ATTILA: When Billy Joel Was Metal

“It was too loud. We drove people literally out of clubs.”

When Billy Joel said this years later in a 1985 interview, one wonders if he was remembering it with pride or embarrassment.

Brief catch-up for people that are still in the dark (And/or if Google is stuck somehow): Attila was the power-duo formed in 1970 by Billy Joel and his fellow ex-bandmate from the Hassles, drummer Jon Small, after that band dissolved.
They had a set-up of simply drums and a Hammond B-3 organ, but the organ on this recording is distorted and plugged into a Marshall Amplifier setup, making it the keyboard equivalent of an electric guitar sound indicative of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. Joel also provided the bass part on the organ, so, this was by no means such a minimal-sounding duo, but the sound of a provocative power trio.
Add to this Billy Joel’s incredible chops as a pianist and a singer (He does wail quite a bit on here), and you have quite an act! Unfortunately almost nobody saw it because: A) They didn’t last long enough to have an audience, and B) See line 1 at the bottom of the picture.

I first heard about Attila when Billy Joel was in the height of Billy Joel-mania (Simply because I don’t know what else they called it) when The Stranger had just come out. There was a radio program on WNBC AM that actually talked about Joel’s fascinating pre-solo career, and Attila and its bizarre LP cover were mentioned on the broadcast. They had played music from the 2 Hassles LPs and tracks from the then out-of-print Cold Spring Harbor (When it still sounded like a chipmunk had recorded it), but possibly because they were also playing regular tracks from Joel’s more popular releases, no music from the Attila LP was featured.

I finally got hold of a budget-release cassette of the album many years later, and I was blown away.
For a while, I believed I was an army of one on that blown-away bandwagon. Lots of people, including Billy Joel himself, hate the record, calling it a variety of names, mostly “worst rock and roll album” or just “worst record ever”.
I have heard far worse things than this recording, trust me. Anybody care to consult our current pop charts?
There appears to have grown a cult of appreciation for the record in recent years. Count me in on that one.

Tragic that for Billy Joel it’s considered an overblown misfire of his past. Equally tragic that it’s written off by Billy Joel fans as too hard and written off by metal fans because it’s a Billy Joel record.
It is what it is and I love it!

I think it’s a very powerful record, not just for its male-posturing as a metal record, but for its inventive use of the amplified organ as a metal instrument. Very rich-sounding power chords and great use (At times a bit excessively, but it was 1970) of the wah-wah pedal. I also love the blending of the bass part. Not a loud bass but deep and richly played, nonetheless. The songs are bad? I wouldn’t say that either. As evidenced by many bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush, songs can have any kind of narrative the artist/narrator chooses, and they may not always have the best ones, but in metal or hard rock, there doesn’t have to be such a dependency on solid lyrics.
They were establishing a motif. Just listen to “March of the Huns”. Yes, crazy, silly stuff. I always picture a full production with an entire army of huns marching through the audience from the stage.
And “Revenge Is Sweet” is as over-the-top as any rock opera tune on Broadway I’ve ever heard!
(Editors Note: Just want to add that Jon Small’s drumming is an equal driving force on this recording as well!)

A very strong case can be made for this record to be named “classic” by the standards classics are held.

Attila (Complete LP; Epic 30030; 1970)


18 thoughts on “ATTILA: When Billy Joel Was Metal

  1. How could people call this a bad album? Think of all the effort that was put in with the organ and the crazy drum parts. Also, Billy only had one hand to play the organ, the other was playing the bass line on another keyboard. I just got the Epic LP of it. Its amazing and I’m a huge fan and collector of Billy Joel.

    • Thanks, Kenny! I love it too as you can see–I wish Joel would find it in himself to get the album properly re-issued on a remastered CD and listen to what people like about the recording as it is really exciting and well-recorded. The bass part also could have been added in post, but if they performed these songs live, he probably did play them simultaneously. I’m glad other people are just as supportive of it! Thanks for reading!

      • No, it said on the lp that “there is no multiple track recordings”. As for the CD, Billy claims that this is”Psychedelic Bullshit”.

  2. Oh, well, there you go, I wasn’t even lucky enough to find a copy of the original LP–I had a cheap-ass cassette all these years.
    Billy thinks Attila’s “Psychedelic Bullshit” but what about The Hassles?
    BTW, I emailed you about the record.

  3. Well, my record is in real crappy condition, but I guess i’d rather have it than a cassette. I paid $35 for it on eBay (pretty expensive) but got Cold Spring Harbor (1971 Family Productions LP) for only $15. I emailed back.

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    Thanks a lot -Trevor

  5. Pingback: Attila : Billy Joel's Suicidal Album - BandToBand Blog

  6. I was a Billy Joel fan from way back. I remember back in 1991 seeing this cassette in the “discount bin” in the record store in the mall. The cover featured a picture of Joel cropped from an old Hassels promos photo. A few weeks before I fished out a cassette of Glass Houses from that very same bin and had been listening to it over and over. I got home and…well..lets just say I didn’t get to far into the tape before I gave up on it. The second side of the tape featured a collection of songs that were disgustingly dreadful that weren’t even Billy Joel but were attributed to him. There was no internet back then, so I really had no idea what it was about about until later. Around 1993 I was sitting in my garage with my friend who was a big Black Sabbath/Slayer freak. We got to talking about music and I remember him telling be that Billy Joel sucked. I said that he used to be in a heavy metal band and he shot me a look, “Oh really? This I’d like to hear!” I dug through my tapes and there it was. I popped it into the boombox, expecting we’d get a mutual laugh at it. 30 seconds in, my friend exclaimed, “This is sweet!” By the time we got to a cut called ‘Tear This Castle Down” my man was banging his head as if Ozzy was in the room. He immediately asked for a dub of the Billy Joel side of the tape which became his “Glass Houses” He converted me too. It’s a great little slice of uniqueness. Heavy, cheesy and fun. ‘Revenge is Sweet’ ‘Wonder Woman’ ‘Holy Moses’ ‘Tear this Castle Down’ all fantastic just two guys making a helluva lotta noise. BTW: I recommend giving the first Hassels LP a spin also. 60s pop at its finest…

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