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"Well We're Living Here in Allentown"
Did Billy Joel 'see' the 2012 America through the lyrics of this poignant song?
Contrary to popular belief, Billy Joel did not grow up in Allentown, Pennsylvania - he spent his childhood years rockin' and rollin' around Levittown, New York.
In an interview with James Lipton, host of "The Actors Studio", Joel compared Allentown with his hometown growing as a young boy.
Joel says the first song title was "Levittown," but the initial lyrics seemed bland, and felt they would be considered boring for listeners.
A few of the primary lyrics included lines like, "Well we're residing here in Levittown. And there is really not much going down. I don't see much when I look around. The lawn is green, the trees are brown. And we're living here in Levittown."
"The Nylon Curtain" and Allentown
Mere days before Billy was set to record his upcoming album, "The Nylon Curtain", he spent a few days in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Allentown, once known for its booming manufacturing factories, filled with good-paying jobs, is located in Northeast Pennsylvania about 45 minutes out from The Pocono mountains. The town began struggling when the once-thriving steel factories began slowing production around 1980.
While in Pennsylvania, he created the lyrics for a new song. The superstar, at first, thought 'Bethlehem' would be the title. A different one-word title soon replaced Bethlehem for fear that individuals would get the impression the track was religious.
The confusion occurred from the historical facts that say Christ was born in Bethlehem, Israel. Bethlehem and Allentown, Pennsylvania are juxtaposed alongside one another. He then started writing prophetic lyrics for what later was crowned the song "Allentown."
The song starts off with the intensely loud sound of a steam whistle signaling the beginning of the work day. Usually, whistles were blown at the outset of a working day to summon employees back to their duties, to declare move changes, to contact them to the lunch time at noon, and also declare the termination of a working day.
Also, within the background, under the music, one can hear the rhythmic pounding of a construction worker's pile driver. This machine delivered repeated blows at the top of a pile for driving it through the ground. The machine includes a frame which assists and guides a hammer weight.
The distinctive chord in the beginning was initially a mistake, but Joel, after living with, and listening to for awhile, decided to leave it in.
The song was met with mixed responses in Allentown, and a year after the tune was released, the mayor of Allentown sent a letter to Joel asking him to share some of this song's royalties with the city.
That, needless to say, did not happen.
However when Joel returned to the region following the album's release and as the track came to be a hit record, he was awarded the keys to the city by Allentown's mayor, who praised it as "a gritty song written for a gritty city ".
Are Billy Joel's Allentown Lyrics Prophetic?
This single represents Billy Joel's early social justice recordings that brought to light the social plight so many working men today face in 2012, some 40 years later. These blue collar workers depended on the steel mills, refineries and chemical plants residing in their hometowns for working a lifetime job that placed them solidly inside America's Middle Class, and kept them there through retirement.
Joel played a benefit concert in Allentown, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1982 about the time this tune was climbing the charts.
The original video broadcast of the track included subtle male nakedness in the opening of the single, just as steelworkers showered using the company's locker-rooms. The scene ended up emended from subsequent airings on MTV.
Billy Joel's Allentown
© 1982 BILLY JOEL
Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line.
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers at the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown.
But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay
aaaaaaah aaahhhhh ooooooooh ooooooh ohhhhhhh.
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.
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron or coke,
And we're waiting here in Allentown.
But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah aaaaaaaaaaah aaaaaah.
Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got.
If something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face, oh oh oh.
Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down.
But I won't be getting up todaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy
aaaaaaaaaaah aaaaaaaaaaah aaaaaaaaah.
aaaaaaah aaaaaaah aaaaaaah oh oh oh.
And it's getting very hard to staaaaaaaaaaaaaay.
And we're living here in Allentown.