Here’s what I read at tonight’s I Want My MTV launch party, where I and a bunch of other music-writing luminaries spoke about incredterrible videos from the past in honor of the new oral history of the channel’s first 11 years by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks: A treatise on Billy Joel’s “Keeping The Faith,” which brings together Boomer self-regard, courtroom drama, and ridiculous sets in a particularly glorious way. I went off-script a couple of times, most notably when I a) described how he’d graduated high school the year before me, although I apparently did it incoherently enough to have people wondering if I was actually in my 60s and b) shouted, “HE’S SLEEPING WITH CHRISTIE BRINKLEY, YOU GUYS!” This pick is also a shout-out to Rob, who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing since the days when I just dreamed about being a music writer but never really thought I could do it, and who I’ve had quite a few Joel-centric conversations with over the many years of our friendship.
MTV might have been aimed toward the youth, but there was one prominent artist during its early years who was still working out his own adolescence. Billy Joel’s 1983 album An Innocent Man was a tribute to the music he grew up on and drenched in retro tropes, from the doo-wop of “The Longest Time” to the Motown pastiche of “Tell Her About It.” The album’s final track, “Keeping The Faith,” is a laundry list of reasons why life was so much better when Joel was growing up—and just in case the lyrics didn’t make his feelings on the matter clear, the video, set in a courtroom prone to sing-along jury pools and cars bearing beautiful ladies driving into the gallery, spelled it out pretty precisely.
In I Want My MTV Joel is quoted as saying, “I became a musician because I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a movie star; I’m a piano player, not an actor.” This video not only bears that out, it also helps cement Joel’s 1980s position as one of pop music’s biggest boosters of the boomer era in a ridiculous fashion—yes, even more absurdist than rock and roller cola wars finally sending Joel over the edge in “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
We open on the steps of Music Court, where the entrance stairway is painted like piano keys so as to be thematically correct and where, as it turns out, Joel is on trial for not “keeping the faith.” (Naturally.) While a stiff reporter provides us with exposition before we go inside, the strains of An Innocent Man’s title track can be heard coming from the courtroom—perhaps the prosecution was using it as a “he doth protest too much” Exhibit A, since according to that exposition our hero’s supposedly kept his mouth shut since the trial started.
The courtroom’s gallery, like those at so many high-profile trials that would be seen on TV in the coming years, is filled with celebrities—a Jimi Hendrix lookalike, a gold-clad girl group, a greaser. The prosecutors are your garden-variety advertising-on-late-night-TV lawyers, all smugness and argyle, while Joel is slumped behind a desk that’s a mess—of records, of course.
Joel is instructed to talk by the judge, who over the course of the clip swings from surly man telling the girl group that their dresses are too short to sympathetic dad-like figure to the leader of a video-closing dance party. In keeping with the quote from I Want My MTV (which is also borne out by his delivery of a line regarding Justice’s sensory deprivation) Joel’s way of defending himself doesn’t involve talking, it involves singing—and it’s aided by a bench thats actually a jukebox, one that Joel somehow managed to have the exact, giant change for.
“Keepin The Faith” is absurd on its face now, even minus the video’s courtroom setting —the lionization of the ’50s and pre-hippie ’60s as a halcyon era where a game of stickball could teach you more about life than book-readin’ was quaint in 1984, and it seems just dopey in 2011. (Although to be fair, the shoutouts to Trojans and Luckys give the proceedings a bit more of an edge than, say, the Leave It To Beaver reruns airing a couple of channels over. Then again, the video tries to situate his youth in an urban area, when I know all too well that he was suburb-raised. Call it a draw.) But it’s the courtroom setting that really raises the stakes and takes the proceedings to the next level. The jury pool gets transformed from skeptical audience to performers through the sheer power of Joel’s narrative; the judge uses his gavel not as an order-restoring hammer but as a magic wand with which to express delight and is so pleased, he doesn’t even question Joel’s veracity under oath when the illustration of the lyric about guys wearing brightly colored socks and a matching shirt is a dude wearing clashing colors; even Joel’s tormentors on the other side of the courtroom are transfixed when Christie Brinkley makes her “hey, I’m sleeping with this dude” cameo.
The setting also gives Joel a chance to seem justifiably aggrieved by the idea that he has to defend his musical bona fides to anyone. Given his annoyance over having to make music videos at all, could the prosecutors in this clip actually serve as a double for the industry forces that led to him having to crank out videos for a channel aimed at teenagers, even though he was a successful, somewhat serious artist on his ninth album? (That doesnt really explain why it’s set in a courtroom that’s tarted up to look like a Johnny Rockets staffed by clones of Annie Potts’ Ghostbusters character, but you can probably blame the moment for that.) Joel wasn’t the only cultural figure bowing down to an idealized retro vision of the past in the early ’80s, but his almost-cartoonish devotion to it surely helped him lead the charge
That he wins the case, with the courtroom emptying out via dance and led by a judge so obviously thrilled he doesn’t even need to announce his verdict, is, then, a classy middle-finger to the moment, a way for Joel to not-so-tacitly tell the world that he didn’t need MTV or whatever other newfangled ideas were coming down the pike, because he had memories from a better time, when men wore sharkskin jackets and musicians didn’t need to craft elaborate five-minute narratives in order to promote their music.
And as the closing shot reveals, he had a friendship with Joe Piscopo to boot.