ELTON JOHN vs. BILLY JOEL: MY TAKE

Billy Joel and Elton John in ConcertIt’s one of the most hotly debated topics in rock and roll, up there with ‘Beatles or Stones?’ Elton John and Billy Joel have drawn comparison to each other for over 40 years, with each artist’s fan base making a compelling case as to who’s better. I decided to my own in-depth take on it, by comparing them based on the following factors: Albums, piano playing, vocals, songwriting, and live performances.

Here we go.

ALBUMS

Elton has 33 studio albums, Billy has 13. With Elton’s significantly larger output, he’s bound to have a few stinkers, and man does he: the infamous disco experiment Victim of Love, the interminable Leather Jackets, and the bloated The Big Picture all qualify as some of the worst records ever put out by an acclaimed artist.

With his smaller discography, you could argue that Billy is far more consistent in terms of quality, and to a degree it’s true: none of Billy’s album qualify as bad, and at least two of them (The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain) are perfect. With that said, Billy’s best albums don’t stack up to Elton’s best: every other Billy Joel album has at least one song that is totally forgettable, whereas I could name five Elton albums (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tumbleweed Connection, Songs from the West Coast, and Sleeping with the Past) that are absolutely perfect from start to finish, with no filler weighing it down.

The amount of rare gems to be found in Elton’s catalog as opposed to Billy’s is simply unbeatable. Billy has always been reticent to release unfinished tracks, demos and live material, whereas Elton has released several compilations swimming with rare, hard to find gems that deserve listening. He has entire albums (The Fox comes to mind) filled with songs that probably no Elton fan born after 1995 or so has even heard.

I will give Billy credit for making no two albums sound the same: each one has its own identity, from the jazzy 52nd Street to the New Wave sound of Glass Houses to the doo-wop and soul throwback of An Innocent Man to the slick 1980s’ pop sounds of The Bridge, Billy has always been reasonably successful in attempting new sounds and styles, which is probably his greatest strength as an artist. That said, his best work doesn’t stack up to Elton’s, and his refusal to release a new album for 24 years hurts him, as we never got to see how his writing would progress.

WINNER: Elton

PIANO PLAYING

[DISCLAIMER: I don’t play piano, so anyone who has more technical skill could feel free to tear me apart on this one.]

Billy himself said it in Rolling Stone:

“Elton kicks my ass on piano. He’s fantastic — a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Little Richard. His spontaneous, improvisational playing always challenges me. And that is his contribution to rock & roll and pop: his musicianship. Before him, rock was a bunch of James Taylors — guitar-based singer-songwriter stuff. Elton brought back fantastic piano-based rock. Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano. Elton knows exactly how to do that — he always had that rhythmic, very African, syncopated style that comes from being well versed in gospel and good old R&B.”

Is Billy a slouch? No. The prelude to “Angry Young Man” alone would solidify him as one of rock’s Top 5 ivory ticklers. Elton and Billy certainly have the same influences – Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. However, Billy has rarely if ever shied away from the style of his mentors, whereas Elton has often veered into classical, baroque and a host of other genres that deviate far from his most familiar sound. Elton received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11 years old – he’s a fucking prodigy.

Elton’s percussive playing is essential to his sound, whereas some of Billy’s most beloved songs either don’t feature piano or relegate it to the background. Elton’s solo shows are a testament to his skills: he rearranges songs on the fly, playing solos and long passages that never get boring due to the unpredictable nature of Elton’s playing, and his ability to always land on his feet just when you think he’s deviated too far from the main melody line (check out the epic solo performances of “Take Me to the Pilot” for an example). Billy has always played it safe, almost never challenging himself to rearrange his songs or show off his skills beyond his pop-influenced sensibilities (aside from that one boring classical album)

WINNER: Elton

SINGING ABILITY

An interesting comparison indeed. When they both first began in the 1970s’, Elton had the clear lead: his soaring, powerful tenor falsetto and emotional singing was light years ahead of Billy’s New York accented generic pop voice. Sure, Billy could sing well, but he wasn’t nearly as dynamic as Elton could be in terms of delivery and versatility.

Elton had the clear advantage up until about 1984, where both singers hit their peak. Elton’s falsetto had more weight and character to it than it did even in the 1970s’, and his timbre as a whole had developed a warmth and body it never had before, including a surprisingly strong lower register. Billy went through a similar change: An Innocent Man was his best album to date vocally, from the soaring falsetto of “An Innocent Man” to the soulful, Ray Charles-esque crooning of “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” to the Little Richard-esque belting of “Christie Lee.”

