One of the greatest and most consistent songwriters of his generation – if not ever – Billy Joel was a prolific hit writer in his 1970’s/80’s hey day. Penning hits such as ‘Piano Man’, ‘She’s Always a Woman’, ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Uptown Girl’, his career saw him tour the globe with smash hit songs and albums one after another.

Alongside his usual lyrics of love won and lost, Joel also had a political streak. Growing up during the Cold War, he went through school in an era of nuclear threats, paranoia and school time drills of hiding under desks. In spite of this, his more political songs displayed a warmth towards the Russian people and culture, and a (very) thinly veiled anti-war message. Without being demonstrative and grandstanding, his lyrics would contain tales of Russian friendships and togetherness on both sides of the dispute. It’s a sentiment that was seemingly not lost on the Russians.

Billy Joel matter of trustIn 1987, with the Cold War still in swing but coming to a close, he was invited through the ‘iron curtain’ to perform in a country that was painted in the USA as ‘anti-rock and roll’. Going with the plan to perform his set just as he did in the US, his aim was to prove that the Russian population, portrayed in America as the heartless enemy, were not so different from the people back home.

The resulting Russian tour and its huge success are covered extensively in this new Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings set, out now.

The collection comprises two CDs of the live shows, as well as two DVDs – one showing one of the Russian concerts in full, the other a documentary on the impact of Bill Joel’s tour on both sides of the Cold War. It’s an entertaining an enlightening combination, showing  Joel at his electric live best during the live recordings and concert footage playing a collection of his greatest hits, but also showing his eloquence, warmth and intelligence throughout the documentary.

As a result, this release comes highly recommended. Admittedly, the video footage looks somewhat dated (what happened to clothes in the 80s?), but the songs are truly as timeless as they ever were. And as a reflection and a reminder of the shaky political ground between Russia and the USA right up until 1989, this works very well too.

A timely reminder perhaps that, behind the tough talk of a country’s figurehead, there’s often a population of people not so different from our own.

 

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