Graded on a Curve:
Attila, (s/t)

It’s not exactly a state secret, but plenty of people don’t know (and need to know) the horrifying truth; before he turned into the pop superstar who gave us such classics as “Piano Man” and “Uptown Girl,” Billy Joel was in a heavy metal duo called Attila. They released one LP, 1970’s self-titled Attila, and you will frequently find it on lists of the worst albums ever recorded. And small wonder. Attila kinda sound like a retarded Deep Purple. Lots of organ noodling by Joel, you know? And the cover! Billy looks like a New Jersey medieval knight, with hair way down to here and a mustache that is frankly offensive. Oh, and he’s surrounded by dead meat hanging from hooks. I don’t even have to listen to the album when I want a laugh; I just look at the cover.

We all make youthful mistakes, but this one is a doozy. Attila featured Joel on organ and Jon Small on drums, and Joel himself has written it off as “psychedelic bullshit.” But that’s nothing compared to the review written by one AllMusic critic, who opined, “Attila is undoubtedly is the worst album released in the history of rock’n’roll—hell, the history of recorded music itself.” No one, he adds, has ever matched “the colossal stupidity of Attila.” Me, I don’t think it’s that much stupider than most of the works of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it’s a tad less pretentious, so I’m inclined to give Attila a break. But make no mistake about it. This is an album so dumb it transcends dumb and almost becomes genius, that is if you look upon it as satire, which unfortunately Joel and Small didn’t. They were serious as a heart attack-ack-ack-ack, which seems impossible when you listen to songs like “Brain Invasion.”

As for Joel, he wisely skedaddled with Small’s wife after the LP’s release, ending the collaboration, and went on to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that there are no second acts in American life. And good thing, too, because if Joel had stuck with Attila, he’d undoubtedly be working in the meat-packing plant where the cover shot was taken. Instead he became a balladeer and sometimes rock’n’roller, and is worth approximately $83 billion dollars. As for Small, he forgave Joel and went on to produce some of Joel’s LPs, as well as the greatest hits of Run-DMC and a concert film by the sad remnants of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The world can be a surprisingly lenient place.

Attila opens with “Wonder Woman” and some heavy freak-out organ, while Joel comes on like a cut-rate Robert Plant. The melody really isn’t that awful, but I’d still shoot it if it didn’t move so fast. When push comes to shove I’ve heard thousands of worse songs, which like this one I will never listen to it again. Joel plays the organ the way Jimmy Page plays guitar, and there are far worse things than that. Unfortunately it’s followed by the surrealistic “California Flash,” which bears a subtle resemblance to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and boasts, in addition to some far-out lyrics about a guy with a 20-foot mustache who removes his pants, a long organ solo that contributes absolutely nothing to Western Culture. “Aw, goodbye, goodbye,” sings Joel, 99 policemen having led the California Flash away for indecent exposure. At which point Billy solos again, and I suspect he’s playing this one with his mustache, cuz it’s just plain wrong.

“Revenge Is Sweet” is a particularly awful hard rocker that seriously strains Joel’s vocal cords, but reveals him to be one angry young man. He’s going to “spit on those who call him names,” kick our faces in, and make us kiss his feet. And all because we doubted his ability to play some of the most unfortunate organ I’ve heard in all my life. “Amplifier Fire (Part I: Godzilla/Part II: March of the Huns)” is pure prog bullshit, with Joel lounge jazzing up the first part in an instrumental that seems designed to test human endurance to shitty keyboard playing. Meanwhile Small jazzes it up behind him, and he’s not half bad, coming on like a hippie Max Roach. As for Part II, it’s abominable, all crashing drums and swooping keyboards that go nowhere until Small finally starts banging out a rough tempo and Joel jumps in with some more truly terrible keyboard. While—and this is the best part—some voices in the background sing an ersatz Gregorian chant. I’ll hand it to Joel; his organ playing gets wackier and wackier, until you’re almost forced to say, “Okay, Billy, I surrender and kiss your feet. Now can we move on to “Only the Good Die Young”?”

As for “Rollin’ Home,” it takes off like a jet, and Joel jumps in singing his heart out while playing like a low-rent Keith Emerson. I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is that makes this tune so unbearable; Joel’s vocals don’t help, nor does the banal organ riff, but there is a special something extra about this one that makes you want to kick it to death. The same goes for “Tear the Castle Down,” which comes on like a Black Sabbath song as sung by an overly histrionic Geddy Lee. This song is such a victim of its time and place you almost have to feel sorry for it; it veers from Black Sabb to prog to bad Cream to really, really bad Grand Funk. “Where is the captain?” asks Joel, and the only answer I can think to give him is he wisely chose to go down with the ship; it spared him having to listen to Joel’s ululating vibrato and all those deadly earnest cries of, “Tear this castle down.”

“Holy Moses” may be the best song on the LP, which is sorta like saying Albert Speer was the best of your big-time Nazis. Sure, it features an irritating solo, a riff that leaves a bad taste in your ears, and more vocal histrionics, but it will not send you directly to therapy or the toilet if you listen to it. And its climax isn’t half bad, and is actually good in the sense that it means the song is almost over. Meanwhile, album closer “Brain Invasion” is an instrumental nightmare, with Joel showing off his keyboard skills ad nauseam. This is prog at its absolute worst, pure technique and no soul, and what makes it worse is that Joel’s technique just isn’t that great. I would sooner chop off a finger than listen to Joel’s chops, which fall somewhere between circus organ and really bad fusion. That he saved this nightmare for last is perhaps a clue that he knew Attila’s days were numbered. Or maybe he thought it was the cat’s meow, I don’t know. All I do know is that this one actually makes me nostalgic for ELP, which I would have thought impossible before hearing it. I want “Brain Invasion” played at my funeral, to cause everyone who knew me a little pain. No, I would never do that. But I do believe that you’d be hard pressed to find, anywhere in the entire universe, a more effective room cleaner. Party guests won’t leave? Forget Metal Machine Music, and put this baby on. They won’t even bother grabbing their coats.

So like we all know Billy Joel went on to superduperstardom, married a supermodel, and enjoyed the fruits that come with being beloved by billions of people. But I can’t help but think he occasionally awakens in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, thinking about that Attila album cover. You know, surrounded by all that dead meat that should have been his career. Instead he got a second chance, which is miraculous because his hair and mustache combo alone should have disqualified him from ever entering another studio. But he made the most of it, and you have to admire that whether you’re a fan or not. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a worse album, but I know I’ve never heard one I so adamantly never want to hear again. It’s even more unsavory than Grace Slick’s Manhole, or anything put out by Haircut 100. “Brain Invasion” did something to my brain, and it’s not good. It’s very bad. And my advice to you is this: if you see this album coming, run.


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