Even world-famous pop superstars such as Billy Joel usually suffer some failures before hitting the big time. Before the Piano Man achieved long-lasting success as a solo artist four decades ago, Joel paid his dues by playing in a few failed bands while he was in his teens and his early twenties. Indeed, the failure of one of those pre-stardom bands caused him to attempt suicide. That two-man band was called Attila.

Not to be confused with an Atlanta metal band of the same name, Attila was a duo consisting of Joel (credited as “William Joel”) and drummer Jonathan Small. Both of them had been members of a band called the Hassles, who had recently split after recording two mildly entertaining albums in the late ‘60’s. The Hassles (1967) consisted of blue-eyed soul on the order of the Young Rascals; Hour of the Wolf (1969) owed more to the Cream and Traffic schools of blues rock. From there, Joel and Small drove off the musical cliff with Attila, a bizarre heavy metal misadventure. Joel played a Hammond organ which blared mercilessly through an amplifier, while Small pounded the drums. The self-titled 1970 Attila album was their only recorded effort. The eight tracks were co-written by Joel and Small; the two also co-produced the album with Irwin Mazur. The duo reportedly split when Joel became involved with Small’s wife Elizabeth, who later became Joel’s first wife. Joel has dismissed the album, and it has been out of print for decades. Joel should be thankful that Attila has largely been unheard, because it is a classic example of an embarrassing recording which can haunt a musician’s career for decades.

The music of Attila is vastly different from that of the Billy Joel we’ve come to know. The second and third tracks are the only ones where his famous persona is recognizable. “California Flash” bears some vocal and lyrical resemblance to Joel’s later solo work, and “Revenge is Sweet” is loaded with the type of hostility which permeates many of his better-known songs. Neither song is likely to appeal to his fans, who will rightfully be repelled by the jarring organ noise. The album’s high points (so to speak) are “Wonder Woman” and “Holy Moses”; on both tracks, Joel howls like Robert Plant and hyperactively plays his organ like a heavy metal guitar processed through loud and distorted amps. Things go downhill from there. “Rollin’ Home” sounds like the Guess Who on speed. “Tear This Castle Down” is a piece of inept psychedelia that resembles early Deep Purple on a very bad day. The two-part instrumental “Amplifier Fire” is alternately boring and abrasive. The album closes with an appropriately titled instrumental called “Brain Invasion”, which does manage to hold interest despite its technically silly progressions. It’s hard to tell if Joel and Small intended this freak show to be as funny as it is. If it was intended as a legitimate prog-rock experiment, then Attila is an egregious catastrophe.

Notes: Attila was briefly reissued in 1985 on the CBS label (CBS/Back-Trac P-18808). It was also released in Italy and New Zealand as a Billy Joel album under the title California Flash; "Holy Moses" was omitted from that version. “Amplifier Fire” is currently available on the 2005 Billy Joel box set My Lives.

Track Listing:

1. Wonder Woman
2. California Flash
3. Revenge is Sweet
4. Amplifier Fire (Part I - Godzilla; Part II - March of the Huns)
5. Rollin' Home
6. Tear This Castle Down
7. Holy Moses
8. Brain Invasion


Other Spotlight Album Reviews:

#1: Sigur Ros - "Von" (1997)

#2: Various Artists - "Concerts For The People Of Kampuchea" (1981)

#3: Gerry Goffin - "It Ain't Exactly Entertainment" (1973)

#4: Graces - "Perfect View" (1989)

#5: Genesis - "Calling All Stations" (1997)

#6: hindu love gods (1990)

#7: Various Artists - "Message To Love: The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970" (1996)

#8: Distractions - "Nobody's Perfect" (1980)

#9: Deconstruction (1994)

#10: Juicy Groove - "First Taste" (1978)

#11: Emmylou Harris - "Gliding Bird" (1969)

#12: Various Artists - "Beyond The Wildwood: A Tribute To Syd Barrett" (1987)

#13: Candy - "Whatever Happened To Fun..." (1985)

#14: RTZ - "Return To Zero" (1991)

#15: Klark Kent - "Kollected Works" (1995)

#16: Various Artists - "Rainy Day" (1984)

#17: Alex Chilton - "1970" (1996)

#18: Feist - "Monarch Lay Your Jewelled Head Down" (1999)

#20: Slipknot - "Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat." (1996)

#21: Eyes Adrift (2002)

#22: Stoney and Meatloaf (1971)

#23: Elliott Murphy - "Aquashow" (1973)

#24: Evanescence - "Origin" (2000)