“It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” more or less explained Billy Joel’s attitude towards the New Wave movement. Acknowledging (or dismissing) it as the latest craze, he more or less kept doing what he had been doing in the ’70s. Rod Stewart may have switched to drum machines and synthesizers at the turn of the decade (“Tonight I’m Yours,” “Young Turks”), but Billy was content to stick to the old-fashioned instruments he was familiar with.
But by 1982, with bands like The Human League and Soft Cell at or near the top of the charts, Billy Joel’s popularity had taken a dip. Although his latest album, The Nylon Curtain, reached a very respectable #7 on the charts, it was nowhere near the success of his previous two albums, each of which had grabbed the #1 spot and held onto it for over a month.
Nonetheless, The Nylon Curtain contained the most interesting Billy Joel single of the 1980s: “Pressure.”
In one sense, “Pressure” didn’t sound much like a Billy Joel record. Like Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” “Pressure” broke from the traditions of the almost exclusively major-key singles of the past, with an urgent, intense, and complex minor-key keyboard riff.
Starting off with (real) drums and the most insistent bassline this side of “The Eye Of The Tiger,” the song almost immediately launches into that unforgettable keyboard riff that sounds like something Beethoven might have dreamed up. (In fact, if you close your eyes while you listen, you can almost picture the white-haired maestro banging away alongside the Piano Man.)
Once Billy starts singing, of course, there’s no doubt whose song it is. Always able to sound just like John Lennon when he wants to, Billy does his best Lennon impression yet as he sings “All your life is Time Magazine/I read it too/What does it mean?” (Those lines are present only on the album version, not the short-and-sweet single edit.)
“Pressure” debuted on the Top 40 on October 16, 1982, the same week as Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” another surprisingly cool song by a middle-aged white male. Oddly, “Pressure” climbed only to #20 before slipping back down and off the charts. (Although, fortunately, Billy had the wisdom to include it on his Greatest Hits set anyway.)
His follow-up single, “Allentown,” didn’t fare much better. It would be another year before Billy Joel reclaimed his popularity with An Innocent Man and its string of #1 Adult Contemporary hits.
Still, when listened to today, “Pressure” retains all of its urgency and has passed the test of time much better than some of the songs nearer the top of the charts at the time (Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight;” Olivia Newton-John’s “Heart Attack;” Sylvia’s “Nobody”), and is one of the true lost classics of the early ’80s.