Chart Week: March 5, 1983
Song: “Allentown” – Billy Joel
Chart Position: #17, 15th week on the chart. Peaked at #17 for six straight weeks from February through March.

This week’s edition is the first that draws from SiriusXM’s VJ Big 40 show on its Eighties on 8 channel. For those not familiar, Eighties on 8 features three of the original MTV VJs – Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, and Alan Hunter – pumping out classic tunes all day.[1] Each weekend they take an old Billboard Top 40 list and do their own recreation of a countdown of that week’s hits. The show runs several times over the weekend, beginning Friday night and finishing with a Monday morning airing.

Last week’s show was from 1983. And I believe it proves the existence of the Music Gods.

There’s no doubt there are Woof Gods, beings poised to punish players and fans for hubris in sports. They are why no real fan thinks about the Final Four when your team hasn’t even made it out of the first weekend of the tournament yet. The Woof Gods are always listening and know if you’re imagining hanging a banner when there’s still a nasty 8-seed to get past.[2]

As for the Music Gods, their existence and purpose is more complex. Are these beings that play the right song at the exact right moment on a date? Do they allow you to, somehow, know what song is coming next on the radio before it plays? Or are they more like the Woof Gods in making sure any song you hate will be played far too often on a radio you have no control over?[3]

Whatever their cause, I think the Music Gods have messed with me twice in the past year. Sometime late last winter, when another VJ Big 40 was also from 1983, I flipped by the show just in time to hear “Allentown” at least four different times. It happened on Saturday, twice on Sunday, and again on Monday.

Last weekend it happened again. I heard “Allentown” once while dropping M off at volleyball practice Saturday afternoon. In the evening I heard it again while taking C to the store to get some school supplies. Sunday I ran out to get some stuff for breakfast. The moment the electronic system lit up, I heard the sharp factory whistle that opens the song. It’s as though the Music Gods had their collective finger poised over the play button until I triggered the ignition. And Monday morning, after leaving an appointment, I heard the final five or so seconds of the song as soon as I got in the car.

Pretty weird, huh?

I swore I wrote about Billy Joel way back in the early days of the blog, about how I attempted to use his music to woo a foxy girl from Omaha that lived in my dorm my freshman year.[4] I searched the archives and could not find the post, which means it must have been lost in one of my 800 redesigns of the site over the years. Or maybe I just imagined writing about it.

Anyways…part of that post was about how I grew up listening to a lot of Billy Joel. That was mostly because my mom loved him. She had all of his albums and played them often. One of my earliest music memories was her asking me to play “Piano Man” over and over again one day. As I got older, Joel was a good meeting point of our respective musical tastes. She was listening to more adult contemporary, I was mostly listening to Top 40 pop, and he was one of a handful of artists where those genres met. I continued to like Joel into college, until I went hard core New Jack Swing and Hip Hop, and later alternative rock. Billy’s music was not cool anymore, so I packed his tapes away at home and never listened to them again. Unlike some other artists of that era, I’ve never rediscovered my childhood love for his music. For awhile I hated it. Now I can tolerate some of his songs, but it doesn’t move me the way, say, Hall & Oates does.

But, hey, respect to Billy for one of the greatest careers in American pop music.

This song is one of the ones I can handle. Since it has been forced upon me these two weekends over the past year, I’ve come to admire its lyrics, its sound, and its intent. Although Joel’s music would never be called Heartland Rock, this song can certainly claim a thematic connection with that genre. “Allentown” fits right in with Bruce’s songs about the factory workers of New Jersey, and Mellencamp’s stories about Midwestern farmers who faced uncertain futures in the 1980s.

I generally think of Joel’s music being, ultimately, hopeful. “Allentown” ends suggesting that better days will come. But it also contains likely the bleakest lyrics of his career.

Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved

Every child has a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Joel’s lyrics were also generally timeless, meaning they were not anchored into a specific era. But in “Allentown” you hear all the anger, frustration, and confusion of the time in which the song was written. A time when large parts of the country were undergoing dramatic changes from economic systems that had been in place since World War II.

Perhaps that’s the message the Music Gods were pushing on me. I’ve often made fun of Billy Joel over the years. By forcing me to listen to “Allentown” four times a weekend, twice in a year, and getting the song stuck in my head, I suppose they wanted to remind me that Joel was worthy of some respect.

  1. Martha Quinn was involved until a couple years back, but has disappeared, other than some pre-recorded 80s trivia bits they still run.  ↩
  2. Shaka Smart being the coach at Texas is kind of the ultimate Woof God punishment for KU fans. No one – NO ONE – took VCU seriously back in 2011. Now he is in Austin to always remind us.  ↩
  3. My personal music hell was the summer the radio at the warehouse I worked at was constantly tuned to the adult pop hits station that played the Spin Doctor’s “Two Princes” every 87 minutes.  ↩
  4. Key word being attempted. The young lady was not swayed by my efforts, and I tried hard: she was hella cute.  ↩