Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Scourge of Rock

Unless you're a hardcore Billy Joel fan, you might not know that before he began his career as a highly successful solo artist, Joel was one half of the heavy-metal outfit, Attila. This forgotten band put out its only album in 1970, the cover featuring Joel and partner Jonathan Small as unconvincing Huns amid racks of freshly butchered meat. Joel has described the album as "psychedelic bullshit." Although I've never heard the album, I find it difficult to believe the author of such great rock/pop classics as "Piano Man," "New York State of Mind," "Just the Way You Are," and "Honesty" capable of creating an album's worth of "bullshit." I mean, as you can see below, the two-part "Amplifier Fire" seems to chronicle not only Attila's ferocious campaign through Gaul in 451, but cleverly juxtaposes the Hunnic marauder against perhaps his closest 20th-century counterpart, Godzilla, who sacked much of Japan before being stopped by the Pope and the Japanese army at the Battle of Tokyo Bay. The "Godzilla" segment of "Amplifier Fire" both predates Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" by seven years and made Joel the first rock songwriter to liken a late-antiquity historical figure to a Japanese science-fiction monster—an accomplishment curiously unmentioned by Rolling Stone, Billboard, or any major music medium. Godzilla and Attila even met similar deaths: the giant reptile at the hands of the "oxygen destroyer" that suffocated him and Attila from a severe nasal hemorrhage that caused asphyxiation, and each while asleep.

Furthermore, considering Billy Joel's penchant for realistic, blue-collar vignettes of everyday life, "Tear This Castle Down," likely serves as a poignant first-person account by one of Attila's countless victims during the Huns' rampage along the Rhine, rather than merely as a half-assed, sophomoric dirge about high school girls. I'd wager that the protagonist, about to meet his fate at the hand of the "Scourge of God," sardonically bewails Attila's barbarity as Joel wistfully interplays Hammond organ runs.

And the album's finale, "Brain Invasion," surely must be a cerebral critique of Attila's ill-fated invasion of Italy in 452—Italy still the nerve center of western Europe at the time.

After the album flopped, Attila split and Small formed Alaric. They did a tour of southern Spain but were eventually overrun and slaughtered by members of The Moors, a North African Doors tribute band.

Now Attila is a Hun and a friend of mine
He gets me my spears for free
And he’s quick with a sword or a barbarian horde
But there's someplace that he’d rather be

He says, Bill, I believe I should be killing people
As the smile ran away from his face
Well I'm sure that I could conquer Constantinople
If I could just get past Thrace

Sing us a song, you're a ruthless barbarian
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for rivers of blood
And you've got us kneelin' at your sight

La la la, di da dah...

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