By 1986, Elton had abused his voice to the point where he could barely sing and required surgery for nodules. While Elton gradually lost range and shifted registers throughout the years, Billy continued to improve as a vocalist, expanding both his higher and lower registers and developing a devastating ability to manipulate his tone to fit whatever style he has felt like doing; Billy’s versatility is staggering, as he is able to sound like everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Rotten. Furthermore, he has maintained his voice exceptionally, still able to hit tenor high C’s at the age of 67, and his classic tone is intact.

Elton’s voice is still good but hasn’t fared as well; after his surgery, he was very inconsistent up until he got sober in 1992, where he settled into the warm baritone that has been his sound since then. He hit a real sweet spot with this newer, more mature sound from 1997 to 2003, but then his voice began aging rapidly and his tone and diction really suffered up until late 2009. Since then, he’s been doing well, but his voice is almost unrecognizable compared to his prime and he no longer has his falsetto.

WINNER: Billy

SONGWRITING

It is difficult to really analyze this since their methods are so different: Billy writes his own lyrics and music, while Elton has always worked with a lyricist. Initially I was going to give Billy the edge here, since he does it all himself, but what Elton has to do is pretty daunting: he has to accurately frame the melody around a particular set of lyrics, making sure it’s appropriate in conveying the writer’s words properly. His primary partner of 50 years, Bernie Taupin, often writes about his own life experiences, and it’s up to Elton to write something sympathetic to that.

Furthermore, Elton’s melodic capabilities outstrip Billy. As stated, Billy’s is generally rooted in the classic pop sensibilities of the Tin Pan Alley writers as well the Great American Songbook composers, while Elton draws on a variety of influences. I could see Elton writing something like the melody for “You May Be Right” and it being fairly similar to Billy’s take, but I don’t see Billy being able to craft “Cage the Songbird” or “Tonight” or any of Elton’s more classical based material.

That said, Billy’s lyricism needs to be commended, his ability to create vivid, colorful characters and locations and make them come alive through song is a skill matched only by Bruce Springsteen. Billy’s songs are like five minute movies, with incredible attention to detail: when you listen to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” you almost instantly know who Brenda and Eddie are, you can see them in their head. You can envision the stale, smoky bar where the ‘piano man’ plays every night. At its best, it can go head to head with the greatest songwriters of his day.

WINNER: A draw.

LIVE PERFORMANCES

Having seen both, Elton wins.

In their primes, both were very exciting to see in concert, but Elton was always more of an entertainer whereas Billy was more professional in his approach. Elton’s lavish costumes and physicality (dancing on the piano, playing on the floor) added extra energy to his shows, whereas Billy approached live performing like it was some ordinary job: he’s always dressed conservatively, and you know what to expect in terms of set list and stage banter.

This is where it gets frustrating being a Billy Joel fan: he hasn’t put out an album in over 20 years, and yet he still performs consistently. I’ve seen him four times since 2006 and each concert has been progressively worse: his two shows in 2006 during his ’12 Gardens’ run were both incredible, filled with an excellent mix of hits and deep album cuts. The next time I saw him was his first show at Shea Stadium in 2008, which was very good, but quite disappointing considering the next night (the last before the old Shea was torn down for CitiField) had Sir Paul McCartney come out to play a couple of Beatles tunes. The next time I saw him was in 2014 for his 65th birthday show, and It was the most workmanlike show I’ve ever seen. Billy pulled out no stops, and I had seen 95 % of the songs performed. Maybe I’m jaded, but there was a distinct lack of energy in addition to the staid show, not to mention a wasted song slot for Jimmy Fallon to do his ragtime shtick. It was…sad.

I saw Elton once in 1999, and it was the first concert I ever went to. He had no band. I didn’t know a lot of the songs, since he tends to include a lot of deep cuts in his solo shows. I can still recall every note he played and how transfixed I was seeing him in action. And this is what makes Elton a special artist: he never rests on his laurels, he is always exploring new territory. His improvisations, engaging stories, and charisma are eclipse the by-the-numbers Vegas revue that is a Billy Joel these days.

WINNER: Elton

FINAL VERDICT

Both Elton John and Billy Joel are phenomenal singers, songwriters, performers and musicians. It feels almost unfair to judge their careers against each other like this, but I always wanted to do an in-depth take on the many comparisons drawn between them, using largely qualified if not quite objective factors.

In the end, I feel Elton John is the overall better artist in terms of quality output, musicianship, and sheer longevity and influence. Billy’s strengths are in his story telling, vocal abilities and versatility, but his reluctance to go outside his comfort zone as well as his lack of output in the last 20 years hurt his status in my eyes.

This is not meant to influence anyone’s opinions on the two artists, and if you have disagreements, I’d love to see them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s